Saturday, March 27, 2010

Musings on Sandbox Campaigns

Tried to get involved with a thread on Enworld but it appears the participants want to beat the hell out of each other rather than have a discussion.

Anyway I wrote down some observations on sandbox campaigns that I think the rest of you may find useful.

After Necromancer Games released the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set was released the various authors, including myself, began to explain what the product was, and how they used it. Sandbox campaigning turned out to be the best term to package up what we were talking about and it stuck. No idea who came up with it specifically.

My own particular interest in the sandbox campaigns is developing the numbered hex map pioneered by Judges Guild and used in the Wilderlands Boxed Set. I feel it is a compact way of presenting a setting that is ready to run out of the box. Part of the reason behind my two Points of Light was to give an affordable example of format that didn’t involve shelling out $70 (the price of the boxed set).

Pieces of advice to anybody wanting to run a sandbox campaign are

1) Things don’t happen in a background, unless there a special reason people for miles around are going to know there is a dragon lair on Grimbolt Mountain. They may not know exactly where it is but the fact there a dragon in the general area is going to be obvious. This the same for a variety of locales with dangerous creatures. Most however will have to be discovered by the PCs actively looking for rumors.

2) Plot can occur in a sandbox campaign and it is best implemented as a series of events written as if PCs didn’t exist. Consider this as a plan that will change once the PC get involved. They also may not want to be involved so plan for that.

3) The most effective use of a sandbox campaign comes when the character have a background that ties them into a region, culture, religion, or organization. This gives the player a context in which to start making decisions about what direction they want to pursue. I find this works best when limited to a page and developed from a private session between the referee and players talking back and forth.

4)Detail is important but you will never have enough time or interest. The technique to overcome is to develop of a bag of "bits". Bits are situations, locales, npcs, props, etc with the serial number filed off. They can be combined in different ways to provide on the spot locales and encounters. You can fine tune the exact mix in order to impart a specific feel to the setting. Much of my bag of "bits" revolve the medieval theme which lends my campaign a more gritty and serious feel. Your may be different.


Cameron said...

Excellent advice! And thanks for the link to that thread where I found this delicious bit of mockery:

"Underlying what? ... motivation? Do you want to play Dungeons & Dragons or not?"

"How can I narrate my character's co-mingled sense of alienation and ennui towards modern society in this second-rate dungeon hack? My character returns to the surface and uses his remaining gold to start up an organic coffee shop that caters to left-wing revolutionaries... and hot elvish chicks."
Wonderful stuff. Wish I'd written it.

Cameron said...

Also, this person raises a good question:
"But I don't see how that works; when folks here talk abotu sandboxes, it seems all the little things in the sandbox are just in a time stasis, their motives and goals just frozen until the PCs stumble across them. If it were a real world, all the things that happen would happen whether the PCs get involved or not, rather than just waiting for the PCs to walk up to them."
Well, yes - things are frozen until needed for the sake of keeping the adventurers happy and adventuring. Any DM who needs more than that is either nursing an obsession not entirely related to the game or hasn't figured out yet that what he really wants to be doing is writing novels.

Took me years to figure that out. Point is, the world doesn't need to be real. It just needs to have places for the PCs to go and things for the PCs to do, period. Anything else is for the DM's satisfaction (which is not say that players aren't appreciative of DM's who go the extra mile on detail).

Flynn said...


I am intrigued by your mention of the generic "bits" you mentioned above. Could you give us an example of the bits you used and how you combined them, perhaps from one of your more recent gaming sessions? I'm always curious about how other GMs put together these elements, to see how that compares to my own methods.

One of the things I tend to do is look at story archetypes from my high school English classes of two decades ago, file off the serial numbers and plug-and-play setting elements to create a scenario that pulls at the subconscious of my players. By rooting it in a somewhat common shared experience from my players' past, it's easier to create an immersive story. Their minds automatically fill in depths that I don't have to mention, and then I riff on what they bring up. The scenario quickly takes on a life of its own, and the players are left with an impression that the world is greatly detailed and with significant depth. Besides, being a coder in "Real Life", how else am I going to put that information to use?

With Regards,

Fabian said...

Sandboxes are the 'in thing' these days it seems. Paizo have gotten in on the act with their Kingmaker Adventure Path. Although I would never run Pathfinder or 3.5, I'm having fun converting it to Savage Worlds.

Rob Conley said...

@Cameron - For my own use I call it managing complexity. That why the big o' "bits" is important to develop so you can quickly come up with the details.

@Flynn - I will answer this in a post.

@Fabian - Sandboxes are general to RPGs. Probably the RPG that is best suited for sandbox campaigning is Traveller. It has numerous sub system that allow you to create detail readily and quickly at different levels of scope (like animals, works, etc)

tsojcanth said...

On point 4: a big toolbox of drame elements is the holy grail of improvisation.
You don't really need more than, say, 40 different dramatis personae (say, the Conman) to put in a campaign, and you can "reskin" them as needed, both with your campaign fluffy stuff (Conman can become Aziz the beggar, or the two Merten brothers, dealers in fine lotus from the Land of the Lakes over the Western Sea) and with more "characteristics" such as motivations (money, power, sex, revenge), mannerisms, psychosis, aspect, typical location where he's interacted with, and whatnot.

Basically, everything's orthogonal. Mix, match and improvise. And don't be scared of fuc*ing up because somehow players prefer to interact with better characters, so you'll see a selection of sort happening. And you'll se emergence as random bits and pieces in your campaign will interact in ways never thought of.

Same goes for locations and action: a tavern is a tavern, a chase is a chase. It can be classy or seedy, posh or cheap, perky in countless different ways. and the chase can be long or short, with bystanders, on a ledge, by the sea or even something like chasing up a netrunner before he gets to cover his tracks deleting logs and the like.

Might actually dissect the topic better in a post :)

Badmike said...

"Tried to get involved with a thread on Enworld but it appears the participants want to beat the hell out of each other rather than have a discussion."

Rob, someone could have warned you that was going to happen and you wouldn't have wasted those precious minutes of your life...