[Hex crawl/campaign setting]
Wilderlands of High Fantasy (1977)
Bob Bledsaw & Bill Owen (Judges Guild)
Levels 1 – 9 (estimated)
HEX NO. 0229 Isle of Greysend- A shipwrecked squadron of charmed knights who have married all of the goblin women
Before I start off, I can almost hear you people thinking: PRINCE WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT I THOUGHT THIS WAS A SPIFFY MODERN COSMOPOLITAN BLOG WITH UP TO DATE INFO ON DA LATEST ELFGAMES AND NOT SOME FOREIGN CRAPPY BLOG WITH OLD SHIT FROM A COUNTRY WHERE THEY SHIT ON THE FLOOR AND ARE SO BUSY MAKING LOVE TO BARN-ANIMALS THEY DON’T HAVE TIME TO STOCK UP FOR WINTER AND HAVE TO EAT THEIR OWN CHILDREN YOU MOTHERFUCKER!??!!11?
Wilderlands of High Fantasy is old. It literally came out before I was born (1977 bitches!!!). Neckbeards crustier and greasier then I have no doubt written thick, smudgy love-letters sweatily praising its many merits, it being produced by one of the first D&D 3rd party game companies and one of the first campaigns for D&D to have ever been written (though my chronology is murky, it existed before Greyhawk, the first official campaign setting if I recall correctly)*. My overwhelming autism and penchant for navel-gazing aside, I have an actual excuse for digging up this piece of history. I will be looking at more of Geoffry Mckinney’s stuff pretty soon and it is clear that both Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown draw tremendous inspiration from the Wilderlands of High Fantasy in both format and occasionally content. I felt it wise to take an in-depth at this prehistoric marvel and first Hexcrawl/Sandbox setting before I do any further digging.
Warning/Disclaimer: Long-ass Review.
Wilderlands of High Fantasy is a 32-page booklet covering five hex maps of about 200 by 150 miles each. That is a lot of fucking room, since the Wilderlands are HUEG. While no setting is actually described within the booklet, the perceptive GM may glean hints about the nature of the campaign setting from the contents of the hex map itself. A sort of implied setting if you will. As you stumble through its pages and pages of single line, terse evocative description everything falls into place and you remember that you know this place.
3401 Protruding from the earth. with all but the topmost portion overgrown with vegetation: a signpost pointing north written in archaic dwarven runes states : “Fools venturing beyond this point must suffer the welcoming axe.” .
Oh right, you tell yourself. This is Leiber’s Newhon. This is Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer. This is Conan the Barbarian, Jason and the Argonauts and Heavy Metal. I remember this place. And because this is a Sandbox, that is really all you need, more or less. These are the Days of High Adventure!
1417 Isle of Grath – Abode of four huge Ogres which relish human flesh. Every Ogre has three eyes, and flaming red hair. A pet giant crocodile follows them to feast on their leavings.
PART the FIRST: The Sandbox
This 32-page booklet describes the regions of the City-State of the Invincible Overlord (which contains the only major city in these 5 giant maps), Barbarian Altanis, The Valley of the Ancients/Glow-Worm Steppes, Valon and Tarantis. Each map is largely unmarked (though beautifully, and I mean, truly breathtakingly drawn), and each one is sparsely dotted with the following features:
* A list of settlements. Each settlement is described in a single line of text and in terms of the following features: Hex no., Population, race, alignment, civilization level (allows you to determine not simply technology but also form of government), Ruler (name, alignment, class level, race) and one Resource. Since most villages in the Wilderlands are basically at subsistence level, serious trading may only take place in villages marked with a Market, for example. Other villages can have resources like Marble, Copper, Pelts, Furniture and so on and so forth. While this does not give you much to work with (although it is nominally functional), occasional gems pop out:
Obaltion in hex 108 is a Theocracy of 234 N hobbits led by a lawful good 4 HD dragon. They export Hides.
Dark Odyssey in hex 1112 is a tribal fishing village of 234 LG Hobgoblins led by the 4th level human paladin Dithil the Usurper.
Torgress in hex 5208 is a CG village of 215 humans led by the 7th level LE cleric Egalit the Vulture. Market.
Something is going on here that sets your mind alight. Just enough incongruous information is given to spur your imagination into making something out of it. Not all of them are like this, but enough that the exercise becomes worthwhile. Incidentally, good fucking luck buying Plate or Chainmail in the Wilderlands. Find one of the very few cities for that shit or die in leather like a chump.
* Citadels and Castles: These are almost always disappointing since they carry little more then a number of men and the stats of the ruler, which is disheartening. Nothing is revealed about their allegiance, further disposition or any other noteworthy features. Small wonder most of the citadels in Carcosa were boring.
* Lurid Lairs: Again, useful but dull. A list of lairs for monsters. Only the type, number encountered and hex location are given.
* Ruins & Relics: The first section of these maps that I would rate as truly useful, each map has a series of one sentence descriptions of some buried ruin or relic usually guarded by a monster. In it’s shittiest form it looks like this:
Inside a Cavern a Wormeaten Longboat – 8 SKELETONS
There is probably some kind of encounter you could make with that description but most of the heavy lifting is going to be on you. Now this is what it looks like when it is not shitty and Bledsaw used his brain as well as the Random Ruins and Relics generation tables he generously provides in the same supplement.
The crystallized skeleton of a dragon turtle is buried on the sandy beach. The skull houses a giant leech.
Within an extinct crater, a six-headed hydra guards its nest of eggs. The nest is constructed of brambles and the remains of an elf, still wearing his +2 chainmail tunic
Cut into the overhanging cliff is a battlescene depicting a tall slim race decimating a short ugly one with -flaming tubes
Again, not great, but many of them make for some nice evocative imagery. By the time we reach Map 5 – Valon (different maps were not produced at the same time), you can see the design team is starting to figure out how to make things more interesting.
In a well hidden crypt is a ring of Brathecol, one of the kings of old Altantis. A stone golem is guardian of the crypt which appears as a monolithic block of limestone
Each sentence is a sort of mini-encounter with a monster or sometimes even something as simple as a piece of scenery. You can see echoes of this format in Mckinney’s Carcosa as clear as night follows day. The point is that for a Sandbox game, these are fine. Each should take less then a session to explore and thus many locations on the map may be encountered per session, keeping things fresh and squaky clean.
* Idyllic Isles
By far the best session in the book, each Island is given a short description that can be turned into anything from a memorable encounter to an entire adventure. Nice ones below.
Isle of Kotha-Min . An aged cleric desires an adventurer to lead him on his last ‘great journey’ to the court of the ruler of Valon. Although blind and slightly senile, the cleric has foreknowledge of an immenent doom which only a relic owned by the ruler can eliminate
Bam. A quest in 2 sentences, whilst adding some touches to make it feel distinct and memorable.
Cornmill Isles – A band of 96 gnomes trade corn for necessities. A werewolf rampages through the village during every fullmoon and man-eating plants dot the rocky heights.
And so on and so forth. Some are great, some are merely adequate. From Npcs, civilisations, monsters, quests to another of Mckinney’s favourites: Statues that fuck with you if you mess with them.
PART THE SECOND: ADDITIONAL SANDBOX RULES
In addition to map keys and some truly amazing maps the booklet also has some rules and random fucking tables of varying usefulness. While each is in some way conductive to the business of running a Sandbox campaign in the Wilderlands they are so different and chaotically organized I am left with little option but to go through them one at a time in tiresome list-like fashion. I shall attempt terse evocative criticism (I failed my roll).
Ruin generation table: Admirably thorough but feels somewhat generic and uninspiring. Recommended as a stopgap measure for quick ruin/relic generation only.
Random Cave Generation Table: All this work for a monster lair? Having a randomly generated cavern that can be made by simply rolling dice every turn might seem useful to some but in practice it is probably better just to wing it. Who wants to spend fucking ages exploring a cave with only one monster? Same with dungeons. The guidelines on burrows or dwellings provide a general guideline on the creation thereof but bleh, too much dicerolling for too little payoff.
Search table: Actually a pretty good sub-system. I’d maybe use it. If the players decide to search an Area and the GM decides FUCK IT THERE IS SOMETHING THERE, here is a useful table for figuring out what is actually there (in the most general of terms). A list of common items for each type of area (hallway, common room, cavern or furniture) for when the GM has not actually placed anything is a welcome addition.
Keen sighting: Terrible, unintuitive and overly complicated. A number of miles of clear sighting dependent on the height of the target, with the probability of detail being discernible at 2% times height ?!? with bonuses given for distances. I can’t make heads or tails of this silly subsystem and the tables are worse, with probabilities for obstruction based on terrain or something or nothing. For some reason rules for the appearance of flora and fauna, as well as weather within the hex are given in the same table. I have a solution for this and it is called GM’s discretion. Skip.
Hyrographic Terrain: Nice to see such attention to versimilitude and Sandboxing but would your game really get drastically better if you could roll a probability chance of a brook or a riverlet in each hex, along with indications for width and depth as well as a random table for generating its course and obstacles. It doesn’t seem terrible or useless, just rather trivial. Use only for Versimilitude obsessed GM’s. A probability of edible salt with a saltslide is nice, but this is a niche system at best.
Prosperous prospecting: Useful and in retrospect underutilized in any game with a wilderness sandbox. It looks complicated but is more elegant then you would expect. Once you find yourself a deposit of something (i.e a week worth of encounter rolls later), the dice rolling can begin in earnest. First you roll the type of deposit (from trace element to Motherlode), which determines how much cubic feet of shit you find. First you need the ready ref sheets of course so you may consult tunneling costs and time. After that its 1700 X cubic feet in volume times X yield percentage X value mutliplyer and you have got yourself the gp value of a lode of ore. That still needs to be worked. Which costs money. And it has different rules for marble and gemstones!!!! Points for versimilitude but something quick and easier to use would have probably served everyone better. As it stands, I don’t see anyone but the most dedicated GMs put this to use. Yet something like this, only not shit, is exactly what Carcosa needs to expand its scope.
Triumphant Grand Tactical: I.e Rules for navigating the hexmap within a hexmap (oh subsystems). Wilderlands uses .2 mile hexes and 1 hour turns to determine movement speed on its grand tactical scale. Rules are provided for movement ranging from encumbered men to light cavalry. Certain types of terrain take up more movement then others. Prolonged movement without food or across difficult terrain like cliffs or deep gullies provokes constitution checks to avoid getting fatigued. Overall, a fairly elegant system that goes into rather more detail then your Grandfather’s movement rules. Movement speed for light foot, ergo, unencumbered men is 12 points per turn (hour), meaning you could, using this rule if I interpret it correctly, 24 hexes or 4.8 miles worth of road in an hour, since roads only cost 1/2 a movement point. Sounds about right actually.
Hirelings: Vague and confusing notes on the nature of hirelings that slips into extra rules for the 8th level polymorph spell halfway through. Also, a note that NPCs cause about 50% of the disagreements your party has, so fuck you if you take the hirelings with you on a carousing and boozing trip. Angered party of the PC’s level with 2-12 friends bitch! A random fucking table of reasons for the quarrel, ranging from inappropriate fondling to the understandably aggravating stabbing.
Modern OSR tables would probably add some specificity and customize the aggrieved party but this stuff does generate gameplay so good on you Judges guild. A simple system for handling negotiations between two parties is also provided, with the caveat that you and oppositely aligned creatures will not get along very well.
Wishes: Rules elaborating on wish have been tricky at the best of times but this one certainly makes a valiant attempt. Guidlines are given for approximate goldpiece value, probability that the wish will succeed, probability that the wish will have some sort of repercussion, damage indicators and so on and so forth, depending on the nature of the wish or the power of the object granting it. In wilderlands, Wishes are not that good for bringing people back from the dead, and can only do so temporarily, with varying levels of functionality.
Geases: Yet another random table, this time to generate Geases. This one I like because it is easy to use and pulling out Geases as something other then convenient railroading excuse is nice. 10 points for griffindor.
Income/Domains: Rules for generating income! Some horrible nerd will probably point out that Adventurer Conquerer King does this better. Income is generated based on civilization level times the population (I’m guessing population is stated in able bodied men in most cases). Extra hexes surrounding the field generate an additional 10% each. It get’s fairly interesting from thereon. You see, the Income you get by the formula outlined above is actually the maximum possible income. It is the equivalent of strip-mining your domain, and doing so will reduce your population by 10-60% and your income to zero for a year. Every class has a fixed percentage of the maximum he may safely strip from the population. Every percentage point above that slowly increases the desertion rate of your barony as well as the chance that your population will not respond to a general call to arms.
Added to this neatness, rules for taking other baronies are included, as well as the possibility to change the alignment of captured settlement. After that, the rules gradually crumble and become increasingly murky, mere sentences describing the feeding of armies or the return of investments, but most of these terms lack definition and context, making them hard to use for anyone not already immersed in the gaming culture of the 70s. While I think most Wilderlands campaigns are likely to be concerned mostly with the exploration of the world, it is nice to see the open-ended nature of DnD emphasized in force.
Trade Guide: An excellent small subsystem on the adjudication of trade. Since many villages are basically subsistence based, only villages with a market can be used for trading in earnest. Villages have a demand for certain products depending on the nature of the goods (broadly categorized in common, rare & extraordinary) and their population. A list of sample prices for wares is given below, I like it that the goods vary from bushels of Maize to a living Purple Worm. The price you get for Gnoll Slaves is very low though 😦
Population density: I’m kind of astonished at the level of thought and depth that went into this Sandbox from fucking 1977 and I have the niggling feeling that if I were to crossreference all the villages mentioned in this supplement, they would confirm exactly to this format. Anyway, the game lays out the number of hexes that is necessary to sustain a certain population, based on the percentage of tillable land for agricultural societies, and lightly wooded areas for tribes of hunter gatherers. Nice to see this attention to detail added to the game.
PART THE THIRD: A LOOK AT EACH MAP.
This review is dragging on so a short look at each region in turn will mark the end of this lengthy descent into DnD history. I’m liking the implied setting thing, though I would prefer just a wee bit more information on the setting proper (Which I would receive in later installments).
1- The City-State of the Invincible Overlord: Easily the most powerful and civilised region of the Wilderlands presented here, with the powerful City-State itself fielding a population of 20.000 and the settlements of Thunderhold, Warwick and Ossary adding a respectable 2000, 9400 and 3200 respectively. At around 3/4ths of the list of villages, the levels and race of the rulers are no longer mentioned, perhaps someone got bored?
While in some games, high-level characters are fairly rare, the Wilderlands is a pretty far out place where the mayor of buttfuckville can just as easily be a 4th level thief as a 11th level CE illusionist. Do not fuck with. The odd 238 LE orcs and their democratically elected 11th level human LG cleric bring a smile to my heart. The endless list of fortresses is included for versimilitude but does not inspire.
Monster lairs are okay. An eclectic mixture of mostly humanoids and giant animals, the odd mythological creature or similar thing thrown into the mix.
To add a little spice to the mix, The city state gets itself a description of an NPC and his court, the bizarre Sir Hubert of Hag Hill, living in a tower said to contain an Elder Evil, frightening animals with his 20 foot whip to entertain his retainers. Each significant NPC is given a short line of stats and a single line of evocative description, like so:
Constant companion 0f Hubric, wild·eyed, high-pitched laugh
It doesn’t waste your time but it gives you just enough to work with so your imagination can fill in the blanks. Marvelous. Haghill is given a list of rumors that could conceivably be turned into quests for various desirable magical objects in need of liberation and a useless list of NPCs that run shops since we know not what they sell nor get a description of the NPCs in question.
The Islands are wicked and as usual in a wilderlands map, the place to be for your serious adventuring needs. Giant animating greek god statues. A castaway pirate who fears a giant crocodile out to get him. A ruined city overrun by apes hiding a wishing well. Ah Wilderlands.
Also included in this supplement is a minion of the Overlord, The mysterious Co-ordinator and his 5 evil retainers that functions as an ersatz mirror-universe Zorro by going out and bringing ruin and mutilation to the enemies of the Overlord. An excellent choice for a villainous NPC party, complete with hidden fortress, secret identity and black horses.
2 – Barbarian Altanis
Arguably the weakest section of this booklet, Altanis sucks mostly because of its generic sounding descriptions for Relics and Ruins (i.e what you get if you use the Relic and Ruins subtable and then just roll with it, with no elaboration or brain power involved). It does have a partially operational anti-gravity vehicle in a crevice guarded by 3 trolls though.
It lacks major settlements (and interesting settlements) and most of its monster population seems to consist of various animals (giant, normal or prehistoric). Thank god for the isles. Injured rocs in need of help. Witches that will offer aid in exchange for stories. A long exiled hero of a faraway land. Altanis is the place you go too if your PCs are the annoying kind that go south when you place your quest hooks north.
3 – Glow Worm Steppes/Valley of the Ancients
The Funky place where you go if you want to do some serious ass-kicking. Where you have collections of hobbits ruled over by gold dragons and a Neutral goblin settlement ruled by the Balor Coatel of Scorn (probably ruling over them as their God if I read that civilization stat correctly). Ruins and relics section sucks ass because it consists mostly of actual ruined structures with monsters in them but nothing worth stealing (a full suit of operational power armor notwithstanding). Lairs consist of large monsters, maybe more prehistoric monsters then average, as well as our first tribes of neanderthals. The Idyllic Isles section is nice but short 😦
4 – Tarantis.
This is where you can tell they got a little used to the format. Across the Winedark Sea lies Tarantis, a more rugged, frontier-sort of place by the looks of it. Plenty of settlements, the 6000 pop city of Tarantis as its crowning piece, frequent Troll and Ogre-led humanoid settlements and yet another tribe of Goblins led by a Balor. Ouch. Leaders in Tarantis tend to have impressive sounding titles, which helps the imagination along somewhat (Blodent the Craven, Kolda Cracker of Bones and Fostric Stump-Puller to give you a small sample). Glorious sunny Tarantis does not have a lot of fortresses, which also makes things better, since those tend not to be very interesting in Wilderness. The ruins section is more specific and generous with its treasures (although you can still find a cave with nothing but petrified dragon shit). The Isle section is filled with cool shit, as usual, with higher percentage of hooks involving NPCs with some sort of goal or something happening and the use of more S&S soundy names for shit. Tiny details make a description come alive.
A low amount of monster lairs, relatively speaking, with a higher percentage of creatures from greek legend. I think.
5 – Valon.
Ah Valon. Mostly a vast inner sea. WHICH MEANS LOTS OF COOL ISLANDS. A nice shoutout to Elric of Melniboné (Melnabone is a Kingdom of 160 LE men led by the Evil Wailing Baelrik 9th level ftr) in the town section starts this one off with a bang, as well as titles in the ruler names so you can use your brain. Search for the long lost city of Kazandol and avoid the Great Worms that rule it. Intelligent giant snakes that beg for passage to the mainland. 1.5 PAGES WORTH OF ISLANDS WOOO HOOO. As is no more then expected for what is a vast bay, most of the monster lairs are nautical in nature.
Overall, Wilderlands is kind of mind-blowing in how much detail it managed to cram in such a product. I would venture that much of its content is useful and holds up even today. Its rule systems are haphazard, unorganized and its format is archaic.
While I would recommend a read-through for anyone interested in running a sandbox game just to see what might be a useful starting format, actually running it would depend heavily on your efforts as a GM. Nevertheless, I would venture that one could do far worse for a heavily S&S inspired sandbox setting. If you are okay with something that is brimming with content, albeit it at times generic content. If you are alright with doing a lot of heavy lifting yourself, this is not a bad setting at all. Just make sure to get the City State also, which preceded it.
I feel weird grading this since it has already stood the test of time and is beloved by many even today but I’d place it at about an 8 today. It has so many good hooks and inspiring little sentences that for the right GM (i.e GM/Bad Game Neurenberg defence) it is a veritable gold mine. On the other hand, a lot of its content is generic or too cubersome to be of much use. Those gorgeous maps though.
I shall give it 8 out of 10, 4 more then Carcosa, despite having a similar format. Carcosa seeks to stand on its own and thereby suffers from its clunky implementation. Wilderlands gives much and has the tried and true framework of AD&D or some retroclone or other to prop it up. Full credit where it is due, I recall RPGPundit mentioning something along those lines in a forum discussion concerning his assesment of either Isle of the Unknown or Carcosa.
* = The City-state of the invincible Overlord was published in 1976 at Gen-Con. Greyhawk was published in 1980