Five brave (or perhaps foolhardy) souls ventured forth into the unknown last night. You can observe their exploits here:
After our session zero a couple of weeks back, my homework as Judge was to flesh out some of the details that the players created or rolled up. I really enjoy prepping a game setting, especially from a player-generated foundation, because filling in the gaps and finding connections to span the “fruitful void” circumscribed by a handful of details really sparks my creativity energy. Prep is exciting and fun for me, but life is short, so I try to focus on stuff that is directly relevant to the PCs and whatever course of action they might choose to take. Last session they made a plan to try to search for the Cave of Bright Crystal , so I focused my prep on the areas between the city of Penascolta (the party’s base of operations) and the Cave.
Since Freebooters is all about exploration, I like to have nice maps of the places that are likely to be most well-traveled. These of course don’t have to be fancy, but since one of the hats I wear is that of cartoonist, I tend to go all-in on this aspect. So my first priority was to take the rough map the players had put together in session zero (using a blank map from Mad Vandel’s Map Pack) and turn it into something that would provide a good basis for play. Here’s the draft they produced:
And here’s how I ended up interpreting it:
I was drawing this alongside making notes about the starting city. Through a combination of player input and rolls on the city generation tables in the current draft of the game rules, we had determined that the city was defensible due to its position atop some high cliffs, and that it was known for ancient ruins within its boundaries; its other tags were unsafe, chaotic, lawless, unrest, disease, and shortage (iron, salt). This was a lot to work with!
We had settled on Portuguese as the linguistic foundation for the human culture that dominates the “cilvilized” areas, so armed with a Portuguese name generator, Google Translate, and the various Freebooters tables, I started to develop the city in broad strokes. The first step was to name it; given its position in the terrain I ran”high cliff” through Google Translate and got penhasco alto, which I shortened to Penascalto. The PCs would not be spending much time in Penascalto since they were planning to set out for the Cave of Bright Crystal right away, so I tried to avoid getting bogged down in the details. This process may be worth a post of it’s own, so I won’t go into it’s history and current situation here beyond saying that while Penascalto is ruled by various rival criminal factions, the Wardens of Rainhala (goddess of life and water) are well-respected by everyone due to their caring for the needy and work to assuage the suffering of those afflicted by the White Rot (a terrible plague that first appeared six years ago).
I wanted to players to feel excited about this lawless frontier city, so I put some time into drawing it. I Googled “cliff city,” found some great real-world images, settled on Ronda, Spain as the model, and used this Google Earth view as a starting point:
From that and my notes about different districts in the city, plus the fact that one of the players had suggested that it was accessible via land bridge, I came up with this:
Obviously, my particular skillset is helpful here, but it’s easy enough to find an online image that will give your players an idea of how a place might look.
After those two big items, I switched over to writing up encounter tables for each of the regions through which the PCs were likely to travel. In the current draft of the rules, five categories of encounter can occur: mishaps, creatures, discoveries, hazards, and obstacles. Mishaps are minor occurrences within the party, such as failing equipment, minor injuries, or arguments between PCs—easy enough to improvise.
Creatures, discoveries, hazards, and obstacles can certainly be rolled up on the fly, but in order to minimize time spent rolling and coming up with ideas, I decided to create a simple d6 table for each of these categories. To create entries, I used the same process I would use during play, but had the extra time to consider the context and drill down into areas that could use more up-front attention, such as creature generation.
Here’s what my regional encounter tables ended up looking like:
If you watch the session, you’ll notice that, all told, the party had 4 random incidents: the washed-out bridge, Evaristo twisting his ankle, the “death barrel” plants, and the final scene where weasel-monkeys show up at camp to steal the jeweled staff. The scene where the six-legged lizards chase a group of weasel-monkeys out of the woods was me making a Judge move in response to Teo’s failed Wisdom saving throw; I decided it was wandering monster time and had him roll on the Windshaws creature table to see what would show up.
Among the benefits of creating these encounter tables ahead of time is that, by generating a bunch of entries for each region, I start to get a sense of that region’s character—the kinds of creatures that live there, what discoveries await, and what sorts of rumors might be passed around about them in civilized settlements. For instance, one creature encounter I generated for the Broken Fells creature table is Lúcia Baretto, a halfling farmer from Cidario who set off into the wild on an adventure of her own. So when the PCs talk up the apothecary in Cidario, he mentions that Lúcia went off the same way they’re headed. Maybe they’ll run into her, maybe they won’t, but I know she’s out there, and that encourages the feeling that things are playing out in a living world.
Thanks to not being well-rested and having to fiddle too much with the image-sharing aspect of Hangouts, I felt wobbly going into this session, but thanks to the engagement of the players I found my groove about halfway through. At the end I was left with that delicious feeling that comes from the kind of open-world play toward which I’m designing: what’s going to happen next?
Useful playtesting takeaways:
- In the course of generating lots of creatures and treasure for my custom encounter tables, I saw ways to reorganize and improve those procedures, so I’ll be making another pass on those soon.
- In the interest of streamlining the creature, discovery, and booty generation process, I’m going to experiment with a one-roll table set along the lines of what Kevin Crawford does in his games (most recently Stars Without Number): roll a d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4 all at once, then read them from largest die size to smallest. I tried this in the past and was unhappy with the results, but I’m going to give it another go. Booty generation in particular needs to be rewritten,and I love the idea and feel of rolling a handful of different polyhedrals.
- Among the discoveries I generated for my custom tables were 4 different dungeons! This is great, because I want the PCs to stumble across things like that unexpectedly, but in the course of using my dungeon generation procedure I found some confusing spots. I also felt that not enough interesting stuff is baked in, so I will be making another pass on that procedure.
- I thought Donna did a great job of roleplaying Claudio as a neutral-aligned character, but even so she did not hit his alignment goal as-written. I gave her the XP because it felt right,but It made me want to tweak the wording of alignment goals further. The killer is needing to make them as succinct as possible.