Sword & Sorcery Sandboxes?

I was planning to write this as presenting a concept that I have worked out, but the more I’ve been getting into it, the more it morphed into sharing a question I am pondering.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve recently become very excited about Dragonbane, which very much matches all the things I was looking for in a game system for the last 8 years or so. I had settled on OSE as the next best thing, but Dragonbane looks like the Fantasy Heartbreaker that I would have made. And I’m now much more interested in launching a Dragonbane campaign in my Kaendor setting than running it as an OSE wilderness exploration campaign as I had planned while working on the regional map and the towns and ruins contained in it. Dragonbane is of course a different game than OSE, and does not have the underlying mechanical framework that makes classic dungeon crawling and wilderness exploration work. Without XP for treasure, or even a mechanic for XP, the typical incentive structure falls away, and resource management also works out rather differently. So a different approach to structuring the campaign is needed.

And of course when this question comes up, my first thought is always “Would this work well in a Sword & Sorcery style?” And I think with Dragonbane the answer is very much yes. If you do the presentation right, the default rules of Dragonbane should work effortlessly with almost any Sword & Sorcery setting.

The longer I’ve been playing RPGs, the more I’ve become convinced that sandbox campaigns are really the only way to play heroic adventure games. The ability to go to any place on the map, try anything, and negotiate with NPCs in any way you think makes sense because you have a GM right there who can have the world and it’s people react to the PCs in real time is the great promise of the RPG medium. The aspect that you can never get from any other. Any campaign that doesn’t put this front and center seems like a waste of amazing potential and a lack of understanding of the medium. RPGs are where you can make stories and experience them at the same time and there’s always more world outside of the current frame. I don’t want to accept anything less when playing an RPG.

But what does a sandbox campaign even mean in regards to the Sword & Sorcery genre?

One major, and perhaps defining, element of Sword & Sorcery is that it’s a storytelling style that isn’t about an ongoing continuity and overarching narrative arcs where everything exists to build up to one big final conclusion that resolves everything. Instead of a heroes entire journey from beginning to conclusion, Sword & Sorcery storytelling is much more like a highlight reel of the most dramatic and fantastic moments in the lives of the protagonists. How their journey actually started is not really that important, and how it all gets resolved eventually even less. We’re here for the cool parts.

Because of this, I think that having a whole Sword & Sorcery sandbox campaign as a single continuity that tracks the events of the PCs lives day by day might not really be that appropriate. “On day 183 the party rested in town. On day 184 the party had one random encounter with bandits on the road and traveled 24 miles. On day 185 the party had no random encounters and traveled 30 miles.” No, that really doesn’t seem right. The same goes for equipment and money. You really don’t have to keep track of how much money precisely the PCs have at any given point and whether they might be 12 gold pieces short for buying a new suit of plate armor after the old one got destroyed.

However, when you play a campaign purely as a series of one-shot adventures with the same characters, then you lose out on one of the great aspects of a sandbox campaign. Making long term enemies and allies and getting to live with the consequences of your actions. I think choices always become so much more interesting when you have consider how they might impact situations that the characters will encounter much later. We don’t generally see that much in Sword & Sorcery fiction, but old enemies coming back to take another shot at you really cool in a game. Especially when you know that these are enemies that you made even though you had other options available to you at that time.

I also really like the aspect of travel on a hex map of the players being free to chart any course through the wilderness with the possibility of evading encounters with dangerous enemies because of good planning on their part, or running into difficult situations because they were trying to avoid something else. But if you go hex map, then you really need to track the miles traveled every day and the food and other supplies running out and being resupplied through interactions with the environment. My thinking on this situation is that the most interesting choices are the likes of “Do we try to sneak over the pass through the mountains guarded by the villain’s soldiers or do we try to take a detour through the Spider Woods?” Soldiers or spiders? Which hexes through the Spider Woods specifically and the speed at which to travel won’t really make that much of a big difference compared to the initial decision. So I guess that perhaps the old Pointcrawl approach might be the best option here. The pointcrawl adventures by Chris Kutalik are set up quite similar to outdoor dungeons, being a large space to explore, with the implication that players likely might try to check out every point. But the principles should work just as well for tracking long distance travel between more detailed sub-regions and offering a great range of possible paths that the players can take to move between them. This system for travel should keep the most interesting and impactful choices for the players as part of the game, but it greatly compresses the majority of the total journey.

As I said at the start, all of this turned out as mostly just sharing what is currently on my mind about the subject, rather than any real system or plan. But maybe something interesting to think about for others as well.

One thought on “Sword & Sorcery Sandboxes?”

  1. You should look into Luka Rejec’s work on Ultraviolet Grasslands. It is Weird Science Fantasy, but the mechanics of long distance voyaging are presented in a vast pointcrawl. Its art-free version is available for free (I think).

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