Posts Tagged ‘Sandbox’

Sandbox Within A Sandbox

May 13, 2011

I realized something when I despaired that my sandbox campaign was too far-flung and didn’t have enough cool adventure sites in it, and those adventure sites weren’t expansive enough, so you end up with scattered sites 2-4 (5-mile) hexes apart wherein each location has 1-6 sessions of adventure possibility.

I fixed the first problem by adding random site encounters and expanding random monster encounters on the fly when I roll that the creature was near its lair. These both end up becoming new sites that I add to the map.

I just realized the fix for the second problem. Before I thought of each adventure site as a little nugget based on one or two cool things that I wanted to place. But you have up to 5 miles to explore. Why not design the adventure site like a little sandbox? This follows the module design for Isle of Dread, Lost City, and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. And now that I type this, I realize that I have already dropped a bunch of these down without thinking, and didn’t remember them because I haven’t gone through any effort to develop them yet.

I made the connection when I thought, maybe I need to refine the sandbox arena to a more densely-detailed smaller locale, like a single mountain valley or something. I have some initial notes for a bunch of these campaigns. Why not just cram the valley sandbox into my big sandbox?

I don’t need to be careful about the adventurers getting sidetracked in an offbeat site that has a lot of depth. It happened accidentally with the Sunken Grove, which was the first dungeon explored on the very first game session, plumbed down to Level 3 but not completely explored (chased off by Mushroom Men). The party returned with a different composition later and scoured Level 1 and 2 again, not discovering the entrances to Level 3. Now they’re back.

Economics of the wilderness sandbox

October 27, 2009

Let’s say you have a pretty standard sandbox D&D setting: a small fortified town surrounded by a whole lot of wilderness. That wilderness has a lot of natural wealth but also ruins from older civilizations. The main developed land, the country of origin for the players’ characters, is way back in the other direction. This is the frontier of the frontier.

So the adventurers have some starting equipment and a little cash. They can buy some basic equipment in town at the general store but not in huge quantities. Supplies are a bit limited, especially of metal since they don’t have a foundry (or know where they can mine for metal nearby). But the PCs can buy armor, weapons, rope, torches, 10′ poles, food, a couple donkeys or dogs. Nothing spectacular.

The adventurers go out and find some treasure and return with it. Some of it is in the form of coins, other treasure is old jewelry, gems, statuary, etc. Things you can’t just spend as money. At some very early point the adventurers will want to buy things that the general store doesn’t have and the blacksmith doesn’t know how to make (or doesn’t have materials for), or sell things that nobody in town wants or has the money to buy.

It’s in the DM’s best interest to place civilization far away. A year of travel by horse and river to get there and back is appropriate. You want people to play in the sandbox full of opportunity, not just siphon off the big cities. You want them to embark on their own adventure, not undertaking missions for pay from the wealthy and powerful. Not to say a city-based game of intrigue can’t be fun. But that’s not what this is.

So how do you get new supplies to the players, and let them sell their old goodies? I have a couple answers.

NPC Merchant Caravans
First off, there are merchants who will come to the fortified town in the wilderness to pick up trade goods and transport them back to civilization. People back home want the furred pelts, the strange taxidermy beasts, the seeds from new flowers and trees. Incidentally, having your wilderness extend in a north-south orientation with boundaries in the east and west helps encourage a wider variety of plants and animals not found back home – you see changes in seasonal temperatures with latitude changes, but not so much with longitude changes.

Anyway, the merchants tend to travel in caravans of donkeys for security. They bring some guards too. The caravan sets out at the first thaw in the south and moves north as the weather improves. By mid Summer they have arrived at the border town and trade all their manufactured goods away, buying raw resources of the wild, and set out for home. They’re chased back by the Fall and the quickening frost and arrive back in civilization in the middle of winter. Of course it may not snow there every year, but if it does snow they will see it as they roll into the big city.

You can request specific things from the merchants when they come to trade. You’ll see them again in the middle of next Summer. You can also leave money with the shopkeeper in town so that if the merchants come and go and you’re out on an adventure the shopkeeper can buy the item for you. He’s pretty trustworthy. But if you want to sell things you have to do it with the caravan directly. The shopkeeper just doesn’t have the money on hand to buy every ancient gewgaw you haul back from the dungeon. You may need to build a house in town just to store your loot for the next caravan.

Player-Sponsored Caravans
The players could get together and invest in their own caravan. They hire whoever will go, send their henchmen along, and hope to see them again next year. Figure out how many donkeys a man can handle, how many donkeys the caravan will need, and whether anyone else in town wants to get in on this too. The players should add additional men and donkeys to account for losses, and there are costs associated with the travel.

The DM should roll some dice to figure out how successful the travel was, the selling, and the buying. From that he can decide whether they lost too many donkeys and had to leave some goods behind, what price they were able to get for their goods, and whether they were able to find what they wanted to buy for sale (and at what price). If the henchmen are untrustworthy the DM should roll for their loyalty. Assume that nothing catastrophic happens to the caravan unless the players went exceedingly cheap on the expedition – at that point, losing 1d4 donkeys may be the whole thing.

If the caravan outright fails, the DM should decide whether the henchmen straggle back or just flee the wrath of their employers.

Players Travel Back
This is the least desirable outcome. In this case the players go back themselves to sell their goods and buy what they want. Explain to them that the route taken by the merchant caravans has dangerous terrain but not a lot of monsters or treasure.

If they insist, you can run the whole trip randomly, or map out the trip route and likely branches, or just roll for success as above with some bonus based on the level of the PCs. They should be more successful than normal henchmen even at first level.

Emphasize how there is little oportunity back home. Anyone who was fleeing debts or marriage or imprisonment should find their villains show up. And of course there was no extra experience or money gained – else the merchants who travel this route every year would have several levels and possibly even magic items!

Be sure to add a year of character age. This will be rather important to the Humans if the party wants to travel back to civilization every year.

Note that the caravan travels at the prime adventuring season. If the players want to adventure during the winter they’ll find little forage, few game animals, risk exposure to cold and being trapped in a storm, becoming lost more easily, and missing occasional dungeon entrances they would otherwise have spotted easily. In all, adventuring in the winter is awful!

Finally, this works only if every player wants to travel back home. If some wish to stay behind then the group is split. At that point the DM may want to simply roll for the caravan trip success, have the players whose character left make up new characters, and use the new characters with the PCs who stayed behind to go on adventures for the year while the PC caravan is gone.

Players Settle Down
If a player strikes out and settles an area of wilderness, raising a castle to protect people nearby, he will attract settler peasants. Along with these will come trappers and hunters who operate in the area and also pay taxes to the PC lord. If they survive a few years the Summer merchants will come with more finished goods for the larger population and more money to buy their raw goods. The caravan may even swing by the village instead of expecting them to come to the original fort!

Eventually the PC lord’s domain becomes established enough to support a population of specialists. A tailor, stonemason, carpenter, armorer, swordsmith, bowyer, ropemaker, weaver. These people will be able to actually create the finished goods out of the raw materials that were always traded to the Summer merchants. Now those merchants have to buy finished goods, and so must bring more money and better refined goods with them.

At that point, the merchants will be bringing things of high value that the local nobility (the PCs) will want to buy. The townsfolk mainly buy and sell among themselves but sell off goods to the merchants in exchange for their coins and luxury products from back home. Note that the best manufactured goods will still be produced back in the home civilization. The most talented craftsmen, using the best tools, in the established and traditional ways, are not coming to the frontier until long after it’s gotten boring and the players want to adventure farther out.

Sandbox boundaries

October 23, 2009

When speaking of a sandbox campaign I mean one where the DM doesn’t provide any direction. There are rumors, scraps of maps, occasional bounties or proclaimations. But the players shouldn’t feel like there’s any “next part” to the campaign. They decide what comes next. Interesting stories are a consequence of their decisions rather than the other way around.

But the DM needs to do a lot of preparation beforehand for a sandbox to work. That preparation is well rewarded, though, as the same information can be used many times during the same campaign, and the enriched campaign can be used again with another group later to excellent effect.

(Of course, with all the adventure and treasure reset and little if any presence of old powerful characters as cameo NPCs)

This means that the campaign is really still with boundaries – after all, without wooden slats all the sand would fall out and nobody would have any fun. So how do you design your wooden slats without making the players feel cramped?

First off, the sandbox area must be very large and contain far more than sufficient interesting decisions to sustain the players.

Second, impartial boundaries are more fitting than ones the DM “role-plays”. In a sandbox campaign the DM acts as the referee, the arbiter of the rules, the creator of people and places, and the decision-maker for NPCs. The DM is absolutely not an adversary. If players want to push against a boundary its resistance should be obvious and expected, and outside the supposed agency of the DM.

Imagine this. The civilized world is to the south. This isn’t a barrier – this is where the PCs came from. But that way lies little opportunity, the journey is far, and PCs who go back do so to retire.

To the north and west are great mountain ranges with peaks so high you need breathing magic just to get past the first stage, and cold-resistance magic for the next. If you need an image, think of the part of Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is trying to go over the mountains instead of through Moria.

To the east is an ancient and decadent civilization with mind-control towers scattered throughout. White-frocked Shepherds form an army of spies that ensure obediance in their own people. Anyone who enters will soon fall under the sway of those malevolent stone spires, under the onslaught of their brain-warping emanations. The country is insular and does not go to war or explore – the army and explorers would be free from the state’s mind control and that’s something they aren’t willing to risk. They can’t expand the country because the secret of building the towers is lost. They are an inheritor civilization.

But in the center is a verdant and wild land. There are dark goblin fortresses clinging to the sheer cliff walls of the mountains. Nixies frolic in the forest pools below, playing mean-spirited pranks. A deer wanders among the ruins of an ancient human city, the stones covered by the moss it munches, while a cougar in the undergrowth licks its chops. Bear cubs play in the mouldering ruins of a village inn as a waterfall splashes down the road, falling as it passes under an old sturdy bridge of Dwarven stone. Standing on that bridge you see a river valley spread before you, thickly wooded hills on either side, draining toward a great broad river beyond.

A single tear, man.