Sunday, September 13, 2015

ACKS Blackmarsh (1)

Did I mention I moved? My office is just now mostly back together, and I've turned on my computer for the first time since May. So I've ensconced myself in the warm glow of LCDs and I've done some fiddling with ACKS, which I haven't done for quite some time.

For various reasons I found myself looking back again at Rob Conley's Blackmarsh, a free and open little sandbox document.

Since I'm in a PbP game on Autarch's forums that's using it, I started to wonder what it would look like if the tenets of ACKS were applied to it.

I've had a Dwimmermount map project languishing unposted for quite some time - it may behoove me to jump back in with something a touch smaller to get myself restarted on that. Plus, Blackmarsh can merge with the Dwimmermount map on Blackmarsh's southern edge.

And, as the PbP game made me realize, DM's azoth and BM's viz may as well be the same thing, though I think you'd want to have DM's version be more 'pure' given the central themes of the place.

You know, before I get started, I should probably say something about the product itself.

Released in 2011, Blackmarsh is a small sandbox, 19 by 27 hexes, containing the titular swamp and a list of settlements, lairs, and ruins (about ~80). The town of "Castle Blackmarsh" is mapped and detailed. Ostensibly written for Delving Deeper, an excellent rework of the original game, it's compatible with anything marginally like D&D.

There's a wide variety of monster lairs, including must-have dragons, and the ever-present threat of an old evil 'probably' destroyed. The civilized races are presented from many different factions, 7 on the board in all.

Just enough detail is given for a Judge to springboard their own ideas - reading through this for the first time in several years, I'm finding myself wanting to grab a group and run it.

Actually - let me wind that back a bit. I came across Rob Conley's blog and Blackmarsh very early on when I was coming back to D&D, and I downloaded and read through it. At the time, I accepted it at essentially face value - a hexcrawl - and set it aside.

3 or so years later, having some hundreds of OSR and other blogs on my reading list, having read a wide range of thoughts, practices, and products, I come back to it today with a new appreciation for what Blackmarsh provides.

For what it's worth, this set of posts will be very much like a record of steps taken to reconcile a non-ACKS setting with ACKS rules.

So: let's list the settlements in Blackmarsh, their rulers, and likely allegiances:

HexSettlementPopulationBlackmarsh - RulerBlackmarsh, Alliance
217Oldan Hold342DF6Dwarf, Bolzak
407Blackoak Castle170EF4M6Blackmarsh Rangers
409Strangeholms292H0Halfling, Blackmarsh Rangers
608Ashdown121F6Blackmarsh Rangers
610Greenton642H0Newcombe Halflings
804Stardell Falls503EF4M8Elf, Seat
912Blackmarsh Isle100-Blackmarsh
913Castle Blackmarsh1294EF4/M2Blackmarsh, Seat
1113Inuacus Keep50F10Blackmarsh
1305Muncaester895F4Ostrobard, Seat
1307Naomi, Sorceress-M9-
1309Wizard of the Isle-M18-
1518Norbury Castle120F9Grand Kingdom
1602Wessex Keep50F6Ostrobard/Muncaester
2505Castle Taldene200F9Vasan, Seat

A range of settlement sizes and alliances - by my reckoning, there's ~7 factions on the board - Dwarf, Blackmarsh Rangers, Halflings, Elves, Blackmarsh itself, Ostrobards, the Grand Kingdom, and the Vasan.

Hex 0912 is an unnamed island; settled by 100 men. I've deemed it Blackmarsh Isle, so I can use it as a settlement. I've listed the two named mages to keep track of them. I'm not yet sure how they're going to pan out - they obviously have some tower analogue, but no attached settlement or domain.

There's some argument to be made about the various relationships of Blackmarsh, the Rangers, and the Elves.  I expect the Rangers and Blackmarsh to be allied, if not quite vassaled. I also expect the Stardell elves aren't as nonplussed as they would seem with the whole Ranger/Blackmarsh idea.

Blackmarsh is extremely well set for 'overland' faction play, without it necessarily being lumbering empires clashing. That's great for ACKS - it's easy to see a group of players making their own mark on the map (or taking someone else's mark)

In converting this to ACKS, I'm making two assumptions for this first attempt:
  1. The population numbers given convert straight to families
  2. The hexes magically transmogrify to 6 mile hexes, rather than 5.
Let's see what that looks like, given the advice starting in ACKS pg229:

RealmSettlementHexPopulation (Families)TypeWhole Realm SizeSubrealm SizeRemaining PopulationRealm Hexes @300/hex
BlackmarshCastle Blackmarsh9131294Small City6470033150216
Jorvik1316481Small Town24050
Blackmarsh Isle912100Village5000
Inuacus Keep111350Hamlet2500
MuncaesterMuncaester1305895Large Town4475011550150
Wedmor1002255Large Village12750
Camden1302214Village 210700
Wessex Keep160250Hamlet2500
Blackmarsh RangersBlackoak Castle407170Village8500245029
VasanCastle Taldene2505200Village10000-35000184
Daretop2704415Large Village20750
Gamla2508405Large Village20250
Ysby241180Small Village4000
Grand KingdomNorbury Castle1518120Village600020
Bolzak (D)Oldan Hold217342Large Village1710057
Greywood (E)Stardell Falls804503Small Town2515084
Newcombe (H)Greenton610642Large Town32100107
Strangeholms (H)Strangeholms409292Large Village1460049
Total Hexes896

So - first problem is we have used up 896 hexes...of 500 available. (Note Vasan looks weird - because it's 'seat' isn't the largest settlement in that realm - as supported by the text. We'll get to that later)

I've done a few conversions of materials over the past couple  years, (none of which I've bothered to finish up and post so far...) and this is a pretty common problem. There's never enough space on the map to support the realms attached to the urban populations listed, so it becomes a game of adjustments and refactoring to get into something that fits.

The "default world" of non-ACKS'd D&D, I've noticed, whether this Blackmarsh or Dwimmermount or any number of small publisher or WoTC products is one of folks packed up into urban settlements, who leave during the day to run the farms that apparently feed all those people. It feels like an odd reverse-suburbia sometimes when you're trying to backtrack from the settlement populations.

It's (hopefully) likely we'll be able to pop up the population density and do some adjustments to our urban demographics to shrink down the realms to a manageable size for the map.

Next post, probably, though don't hold your breath. Taking longer than I would have thought to fully get settled here, due in no small part to the fact the old house is still up for sale, and that puts a bite in the budget.


  1. I've pushed Alex on the ACKS forums to talk about demographics - he very explicitly expects that people are scattered across the landscape in farms and small clusters (< 75 families), which there's apparently good archaeological support for being the dominant settlement pattern until several hundred years AD. Most of us assume much higher fractions in small villages, or have a huge mental hole around type VI* settlements - anything with 74 or fewer families (370 people!) is too small to appear on most ACKS maps.

    I suppose you have to scale the populations up 5x or so, as you did, to get ACKS markets to work out - as written, there's one large village at Castle Blackmarsh and everything else is just a market village or hamlet. But if you didn't do the scaling up, you'd see a sparse borderlands with lots of wilderness nearby. Maybe consider scaling populations 2x instead of 5x? "Small City" feels big for Castle Blackmarsh; you'd end up with the map being 2/3rds borderlands and 1/3rd wilderness, centered around a Small Town (maybe stretch it up to the low end of Large Town for the type IV market to anchor things).

    1. I ended up dividing Castle Blackmarsh by 2 for families, and that keeps it as the only Large Town on the map, which seems proper. Some of the outlying hamlets get under the threshold for being notable, but I think with demographic shifts I can make that work out, and avoid adding any named settlements.

  2. Heh...I think you're probably cheating by reading the supplement (like everyone in the PbP hasn't read it already)!

    The first issue is converting from total population to families (=population*5); no doubt this isn't what Rob Conley had in mind when he wrote Blackmarsh. However, if you don't do that, the settlements in Blackmarsh are so small as to be nearly unable to support a decent adventuring party (i.e. too small Market Class). As it happens, in our PbP I've generally done as you suggested and converted absolute population numbers to families. And, as you've seen, this immediately creates the problem of number of required hexes.

    I've dealt with this by not converting some population numbers to families, by assuming much higher population densities (Blackmarsh didn't strike me as equivalent to ancient Roman population density, anyway), and adjusting to more advanced, urban realms with more centralized settlement patterns. This ends up working out with much more reasonable numbers, and leaves plenty of unsettled wilderness as a result.

    A couple other things to consider are that Olden Hold is merely an outpost, and hence might be a recently conquered, single-hex domain (which I've more-or-less gone with), and the Vasans are an unusual situation due to being displaced from elsewhere. Hence, I didn't build/convert them as a standard Domain.

    Honestly, this stuff occupied most of my time in prepping for the PbP, and it generally does when I convert a campaign setting to ACKS (you've no idea how much time I spent trying to make the Grand Duchy of Karameikos work based on ACKS assumptions for my FtF game). Does it need to? No, surely not! But for me this kind of internal consistency is a major draw of ACKS.

    1. Cheat? Moi? :) I expect you've already changed enough (Orlean is new) and it's not like it's got maps for dungeons and such.

      In my as-yet-unpublished followup to this, I have indeed popped the density to 650/fam/hex, and divided the populations in half, to allow for reasonable settlement size. I've also "reversed" the advanced, urban settlement pattern to shrink the outlying realm sizes. I'll have tables up in that post.

      I'd be interested in continuing to compare your approach to mine.


  3. I will say that when I put down the population it was intended to be the actual population. I am a long time Judges Guild fan and helped out with the Wilderland boxed set however I found people got confused over the difference between Able Bodied Men/Household vs actual population. So for Blackmarsh I opted for actual population. For actual households or families divide by four.

    As for the Vasans, they are refugees so a lot of things are off about their settlement pattern.

    If you are interested here is a expanded map that combines my Wild North, Blackmarsh and Southland.

    The Vasans in Blackmarsh come from the Province of Vasa which was conquered in the last century by the Grand Kingdom. The big rectangle in the south where my Southland is can be swapped out for Dwimmermount. Although the join on the east will need to be re-worked slightly.

    Good luck and have fun. Great seeing this stuff. And remember after you are done and if you want to release your work as a handout or product, I made Blackmarsh and its map 100% OGL (except for the art of course).So go right ahead. A couple of people done this already (Heroes and Other Worlds, a Hungarian Translation).

    1. Thanks for the extra info!

      I'd planned on referencing the expanded map at some point, but now that you've mentioned it I may take that one there and bust out the hexes to the "standard" ACKS 30?x40? hex map and see how much room that gives me.

      IIRC, Southland/Wild North are detailed in a "Points of Light" product from Goodman? Same general form.format as Blackmarsh?

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. Rob, I approved that comment and then realized what it was and deleted it; I don't know if you wanted that link to be on the internet-at-large.

  4. Yes that file is meant to be available by permission of Goodman Games and myself.

    1. OK, thanks. The, for posterity (Blogspot won't let me put it back:)

      Rob Conley wrote:

      Southland is detailed in Points of Light I But can be downloaded, with permission from here