May 3, 2012

Charting the Unknown

At the end of the ancient year two-thousand aught nine, I divined a Dungeons & Dragons campaign entitled "Dragonslayers". Readers here have seen bits and pieces of some of the best parts to come out of that game, such as this and that, but have never seen that of which I was most proud and was most successful in terms of bringing both fun and immersion of exploration into the game world: charting the open seas.

The premise of the campaign was in some ways similar to Chris Perkins' Iomandra Campaign, although I assure you we came up with similar ideas independently. In it, scattered disparate islands on a watery world were kept under the oppressive regime of the Arkhosian Empire. The dungeoneers were the chosen few who could rise up and defeat the Empire. To do so, however, they needed to (among other things) unite the far-flung island communities and become masters of the open seas. The focus of this post is how our group collectively created the mechanics to go about exploring a vast oceanic world.

Before any dice were rolled, the campaign started with a Party Creation Template, not unlike the kind suggestion by Chatty DM. One key part of the was the question posed to everyone: "What one island locality do you have a connection to? What is that connection?" The very first thing we did at the table together as a group was draw those islands on a huge 30" sheet of paper, which would later become our map. As Dungeon Master, I gave the campaign the initial impetus to action by drawing the stating location, known as Korth Island, where the first adventure was to be had on the dead center of the map. There was no scale here, one would be added weeks later when we started messing around with rules for travel time and running out of provisions while at sea. The map was free-form, with everyone just doodling in their own little corner of this new world.

As the campaign progressed, new islands were hinted to, sought after, and ultimately discovered. The locations of these islands was always given in some sort of easy to decode puzzle format. The most common  of these was a very simple system of listing the name of the constellation to point towards, and then how many miles to travel, although often the origin point of the directions become a mystery in and of themselves. the constellations, as you can see from the image below, needed only be a symbol representative of a direction. I used evenly spaced directions around 360-degrees, but could have easily spiced things up with gaps and clumps of constellations across the night sky.

I created a compass rose, a physical prop and guide to slap down on the table to represent the stalwart dungeoneers, gazing up at the night sky, circumnavigating the globe using nothing but the stars and the wind. Luckily for us, one of the players had ready access to a transparency machine, creating a clean piece of plastic that could be easily placed onto our map for exploration purposes. When we needed to, we came to decide that every 50 miles was an inch on the map. We had a lot of fun times hunched over the gaming tables, charting the locations of the world's scattered islands,
Listed below are some of my notes that I had the foresight to keep. These are handouts from one particular session wherein the dungeoneers had come upon a submersible vessel with a missing captain, but a very present Captain's Log of interesting locations. These islands answered some question, raised others, and enticed the group to go further exploring. It's probably worth noting that the dungeoneers were directly resposible for the captain becoming missing.

These sheets of paper would go on to inspire curiosity and an insatiable itch for exploring the unknown and finding out just where everything was. Through reverse-engineering, the dungeoneers were later able to determine the point of origin for all of these directions by finding one of the islands (Carr-Hae perhaps?) and going backwards. Many of these locations hint at the destinies of the plots, family members, and various entanglements of the dungeoneers. For example, the isle of Rhegium had the location of Bane's Fallen Temple, leading the dungeoneers to find The Iron Codex at the behest of one of the dungeoneers who was keenly interested in finding the fallen temples of the gods.

Exploration of new worlds is one of the major draws that got me into this hobby, and something that too often gets thrown to the wayside in favor of developing railroading plotlines as if the Dungeon Master were writing a novel. Develop the world, shroud it in mystery, make things interesting, and let your players steer the boat.


  1. I apparently need to move to Baltimore and have you DM for me always.

    I always have loved the idea of a group of players sitting around and creating a world together for one of them to DM and the others to explore. The idea of ocean exploration just takes that idea and turns it into something fascinating and different from your usual over-land exploration.

    Thank you for sharing this, man. Posts like this inspire me to be a better DM.

  2. That sounds awesome, man. I try to approach DMing/world-building from the same perspective; I'd much rather have the players explore the world I've created and feel like it's a real vibrant place, than move them through an epic story.

    This probably stems from my love of maps (and the fact that I'm not a frustrated novelist).

    Giving the players direct agency over the construction of the world like this is a fantastic idea. It is a beautiful way to make them directly invested right from the get-go.

    Great stuff!

    and I agree that I may need to move to Baltimore...

  3. Having been running a complete sandbox game for the last 7 or 8 months now this is definitely hitting me where I live. I do have some questions, though, like how you actually handled travel? Over land there's obviously descriptions to give of the terrain, but over the water it's mostly sea, sea, and more sea. Was it mostly glossed over? Did they ever get lost? Etc.

    1. The travel itself was rarely an event, the challenge there lied in everything taking so long to go from Point A to Point B, which would eat up ship resources. One can only bring so much fresh water on your ship at a time, so every class of ship had an effective radius that they could travel, leading to a challenge of finding better ships.

      I also had random encounters, with sea beasts, pirates, and imperial patrols This was an especially trying point, because the ships most capable of repelling attacks were often not so good with long distance travel, and vice versa.

    2. Oh, and we never had things for getting lost in that campaign, but you could easily port over my Labyrinth Cards ( to simulate the dangers of getting lost at sea.

    3. Were they actually random encounters, or more like "random" encounters where you just preplan them for the next session or whatever? Also I noticed on the handouts that there are notes like "Cancer 550 miles" - are these the night time navigation directions via constellation, or what is the deal with those?

      This concept seems really cool, and it's giving me inspiration for an anabasis The Odyssey style campaign... if only I had the time! Perhaps I shall do such a thing for the D&D Next playtest if they don't supply modules...

    4. Well I have to admit, the "random" encounters were pre-planned. For my current campaign, though, I'm doing some hexploration over a more varied terrain, with honest-to-goodness Random Encounters. My default rate is 1 die roll per hex traveled through, with every roll of a 1 resulting in a Zero XP encounter. More dangerous areas have smaller die types. I'll be able to tell you all about it on May 24th ;)

      The directions work like this: put the transparency (top image) down on the map where the origin point is. Sometimes it's a task to figure out where that origin point is, but once you do, you're golden. Draw a line from the origin to the symbol of the constellation you're going for, in this case Cancer which is at about 270 degrees, or directly west. Follow that line on the map for 500 miles, which at our scale was (I think) 5 inches. Poof! There's your island.

  4. Love the idea of players drawing their isle of origins. Love the idea of distance plus constellation vector navigation and the cool aspect of where the recording point was.

    I was recently dealing with sea exploration issues and appreciate these ideas. (the Gamer Assembly link to my Battleship-style attempt at locating things in a big, mostly empty sea hex is what led me to find your post).