While I get the general idea of dungeon crawl sandbox campaigs and use some elements of sandbox settings for my own campaign, I’ve been puzzled about how such campaigns actually look in practice. I occasionally see advice that GMs should not direct the players to anything and that any story that evolves comes entirely from the players descisions. I have a hard time imagining that, but so far never had any luck in finding actual gameplay reports of such campaigns.
This post is a kind of open call to everyone to pointers where one could maybe find campaign logs and play reports of this type of campaign. Any replies will be highly appreciated.
One oddity of AD&D 1st edition that had always seemed nonsensical to me, is to give characters XP not only for defeated monsters, but also for the value of treasures they bring back with them into town. Why do that? Picking up stuff that is lying around does not make you better at fighting or casting spells. And in those games I’ve been playing the most, treasure is there to be sold so you can buy better equipment and magic items. But in campaigns of a more oldschool leaning, there frequently are no more things for sale, which you don’t already have by 2nd level. So why bother with treasure at all?
Very often, and probably most of the cases, defeating an enemy also gets you treasure. But you can also defeat an enemy and not getting any treasure (because he doesn’t have any). And you can get treasure without defeating an enemy!
That’s what makes XP for treasure relevant. Sometimes an enemy can’t be fought, or the risk is regarded as just way too high. But if you can find a way to get his treasure while avoiding him entirely, you still created a clever solution to a problem. Which is rewarded with XP. Even in a game where money has no practical use, treasure still serves as a measure of your accomplishments. When you return to town, the treasure you bring back with you is your proof for your deeds.
You can’t make the player feel the comforts the money of the PC can buy him. And it’s extremely difficult to really play out the benefits of good clothing and a fancy house. To the character, being rich has great value and benefits. And when the chracter sees a golden idol, it is luring him with expensive wine and crocodile skin boots. But since comfort does not carry over to the player, XP can serve as a substitute lure. Instead of dollar signs in the players eyes, it’s saying “XP”. What matters is the emotional response.
When the GM describes a golden idol with ruby eyes on a pedestal, the player should think “I really, really want this. I hope there’s a way to get it without getting killed.” In other games like D&D 3rd edition and later ones, the player will want to have it because it can be traded in for magic boots or enchanted armor. So there is no need to add the additional lure of XP.
“Steel isn’t strong. Flesh is stronger! What is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?”
“Gold is for the mistress; silver for the maid; copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade. But iron, cold iron, is master of them all!”
“There’s nothing in the universe cold steel won’t cut.”
“If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
“I fear no living enemy, but my axe cannot cleave fleshless spirits.”
The bestiary for the Ancient Lands is taking shape nicely. Selecting the wildlife and monsters for a setting is a part of worldbuilding I find particularly interesting, but doesn’t seem to be given much attention most of the time. There seems to be a common tendency to throw in pretty much every beast and critter the creators find interesting, but personally I think that’s something that doesn’t really work well. I’ve been reading through the old AD&D monster manuals again some time ago, and those who always surprise me the most are the Forgotten Realms appendices. Those are meant to cover creatures specifc to the setting that are not covered by the regular monster books. However most of them ended up completely forgotten and never mentioned again in other books, box sets, and 3rd edition. It’s not enough to simply write up a creature, it also needs to be woven into the rest of the setting and become part of it.
Take for example Dark Sun, which has the kang, mekillot, and inix, which barely resemble any animals found on earth and have no special abilities. But they are memorable because they have a very important role. They are the horses and camels of the setting, which are used by everyone who is sane enough to not try crossing the desert on foot. Eberron has such unique creatures as the quori and the warforged, which could easily be dismissed as silly ideas, but are among the best known features of the setting because they play an important role in the world. Dinosaurs are implied to be existing in some remote regions in almost all D&D settings, but only in Eberron is their presence really acknowledged. By having a race of deinonychus riding halfling barbarians!
Quality goes over quantity, and I vastly prefer the approach of not adding anything to a setting unless it is relevant in some way.
I was just updating my monster manual for the Ancient Lands and found a note that I still need to write stats for the Sand Bision.
I have no idea what a sand bison is.
The next item on the list is a Riding Goat, so it’s probably some kind of actual bovine, but I havn’t the slightest clue what I could have meant with the name. There aren’t even any deserts in the Ancient Lands!
Update: I believe I simply meant an upsized version of the regular old musk ox.
I’ve been going over my ideas for my campaign setting again, this time specifically with a look at what kinds of reactions and emotions I want to evoke in the players. (Something I’ve read here, but never consciously gave much of a thought before.) Some themes I want the setting to encourage are trusting in what you think is right, and always questioning what hidden motives both enemies and allies may have.
And that of course means that NPCs will be lying a lot. Which interestingly, villains in fiction rarely do. When an enemy gets defeated and cornered and the protagonists start to question him, he usually will just tell them everything he knows, the heroes take it as truth, and it all turns out to be completely correct in the end. Players will probably not expect that NPCs will lie to them, which is good. But it also means that you can’t simply copy things you’ve seen before. So using lies in RPGs is something that can use a bit additional thought.
I went over it once and as a longtime 3rd edition player and GM, I can say with confidence that 5th edition is 3rd editions with many of the small modfiers of combat removed.
My biggest complaint with 3rd edition was the wide gap of attack bonuses and saving throws over the levels, and this aspect has been adressed.
However, a very close second is it’s reliance on new class abilities at every level, which now in retrospective is a much more significant problem and antithesis to the oldschool style of playing RPGs. And in this regard Wizards remains true to itself and makes this the centerpiece of the game. Problems are solved by searching for the right special ability on the character sheet. And with this the whole business is completed. I don’t have any interest in running this game.
There are a few good ideas here and there, which should have been there 14 years ago, but it doesn’t affect the main structural problem I mentioned. I’ll probably keep an eye out for campaign sourcebooks, as in this regard 3rd edition did have a couple of gems. But the rules system is of no concern to me.
I’ve been talking about the idea that a campaign in an RPG can be either following the entire adventuring life of the player characters, or be an episodic series of their greatest adventures. Though I’ve run all my previous campaigns in the “life story” style and all the games I’ve played where either this or one-shots, I am actually much more fond of the later one. Part of it is because most of my campaigns are short and never make it to a grand finale and I really want more opportunities to run adventures for Big Damn Heroes for a change. But I think in a campaign that is driven by events and developments in the game world, as opposed byfighting and treasure huting in isolated dungeons, it’s actually a more effective approach.
A common issue many people have with “epic” campaigns and adventure paths, is that no-name 1st level characters rise to be the most poweful people in the world in just a few months or even weeks, while NPCs supposedly take decades or centuries to get there. It works better in action movies, where an Average Joe only needs an extraordinary crisis to unleash the fighting beast that has always been sleeping inside him, and lots of videogames of the RPG genre make the samemistake, as they want to show off all the sweet high level abilities offered by the source material in a single story. Two games that handled this aspect reasonably well are Mass Effect, where you you start as an elite veteran and unlock new abilities over time only for gameplay reasons, and Dragon Age 2, which does follow the episodic format and has almost 4 different stories from various moments over a 10 year period.
In the context of a campaign, Mass Effect would be a case of starting at a high level with few increases of character strength, while Dragon Age 2 only shows the moments in the characters life where they made significant increases in experience and power. For myself, I’ve made the descision of following the episodic approach, skipping over all the uneventful patrols of the roads and borders, and explorations of dungeons that turned out to be empty. But what kinds of adventures are actually worth telling?
I’ve been thinking a lot about improving my recently started campaign over my earlier ones, and I discovered a new pair of approaches to campaign and adventure design. The Campaign of the PCs Career, and the Campaign of the PC’s greatest deeds. The former following all the characters explorations and fights, while the later one is limited to the highlights.
Career-based campaigns where kind of the default in early RPGs and are still the default mainstream among oldschool fans. The PCs learn about a ruin or mysterious place and simply go checking it out to see if they find anything interesting or valuable. Pretty much all D&D adventure modules from the 70s and 80s follow this approach and the same principle scaled up is essentially what most sandbox campaigns are about. Sometimes amazing situations happen, but mostly it’s about looking for treasure or doing paid mercenary work. If the PCs perform a great deeds and legendary battles, it’s often almost by accident and you’ll neven know when it will happen. Almost all campaigns I’ve either ran or played in also followed this approach. Self contained jobs that provide XP and treasure, but no deeds of note.