Tag Archives: sandbox

Thoughts about Star Wars Sandboxes

Recently I’ve been thinking about a sandbox campaign set in the Star Wars galaxy and whether these two things could actually work together in a way that gives them both justice. And I’ve come to believe that yes, it can be done. Though with some limitations, however.

The People

Broadly speaking, there are three main categories of heroes in Star Wars. Rebels, Jedi, and Scoundrels. Of these, I think only scoundrels can actually work as a party for a sandbox campaign. Scoundrels are great because they are inherently proactive. Because they are always looking out first for Number One. They are interested in their own benefit, which more often than not means credits. Smugglers and bounty hunters always have a default goal they can pursue in absence of anything else pressing: Make more money! This puts them into immediate conflict with the law and generally involves messing with pretty violent people. A scoundrel campaign is pretty much writing itself, which is what you want in a sandbox.

Playing rebels is more of a problem, though. The goal of rebels is to take down the Empire through military actions and targeted sabotage. But just going around collecting stormtrooper helmets is not going to do that. There is effectively an endless supply of those. To make a real difference, their attacks have to be part of a bigger strategy and need to be coordinated with lots of other people. Which means that all the big decisions are being made by rebel leaders who have a more or less complete overview of the entire military situation. If the players are getting orders from higher up, it’s not really a sandbox, regardless of how much freedom they are given in the execution of their orders. If they play military leaders than you’re playing a wargame. Doing things you like doing and opening new adventures where you spot them does not work when playing rebels. And neither does it work when playing Imperial officers or troops.

Jedi are more flexible compared to military characters, but they are by their very nature completely reactive. Jedi wait in vigilance until the Sith rear their ugly heads somewhere in the galaxy and then go chasing after them until the status quo has been restored again. This doesn’t really work as a sandbox either. It’s always the Sith or oder Dark Jedi who have the full initiative and drive the plot forward. As long as there are no Sith stirring shit up, Jedi don’t have anything to do that would be proper Jedi adventures. As with rebels, you can give Jedi a great amount of freedom in how they go after their enemies, but they need to be given an enemy to chase after. They can not really start things on their own, which is a pretty big deal in a sandbox campaign.

The Places

The galaxy of Star Wars is big. Really big. There are thousands of inhabited planets that are each a full world in their own right. Trying to map all of this in the traditional way is, and in this case literally literally, impossible. But the way characters are interacting with space and distance in Star Wars is completely different from the way you find in Dungeons & Dragons for example.

For one thing, travel between any two places in Star Wars is effectively instantaneous. Various Star Wars RPGs have various charts for distances and spaceship speeds, but if you go by the movies, hyperspace is almost teleportation. In the scene where Luke first trains with his lightsaber on the Milennium Falcon, Han comes from the cockpit apparently just having put the ship on autopilot after making the jump from Tatooine. And the same scene ends with everyone going back to the cockpit because they arrived at Alderaan. And when Anakin is fighting Obi-Wan on lava world, the Emperor has a premonition that he needs saving and gets his shuttle ready. It’s not clear how long it takes the Emperor to fly all the way from the Core World to the Outer Rim and back, but they didn’t bother giving Anakin any medical attention before they are back at Corruscant. Doesn’t look like the whole thing took more than half an hour at most. In addition, aside from Interdictor Cruisers that know exactly where and when to ambush you, nothing can interrupt a hyperspace jump. There are no random encounters in interstellar space. Even if in your game travel between planets takes several days, it’s empty time in which nothing happens. Local planetary travel is also never really adressed. You can get from any one place on a planet to any other place just as fast as you can get to the other side of the galaxy.

A map for a Star Wars sandbox would look completely different than a map for a Dungeons & Dragons sandbox. When you can go to any place in the galaxy almost instantly, distances and relative positions become irrelevant. Instead of going to specific places, you really are going to visit specific people or buildings. On the whole planet of Dagobah, there is really only a single place. Yoda’s home. You could also consider the Dark Side cave as a second place but that’s really it. Corruscant is massive, but as long as you don’t have the specific adress of a specifc person, nothing on that whole planet is of any relevance to the players who have no reason to visit it. Instead of making a map for a Star Wars sandbox, you really need an adress book. People and specific places like cantinas, stores, hideouts, and bases are what makes up your sandbox.

The Other People

However, places are almost always defined by either something that is hidden inside them, but most often by the people who are staying there. There are very few places in Star Wars that are interesting by themselves in the way that great dungeons are in D&D. The stories in Star Wars are always stories of people, not of places. When you prepare a Star Wars sandbox, preparation shouldn’t start by drawing a couple of dungeons that the players can exmplore. The real heart of the sandbox are the NPCs. The villains and the allies. Of course Star Wars has lots of absolutely fantastic and stunning locations, but their purpose is always as a dramatic background for interactions with other characters.

NPCs really are everything in any Star Wars campaign. They are what will make or break the game. And when you make NPCs for Star Wars, always go full out. Hold nothing back. Make them as outragously awesome as you can possibly get. In particular the villains. The villains are what your players come for when playing a Star Wars game and they want, and only deserve, the most awesome ones. Darth Vader and Boba Fett leave pretty big boots to fill, but you should aim that high. If the NPCs are not really that interesting, then it just won’t reach the awesomeness that is Star Wars.

Pointcrawling a Dungeons and Swamp?

This is a problem that has been bothering me for a week now.

A pointcrawl map is an excelent solution to dealing with navigation in two situations. When you want to go from one known point to another known point and there are only a few possible routes that make sense, and when there is only a limited number of possible paths you can take from your current location. Which is the majority of overland travel. However, while working on the first segment of my next sandbox campaign, I noticed that it’s really difficult to use this method for searching a hidden ruin in a swamp. You don’t know the destination and there are no preexisting paths. The original pointcrawl concept explicitly mentions that real wilderness travel is almosy never blindly going in one direction but always either following a path or heading for a landmark. And I agree with that, so that I have started to believe this is not the fault of the pointcrawl but the fault of the swamp. If I want to handle travel in my campaign as a hexcrawl, then I have to change my ideas of how the players get to the ruin in the swamp.

Another issue that’s even tougher is using pointcrawling inside a huge dungeon that is mostly empty and irrelevant rooms and tunnels. A pointcrawl seems like a good idea to only fully play out the interesting sections of the whole dungeon. The chapple, the lab, the monster pens, the gatehouse, and so on. In a somewhat open castle this is no problem. Players can see the keep, the chapple, the stables, and the gatehouse from afar and chose their destination as they leave one area. But in an underground dungeon that doesn’t work. You don’t know what’s behind a door or corner until you enter the new area. It’s a completely different way people are navigating such environments.

If players are in the gatehouse and have the options to go from there to either the stables or the barracks, then the players have to know that these are the two things they can pick from. Otherwise it’s just randomness that takes them to the next area, not a meaningful choice. In a sci-fi setting this could be easy. Just have signs on the walls that tell you where you can go from here and how you get there. In a cave network or ancient ruin, that’s not a feasable approach, though.

Solutions? I don’t have any. I am still working on it, but so far I’ve made little progress beyond identifying the prolem. But my efforts will continue and maybe I’ll come up with something smart one day.

Quicksand Sandbox: What are we going to do tonight, Brain?

One thing I am constantly struggling with as a GM is making up my mind what kind of game mode I actually want my campaigns to run in. The linear plotted adventure went out the window years ago, but since then it’s ben an endless back and forth between enthusiasm and disdain for sandboxes and dungeoncrawls, social games and exploration games, ongoing campaigns and episodic one-shots. Which I think ultimately comes down to a  disconnect between the kind of narratives I am dreaming of and the realities of running a game with other people. I want Conan, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, but these are all tales written by a creator who controls the thoughts and actions of all the characters and has full control over the past, present, and future of every scene at the same time. You can not replicate a book or a movie exactly in an RPG. You can only work towards running a game that will look like just as great a story in hindsight.

Of the many possible open-ended game modes to chose from, the two I know I am not interested in are hexcrawls and megadungeons. Which happen to be by far the most popular, or at the very least the ones that have most been written about. But the discourse about these two modes has led to the articulation of a valuable and important concept: Default Goals and Default Actions.

In a game that has a group come together at regular or irregular intervals and ask the immortal question “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”, there needs to be a default goal. If nobody has any special plan, then the whole group should be in agreement to default to one standard activity. Otherwise they just keep akwardly sitting around in confusion and are likely to start wrecking things to get any response to their presence from the game world. In the case of the hexcrawl and the megadungeon, these default actions are exploring new hexes and going to the dungeon respectively. Or simply “explore”. But as Matt Colville pointed out quite correctly I believe, “explore” is not a good goal. Exploration is walking around blindly and waiting for something interesting to fall into your path. It’s still waiting for the world and the GM to give them a task to deal with. Without understanding why, I think this is really the issue that always had me feel very uncomfortable about the thought of running a hexcrawl or megadungeon. It just doesn’t seem to have the potential for the kind of narratives I want my games to produce.

My work on the Ancient Lands setting began as an attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of tribal societies in a fantasy world that wasn’t as distorted as the nonsense you get about life in “warrior cultures” in movies and books. But while I think that it’s a fascinating subject and some elements of this will greatly help me making the Ancient Lands feel like an actual world, I have come to really appreciate minimizing exposition and player buy-in. Instead relying strongly on familiar archetypes to allow players to correctly guess what is what in this fictional world. However as part of it, I found one solution to letting PCs go on adventures and being indispensible for the survival of the clan, which was to define PCs as hunters for magical artifacts that can help defend the clan against their enemies and hostile spirits. Somehow this got stuck in my mind as the paradigm that all adventures in the Ancient Lands have to be treasure hunts and that all PCs have to be treasure hunters. After all, treasure hunting is what makes characters progress in B/X, so it seems to be a perfect match, right?

But in hindsight I really just handicapped myself with this approach. Without the addition of “return it to your clan to defend it against attacks”, the default goal of “find treasure” is just as hollow as “explore”. But while reading Kevin Crawford’s excellent Spears of the Dawn, I finally came to the realization that default goal does not have to be the only goal. It’s the goal that you can always go pursuing if you don’t have anything else planned right now. I believe the key to a successful sandbox campaign is to make it a hybrid campaign of exploration/treasure hunt and player-initiated story adventures. On their own, neither can stand by itself. At least not in a way that I want to run it. Pure exploration is aimless. And sending the players to do whatever they want in a world they know nothing about is a recipe for getting them stuck in the quicksand of unlimited options.

A much more appealing approach to sandboxes is “come for the plunder, stay for the people”. The treasure hunt is a device to get players to start interacting with the world in an easy to grasp and straightforward way so that they get opportunities to form connections with the setting and the NPCs and get dragged into local conflicts. The platonic ideal for player initiated adventures always seems to me best represented by the classic Kurosawa movie Yojimbo. There is no quest giver and barely even a hook to get the hero into this adventure. He is just passing through a village when he sees that local gangs are making trouble. Even though the locals tell him to just be on his way, he is intrigued and stays to see what happens next. At this point he has no plan and not even a clear goal and completely plays it by ear, but once he has established some connections to the village it very quickly grows into a complex web of cunning deception and daring swashbuckling that simply is a blast to behold. This is what I believe player-initiated adventures in a sandbox should be like.

But in an RPG, walking down the street until the players run into something that grabs their curiosity is not feasible. If they currently have nothing to do, they need a default goal to fall back on that will keep them entertained until they find something more interesting to do instead. Putting the limitation on character creation that all PCs have to have a drive to look for magical wonders in ancient places seems like a perfect solution for a wilderness sandbox.

Dungeon Mapping in Online Campaigns

Last time I was talking about giving an XP bonus to players who write session reports to encourage them to keep other players who weren’t present up to date with the campaign. Another important aspect of tracking important information that other players will know is the making of maps.

I am not a fan of miniatures in RPGs as I find them to get players into a chess game mode in which they think mostly about moving pieces around and less of actual people and monsters being in wondrous place. (One of the big reasons I quit d20 games.) But when playing online, and especially with changing groups and many people who aren’t native English speakers (or speak quite different variants of English) I find having a map that shows the layout of the area and the position of characters a necessity. It just would get too confusing.

I did make some huge dungeon maps for roll20 using lots of different textures and adding light effects, but while these provide some nice visual cues about the environment it still feels a lot like a miniature game. And from a practical perspective making these maps is a huge pain in the ass. I think in a sandbox game where preparation of dungeons will often happen just between sessions,it just won’t be possible to use such a work intensive method. Last summer I experimented with making premade tiles drawn in the style of Dyson Logos, but that also turned out really fiddly and again you’re drawing attention to the map. So I think what I’ll be doing instead is using simple sketches of black lines that indicate where walls and floor obstacles are and not attempt to show any details on the map. Players will have to remember the description of the room to know what objects they could make use of. But instead of the ugly plain white background of Roll 20 I will try to find some nice parchment or stone face textures onto which the floor plans will be scribbled.

Looks great enough in Thief.

Also, I will disable the square grid. When you knew nothing but d20 games for twelve years it might seem an obvious necessity, but I don’t think even in those a grid is really needed. If you really need to know exactly the distance a character can move in roll20 you can just use the ruler tool and don’t need to count squares. I think using a grid is a big factor that makes players eyes glued to the map and think of combat as a math problem and it’s one that is easily removed.

Now a fun sounding element in oldschool dungeon crawls is players making their own maps as they are progressing through a dungeon, which might be not too accurate. And when the party loses the map or has to flee taking a shortcut through unmapped terrain based on what they assume their current path is leading them back to should be quite exciting. But if you upload a regular dungeon map into roll20, there is no need for the players to make maps, unless you are always covering the map up again when the players move on to the next area. Which doesn’t really seem ideal. I think what might be a good approach is to do what old videogames did and cut the whole map into small areas divided by doors. When the party moves through a door the view changes to a different map. Roll20 can do that without real problem. As the GM you keep a complete map of the dungeon level with clear identification of each area so you always know which map you have to make visible to the players. The only problem is when fights happen to move between areas. But with a simple sketch map you should be able to just draw a few lines that show the rooms beyond the edge of the current map without it looking completely crappy.

A while back the Angry GM wrote about a nice system to make mapmaking not a chore for the players while still keeping the dungeon layout and architecture interesting. At it’s core it comes down to each area having only one exit in each direction and no branching paths unless the intersection is its own separate area on the map. This way the players really only need to make an annotated flowchart of which doors connect to which areas. This is many times simpler and more convenient than having the players translate verbal descriptions of measurements and directions into squares on a grid.

The biggest practical challenge is that the players would not be able to just give the map they made to someone else. This requires scanning or photographing the scribbled map,uploading it,and then sharing the link with the other players. Though by this point this isn’t a huge obstacle anymore. However, if other players are to continue the mapping they still have to transfer the whole map from the image to their own paper. I think this should be managable.

But how do you get players to diligently upload their map after each game so the party can still use it if the player isn’t there the next time? I think I just use the same incentive again: +10% XP bonus for every player who does. Just like writin reports of their expeditions, drawing maps is part of the explorer’s profession. Some very engaged players might regularly get a +20% boost, but using the B/X level progression this is still not going to give them much of a noticeable advantage over other players.

Session Reports and Incentives

Because technical reasons are probably going to delay the start of my (now long) planned Ancient Lands sandbox campaign until early summer, I still spend a lot o time on refining ideas and getting better prepared to running such a thing myself.

One special consideration  when running a game online with changing players is to keep everyone updated on what’s been happening so far. I could write a summary of each session myself, but that wouldn’t be very fun and it’s always difficult to get players to read anything between games. Having the players write the reports makes it easier for me and should be more fun to read for the other players.

How do you motivate players to write such reports when they are notoriously lazy about doing homework for the game? In this particular case I have the situation where the PCs are going to be explorers who are searching for knowledge about the supernatural. Collecting information and sharing them with other explorers of the (hopefully) constantly changing party is at the center of the campaign. And as such it feels not just justified but also really appropriate to give additional experience points to players when they write reports about their adventures and make their discoveries accessible to others. Fighters don’t get XP for fighting and witches don’t get XP for casting spells. Through the system of XP for treasure, everyone gets XP for being successful finders and retrievers of treasure. And compiling and organizing their discoveries on paper is certainly an activity that should increase  characters ability to find and secure treasures.

I think I will go with giving a bonus of +10% of the last session’s XP to every player who posts a report of that game. Doesn’t matter if there’s multiple accounts or how good those reports are. I believe once you get players to write about their exciting adventures to tell other players who weren’t there, they are not going to half-arse it just for a few XP. The only difficulty is to get them motivated to start, and if there’s one thing that motivates players it’s XP. Not free XP, but earned XP! And the way XP and level advancement works in Basic, 10% extra is not actually going to make much of a difference. Every now and then a player who always writes reports will reach the next level one session before the other players but the next two or three times it might very well again be at the same time. But still, +10% is +10% percent and players are greedy.

You’re a Hero, Willy!

Or “I hate rat quests”.

As I mentioned previously, my attempt at building a sandbox for LotFP had hit a wall and I went all the way back to square one to go on a spirit journey and find out why my campaign never turn out as I imagine them. And it really comes down to me accidentally locking all the good content that is meant to be the main feature of the setting away until the PCs have become powerful enough heroes to be able to face them. Looking back it was incredibly stupid, but… Well, there is no real but. It was stupid. It happens, and I believe it’s a pretty common mistake people make. I’ve seen it often enough and warned other people about it. Why I still did it I have no clue.

In my previous post I talked about finding what it really is that the Ancient Lands are about and what needs to be part of every adventure and dungeon in the campaign. But even with that knowledge I was still struggling with coming up with ideas for dungeons that characters at 1st to 4th level could explore without running into unbeatable and highly lethal opponents. And I think I found the solution for that as well.

I took the first step towards oldschool gaming and laid the groundwork for my current worldbuilding when I first looked into the E6 variant for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which basically comes down to PCs and NPCs being capped at 6th level but monsters keep all their abilities. It allows you to play low powered campaigns without all the 4th to 9th level spells while still being able to play with the rules system you’re already familiar with. It got decently popular and saw great praise, but the one big question the original creator left open, somewhat on purpose, was what it means to be 6th level? Is a 6th level character a legendary one in a million hero, or is he still just as impressive as a low mid-level character in a 20 level D&D campaign and there are hundreds like him all over the place?

When I switched to B/X based rules and leaving the terrible d20 system behind, the question still remained. B/X has 14 levels instead of 6, but like OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed. it has this idea of adventuring being 1st to 9th level and the game then turning into something else. Nine levels plus a handful of legendary figures of world fame beyond that seems like a good yardstick to find the appropriate class level for NPCs based on their powers and accomplishments. But I still was thinking in the categories of low-level, mid-level, and high-level characters. And that was the source of all the problems. A low-level character is a guy with inferior equipment who goes on rat quests in noob dungeons. Whether a character reaches mid-level by 8th, 5th, or 3rd level doesn’t matter. You’re still forcing the players to begin by spending a good time doing things that are “safe” and for “ordinary people”. The whole concept of D&D is extraordinary people doing extremely lethal things, and in LotFP even more so!

Again, like so often, I blame 3rd edition for putting this stupid idea into my head and it did it with the idea of NPC classes. NPC classes are similar to ordinary character classes but are weaker and have fewer abilities, but they still let NPCs go from 1st to 20th level. And that’s just stupid. It’s not just the 20th level commoner that is stupid. Even the 5th level expert or the 7th level adept are stupid. Why do you need a carpenter that has more hit points and fights as well as a 4th level fighter? Why is that powerful orc spellcaster not a sorcerer or a cleric? Even just the harmless looking 2nd level warrior town guard or 3rd level expert blacksmith fly in the face of the idea that PCs are extraordinary people. 6th level PCs are noteworth people and 1st level PCs are noobs who barely can keep up with the plot relevant civilians.

That’s bullshit and I established quite some time ago the paradigm that in the Ancient Lands any NPC without a proper name is automatically a level 0 character. NPCs who are not noteworth warriors or spellcasters are also 0 level and have 1d6 hp and +0 to attack. But even with that I still had that meme in my brain that proper adventures start only once the players have fought their way up to mid-levels. (Basically the content of the first scene in Inception.)

Understanding how I went all wrong very quickly solved my problem with not having any content that can appropriately scaled to 1st level parties. I am just taking a lot of content that I had planned to be suitable for 4th or 6th level parties and adjust the monsters so 1st level parties won’t be instant-splatted. And when you’re playing in a B/X context that’s actually not that hard. Most pretty big monsters are not that well protected and often meant to be encountered in groups of sometimes considerable size. I am still very much in love with the idea of the Nameless Dungeon and to adapt it to the Ancient Lands it will be inhabited by shie, a custom fey creature with 4 Hit Dice. My logi went: 4 HD is meant for 4th dungeon level, whicb is meant for 4th level parties, so if the dungeon is full with them the party should be at least 5th level before getting anywhere near it. But that’s actually not needed. A dungeon build around the shie does not have to have lots of rooms with groups of shie in them. It can still be about them if the players only rarely run into one or two individuals. Or take for example the famous Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: To have an adventure about hill giants you don’t need a party that is able to fight 20 hill giants at once. The most famous giant story is Odysseus and his men in the cave of th cyclops. Only one giant that had the heroes outmatched all by himself. Foreshadowing that the master of the cave is a giant can make exploring a cave full of goblins and giant rats still a giant adventure.

No more “Mr. Kimble I don’t like this Noob Dungeon…” There is no Noob-Dungeon!

XP for magic items?

While I am usually rather against mechanics that are obviously made for gameplay reasons and not for getting reasonably realistic results, encumbrance is one element where I make a big exception. I am a huge fan of inventory slots in pen and paper games. Not because they are in any way realistic but simply because any attempts to measure items by weight or volume end up as such bothersome bookkeeping that people usually end up ignoring encumbrance entirely.

Which in a game of exploration expeditions and treasure hunting is a real shame. You lose so much of the experience of dungeon crawling and wilderness travel when you don’t have to worry about being slowed down by carrying too many supplies. And even worse, when the PCs can carry as much supplies (which are dirt cheap) as they want, then it also becomes redundant to track how many more torches and rations they currently have with them. And really: What’s left then? A Pathfinder adventure! I mean combat! Bookkeeping is not fun, but having to worry about running out of light or throwing away all your food to be able to outrun a monster while still hanging on to all your gold is something I never would want to miss again. And in AD&D 1st Edition and the Basic/Expert gold is not primarily money. Most importantly gold is experience. Your XP take up inventory space and can slow you down on your way to safety.

It always amazes me how deeply interconnected the various elements. Encumbrance, XP for treasure, and random encounters only look like completely different things but they are all a single unit of resource management that really is at the heart of the oldschool experience. If you drop one, the other two no longer work either and there’s nothing to keep the party from having 15 minutes adventuring days and rest after every fight, which is the huge glaring flaw of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder.

As such,I am really a big fan of the Encumbrance system in Lamentations of the Flame Princess which gives each character a number of inventory slots and every item takes up one slot. It doesn’t adjust the item limits based on character Strength but otherwise it’s clearly the right approach. The typical character sheet has a section for items with one line available for each item. Just mark after how many lines the encumbrance limits are reached and you never need to even count how many items your character carries. As long as you leave no lines empty you just have to check whether your item list passes the marked lines. That’s an encumbrance system you can actually use at the table without annoyance.

But now finally to XP: In my Ancient Lands campaigns there is very little use for money. It’s really only needed for big bribes, tributes, ransoms, or for buying really big things. And most people rarely use coins in daily life. So I don’t even bother with individual coins anymore. Instead I simply go with treasure items. In LotFP,a bag with 100 coins takes up one inventory slot. Like LotFP, I think silver is a much more sensible standard coin for normal business and it makes finding gold much more exciting when it’s not something people see every day. So the standard treasure item is worth 100 XP, with a bag of silver coins being the benchmark for how valuable such items commonly are on average. In addition to that I am also using great treasure items that are worth 1000 XP, or as much as a bag of gold coins. This reduces bookkeeping again by a lot. (I really hate bookkeeping.)

XP for treasure is a great system because it rewards players for behavior that you want to see as the GM. It rewards them not for slaying a monster but for getting the treasure guarded by the monster. It seems a bit silly that characters would get better at fighting by collecting coins, but then it’s no more realistic to learn more spells by shoting people with a crossbow. XP for gold encourages players to explore and sneak. XP for combat encourages combat. It actually discourages sneaking and negotiating except as means to get an advantage for a coming fight. I like XP for treasure much better, but the concept behind the Ancient Lands is not just one of treasure hunters but a game of knowledge seekers. Gold and jewels are not meant to be actually that thrilling for the PCs who are striving for a higher goal. Something else is needed to which the players are encouraged by the lure of XP.

By default characters get no XP for magic items. Magic items are useful to the party and give them advantages while in an oldschool game money usually doesn’t. Unless you eventually get into building castles,there’s not really much to do with all the massive piles of gold characters gain on their progression to higher levels. But in my campaigns the search for and fighting over rare magic items takes center stage and so I want to reward it with XP as well. Since magic items are meant to be rare, the players won’t getting their hands on a lot of them. At the same time gold and silver are meant to be less lustrous so I can simply hand out less of mundane treasure to even out the total gain of XP. The main difference is that magic items are worth much more XP but still take up only one inventory slot. But again,this can be countered by giving more silver treasues (100 XP) and fewer gold treasures (1000 XP).

Now assigning specific values to magic items is difficult as they don’t have a value that could be measured in coins. But in the end the XP are awarded for the challenge of getting them and so I consider it a good solution to simply set the XP for retrieving a magic item to 1000 times the dungeon level on which it was found. By which I don’t mean the actual physical story of the dungeon but the difficulty of the Wandering Monsters table that is used for the dungeon level. Often that will be just three or five times the value of a regular gold treasure,but then the players can also actually use the item’s power to their advantage, making it worth more to them than just the XP. I think it’s also a nice rule of thumb for special treasure items like huge gems.

Forest of High Adventure: Putting the parts together

It’s been a while since I presented my first idea for my planned Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign, during which the barrel of ideas had a good amount of time to ferment. Recently I’ve got several replies of “That sounds great, I’d really like to play in a game like this” and guess what: It’s going to be a West Marches style open online campaign in which everyone can play on and off. If you really want to, you can play in this campaign. (The schedule is planned to be every sunday 6 pm CET/12 pm EST for about 4 hours, hopefully starting before next summer.) This puts me in a position where I don’t want to reveal too much of the actual specifics that players will encounter in the game.

But I already talked about the main sources I am using to build the sandbox and I think most potential players won’t have the first clue about what is happening in Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun and wouldn’t be able to tell that they are currently in it until pretty far in. So I am going to keep things somewhat general and won’t go deeply into the specifcs about what the parties will discover in their explorations.

All in all my current plans have not changed a lot since my first concept draft. The four “main attractions” and small megadungeons (kilodungeons?) are still the Endless Caverns, the Nameless Dungeon, the search for Grandfather Tree, and a castle inspired by Hellgate Keep and the Palace of the Vampire Queen.

I will also be including my own interpretations of the Fountains of Memory from the Lost Peaks, the Lonely Tower, Gauntlgrym, Tall Trees, and the Cavern of the Great Worm. The last one wasn’t on my first map draw, but I think an ancient giant reptile that is shaman to a barbarian tribe is just a wonderful NPC who can be a major source of information, but would have a perspective on things that might make him reluctant to simply tell everything that reckless treasure hunters are asking him.

The Dire Woods and Ruins of Decanter won’t make it in becauseI’m not getting any interesting ideas from their descriptions and I still don’t know if I’ll include the Citadel of the Mists. As written the Mistmaster is just this super powerful good wizard who leads the fight against the demons in the forest from his magic castle. Not really what you want in a player driven dungeon crawl game.

Other adventures besides Reptile God and Tharizdun I’ve incorporated in my plans are Escape from Meenlock Prison, Raiders of the Black Ice, Come to Daddy, and the infamous Death Frost Doom. Contrary to common belief it does not have to lead to a total party kill and the destruction of the campaign setting. I think higher level PCs can actually survive the horror they might unleash and fixing up the aftermath, even if it’s with new characters, should be quite fun.

I also got several ideas for refinement of my original plans. Instead of having a large lake between to mountain ranges as the southern border of the sandbox I am going to set it directly at the coast. That will put the Witchfens in the northwest closer to the sea than I originally had in mind when making the Ancient Lands map but given the size of the sandbox that’s still plenty of distance and over the years I’ve been increasingly moving away from the idea of an accurate world map. A loose collection of local maps is entirely sufficient for a barely inhabited Points of Light wilderness. I’ve actually come to see large scale maps as a hindrance to making a world feel like magicalwilderness.

Also, am going to turn the paper of the map to the side to have it be more wide than high. The effect of this is that the large town in the center of the southern edge is now much closer to routes between the western and the eastern parts of the map. I originally had planned to keep the players deep in the wilderness and specifically put the town away from all the interesting locations but then I started getting all kinds of cool ideas for dungeons on the lakeshore or on islands. With the map paper sideways I can have the lake, that now turned into a coast, much closer to the rest of the action without having to completely redo the landscape from scratch.

Another thing I realized that having half-demon elves and fey’ri is redundant in a world that has sidhe. Thinking back, my original concept for these fey in my setting was based directly on the fey’ri in third edition Forgotten Realms. Just make them corrupted by sorcery and done. I can keep demonic influence limited to special occasions and at the same time have setting specific fey as a major part of the campaign. Double win.

I am very happy with how everything is taking shape. I’ve long been very sceptical about megadungeons and hexcrawls, and the Forest of High Adventure really isn’t either. But this is a dungeon crawling sandbox that I am really exited for to run and I feel that this is by far the campaign I am best prepared for yet. I still don’t have any dungeon maps, NPCs, encounters, or puzzles down on paper, but I think once you start to understand sandboxes they really are a way of running games that is pretty easy on the GM but promises a great return for players. The biggest challenge seems to regularly be getting players goingwith exploring and keeping the campaign going, but in that regard my researches have also provided a lot of good ideas that I am currently turning in my head.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

When I start preparing a new campaign I like to first think about what kind of role “adventurers” are going to play within the fictional society and what motivates them to do all these suicidal things that PCs tend to do. The easiest way is of course to say “Duh, it’s a game. This is what PCs do.”, which get’s us the classic murderhobos. Looting for the sake of looting and because there’s not really anything else they could do instead. Which is too simplistic for my taste.
On the other end are the designated chosen ones who go on adventure because they are heroes and it’s the heroic thing to do. Which also doesn’t feel terribly interesting because it makes everything in the campaign predictable by everyone following an unwritten but implicit script.

Then you can also have the whole party be members of an organization who believe in the organization’s goals and ideals. Which I find to usually work quite well, but it’s the GM deciding what the campaign will be about and also requires some preparation of specifc antagonists to oppose the goals of the party. I don’t find it ideal for a campaign that is more open world and about exploring strange underground environments.

One idea I had for my last campaign was to tell the players that their characters have been send out into the world to search for magic and knowledge that would benefit the people back home, with completely free rein on where to go and what to do. I quite liked that approach as a servicable compromise between player choice and giving guidance through motivation, but I think it can still be improved upon.

So I’ve been looking at some of my favorite fantasy protagonists who go on dangerous adventures and they are not risking their lives over and over for either gold or the desire to rescue people in danger. They do it because they are driven by restlessness and an obsession to learn about things that normal people don’t want anything to do with. They are compelled to keep searching for whatever holds the world together in its innermost folds.

A great example would be good old Conan. He is not after wealth and doesn’t do anything to keep the gold he gets his hands on. Usually it’s also not out of compassion for people in need of help but because the challenge intrigues him. And most of the time there is nothing to stop him from just turning around and leave with his life, but he always has to keep pushing forward to see how things will turn out. With Fafhrd and Gray Mouser (who I don’t like, but anyway) it’s usually a combination of being curious and not bright enough to understand the danger. And while Kane usually goes on adventures because he can’t take the boredom anymore, he keeps going ahead in the face of danger because he’s obsessed with overcoming any worthy challenge of his great power. Even Elric, who is playing out his destiny as a chosen one, keeps on fighting because he has to know if there’s a meaning to all of it.

As a character motivation I find this search for answers marvelous. It’s very open ended, does not pigeonhole PCs into any stereotypes, and has plenty of precedents in fiction. And it’s also exactly the same thing that drives most players to return to the table for every new session. Particularly when you’re running an oldschool game, player’s aren’t playing for the mental exercise of tactical combat and they are not playing to unlock new extras for their characters. They are playing because they are fascinated for what they might find lying ahead, either in a dungeon or an unfolding story.

I think as a GM, particularly with new players, I think it should really help to tell the player that they are going on a hunt to uncover the mysteries of the world when they are creating their characters. It provides some kind of purpose and very open objective in an open world campaign, instead of leaving the players floundering around trying to figure out what they are supposed to do.

Now how a GM can actually present a world that makes a quest to know the unknowable worthwhile is a different question to which I don’t have any good answers yet, but I think it’s one that is very much worth pursuing further.

Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign

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.