Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft

There are various modes of creating terrain and wilderness for your fantasy game adventuring. They range from non-existent and abstractly planned expanses that are resolved as the game narrative dictates to obsessively planned geopolitical ecosystems that bring a whole world’s history into frame before a single player character is generated. (Tolkien has warped our collective brains.)

I came up with a method of map and region generation to fill in a traditional sandbox style of play where the player choices dictate the important details about the campaign world. I wanted a design choice that was both detailed enough to give me confidence in knowing what was ahead of the players but also a process that was “out of my hands” so the game could develop organically. My solution was a procedural method based loosely on the wonderful region atlases for the Wilderlands Of High Fantasy campaign put out by Judges Guild in the early days of RPGs.

Wilderlands Of High Fantasy

I wish you could still get this much fun for $8.50

The Judges Guild maps and atlases are great in that they had these big beautiful B&W maps (about a trimmed Arch E size , 48″x36″) of a large region of countryside mapped out in hexes that are five miles across. A perfect scale for a party traipsing through a couple hexes a day. Accompanying the region map is a brief index booklet listing the vital statistics of of the mapped towns, castles, ruins, and lairs of the depicted region but little else in the way of flavor. The result is that the players are free to march and explore as much as they want and the DM has a loose idea about the lay of the land without having to stop play and constantly consult a litany of tables. It has important details like the nature of the occupants of the castle up ahead, but the brevity of the descriptions leads itself to good improvisation. The atlases listed the encounters thusly:

  • Villages
  • Citadels & Castles
  • Ruins & Relics
  • Idyllic Isles
  • Lurid Lairs

Oh my god that is awesome. I wonder how Idyllic all those islands really are? Let’s check the Judges Guild Island Book from 1978 that contains the Non-Potable Water table listing. Hmm… Dysentery and Yellow fever are quite possible.

The Island Book is also an example of Judges Guild conveniently publishing the randomized tables that it used to populate its own maps. Everything from the name of a town, to the nature of ruins could be rolled up in the many tables that are spread through the Judges Guild Books. With a little head scratching I found its was really quite easy to make your own random region using the same method. It took a bit of study to look through their collection of maps for the Wilderlands campaign and work out the rough chances of the various encounters across the map size. Each hex had roughly a one in six or a one in eight chance of listing an important feature. A DM with a lot of time on their hands could roll a die for each of their 1842 hexes on the region map but I wrote a half-assed computer script that spat out the randomly determined hex coordinates and the nature of the encounter, adjusting more towards ruins for the wilds and more towards villages on a more civilized map.

So I had the nitty-gritty to populate a hex map with encounters, but I needed to provide the rough terrain that would become the mountains, forests, deserts, and coastlines of my fantastical region.
That is when I pulled out my Crayola watercolors…

(Continued in part 2)

5 Responses to “Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft”

  1. 1 NinetyEightMPH
    December 8, 2010 at 9:48 am

    This is looking awesome. will you publish a web app with your randomization algorithms?


  2. 2 Greengoat
    December 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    NinetyEightMPH > Hmm, that would be awesome but my code-fu is not on that level. And I am probably making it sound more complete that it actually is.

    It is a short python script that rolled the chance of encounters for every hex on the standard JG size region map and then determined weather each encounter was a Village, Lair, Castle, or Ruin. You would put a negative modifier in there to roll for a wild region map with more ruins and castles, and a positive modifier for more villages. The useful part of the program is that it would output the entries in a text file according to hex coordinates so you could just co down the columns and mark letters on your hexes. If any encounter landed in the ocean, it became an Idyllic Isle.

    Later on, I will explain more about how the alignment and occupants of the villages started to form political regions on the map. I will see if I can dust off the script.

  3. 3 maldoor
    December 9, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Greengoat, I am really looking forward to the next installment. Have you thought about where wandering monsters fit in? Would you use the standard tables from The Underworld and Wilderness Encounters, or from a Judges Guild product, or roll your own?

  4. 4 Gregor Vuga
    December 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    This is cool beans. Can’t wait for part 2.

  5. 5 Greengoat
    December 9, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Maldoor >
    It took me some squinting at the various tables in all my slightly different D&D rulebooks, and I sadly do not have a copy of Underworld and Wilderness encounters right now. The hints that I came up with are:

    The Judges Guild Books list tables for generating the nature of Villages, Castles & Keeps, Ravaged Ruins, and Idyllic Isles, and Caves & Lairs.

    Looking at the JG hex maps, the approximate one in six chance of a feature happening roughly lines up with an d6 encounter roll for every hex.

    There is a paragraph of instruction in the Caves & Lairs section that suggest you roll the “% in lair” for a monster when you randomly encounter it in the wild. If it is in the lair the DM would then roll up the cave and stock it up as a primary lair for the monsters rolled. If the monster is surprised, you caught it at it’s front door. If the party is surprised, I assume they miss the entrance to the lair. If no one is surprised, the monster is within the lair somewhere, but the party can see the entrance.

    The index of Wilderlands lists the Lurid lairs very simply with just a note of hex coordinates, monster, and number appearing.

    It seems to me that the JG listing and maps lists all the fixed encounter locations that can be heard of by the players and traveled to with purpose by the party. I assume that the DM would use wilderness encounter checks, but never roll for stumbling upon a lair since those have already been placed.

    The Ready Ref tables seem to imply using the encounters straight from OD&D, Moldvey Basic or AD&D. For the fixed location map I might try and rig up my own wandering tables by looking at the points of interest and considering which lairs are close to the parties position.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2010

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