There is a growing discussion of sandbox campaigns. The term is taken from computer gaming where it applied to games that allow the players free reign to wander the gamescape. It is epitomized by Fallout, the Grand Theft Auto series and the Elder Scroll series.
This term came into use for roleplaying games five to six years ago particularly when the boxed set of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy was being promoted by Necromancer and it's authors. It came out of explaining why $70 worth of locales, lairs, ruins, and islands spread among 18 maps helps run a campaign. Among the early example of sandbox roleplaying accessories were the original Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Traveller sectors, and B2 - Keep on the Borderlands. All of these were noted for a free form setup where the direction of the campaign was primarily determined by where the players wanted to go.
Now a major RPG company, Paizo, has thrown their hat into the sandbox campaign ring with the release of their ninth Pathfinder Adventure Path, Kingmaker. In the introduction they came out and state that unlike prior adventure paths this designed to be free-form with multiple avenues to discovering what is happening.
The series itself is about the player adventuring from the Kingdom of Brevoy into the Stolen Lands where they can crave out of their own realms. The Stolen lands lies at the junction of Brevoy and the River Kingdoms and both have tenuous claims to the region. The history of the region has largely bypassed the Stolen Lands and the surrounding inhabitants known little of it's denizens. Into this steps the player characters.
The true situation is filled with complications. It is obvious from this module and the included previews that the authors have created a a situation where there is no one way of dealing with the complications. The player are going to have to make some interesting decisions along the way and are going to be challenged by what they find.
The first module, the Stolen Lands, deals with the players starting out Oleg's Trading Post. It is the only known settlement of note in the area and the natural place for the players to start. It becomes quickly obvious that banditry is a major problem in the area. Dealing with the bandits, and exploring the stolen lands are the major focus of the first product. There are one other major plot thread dealing with a conflict among the non-human sentients of the stolen lands, some hooks to later modules, and plenty of individual encounters.
Physically the product is impressive. It made with Paizo's high standards and feel like a glossy magazine with a sturdy cover. The battle maps are photo realistic and are well done. Although I do wonder how those catapults got up and are used in the towers of Oleg's Trading Place. The regional maps are functional but I have some criticism of them which I will detail later.
The organization starts off with a forward by Tim Hitchcock. Then goes into detailing the Greenbelt region of the Stolen Lands. This starts out with the initial scenarios surrounding Oleg's Trading Post, and then the details of the 26 locales of the Greenbelt. These locales are arranged on a horizontal hex grid of 5 hex rows each roughly 6 hexes long. The scale is 12 miles each. Note that only the northern half of the Greenbelt is detailed the southern half I believe will be in the next issue of this adventure path.
Each locale is fairly detailed with stat blocks for moth. Some have full color photo realistic battlemaps. Those who like 3.5 and Pathfinder style module will have no complaints. For those liking a terser format, the added length isn't as as big of a distraction as in some 3.X modules. Some locale's description are deferred for a full writeup later on.
After the locales are the full write ups of four of the locales. They are written to 3.5/Pathfinder standards. After this is a rumor chart! This details 10 true/false rumors about the Greenbelt region of the stolen lands. Then we have short descriptions of each of the major rivers of the Greenbelt.
Next is a chapter called Into the Wild. This sections goes into more of the Geography of the Stolen Lands. The map given in the previous section is only represents a quarter of what the entire series will cover. Next comes some rules for exploration and how to deal with each hex and the different terrain types. They are short and to the point. There is only one major issue which I will go into later.
Next is a history of the Kingdom of Brevoy which lies north of the Stolen Lands. There is a lot of background information and a lot of interesting factions that one can use while adventuring in this area. After this is a short gazetteer of locales and geography of Brevoy.
Brevoy was conquered by Choral the Conqueror who united two lands Issia and Rostland into one kingdom, Brevoy. He and his descendants ruled Brevoy for two hundreds years until recently the entire royal house disappeared. One of the noble family was able to gain a tenuous hold on the throne. Now the houses are scheming among themselves not only for the Dragonscale Throne of Brevoy but whether the kingdom will survive at all.
After this is a short story titled Death at the Swaddled Otter. It actually fairly well written and entertaining although I question it's inclusion in the product. I am not familiar enough with the Pathfinder Adventure Path to know whether they have regular features like a magazine.
Next is a Bestiary with random encounters for the Greenbelt and several new monsters. Only some of the monsters are directly relevant to the Greenbelt, so like the short story I question their inclusion. I found the Tatzlwyrm interesting as a variant form of dragons. Unlike most dragon variants this is presented as a less evolved form. The dragons went in one direction leaving these creatures to struggle on.
Following this is a teaser section letting the referee know what future installments will bring. Following this are what I think are some pre-made PCs the group can use. The inside cover of both the front and back are filled with wanted posters and summaries of various mini-quests that are sprinkled throughout the Greenbelt.
Conclusion As a a sandbox campaign I give a solid B+ for content and A- for presentation.
What is there is well written, plausible, exciting, and builds up to the next section in a way that doesn't seem forced. To me these are all essential elements in setting up sandbox campaign and Paizo nailed it on their first sandbox product.
The problem is that there isn't enough. In my opinion they have about what half of what they need from 1st to 3rd level. I am not just talking about the fact they only detailed the northern half of the Greenbelt. There is only one major plot and one minor plot (the non-human conflict). To make it really feel like a sandbox it would have been better if there was one more of each.
The short story and the extra monster should have been omitted in favor of the extra detail.
Without known more of what the subsequent modules hold but I would included a way into the Greenbelt from the River Kingdoms and something that adventurers from the direction would have to deal with. It could be another bandit faction one that has different issues than one currently in the module.
The one other major problems are the region maps. The photo realistic Greenbelt map is OK but where they fail is relating that to the overall Stolen Lands map, and relating the Stolen Map to the Kingdom of Brevoy. The overal Stolen Lands maps should have the quarter sections marked off and some of the geography name printed so make the text clearer. And the Brevoy map should have been extended southward (I think that where the Stolen Lands are) to show the connection better.
Finally the exploration of the hex rules are somewhat boring. It hard to make simple hex by hex exploration interesting. The best way I found mitigate these issues is with really good wandering monster charts. And although adequate the charts in this release are not up to the task of making hex by hex exploration interesting. Particularly for a referee new to running a sandbox.
My suggestion to anybody getting this product is to goto encounter chart on page 75. Start at the top and makes some notes on what you will be doing if you rolled that entry. Also have some notes to weaving in the local terrain (lake/river, plains, hills).
For example if I rolled 1d6 bandits on a lake/river. I could decide that they are fishing. Or perhaps to make it more interesting they were fishing but one of them fell into the water, can't swim and is now drowning and the white are scurrying like ants to figure out how to rescue him. (or perhaps they are just laughing).
Doing this will make the hex by hex exploration of the Greenbelt a far more interesting experience.
But as you see from my letter grade of B+ and A- these issues do not fatally distract from the overall utility of the product.
Suitability for the Old School Renaissance I would give this product a B as far as usability with older editions of D&D. The padded length due to it's use of the Pathfinder rules can be a bit annoying but for one exception the plot and creatures of this module are all very much old school. The exception being one of the sides of the non-human conflict being of a certain race. I would fix this by making both sides the same race but two different tribes. Keep everything else the same and go from there. The overall plot is also easily adapted to use with older editions. I think fans of the eerie feeling of the city of the drow in D3 will like the later stuff they promise in Kingmaker.
The added rules this product bring can be adapted easily to older editions. I am looking forward to some of the kingdom building stuff they are brining in the next issue.
Finally but not least important the price is reasonable at $20. Any higher I would have hesitated but the combination of good writing, and production values left with a good feeling after getting this.
To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It is about going back to the roots of our hobby and seeing what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.