The Black Powder Manifesto

Thursday, February 16, 2017 2 Comments


Black powder is comprised of three basic parts: charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur. Apply a bit of fire and not only do you get an explosion, you get a big puff of smoke and an aftermath of highly corrosive residue. This "explosion of consequences" can be found at the heart of most memorable and frequently retold stories. The death of Caesar. The choice of Paris. The storming of the Bastille. In each case, a powder keg of decisions, relationships, beliefs, debts and random chance ignited and we retell the stories of the explosion's flash, smoke and caustic consequences to this day.

This book, The Dark of Hot Springs Island, contains the materials to make powder for your table top game. 270 detailed rooms and locations provide plenty of flammable surface area. 7 factions, 87 detailed NPCs and 300 problematic treasures quickly lower the flash point of the status quo. A web of interconnected back story and NPC relationships ensures the burn is a messy affair with lingering repercussions. Your players of course are the spark, and with 448 random events and encounter motivations, every play through on the island can explode into wildly different outcomes from the same basic parameters.

But, like a tub of colorful plastic building blocks, the total number of bricks isn't as important as their modularity, so ignore pieces. Add new ones. Throw things out, or change them up completely. Combining the ingredients in different ratios should still lead to plenty of explosions. All that is really needed to run this hexcrawl is characters, the map, and the hex key [PAGE]. Everything else exists solely to provide consequences for the decisions your group makes as they explore. Every monster, NPC, treasure, dungeon room and overland point of interest is webbed together, but unlike Ariadne's thread, following these leads deeper into the labyrinth.

This setting is system neutral, so there are no stats for monsters or prepackaged treasure parcels. No levels are assumed, and there is no path of expected advancement through this tropical wilderness. The monsters will likely be tough, and the intelligent factions even tougher, but the motivations for (and thus potential leverage against) everything with a modicum of intelligence has been detailed. Combat is expected to be approached like war, and not a perfectly balanced arena skirmish. Crack the mountains. Flood the dungeons, and set everything on fire to survive.


On Hexes

Hot Springs Island is made up of 25, 2 mile hexes. Each hex contains three points of interest for players to discover and explore. These points are all physical locations that can be revisited and are not one time events or encounters.

There are three locations per hex in an effort to make the wilderness feel dense, but these do not have fixed coordinates within the hex to keep things abstract. Each location is numbered (1, 2, 3) and when a party arrives in a hex they will generally encounter the first point. This first point is normally an obvious natural feature or settlement, while the second and third points are typically less obvious, but noteworthy locales. These additional locations are best discovered by parties that have become lost in the jungle, spend time exploring, or are revealed by an NPC guide or object.

Players should have access to a map of Hot Springs Island as they play the game, and the enclosed map has blanks to fill in as points of interest are discovered. This way, in addition to the points becoming destinations, they can act as a sort of collection mini-game showing players that more is out there, waiting to be found.


On Time

The game master is strongly encouraged to use time as an enemy. As the players ignite the island's status quo time crunches, paired with distance, help make choices meaningful and help the island feel alive. Both the Fuegonauts and the Night Axe hold important events on nights with a new moon, and their bases are 8 hours away from one another on foot, so a plan that requires being at both events becomes much trickier to pull off.

In an effort to simplify tracking time for overland travel, we use a unit of time we call a watch. A watch is 4 hours long, meaning a day is made up of 6 watches. Traveling from a point of interest in one hex to a point in a neighboring hex takes one watch. Exploring a hex to find one of its other points of interest takes another.

Assuming 2 mile hexes of overgrown, often mountainous, jungle with no roads or trails to speak of, spending 4 hours to get from point A to point B and deal with an encounter felt like the right amount of abstraction. It also makes a day easily divisible. With this system if an NPC demands something "in three days time" it becomes very simple to set up three stacks of six poker chips and show your players their deadline. Removing those chips, one at a time, as they make decisions and come across new encounters has proven to be an amazing motivator.


On Tables

For the wilderness (i.e., the hexcrawl), motivation and encounter tables answer the age old question of "What did you just find and what is it doing?" These tables use 3d6 and they are stacked, or nested. For example, if the adventurers are in an area of Heavy Jungle you will roll 3d6 on this table:

Odds
3d6
Heavy Jungle
8
3
Elemental
7
4
Elemental
6
5
Intelligent
5
6
Intelligent
4
7
Intelligent
3
8
Beast
2
9
Beast
1
10
Beast
1
11
Beast
2
12
Beast
3
13
Intelligent
4
14
Intelligent
5
15
Intelligent
6
16
Elemental
7
17
Elemental
8
18
Elemental

All of these results (elemental, intelligent, beast) tell you which table to roll on next. If you get a result of beast you would roll 3d6 on the Heavy Jungle Beast table, and then another 3d6 on the beast motivation table. A roll of intelligent on this table requires a couple more rolls to determine faction and party size and then a roll on the intelligent motivation table.

This is, absolutely, a lot of rolling to determine a single encounter. Because of this, there is an interactive digital map so you can touch the hex your party is in and have your computer, phone or tablet roll for you if you like. But why do it this way and require multiple tables and multiple dice for each roll? Because of probability, territory and to establish a sense of "normal" that the game master does not have to keep track of. By nesting the tables and breaking them out by terrain areas can be differentiated by encounter. For example, coppermane prowlers live and nest in the mountains while broadbacks live in light jungle where they have room to move around. Additionally, the party will likely encounter Night Axe ogres around the north side of the island, and Fuegonauts around the central volcano.

Pseudo-naturalism sometimes gets a bad rap in table top games, but here on Hot Springs Island its purpose is to  establish that this world doesn't need the players. It has its own rhythm and system, and the players are the intruders. By defining normality it becomes easier to show what is strange, and it enables the game master to show the player's impact on the island by tweaking a few results on a sub table. For example, should the players decide to side with Svarku and his Fuegonauts and begin killing every Night Axe ogre in sight, as time goes by, Night Axe results on the intelligent tables can be replaced by Fuegonaut. If the players decide to establish a town and bring in their friends, "Adventurer" and "Intelligent" results can be increased and "Elemental" and "Beast" results can fade before the onslaught of civilization. Additionally, by pegging certain results to certain terrain types, misplaced monsters become a call to adventure. "What has driven the coppermane prowlers down from the mountains?" Likewise, A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island details out all the monster body parts that have value to the various factions. So now, a party that wishes to get into the good graces of a faction can take the knowledge they have gained of the land and go hunting.

In dungeons, villages, ruins and other "roomed" sublocations on the island the tables are slightly different. For these areas there are only three 3d6 tables, with no nesting. The first table, called "What's happening?" defines a zone wide event, or context for the area. Then there is an encounter and motivation table. The probability afforded by using 3d6 tables, when paired with motivations, helps establish the vibe of the sublocation. In dangerous, war torn areas there are much higher chances to get motivation results like fighting, fleeing or dying. Whereas in areas that are more stable, the local inhabitants have a higher likelihood of being found eating/drinking, repairing/maintaining, or social/creative. This effect can also be used to create places of transition where most of the creatures encountered are just passing through. As with the overland hexmap, establishing normal enables abnormal results to stand out as hooks to adventure.

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