I just realized something, as I was pondering the “Points of Light” concept that was the “focus” of 4E campaign design – I’m not sure how much campaign design ever really played into 4E based on what I read, but I’ll give them the idea at least. The concept is a rather old one, and is certainly a trope in many ways, the focus of the action is that there are pockets of civilization (the points of light) within vast seas of surrounding wilderness and savagery (the darkness). As a note, most modern day occult campaigns (or even historical occult/horror games like Call of Cthulhu) work off the opposite conceit, that there are Points of Darkness (Innsmouth, the Succubus Club, etc) that exist with the vast light of modern civilization.
This really does make an excellent basis for a open-ended hexcrawl, where the players start out in one point of light and then travel via exploration to the next point of light – or even in the endgame create their own point of light (pretty much the assumption in much of the OSR rulesets). But it doesn’t work so well in a game like mine, where at one point in the distant past it most certainly was a hexcrawl in some ways. It was a big world, much of it was undeveloped, and the players and I could just make stuff up as was needed.
Jump forward 32 years and the world is pretty well-developed. Now, I’ve certainly created and maintained areas that are hexcrawlish – but the wilderness is dangerous and it really isn’t that suitable for low-level types. I don’t think that Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, or Sir Richard Burton were 1st level characters…
So what the hell do you do?
One of the problems with Points of Darkness is that they have to be either very secretive or very powerful or both in order to survive in a world full of light. I think that this is what makes some of those classic modules work well – T1 The Village of Hommlet, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and even something like A1, Slavepits of the Undercity were all about hidden threats within civilized lands, the characters know that there is a “problem” but it’s true extent isn’t understood and the characters must uncover it in order to be successful. These were, in all seriousness, much more like a good Call of Cthulhu scenario than a “dungeon crawl”.
In modules like L1 The Secret of Bone Hill there was a bit more of a Point of Darkness vibe, the same with modules S1 Tomb of Horrors, S2 White Plume Mountain, and s4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojanth (along with it’s companion WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun). The characters know that there is a “bad spot” and specifically go out to deal with it, often in a very dungeon-crawl-like manner. Now, in the A-Series and the U-Series the characters are drawn further out into the “Sea of Darkness” and away from the safety of the “Point of Light” – but it certainly isn’t a hexcrawl in any way shape or form and it is all predicated on the success of the initial investigation and adventure.
Similarly, as much-loved as they are, the G-Series and the D-series are neither points of Light or Darkness. The former are simple Special Forces or Navy SEAL search and destroy missions, while the latter is a basically one doozy of a LRRP (Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols, a Vietnam-era designation) mission that combines recon with assassination. This is likely an artifact of the tournament design of the modules, but it also made for a very simple game. You went in and killed everything, with a minimum of puzzle-solving, or you snuck around and hoped to survive till you reached your target (when you killed everything).
I’ve realized that part of my struggle with B2 has been to reconcile the “Point of Light” style of the module with a campaign world that isn’t very “Point of Light” in nature. I’ve made it work, and even though I’ve just come up with a rather radical and horrifying turn of events for Castle Seraph itself, I need to keep in mind that my world isn’t a OSR hexcrawl and trying to treat it as such is just frustrating for me (and the players I think, mostly because my own frustration with things or inability to quite make things work in my own head comes out in my DMing).