Thursday, 21 January 2021

Exploring Space: Procedure in Different RPG Environments (Part 1)

Constant's New Babylon Nord. It is upside down, courtesy the internet.

Work for PARIAH VOLUME 2: CITY OF GHOSTS continues apace. There is no way I am going to be able to have this ready for Zine Quest 3  unfortunately, but I have at least settled on a format. The nature of the space is closer to a dungeon crawl than a city crawl, so there will be a somewhat granular approach to the space... by which I suppose I mean a keyed map with defined locations and routes around.

However, I'm still thinking about a bigger, more urban setting for another project, but feel the need to really define the procedure for exploring an urban environment, as it's the least defined in old school play. To get there I'm first going to have a look at some traditional play procedures with additional commentary regarding how this manifests in PARIAH.

Important note: this is not intended to be didactic, nor indicative of the correct or proper playstyle, rather an overview of how I think play usually unfolds in old-school games.

Because this turned out to be longer than planned, I’m dividing this into two parts. Here I’ll be discussing hometowns and wilderness procedures. The second part will look at delving, and then discuss what elements from other procedures are useful in running a city campaign.

Hometown: A Safe Space

  • Minimal roleplay, vaguely mapped.
  • Resource depletion and renewal.
  • Vague timekeeping.
  • Experience and training.
  • Source of rumours, allies and hooks.
Illustration by Jeff Easley, from D&D red box (Menzer basic)

The home base of the adventurers is not usually where the excitement of exploration or combat take place. As such it is either a) unmapped and consists of a list of locations and NPCs or b) the map is shared openly with players, who can point out locations they wish to visit.

This is a place where PCs typically exchange the resources they have acquired (usually hard currency but possibly goods, information or services) for the resources they have spent (rest to replenish stamina and heal wounds; upgrade or replace inferior or missing weapons and equipment). None of this requires RP, but streamed games have encouraged intense method acting for "the shopkeeper scenario", and it seems to be increasingly popular. I am also guilty of this both as player and GM, though I am trying to cut down...

Timekeeping is vague because the characters are not in immediate danger: perhaps the GM will ask how long they wish to spend there and what they wish to achieve in that time, and negotiate what is realistic. This is also a chance to "fast forward" through periods of recovery, enabling the characters to pick up the adventure at full health but maybe out of pocket and down a week.

Most old school systems base experience points on treasure recovered and a common house rule is that "recovered" counts as returning to a safe space or hometown. Treasure might then be taxed by a local authority, or a fee charged by a facility to keep the gold secure.

Some systems might also insist a PC engage in training before levelling up, or level-less systems might require a PC to train before improving an existing skill. This also presents an opportunity to connect the PC to the world through their class: the thieves' guild, the church, a magical research library (possibly even a master or magical teacher). In addition to background flavour these NPCs could provide hooks and rumours, or could develop into rivals or enemies.

The majority of procedures in the hometown are thus bookkeeping and net-mending, but it is also a chance to pick up some plot hooks, quests or rumours that will either send the party off to the wilderness or into a dungeon. 

Travel: Moving Between Locations

  • Large-scale distances (miles, leagues and kilometres rather than feet, yards or metres).
  • Stretchy time depending on table's preferred style (hours, watches or shifts, days or even weeks).
  • Variable risk (possible random encounter table dictated by terrain) but with (typically) little reward: this risk is endured to get to the adventure site (in most playstyles).
  • In addition to time the GM might track weather and determine whether the party will get lost. 
  • Wilderness travel can turn into a form of exploration, especially in the hexcrawl format.
The Isle of Dread, from module X1.

Different GMs will approach travel overland in different ways, with some noting that a particular period of time has passed and thus rations have ben depleted, while others will get more granular and give players decisions every few hours of in-game time.

D&D 0e established the hex map (repurposed from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival) and continues in popularity because each hexagon (usually 5 or 6 miles across) can represent different terrain, likely encounters and other adventure locations.

In PARIAH the characters spend a great deal of time in the wilderness. Different terrain types have the following features:
  • Frequency of encounters & encounter types.
  • Availability of resources.
  • Chance of getting lost/ visibility.
Pariahs might remain in a hex to continue foraging for resources, but that might increase their chances of encountering a dangerous animal or spirit. Typically terrain with the most resources (tropical forests) are also more likely to generate potentially lethal encounters.

Combined with other features (especially spirits of place and random human settlements) the straightforward process of entering new hexes, checking for encounters, weather and getting lost, increasing or decreasing resources creates an infinite range of possible outcomes and adventures.


This has been a personal exercise in establishing what actually happens at the table when the imaginary avatars of the table interact with a fictional world. In the follow-up post I will look at delving (and also procedural generation) before thinking about how these procedures can feed into the experience of navigating a primitive city.

Link to part 2:

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Print edition of PARIAH available through Soul Muppet:

Free edition of PARIAH available here (no nice pictures though):

You can buy the wilderness supplement for PARIAH here:

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