Hogwater Design Intent

I’ve been working on a project over several months. I wanted to have it complete by now. I’m making progress but it is much slower than I would like.

Hogwater was where my last Swords and Wizardry campaign began. My main intent with Hogwater: Village of Lies is to give referees a village they can use as a starting place to build a campaign or an interesting location to drop into their existing campaign.

It also has the purpose of providing an example of how I set up and run my home games. It is a product that I hope does not merely provide you with a fish but teaches you how to fish.

Here’s a quote from the current draft of the introduction:

Hogwater is a small village with the typical medieval fantasy characters doing things you might not expect.

Hogwater has an open world structure. The adventures are not a linear plotline that players are expected to follow. Players are expected to be actively searching for opportunities for profit and adventure. If your players prefer a linear plot, this book may not be for you. 

Hogwater: Village of Lies (Work in Progress)

There are many challenges for a game master running an open world game. Probably the most difficult one to get your arms around is that you will have to improvise. Players will go places and do things that you did not anticipate. If the game master goes along with whatever the players want to do, at some point, the game master will have to make something up to get through the session.

My favorite way to make improvisation easier is creating detailed non-player character groups and individual non-player characters. The NPC groups and individuals all have clearly defined goals, problems, resources and responses to typical actions from player characters.

When players make some unexpected turn, I can think, “The party just robbed a caravan. It is owned by a merchant who is very sensitive about his status. He has a lot money, a bunch of hired muscle and a wizard who owes him a favor. What is he going to do about this affront to his reputation?”

Hogwater has several distinct groups. Here are some of them.

  • The peasants
  • Vagabonds living outside of the village
  • The lord and his men
  • A band of outlaws
  • The dragon Wiliglim and her spies

Each of these groups has desires, obstacles to achieving their desires, and resources they are using to overcome the obstacles. The point where the player characters get involved is the obstacle. The players decide on one of three options:

  1. Do nothing to help the group overcome an obstacle they are facing.
  2. Help the group deal with an obstacle.
  3. Become another obstacle for that group to deal with.

Here are some problems the peasants of Hogwater are facing when the characters arrive in town.

  • Their lord is a depressed drunk who is neglecting his duties.
  • The village reeve is taking advantage of his position and a powerful magic device to enrich himself.
  • The lord’s steward seems to not care about the peasants’ situation as long as peace is maintained and the taxes are paid.
  • The peasants don’t have a market for their surplus production because merchants are being robbed by local outlaws and a dragon menacing the region.
  • Monsters have killed some of the yeoman farmers who live outside of the lord’s protection.
Liber Veritatis: No. 34, Peasants with Cattle attacked by Bandits, 1774. Richard Earlom (British, 1743-1822), after Claude Lorrain (French, 1604-1682). Etching and mezzotint; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Charles W. Harkness Endowment Fund 1930.559

The peasants don’t have a lot of resources but what they do have is food, ale, and hospitality.The peasants of Hogwater go out of their way to be nice to the player characters and encourage them to take an interest in the town. They want the player characters to help them out.

As soon as a party of armor wearing, sword bearing, magic slinging adventurers strut down the main thoroughfare and stop for a pint of Cecil’s Finest in the Tavern of The Big Head; the peasants are going to be on them. The peasants will be offering food, ale, a place to stay, generous marriage arrangements and any information they have about dungeons or monster lairs for the PC’s to raid. They want to be friends with the adventurers so that maybe the PC’s will take care a few of the problems they are facing. If the PC’s are heros, they will. If the PC’s are something else, maybe not.

The village reeve will soon find out there are armed strangers in town and show up to find out what they are about and see if he can use them to advance his own schemes.

The men at arms will keep an eye on the PC’s and let the steward know they are in town. The steward will send his sergeant out to bring the PC’s to the keep and offer them work and let them know about the bounties on the outlaws.

While I did write that the player characters are expected to be actively seeking adventure, I do make sure they are aware of where they can find adventure.

One criticism of “sand box” games is that the players are wandering around the sandbox trying to find the adventure. My approach is to make sure the adventures finds the characters. The players choose whether or not they want to engage.

Difficulties

The biggest challenge I’ve had is communicating all of this in a pithy way.

This style of play is a lot for the referee to manage. You have to keep in mind what all the factions and NPC’s are doing not just in response to the player characters but in response to each other. It helps to have organization, quick reference material on hand and good notes. My goal is to provide the referee with enough information that they will be able to quickly decide what an NPC or faction will do in response to player decisions.

Hitting the “just right” amount of information and making it easy for the referee to use has been the major sticking point. I think I’ve put together a format that will be effective. We’ll see. There is a certain amount of throwing the spaghetti at the wall to see what works. Until I get the product out and see some play reports from other referees using it, I won’t know for sure if what I’m doing is successful.

I know the “adventures” work because I’ve run them in my home game and in convention games over the last three years. I put “adventures” in quotes because this structure isn’t like the usual adventure structure. I struggle to put into words exactly what it is. When I set up a campaign this way, I have only a vague idea about how it might turn out. That’s because the players are driving the action. They do what they do and the non-player characters make their moves in response. The action goes back and forth until the players decide to look for adventure elsewhere.

I don’t set up my games with the preconceived notion the characters will be heroic. There is no single “big bad guy” for the players to track down and deal with. I like dilemmas to encourage players to learn about and reveal who their characters are as we play. The interactions of these elements can produce an entirely different set of events depending on who is playing and who they are playing with. There is no way for me to anticipate every possibility.

One group will encounter the reeve of Hogwater and see a villain. Another will see an him as an opportunity for wealth by joining in his schemes. The third will see him as a cat’s paw for infiltrating the keep to steal from the lord. There are many other possibilities. Gamers are clever and creative. I have a hard time predicting what the players in my games are going to do. How am I supposed to predict what the players at your table will do?

When you design problems without prescribed solutions and fleshed out non-player characters who respond appropriately to player decisions, you have nearly infinite possible outcomes.

In the entries for major NPC’s, I have written down how the character would respond to a party taking action that is probable. These are assumptions based on my experience but sometimes players do crazy things. When the players do something I have not foreseen, I expect that game masters have enough creativity and intelligence to look at the NPC or monster entry and figure out how they might react to something I did not mention.

Page count and information overload are concerns. I can brainstorm a lot of different responses to different situations but that would be more than you would want to read or find useful. I trust game masters to make a fair call for the people at their table.

Structuring the information in a form that makes it easy for a game master to access and use at the table has been difficult. The effort is worth it though. I think it will be a good resource for game masters and a good example for game masters who are not experienced with this style of play.

I’ve been sharing pieces of Hogwater in my social media feeds and newsletter. If you would like to keep up with my progress and what Hogwater is about, follow me on Twitter, Instagram or sign up for my newsletter.

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