Welcome to the first part in a new series, where we look at the design of an RPG we have been working on for the last few months. The game is called Woaden, after the woad plant, used to make blue dye and paint, back in the olden days. It’s the spiritual successor to Hypertellurians, and while it retains some of the elements of that game, it’s going into a different direction.
One of the design goals of Woaden is a unified mechanic to handle 4 types of challenges: exploration, social interactions, combat, and downtime. In a later installment we’ll talk about the core mechanic, but for now, let’s look at exploration.
Warning: The contents of the Writing Woaden series are playtest materials, and likely, nay, expected, to change before the release of the finished game. The purpose of the articles is to give you an insight into the design process behind it, and to present chunks of the rules that can be useful on their own, and let you add these chunks to your existing game systems.
Travel through unknown and dangerous lands is a staple of fantasy stories, but it is an aspect often hand-waved away, or reduced to a single random encounters roll in many games. Others, like The One Ring and Forbidden Lands, rightly dedicate a full section of their rules to exploration, and demonstrate that it can be an exciting part of the game as a whole.
One of the design goals of Woaden is to give you the tools for quick yet meaningful resolutions to game mechanics. This way you get to choose whether to play out a journey as its own adventure, or to simulate it—or parts of it—with a handful of rolls.
Stakes, or: Risk and Reward
Whenever players are presented with choices in a game, it’s important that they are aware of the stakes of their choices. Is one option more dangerous but more likely to result in rewards? Do we opt for the safer option because our resources are running low? In other words, a player choice is not a choice at all unless they have an idea of the likely outcomes.
This doesn’t take away from the danger or the surprises. After all, knowing the stakes means knowing the likelihood of an outcome, not its certainty. A bad or lucky roll will still swing the story one way or another, but the players were aware of this risk when they made the choice, retaining agency over their character’s actions.
In Woaden, exploration is the catch-all term for travel from one location to another, be that from one city to the next, or from one hex into another on a map. For any given journey, there are different roles that characters can, and should, fulfill. The precise roles vary from journey to journey, but can be broken into 12 general categories.
Before a journey, the GM lays out the relevant roles for it, and the players decide which one of them their character will tackle. The players may want to swap a role here or there, but some essentials, like Pathfinding, will likely need to be fulfilled to give a chance of success. Similarly, some roles may be fulfilled by non-player characters.
Once the required roles have been defined, and the characters assigned to them, each player makes a check for their character’s role, using a relevant ability score or skill. In Woaden there are 3 possible outcomes from a check: failure, partial success, and success, plus critical successes or failures. The roles below outline the suggested results for these outcomes. Use them as inspiration, mix them up, and invent new ones too.
If your game system doesn’t handle partial successes, consider a partial success to be a result that falls within a range of the target number for success. For example, in D&D you might have a difficulty rating of 12 for a check. You might rule that as long as the check result falls within 3 points of either side of that difficulty rating, it’s a partial success, and if it beats it by more than 3 it’s a full success.
Several of the outcomes from exploration checks impart one or more conditions on characters. A future article in this series will deal with conditions in more detail, but for now suffice it to say that in Woaden a character can stand to acquire a small number of conditions (generally between 2 and 4) before these start to actually affect them—the equivalent of taking hit point damage up to that point.
Once they do though, the character suffers effects appropriate to the condition, and must work towards removing it, lest they ultimately perish from it. Additionally, most conditions escalate once a character is affected by more than one instance of them.
A journey is defined as traveling from one point to another, assuming these points are spread out by a large enough distance to warrant a check. Similarly, only journeys where the outcome is uncertain, or where their failure would be interesting, should be rolled for. The exact timeframe for the journey does not matter overly, after all we are abstracting it.
- The GM outlines the risks of a given journey, and the roles that need to be fulfilled, based on the type of journey. Unfulfilled roles automatically resolve to the failure outcome.
- Every character takes up 1 role. If multiple characters perform the same role, 1 player rolls the check, with an extra die for each additional character.
- Roll for each role, and resolve the outcomes in any order. All outcomes apply, even if the journey is forced to come to a halt early. Working backwards from success to failures usually works best.
Unless the way to the destination is clear and unobstructed, a party will need someone to navigate. This covers both scouting for clear passage and reading charts or maps.
|Pronounced Failure||Stuck. This way is impassible, the party needs to go another way, starting a fresh journey.|
|Failure||Lost. Your arrival is severely delayed.|
|Partial Success||Rough going. A random piece of equipment breaks, or several are worn down.|
|Success||As planned. Everything went according to plan.|
|Exceptional Success||Shortcut. You arrive sooner than expected.|
Even a well provisioned party is likely to deal with spoilt rations, fouled water, or overzealous raccoons at some point, and therefore hunting, gathering, and looking for sources of fresh water is recommended.
|Pronounced Failure||Barren. No food or water found, plus loss of existing provisions. All characters gain 1d4 hungry conditions.|
|Failure||Dangerous game or bad food. 1 character gains 1d4 injured or poisoned conditions.|
|Partial Success||Provisions depleted. You need to restock for further or return journeys.|
|Success||Well fed. You arrive with full bellies and thirst slaked.|
|Exceptional Success||Abundance. You have provisions to sell (maybe a fat boar) or take on continued journeys.|
This category covers camping, but also shelter from the elements during the journey.
|Pronounced Failure||Completely inadequate protection. All characters gain 1d4 cold or diseased conditions.|
|Failure||Incomplete shelter. 1 character gains 1d4 cold or diseased conditions.|
|Partial Success||Damaged equipment. The characters are fine, but a piece of gear got ruined.|
|Success||Competent shelter. Everyone unharmed by the elements.|
|Exceptional Success||Heightened spirits. The party gets a bonus on their next endeavor.|
Wild beasts, dangerous monsters, brigands, and ambushes are all well known dangers on the road. The character with this role keeps and organizes watches and safeguards the party.
|Pronounced Failure||Deadly ambush. 1 character must roll for trauma.|
|Failure||Unexpected mauling. All characters gain 1d4 injured conditions.|
|Partial Success||Just a scratch. 1 character gains 1d4 injured conditions, or their armor gets ruined.|
|Success||No trouble. All threats dealt with.|
|Exceptional Success||Valuable haul. A wanted person or beast defeated.|
Given the opportunity, such as in a wagon, or on a cart, taking some well deserved rest can be just as vital for future adventure than a more active role.
|Pronounced Failure||Calamitous rest. You hurt yourself and gain 1d4 injured conditions or accidentally break a piece of equipment.|
|Failure||Inadequate rest. Nothing gained from resting.|
|Partial Success||Better than nothing. You gain half the usual effects from resting.|
|Success||Well rested. Gain all the usual effects.|
|Exceptional Success||Glorious rest. Gain an extra bonus from resting.|
This role is about sweet-talking officials or other representatives, and procuring and providing the correct paperwork or bribes. Use this when crossing borders in populated areas.
|Pronounced Failure||Arrested. The party is overpowered and thrown into the nearest jail or dungeon cell.|
|Failure||Stuck. Your passage is refused, you must choose a new route and start a fresh journey.|
|Partial Success||Costly. Passage is granted but at a considerable cost, or 1 character gains 1d4 embarrassed conditions.|
|Success||Smooth passage. No problems at any checkpoints.|
|Exceptional Success||New ally. The party has made a new ally on their journey.|
If you’re traveling on horseback, or via vehicles, your mounts will need looking after, feeding, and potentially servicing.
|Pronounced Failure||Culling. Half of your mounts or vehicles died or got damaged beyond repair.|
|Failure||Overworked. 1 of your mounts or vehicles is lost.|
|Partial Success||Damaged. 1 of your mounts or vehicles is damaged.|
|Success||Easy ride. No losses or damage.|
|Exceptional Success||Unlocked potential. A hidden reservoir of strength or cunning upgrade gives you a bonus on your next journey.|
Sometimes it’s imperative that your journey be done in secret. The person taking on this role coordinates the party’s movement and stealth.
|Pronounced Failure||Discovered and alarm raised. All characters captured, or all characters gain 1d4 injured conditions and process is halted and a new journey must be attempted.|
|Failure||Discovered. 1 character gains 1d4 injured conditions as a result of fighting with sentries.|
|Partial Success||Spotted but not reported. 1 character forced to leave a piece of equipment behind as distraction.|
|Success||Slipped by. You successfully evaded discovery.|
|Exceptional Success||You were never here. There is no sign of your passing and you can do this journey again and succeed automatically.|
Whether beast or man, sometimes you need to follow tracks or other clues to track something or someone down. You can also use this when chasing someone.
|Pronounced Failure||Invisible. Your quarry has escaped without a trace, and there is no chance of picking up the trail again.|
|Failure||Evaded. At some point you lost the trail, and you will have to try anew on a fresh journey.|
|Partial Success||Exhausting chase. You track your quarry but all characters gain 1d4 fatigued conditions.|
|Success||Warm trail. You successfully track your quarry.|
|Exceptional Success||Fast tracking. You caught up with your quarry at the earliest possible opportunity.|
When you are not the hunter, you might be the hunted. In this scenario covering your tracks may be the difference between escape and capture.
|Pronounced Failure||Captured. Whoever or whatever was after you has discovered and overpowered the party.|
|Failure||Forced to fight way out. All characters gain 1d4+1 injured conditions.|
|Partial Success||Run-in with trouble. 1 character gains 1d4 embarrassed or injured conditions.|
|Success||Clean escape. No one was able to track you down.|
|Exceptional Success||False trail. You manage to utterly lead your pursuers by their noses.|
Searching for Traps
In some environments it might be prudent to have a dedicated person constantly on the lookout for traps.
|Pronounced Failure||Tragic trigger. 1 character rolls twice for trauma and chooses 1 result.|
|Failure||Accidental trigger. 1 character gains 1d4 injured and 1d4 sprained conditions.|
|Partial Success||Narrow escape. 1 character gains 1d4 injured conditions, or 1 piece of equipment of your choice is lost.|
|Success||Everything avoided. You complete the journey without triggering a trap.|
|Exceptional Success||Avoided and improved. You not only circumvent all traps but also make them deadlier or harder to detect for the next group.|
Marvelous Means of Movement
In a fantasy environment, conventional means like walking or riding aren’t necessarily the only means of travel. Use this role if it seems more appropriate than Maintenance, such as if the party’s wizard is teleporting everyone, or using eldritch portals.
|Pronounced Failure||Teleportation accident. 1 character is melded with an insect on a molecular level, or the party emerges in a random location in the Ultracosm.|
|Failure||Minor arcane mishap. If you have an appropriate random table roll once on it, otherwise gain 1d4 disoriented and 1d4 injured conditions.|
|Partial Success||By the skin of your teeth. You gain 1d4 disoriented conditions and cannot concentrate until rested.|
|Success||Splendid. Everything worked and it was awesome.|
|Exceptional Success||Timely travel. You arrive 1 minute before you departed.|
A party of 4 characters mean to travel to a far away city, and the GM describes the 2 most obvious ways to reach it: the shorter route through the unchartered forest, or the longer route via the roads. For the former the characters are expected to travel on foot, and the GM explains that the following roles would need filling: Pathfinding, Food, Shelter, and Protection.
For the journey via the roads, the characters could use horses, or a carriage or wagon. Pathfinding would not be required, as the way is obvious. Additionally, as there are many inns along the way, Food would not be problem. On the other hand, the roads cross county borders. The roles to fulfill for this journey would be: Shelter, Protection, Negotiating Passage, and Maintenance.
One of the players suggests they might use the fold space spell their character has recently acquired to make the trip in several teleporting jumps instead. This would be the fastest route indeed, and wouldn’t require Shelter, Maintenance, or Negotiating Passage. Between the players and GM they decide this journey’s roles would be: Marvelous Means of Movement, Protection, and Pathfinding (to ensure they’re teleporting the right way). One of them could even choose Rest.
The party ultimately decides against the latter, as the penalties for failing on the Marvelous Means of Movement check are harsh, and go with the roads. The characters take on one of the roles each and make their checks. Shelter and Maintenance get a success, Protection a partial success, but Negotiating Passage gets a failure. The successes essentially have no effect, the partial success in Protection means one of the characters has to take 1d4 injured conditions—the players put it down to an altercation with a customs officer—but the failure in Negotiating Passage means the party is denied a border crossing, bringing this journey to an end.
The characters still need to reach the city though, so the players decide to try the riskier method after all, via the fold space spell. They divvy up the roles for this new journey and roll anew.
You may find some of the extreme results too disrupting for your game. If that’s the case, simply ignore them, and restrict results to failure, partial success, and success.
Not all roles have the same range of consequences. Some have much harsher effects on failure than others, so it’s your responsibility as GM to describe the possible outcomes accurately enough that players can make informed decisions about the risks their characters are willing to take, and where to focus their resources.
By the same token, the difficulty of a journey can be adjusted by the number of roles that need fulfilling. Each role represents a challenge with a chance for failure, and fewer roles means the players can double up on some of them and increase the odds in their favor. Be careful about increasing the number of roles beyond the number of characters as that means one or more automatic failures, unless hired hands are taken on. For longer trips this might make sense though.
The rules as written assume exploration as a party, and a solo journey would automatically yield failure in all empty roles. This isn’t necessarily realistic, and a variant of the rules for solo travel, where 1 character can attempt to fulfill multiple roles at reduced chances of success, is currently in development.
Finally, it might be interesting to attempt the same abstraction for a dungeon delve, perhaps similar to the labyrinth move popular in many Powered by the Apocalypse circles. This hasn’t been playtested yet though, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this, and the exploration rules in general!
Want to be notified about all things Woaden? Sign up to our newsletter to get all the biggest news directly in your inbox!