Off Track: The Uncharted Swamp

By Brian Cooper
Off Track Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 1-5

From the blurb:

This adventure aims to solve the problem of dealing with random overland movement through a swamp by offering the referee a really really good random encounter table that doesn’t feel random, but instead hangs together in a meaningful way.  In addition to true “wanderers,” it also describes a few lairs whose location is not pre-determined, but fixed in the course of play.

This forty page thing is wandering monster table meant to be used in a swamp. Which blurs the lines between wandering monster table and a hex crawl, which is why I’m reviewing it. Is a hex crawl an adventure? After looking at this, I don’t know. Brian asked me to review this, luring me in the promise of “something new under the sun”, a sure fire way to hook any reviewer. I’m going to talk about the tables, proper, near the end, but first I’m going to talk about play aids, adventures, and things in between.

So, you’ve got his description, above. This is a wandering monster table for a swamp. Each of the entries has four possibilities: day & night and a “hint” of the encounter followed by the encounter. Many of the table entries are linked even beyond that, such as multiple table entries or different types of frog-licking drug addicts, and the frogs proper, and so on. Each entry takes about a page to describe the four possible encounters for that one line item: day hint, night hint, day encounter, night encounter. There’s also a couple of “lairs” that one of the encounters could lead you back to, for example if the druggies invite back to their base.

Let’s say I make a map and key it, randomly from the 1e DMG, minimally. “12 skeletons” type shit. Is that an adventure? For the purposes of this argument we’re going to not quibble and say Yes … although we may come to different conclusions by the end. What if I put a lot of work in to it, and, while the random rolls inspired me, it eventually gets a lot added by me and there’s additional context and the entries kind of work together? Sure. that’s easily an adventure. What if I don’t key it. What if I instead provide a wandering monster table and tell you to key the rooms as the characters enter it? Hmm … I’m getting suspicious it’s not really an adventure … maybe a toolkit? Let’s say I add a table of monster motivations and/or I make the ability to roll on the 1e DMG tables a lot easier during play … adventure then? Probably still a toolkit?

What about a hex crawl, given the same scenarios? I just provide a map and a wandering monster table to populate it. Is it an adventure? What if the wandering monster table works together REALLY well, with additional context, etc? How’s that differ from a traditional hex crawl, which, if memory serves, was pretty minimally described (from Wilderlands1 memory.) What if Wilderlands1 didn’t have a map, but had all of those entries on a table to roll when you enter a hex? Maybe with a blank map added?

I’m not sure I know what the answer is, but I think there’s a nugget of pure truth hiding somewhere in all of that, and, if understood, would provide some guidance to adventure design. The map, the “minimal” encounter, the extra context for an encounter, the encounters working together, stuff done ahead of time … some mix of those makes something an adventure rather than a play aid. And if it is a play aid that’s close to the line then maybe that has value as an adventure also? And so far over the line you’re just mechanics at that point?

This has no map. It has a series of swamp encounters that can be random and are interrelated, both to the other entries in the table and to “themselves” via the hint/day/night mechanic. This strikes me as both an alternative format to a hexcrawl and an alternative format to a wandering monster table. So it could be a … true(?) DM aid, in that its a wandering monster table, or something close to an adventure, depending on your view of hex crawls like Wilderlands. As something different, in concept, the possibilities are intriguing.

The product, proper, has issues. First, it’s 40 pages long for a ten entry wandering monster table.  That, alone, pushes it in to Hex Crawl territory and away from Wandering Monster Table, at least in how this product instantiates the concept. The entries have a lot of italics, which I find hard to read during play. The writing is a little loose, if a lot of if/then statements. Most of the encounters are more prescriptive than … open ended? “When the men are within 30 yards they spot the party, point at them excitedly, and greet them” There’s another part of this that says that if a druggie is deprived of his frog he will get aggressive, at first half-jokingly, but soon violently. That’s good detail, especially the second part, but I think, somehow, I’m looking for something a little more … abstracted? They are happy jovial, excited, willing to share … but turn to violence if separated from their frogs. I willing admit my second phrase doesn’t capture the designers. I’m also willing to admit that the text Brian provided DOES capture the spirit of what I’ve (re)written, but I think maybe the paragraph presentation muddles and diffuses some of the impact of the writing and scene.

So, as a hex crawl, it’s ok to good but a little hard to pull the details of an encounter out of it. If it were condensed to a minimal number of pages (6?) without loosing much flavor, you’d have a different thing, a kind of “tailored wandering monster table” that I think could be a product type in and of itself. Value-Add Wanderers table?

It’s Pay what You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $0. I’d check it out, even if you don’t want it as an adventure. It’s an interesting concept, raises questions to think about, and may spur additional things to riff off of.

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13 Responses to Off Track: The Uncharted Swamp

  1. Brian Cooper says:

    Many thanks for your thoughtful review. You’ve nailed it regarding what I was trying to do.

  2. Graham says:

    Good review, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the appendix where the effects of the frogs are laid out both for those who are not addicted to them, and for those who are. I liked the way that most of the effects are role-playing rather than purely mechanical.

    I hope the author takes the criticisms on board and look forward to the next ‘Off Track’ supplement.

    • Brian says:

      Thanks Graham, I knew I was bending or breaking a lot of conventions just to see what might work. And I’ve been reading Bryce long enough that I felt confident he’d give it a fair shake. I was rather proud of the addiction flow charts and read his silence as approval. So yes, I’m working on the six page jungle mix.

      • Graham says:

        I look forward to seeing that, will at some later point an updated version of ‘The uncharted swamp’ be appearing?

        • Brian says:

          Have another go at The Swamp? I’m keen to hear others’ advice (my email is on page 38, Between the photo credits and the ogl) but I think I’d always be more likely to put most of my energy into something new.

          • Graham says:

            One question for the author. I’d just like to clarify one thing. In the night version of encounter 4, does the player affected have to go through the full ‘non-addicted’ flowchart that night or is that left to a ‘knowing’ encounter?

          • Brian says:

            Graham, the most likely answer is “yes,” if a character has been fully exposed to frogsweat and then allowed to sleep, the character must make saving throws to avoid addiction and even death.

            See the link for a playtesting report with lots of typos. In that session, the PC who died did intentionally lick a frog. But it’s more-or-less the same when the frog crawls into your sleeping bag.

            If this seems to harsh, the most reasonable mitigation is to make the character sound really out of it when she half wakes up; give the other characters a real opportunity to intervene.

          • Graham says:

            Thanks for the clarification, the link didn’t show up for some reason.

          • Brian says:

            The link is on my name. I used the “website” field to link to a specific page

  3. Gus L says:

    This sounds interesting, though ten encounters seems small for a 40 page wilderness. I wonder if say 4 or 5 keynote interlinked encounters and then a bunch of smaller standard paragraph encounters would get more setting and feel into the space. Also curious if this hits anything besides ‘encounters’ and ‘monster sign’? Weather, landmarks, strange occurences, physical obstacles, and small locations (again basically landmarks) seem helpful in elevating wilderness adventure from being a formless scene based series of conflicts while retain some sense of scale.

    • Brian says:

      I think most of the stuff you mention is in there in some way, but weather would have been a nice addition. Any thoughts on how to do that? Dedicated weather table seems like too much.

      • Anonymous says:

        Weather can be super simple, even a sentence could do it.

        “Twice per day roll a d4 for the weather; a result of 1 or 2 indicates clear or mildly overcast skies, 3 indicates harmless precipitation, and 4 is a storm (10% chance per round spent outdoors to be hit by a gust of wind, STR save or blown 2d6 feet and knocked prone).”

      • Gus L says:

        I tend to build weather, obstacles/events,landmarks into an overloaded ransom encounter die. Weather has a base state (for a swamp say ‘misty and overcast’) and then when the weather result appears it changes based on a table for either a period set by the result, or until weather comes up again. Not very complex.

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