Monday, June 14, 2021

People, Power, and Land

"The Procession to Cavalry" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
I've been getting some different ideas about how I might want to procedurally design open-world sandbox campaigns. Most people will just make a big hex map of varying terrains and then make a random encounter table for each terrain type, and that seems all well and good to me. But while I like monsters and wildlife and whatnot, I'm also deeply interested in people. Especially the relationship between people, power, and land. I dunno, I just like politics and political D&D. So to me, the most interesting things you can encounter while traveling between settlements would be stuff like garrison patrols of a paranoid leader, folks making a pilgrimage, wealthy merchants in a jam, that sort of thing.

Back when I used to watch Game of Thrones (when it was still pretty good), a huge chunk of the "non political" parts were plots about characters traveling over land, often through the wilderness. And yet, those plots almost always still involved the characters running into people and factions. Tyrion runs into Catelyn Stark and her retinue, then they run into wildlings or something, then the knights of the Vale, then he leaves and him and Bronn run into some hill folk, etc. Jaime and Brienne traveled in the wilderness and met bands of brigands and mercenaries, employed by lords with agendas. Arya traveled in the wilderness and met the Brotherhood Without Banners, the Hound, Lannister soldiers, some peasantry, a knight errant on a quest (Brienne), etc.

So I would still of course have monster encounters, but I've been thinking more and more about the logic to determine what sorts of people you'd meet and where. Here's what I've got so far:

The Preliminary Stuff

First, as usual, let me talk about some influences and research.

One major influence on me has been a video called Why Cities Are Where They Are, which I highly recommend. This has been coupled with a blog post sent to me called Collections: the Lonely City which you can read if you'd like. It talks at length about the "ideal premodern city" as discussed by J. H. von Thünen in his book "The Isolated State," for which there is an excellent diagram here:

I talked about some of these ideas to my co-writer and he reminded me of an old post by Zak S about the "Warbox" that I read years ago and forgot about. I revisited it and found a lot of overlap with the ideas I've been thinking of now (I'm sure it must have been a subconscious influence on me) but as usual, the implementation seemed ungraceful and convoluted to me. But of interest also is some common ideas it had with some reading I've been doing about historical China lately.

See, China has almost always run on a bureaucratically-managed agrarian empire with "barbarian" peoples on the periphery. So power is concentrated in the big cities, then loosely managed out in the provinces, and then wars might break out with Mongols, Viet, Koreans, etc. on the borders. At some times, China has the "barbarians" colonized and at other times, not so much. This is where they get the idea of the "Middle Kingdom" identity.

And this aligned with some of the theory I learned in college during my international relations courses. I have a texbook called "Comparative Grand Strategy" (by Thierry Balzacq, Peter Dombrowski, and Simon Reich) about global power projection in the 21st century. It has a chapter devoted to each one of the most powerful countries in the world, analyzing the track they've been on over the past couple hundred years and where they're at now. And sure enough, China actually has a firmly-defined state policy that divides their interests up in a list of priorities that spatially radiate outward from Beijing. Here's a picture I took from the book, which I hope is (mostly) self-explanatory:

Fun enough, I also just recently tried out the board game Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile by Leder Games. It has the kingdom divided up into three regions, and a fan made a helpful diagram explaining some of the movement rules that I've included here:

The Chancellor player rules over the Cradle at the heart of the empire, along with any players they choose to make into a Citizen. Everyone else is an Exile who is raising their own rebel warbands out in the Provinces and the Hinterlands. Looking familiar?

So I'm learning a lot more about premodern kingdoms and empires and it becomes increasingly clear that the concept of "national borders" are exceptionally modern. A map that's neatly carved up into country-shaped chunks that are each the sovereign property of that state and that state alone... is not something that goes as far back as you'd think. Occasionally you do get something resembling a national border, like Hadrian's Wall for the Romans and the Great Wall of China for China. But those are the exceptions, and are notable because of that. Any map of an ancient or medieval empire would probably be more accurate if it showed "national territory" more as a network of major settlements, outward from which radiates "zones of control."

Let's take the example of the Holds from Skyrim. Here's what we're told the political map of the country of Skyrim looks like:

But in reality, true political power and control in Skyrim should be mapped like this (credit to the creator here):

The point: power gets looser and looser the further you are from the major centers of population, so if you have lots of concentrated settlements then you can maintain tight control over your kingdom.

So let's play with this idea for D&D and stuff.

Hexagon Time!

Here's where I'm starting. Imagine those hexes are, like, 24 miles across. I like to use 3 gradations of settlement for simplicity. Here's a more terrain-focused take. After all, the power that humans exert has an effect on the land itself.

Looks kinda like that "Isolated City" diagram but simplified. I would count anything within "Settled" as also being farmlands and sentry towers and whatnot, the "Tamed" would be pastoral areas, steppes, inhabited forests and swamps, etc. And then "Wild" would be pure wilderness areas, like mountains and ancient woods and deserts. Of course, I have a corresponding one for the Underworld because I want it to be at least as fleshed out as the Overworld, so the same dynamic should probably apply.

And I can pretty easily imagine that each layer would have different kinds of random encounters. In Settled lands you would meet farmers, garrisons and knights, nobles on hunting trips, monasteries, and so on. In the Tamed lands you'll run into merchants, pilgrims, migrants, highwaymen, con men, traveling doctors, tinkers, nomads, and shepherds. In the pure wilderness you'll run into wildlings and monsters and brigands. So the players know that things generally get more dangerous the further you are from civilization.

Thus, the corresponding versions for Towns and Villages would look like these:

You could probably use each of these in varying proportions to strongly characterize your sandbox area. Like, a lot of people are really drawn to the idea of the "Points of Light" campaign, where the majority of the campaign is uninhabited, uncharted, dangerous wilderness, and areas of civilization are few and far between. You could achieve that quite effectively just by only using villages, sparsely dotting a continent so that everything is dangerous for several days' of journeying in between any two settlements.

But if you wanted a more "civilized" golden age empire then large cities would make sense! At its height, much of China or Rome could have lots of full cities dotting the landscape, thus providing a general blanket of security across a wide area.

For a good classic West Marches campaign you could have one, and only one city in the center (or maybe on the far eastern edge so you can explore westward, like in the original campaign), and then structure the campaign around the concentric layers of increasing danger outward from there.

I am hesitant to make use of "megacities" because they're quite rare in premodern times, but every now and then you get a Paris or a Constantinople or a Baghdad that might look like this:

You have one of these bad boys planted somewhere and that automatically sets you up for a nice centralized kingdom or empire. Like I said, you don't wanna overdo it. But just one goes a long way.

There's a complicated relationship between these centers of power and the geography itself, however. Like, it's all well and good to say that the outer edges are mountains and swamps while the nearby lands are calm pastures. But that would be awfully convenient, right? The Earth itself does not organize its own geography according to human convenience. But there are a couple counterarguments:
  1. People will naturally settle in habitable areas to begin with, like arable land and water sources and, generally speaking, not massive jungles or deserts.
  2. If the land where the settlement is formed isn't ideal, then people will adapt the landscape to fit. A lot of the farmland and grazing land in those "Settled" hexes may have once been forests! And a lot of the forests in the "Tamed" hexes may have once been ancient forests (see another video here with some good analysis by a real historian here) but have now been pollarded or coppiced or just generally managed so they're more easily exploitable and navigable. Upland moors are often man-made by draining wetlands. Even a swamp can be "Tamed," so to speak.
That being said, there are limits. The highest mountains will always be mountains, no matter how large a settlement you build on it. The deserts of Arabia are always the desert. Mecca was built on an oasis so it was super popular and awesome, but only so much control can be exerted outward from it.

If you watched that video I linked on "Why Cities Are Where They Are," it inspired in me the urge to distribute my settlements in a regular, sensible fashion. Here's a diagram of what "ideal settlement distribution" might look like:

Once again, let's treat each hex as 24 miles. Blue are cities, red are towns, and yellow are villages. Everything in between has some hamlets or thorps at most. The reason settlements would have such regular placement is of course so that, no matter where you live, you're never more than a day's journey away from a settlement! And bigger settlements serve more and more niche purposes. Every settlement down to the last village has basic food for sale, some common laborers, and a place to buy shoes, right? But you have to go to a town before you can find a guy who'll do horseshoes, and you need to reach a city if you want a portrait painted or an intensive surgery. If you ever need a portrait in an emergency, you'll always be 4 days away or less from the nearest city.

Except of course, in real life this pattern is disrupted. Maybe some of those settlements will be placed just one hex further away so they can be on the coastline. Maybe some of those settlements won't be built at all because there's a huge mountain range. In Egypt, all the settlements in the kingdom closely hugged the Nile River. They were still regularly spaced apart and adhered to this general pattern of settlement sizes, but instead of sprawling in all directions like this image above, they were arranged in a line. Maybe it's still like that, I dunno.

What you might notice is that, once the average settlement size reaches "town" or higher (like in the modern era), every hex should fall into "Settled" or at least "Tamed." The only way you're going to get "Wild" hexes is if there are just natural gaps in the pattern where it gets broken up by untamable wild geography. Luckily in our medieval game we'll still have true villages, so even with settlements distributed this evenly there'll still be Wild areas of pure danger and adventure.

So this would be the hypothetical "ideal" map of each kingdom, abiding by all these conditions:

Pretty boring and ugly, right? Don't worry, you're about to see that the real results are more interesting.

Let's Test This Out

Personally, I'm gunna experiment with this by putting them together into a classic High-to-Late Middle Ages Britain area. I want fairly regular settlements and a mostly-civilized kingdom. For me, the real wilderness is the Underworld anyway. So here is a shape for this kingdom and surrounding islands:

There's one megacity in the center and then another city about 8 hexes away from it in every direction. Sometimes their exact hex is a little "misplaced" so that it'll be more appropriately situated by the water and coast. And as you'll see, just from this one initial piece of minor distortion there'll come a surprising amount of irregularity in all the other settlements as well.

So I added towns and villages, then colored the hexes based on the "strong power," "weak power," and "pure wilderness" gradations. I also added plenty of names, some rivers, and some roads to make it look nice and usable and sometimes help me make decisions about things. Behold the Kingdom of Andolia!

Why did I use 5 colors rather than just 1 like in the diagrams? Well, because not all the settlements belong to the same "red" faction. Instead, I've split it up into 5 duchies surrounding the Crownlands. I knew I was gunna do a "Houses of Westeros" or "Holds of Skyrim" kinda political dynamic, so I split the country into 5 territories, the "borders" of which are merely defined by which settlements they control. In a more fragmented area, like the Crusader states of the Middle East or maybe the Holy Roman Empire, instead of duchies you would expect each of these colors to represent an entire kingdom by themselves. This just happens to be one big prosperous kingdom that needs to be governed by region.

Another thing you'll notice is the square-ish icons, which represent ruins instead of actively inhabited settlements. Ruins don't project any power, which helps break up the regularity even more and can also serve as good megadungeons. I think you'll agree that there's a decent amount of pure wilderness area on this map. Kind of a shame that the most powerful settlements (cities) are also the most likely to be on a coast, where they won't be able to exert their power to many other adjacent hexes. Look at the capital city on the north coast of poor green Columbine up there. It's so isolated! But that's just the nature of where cities are going to emerge. The only reason this is probably one massive kingdom is because there's that megacity capital in the center which secures a ton of territory. In this case, I split most of it up between each of the 4 adjacent duchies rather than its "own" source of authority.

From here we could begin deciding a terrain type for each hex based on what we see so far. It doesn't seem like there are any deserts, and while there could be a few mountain ranges (I'm picturing one in the Warlands and one in Columbine, at least), there are still at least some Settled areas within the mountains and hills. No Himalayas here. Otherwise, hills, plains, forests, and wetlands can be distributed to taste.

Now of course, something else which occurs to me is that roads should be valuable. Trying to make an overland trek on this map between any two settlements looks kinda rough. There should be a pretty good benefit to traveling by road, and roads are the one part of your kingdom outside of settlements that you might be able to exert control over. So here's an idea I have:

Two evenly placed towns, right? Four days' journey between them, but there's a wilderness hex in the middle! Doesn't seem like a truly civilized kingdom to me. But imagine instead...

So in this version, every hex that the road passes through has its "default" level of power increased by 1 gradation. So the Tamed hexes become Settled and the Wild hex becomes Tamed. Maybe a little better, eh? Here's what that looks like if we edit our map of Andolia to fit this (only modifying the thick roads, not the "dotted line" trails):

Suddenly, the main roads almost jump out at you because the centers of power can extend their influence all along those major lines. You can travel from the southern tip of Lynnshaw all the way north to the capital city of Columbine without ever passing through even a "Tamed" hex, let alone a Wild one.

I'm not sure I love this. Maybe it's a bit too safe. Maybe the more limited ranges of safety makes for a better and more interesting campaign. My problem is that I want it to be possible that PCs can travel overland easily in some circumstances, but with great difficulty in others. They should be able to feel free to go from one city to another knowing that the only major cost is a bit of time, some rations, and maybe an interesting episode or two. But they should also occasionally have a Lord of the Rings journey that'll be long enough that the whole damn adventure is just the stuff that happens between Point A and Point B. And of course, they also occasionally have cause to delve deep into wilderness and find themselves risking encounters with highwaymen and wildlings and whatnot. Obviously I can stick some treasure in the Wild hexes to make them more enticing, and I imagine lots of villains will hang out there so they can plan and raise armies of undead and whatnot without hassle. But as it stands, it looks like you'd be able to both travel frequently and somehow live your entire life without ever exiting fully Settled areas in this second version of the map.

I'd love feedback on this particular choice, naturally. It could be that my reaction is too negative and that this is a perfect solution. Or maybe it does go too far, and the answer is that I just made solidly-fortified roads way too frequent on this example map. Or maybe the answer is that I placed my settlements too close together to be exciting. Imagine just how much less Settled and Tamed this map would be if the average distance between 2 settlements were 3 hexes instead of 2.

Actually, we don't have to imagine. Here's how that would look:

Or, for better comparison with our map of Andolia:

This little area I made isn't all that much smaller than my map of Andolia, and yet it still only has room for 1 city rather than 6. With this one small change, the wilderness clearly dominates the Overworld. Living in a village would be kind of a nightmare. Now let's take a look at what happens if we add a couple roads with the "safety buff" feature I described:

Interestingly, just by having the map be significantly more dangerous in general, it amplifies how useful the roads become in contrast to the non-roaded routes.

I can't say I like this enough to make the switch, but I do think I may use this scheme for the Underworld settlements. Rather than having them be identical to the Overworld, I might add just that little bit of extra environmental hostility by spacing each settlement one hex further apart  than on the Overworld.

Now of course, one of the major risks and rewards of travel isn't just about calculating how closely you can stick to settlements and "controlled" areas. One of the things I like about the vaguely-competitive "holds of Skyrim" idea is that each duchy is led by a different noble house, each with their own values, agendas, laws, and all that stuff. There's factional dynamics at play. You break a law in the Flatlands and so you flee to Ironwall to escape justice, since it's ruled by a rival noble family and they won't prosecute you for crimes committed over there. "Zones of control" are just as much about who has power in the region as they are about there even being power in the region. Maybe "Settled" doesn't automatically equal "safer."

Alright, let's investigate this idea.

Centers of Power and Factional Politics

So you can imagine something more like the Holy Roman Empire, which would be filled with settlements of all sizes but every last kingdom within it has claim over pretty much just one settlement each.

Every hex you travel to has its own potential risks that must be calculated on the basis of politics. Go into the wrong kingdom and the random encounters of knights in the "Settled" hexes might actually be pretty scary if the local lord is batshit.

Thus, adding factionalism to this system would just require that you accord each settlement to a different state or duchy or whatever, with power roughly measured by the number of settlements one has. Or perhaps more accurately, the power of a state is measured by how many Settled hexes it has in its domain. A single megacity city-state might be more powerful than a valley of villages or even towns.

Let's contrast this for a moment with a different idea that occurred to me as I was thinking about "the Isolated State" model. I looked at what I'd made and thought to myself, "you know, these zones look like a perfect model for distributing alignments." I should declare a few things up front: we're gunna be working with old-school, mostly OD&D-style alignment. Law is for friendly, trade-happy, fuedal kingdoms and elfs and dwarves and halflings and whatnot, Chaos is for rough-and-tumble, pillage/piracy-happy, "might makes right" areas with thieves and goblins and drow, and Neutrality is for pragmatic, sustainably self-sufficient druids and plant people and wild animals and stuff. I have been developing my game largely under the assumption that these are the three most important "super factions" characterizing the game and its implied setting.

So I look at this...

...and think that it would make sense that Law should have a presence in Settled and Tamed hexes, Neutrality should have a presence in Tamed and Wild hexes, and Chaos should have a presence in Wild hexes and the Underworld. I'm not sure that's quite balanced exactly, since Chaos having the whole Underworld gives them so many more hexes. But then again, as we see with Andolia above, a fairly-well settled Overworld with frequent, regularly distributed settlements actually has mostly Settled and Tamed hexes, so it makes sense that the Overworld is largely dominated by the rival alignment to the Underworld.

I quite like this. It means that...
  1. Lawful characters can mostly stick to settlements and around them you'll have random encounters with the sorts of things we associate with Lawful societies: serfs, garrisons, monks, pilgrims, heralds and messengers, foresters, sheriffs, nobles and merchants, knights doing pas d'armes challenges at bridges and stuff, miners going to and from the mountains, and so on.
  2. Neutral characters have a reason to stay a bit away from settlements and enjoy a more rural, even nomadic lifestyle. And of course, in Tamed and Wild hexes you'll run into random encounters associated with the powers of Neutrality: nomads, druids, rangers, outlaws, hermits, shepherds, agrarian communes, wildlings, and so on.
  3. Chaotic characters will most likely have their thirst for power quenched out in the Wilderness or in the Underworld where artifacts are lost, great monsters roam, and the secrets of the world can be found. But also, if they commit crimes within civilization then they'll naturally flee to those locations or be outright exiled to them. So you go to the Wild and Underworld hexes and have random encounters fitting Chaotic society: brigands, assassin orders, mercenary companies, bandit kings, cults, witches, and so on.
This is shaping up to be a pretty solid paradigm so far. But there are problems. See, the exceptions to everything I've just described seem pretty natural to me.

For example, I can easily imagine Chaotic and Neutral settlements in addition to the Lawful ones, and I can totally imagine some Lawful and Neutral factions having some kind of presence in the Underworld. Like, picture a settlement ruled by a Chaotic tyrant-king or maybe Mad Max-style gang. Or fuck it, the Overworld needs a vampire kingdom, right? What is the goal of the forces of Chaos if not to take all the good stuff for themselves? That can mean civilization, I reckon.

Meanwhile, I imagine that Neutral societies gather into permanent settlements of village size or greater whenever there's a big powerful elemental for them to center their community around. Think like the Great Deku Tree or a powerful river spirit or, like, a volcano god. And they'll do tributes to the elemental and gather resources for them and dig up ancient secrets all in service to helping them combat the forces of unnatural, extradimensional aberrations. And in the Underworld, I can see some of the civilizations being fitting as Neutral-aligned, like Myconids and Thri-Kreen and maybe Merfolk.

And as for Law, I feel like I need to be able to put Lawful dwarven settlements in the Underworld, right? I also want to put my elves in the Underworld too, rather than dotting the Overworld like in Middle-Earth or Greyhawk or something. Most gnomes live underground, too.

So rather than according each alignment faction a range of the concentric rings, what if you just assigned whole settlements an alignment? Every ring in its zone belongs to that alignment. For example, a Neutral settlement might have encounters like "helpful ranger conclave" in the Settled hexes, "gang of highwaymen" in the Tamed hexes, and "woodwose elves" in the Wild hexes. This would return to the notion that "closer to settlement = safer" and would certainly make each alignment's territories of control look more like a map of neighboring countries.

Let's see what that would look like:

Blue = Law, Green = Neutral, and Red = Chaos. This was somewhat-randomly arranged, but you can see there's a strong continuity of Lawful territory in the west and northwest, a bunch of Neutral territory in the southeast, and sort of a Chaotic country of some kind around the center, north, and northeast. Here and there are random villages that are just kind of independent, like those two Lawful villages that look out of place.

Already this idea didn't work that smoothly. I mean, it's alright. But I would have no idea how to assign an alignment to any of those Wild hexes. And thus, which encounters would then be found in the Wild, the most dangerous and interesting hexes of all? And another thing: like, sure, there could be Neutral cities and maybe towns. But I just can't imagine there being nearly as many as there are for Law or maybe even Chaos. Neutrality, when planted in a permanent settlement, seems like a "village-heavy" culture, if that makes sense.

I was curious, so I decided to try taking this map and "reconstructing" it like modern historians do by drawing borders between the states. Here's what that might look like:

Hideous. Simply disgusting. But hey, the Holy Roman Empire was pretty gross looking, too. Most of the real "major" kingdoms will have at least a few cities in them, let alone towns and villages. This was an extremely small and contained example.


Alright, I've explored quite a bit so far. So I could either go with the first idea or the second. Opinions?
Option A: settlements and surrounding Tamed hexes are for Law, Tamed and Wild hexes are for Neutrality, and Wild and Underworld hexes are for Chaos. As a general rule, Lawful encounters tend to be safer, Neutral encounters tend to be a bit more adventurous, and Chaotic encounters are often downright dangerous.

Option B: A settlement and every hex in its zone of control belongs to one alignment, but the way in which that alignment manifests gets more and more dangerous the further out from the settlement you go. Thus, there's safe encounters, risky encounters, and dangerous encounters of all alignments.

Option C: a hybrid? Like, Option A would be the default for most of the Overworld and Underworld, but there are notable exceptions like a handful of Chaotic towns and cities on the Overworld, a good number of Neutral villages in both the Overworld and Underworld, and some Lawful settlements in the Underworld for elves and dwarves and such.
You know what else just occurred to me? "Safety" of travel is completely upended during wartime. Like, all it takes is for two states to be at war for travel between their settlements to become significantly more perilous for the PCs. Maybe Settled hexes will be even more dangerous than Wild under those circumstances, if that's where the enemy army is located. Jeez louise.

Actually, I already know this article will end up having a follow-up because I'm thinking of other weird spins on this system. And of course, there is no correct "one-size fits all" answer. Some people want something that plays well to Points of Light and others want a Grand Golden Age. Most people need to balance all their factions all on one plane whereas I am operating under the assumption that I have the entire Underworld as an extra layer to work with. There's so many ideas to play with here.

But for the work I've done so far, let's see what we like. 



  1. Perhaps put some Neutrality in the Underworld for variation? A calm before the storm of a sort?
    Wild = Chaotic
    Tame = Neutral
    Settled = Chaotic again?

    Honestly, the breakdown of L/N/C encounters is a welcome simplification. Much better than breaking everything down into one of four, five, even six or more geographical/environmental types. Also hammers home the point of light theme even more.

    Very tasty.

  2. Saw this linked on the ACKS/Autarch Discord - give them a look DwizKhalifa ( - the General Forum has a sticky with a Discord link). This kind of thing is bread and butter to a good chunk of the player-base of ACKS.

  3. Reading this a few months later but I find it really interesting...

    Regarding roads, I think you got it the other way around: it's not that roads extend the safety of a ppopulation center, it's that a state extends its safety so it can have roads. So simply you can't have a road unless the hex is at least Tame - you simply can't maintain it and keep it safe. Which is yet another reason to tweak this standard distribution: place one more town here so I can connect my roads. Paths are excluded of course.

    About alignment, it would make sense that each power center extends their influence only on their Settled hexes. Tame hexes can be one step further in either direction, and wilderness hexes are generally unaligned. If you have a local band of orcs somewhere count that as a town and it checks out

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I think there was a misunderstanding with the roads thing. Yes, I do know that the increased safety on roads comes from a state with the power to actually make it safe. If you're interested, the follow-up to this post covered that subject and many other related ones quite extensively:

      About alignment, also see the above post for more exploration of that subject and different options I've considered. But yeah, the notion of a "chaotic settlement" like the hypothetical orc band is something that's been tricky to reconcile with these scheme. I especially think about migrant populations as a factor I need to account for which complicate all of this, but which are a cool enough idea that they're worth including.