The Forgotten Realms were my first campaign setting back when I first got into RPGs and while I eventually got put off by its kitchen sink approach I still have some fondness for The North. The North is maybe 5% of the area of Faerûn but can stand as a complete setting on its own. The Sword Coast has become the default region for Forgotten Realms material and I believe the de facto officially supported region in 5th Edition for good reasons. While I don’t have a strong yearning to revisit this setting, I am still very fond of the High Forest in particular. I really got into RPGs when I played on a Neverwinter Nights server set on the eastern edge of the High Forest and eventually became one of the GMs and senior level designers. And my first steps into worldbuilding began with an attempt to take the hinted at past of this region and expand it into a proper playable setting. Eventually I dropped the connection to the Forgotten Realms entirely and now over a decade later it led to the Ancient Lands in its current state. But I always was a bit disappointed that I never got to run a campaign that goes really deep inside the forest and has the players explore its ancient mysteries.
I had planned to start a new Ancient Lands campaign next winter, but by now “next winter” has become “this winter” and its going to be delayed until next spring. And with still a good amount of time ahead, I still have not entirely commited to what I am going to run. Earlier this week I read a great recent post by the Angry GM about making wilderness travel more fun. And though I had last planned to do something simple and episodic, it put the sandbox bug back into my ear. I had written about a workable travel system for pointcrawling in the wilderness a while back which is quite similar, but as usual Angry made a great improvement over it by making it work without prepared precise maps. A pointmap was to be a compromise over a hexmap, but being able to track travel times and random encounters without a highly detailed map is even better. And unlike with a pointmap it’s really easy to handle a party getting lost.
In previous attempts to make a sandbox I found it very efficient to simply grab a bunch of old modules that fit the theme and put them all together on a map. One that came to mind was Hellgate Keep, which is set on the edge of the High Forest. And that got me the idea to use the whole High Forest chapter from The Savage Frontier as the base for my sandbox. It’s the original inspiration for my Ancient Lands setting and as such pretty much everything from it fits perfectly into it. While the North in later publications is a nice place, I think the original version from The Savage Frontier is by far the coolest. It’s classic 80s Jaquays goodness that still has a nice lingering Judges Guild smell. I am not exactly sure why, but the next time the region was described all the best places where destroyed and the most interesting characters dead. And a lot of it is great sandbox material:
- Hellgate Keep: An old elven fortress city overrun by demons and their half-demon and undead minions. It’s not just a dungeon but a city, and one way too powerful to assault head on. Not really suited for a dungeon crawl but in a sandbox it can get a lot more interesting to visit.
- Nameless Dungeon: This ruin of an underground stronghold has been closed off and put under heavy guard by elves after adventurers found some magic weapons and armor there. Later books provided an explanation for this odd behavior by making it the long forgotten prison of elven sorcerers who had consorted with demons to usurp the throne of an ancient realm. And now they are waking up and some have already escaped into the forest. I really quite like this one.
- Blue Bear Tribe: This barbarian tribe has fallen under the control of their evil shaman who is a disguised hag in league with the demons of Hellgate Keep. They were banished from their ancestral shrine by its spirits for their evil ways and are unable to find it again.
- Tree Ghost Tribe and Grandfather Tree: Some of the Blue Bear tribesmen have split of from their kin and renounced their evil ways. They hope to become worthy again in the eyes of the spirits and rediscover the location of the giant magical tree that they worship.
- Star Mounts, Endless Caverns, and Stronghold of the Nine: The Star Mounts are a mountain range of incredible hight and somewhere below them are the Endless Caverns that lead into the Underdark and hold the bones of a huge dragon whose treasures have never been found. Not far away is the Stronghold of the Nine, the base of a group of famous heroe who have been turned mad by an evil artifact they discovered and begun to turn the castle into a battlefield fighting each other.
- Citadel of the Mist: A magic castle that is home to a powerful sorcerer who is one of the main opponents of Hellgate Keep and ally of the treants that live in the nearby forests.
- Lost Peaks: Mountains that are said to hold the Fountains of Memory that show visions of the past.
- Dire Woods: A strange part of the forest that is much larger on the inside than the outside and somewhere near its center lies the ancient city Karse, which holds the giant undead heart of a demigod sorcerer.
- Ruins of Decanter: An old mine that is crawling with monsters created by sorcerers of old and left to their own devices, but recently an illithid known as the Beast Lord is bringing them under his control.
There are also some other places in the Savage Frontier that can easily be transported into the High Forest and fit very well into it.
- Cave of the Great Worm: This huge cave is home to a tribe of barbarians who are led by an ancient benevolent giant reptile. Would fit well into the Star Mounts.
- Gauntlgrym: An ancient dwarven city that was famous for its wealth but was lost for unknown reasons. It supposedly can be reached from the Cave of the Great Worm and would be well placed under the Star Mounts so it can be reached through the Endless Caverns as well. I say its mysterious fate is something inspired by the Dead Trenches from Dragon Age and Dead Space!
- Lonely Tower: A tall tower with no visible doors and windows standing in a huge circular clearing in which no plants grow. It’s the home of a alchemist sorcerer from another world.
That’s a lot of great sandbox material, but to make my work easier I also want to add some classic modules that make for great additions.
- Against the Cult of the Reptile God: I’ll make it Against the Cult of the Succubus Princess and it should provide a great introduction for the demonic forces of Hellgate Keep.
- Hellgate Keep: This module describes the keep after its destruction but provides a lot of information on how it looked and what was going on when it was still there. It includes the half-demons Kaanyr Vhok, Aliisza, and Sarya Dlardrageth, who all could be interesting NPCs.
- The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun: I love this thing. I’ve wanted to run this for a long time and always felt that it would work best if the players have no idea what kind of crazy awaits them beyond the empty gate of this black ziggurat. It’s perfect as a random location that is spotted in the distance as the party is travelling through the wilderness on their way to somewhere.
- Rahasia: This one lends itself very well to be adapted to tie in with the Nameless Dungeon. Instead of a chaotic priest randomly finding the spirits of three elven witches in a temple, it can be one escaped half-demon from the Nameless Dungeon trying to resurrect his daughters who were killed in the uprising and whose spirits he stored in the basement of his mansion before he was captured and imprisoned. Or he’s a loyal minion who is resurrecting his mistresses who had a somewhat flawed plan to avoid falling into the hands of the attacking elves.
- Escape from Meenlock Prison: I had so much fun the first time I ran it and meenlocks make for great creepy fey monsters.
- Sons of Gruumsh: A straightforward but interestingly build dungeon that is occupied by three warlords believed to be blessed by their god. Would make great opponents for the tanarruk of Hellgate Keep.
Additional ideas include making Gauntlgrym inhabited by derro who are descendants of the original inhabitants and making the local orc tribes enemies of Hellgate Keep who want to take revenge for their people being taken to create the demonic tanarruk. Good factions are the key to a great sandbox and there are already a good dozen of them with none of them necessarily attacking the party on sight but all of them having lots of enemies and potential allies.
So much material and I’ve not really lifted a finger yet. This is about four hours of thinking what existing material I can use to make my own sandbox. I am still going to make this an Ancient Lands campaign, but I think most changes will be primarily cosmetic. There are different gods and races aren’t exactly the same, but overall I think it will be still very recognizably the High Forest.