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Building a Sandbox

S'mon

Legend
Lots of good advice from Destroy. :) The write-it-down point is especially important, you may find stuff you create off the cuff while winging it is more inspired than what you laboured over pre game, and it shouldn't go to waste.

Re Wilderness "ELs" - I suggest that something in between 1e's "Orcs are always encountered in numbers of 30-300" and 3e's "Those hills are EL 1, those swamps next door are EL 12". IRL some wilderness areas are extremely dangerous, others less so but still challenging. I think 1e's approach where wildernesses were barely survivable before about 7th level was poor design and not very plausible, but neither would I expect 1st level PCs to conquer the north pole. I'd suggest that borderland or safer areas be mostly around EL 3-5, with a few more dangerous encounters - certainly in borderland there may be powerful fortresses and maybe the occasional dragon lair or similar. Other wilderness may be more like EL 6-8, with rare areas of extreme danger around EL 9-12. Those suggestions should be changed to fit your campaign demographics - eg if level distribution is 1-10 rather than 1-20 then maybe halve them (1-3, 3-4, 5-6).
 

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meomwt

First Post
I don't think sandboxes and plots are necessarily incompatible. But at the early levels, the "plot" should be firmly in the background, with a hint or two here and there (a tome in a lair detailing the Wizard's War 100 years ago, a missing sword wielded by one of the Knights who fought in the War, a mad Elf with Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder who fought in the War) which point towards the return of the adversary from 100 years ago ready to kick butt again.

These tidbits can be dropped in at any convenient point as the PC's explore. Just drop in a few red herrings as well ;)

For a good example of playing around in a sandbox, check out some session notes from my Lost City of Barakus Campaign over on the Necromancer Board (there are one or two sessions which are just one-liners), plus the Behind the Screen Notes in a separate thread. I'm using the Barakus setting/ campaign material in Greyhawk (Endhome moved to Womtham in Nyrond), but have set up multiple plots and quests across the game so they have many directions to go. The Barakus Dungeon, of course, is the highlight.
 

JDJblatherings

First Post
Create a wourld with a little versimilitude. Stuff is there because it is there nto becasue the Pcs are level X. but that being said for a "sandbox" campaign it's a good idea to have a few easy to spot tough adveture/evil locations, some that will most certainly kill 1st level characters. If the players want to send their PCs there then they will most certainly die.

One shoudl also create a couple of easy areas where PCs can start adventuring without being overwhelmed.

Pick an aveage encounter level. Outside of the very easy areas or the tough areas most encounters will fall into that range. This keeps low level characters in the easier area, unless they want to die or are very lucky and motivates the higher level characters to seek out the otugh areas so they have a chance of gaining the loot (and exp) they need to move forward.

Let higher level creatures/npc make apperances but not directly interact with the PCs unless the players are dim enough to get their character squashed flat. Dragon overhead...just hide for a bit? Giants walkign along the horizon...let's not go where they are going. Vampires jumping from roof top to roof top and they haven't noticed us...let's go back inside and lock the door.

My longest runnign 3e campaign (5 years) used these techniques and it worked great. The average encounter level was 6th level. This hemmed them in a little when they were starting out but kept them from getting killed and they learned the locations of horribly dangerous locations and generally avoided them until they thought they had a chance.
 

Raven Crowking

First Post
meomwt said:
I don't think sandboxes and plots are necessarily incompatible.

Nor do I.

In this context, though, "plots" are what NPCs want, and what they are doing to get it. Whether to intervene, and when to intervene, is up to the PCs (although they might become entangled in a plot accidentally).

RC
 

JDJblatherings

First Post
Blackwind said:
I'm going to ask you for some DMing advice.

What do you do when, in the middle of the session, the PCs start heading for Whatzisnehm's lair but you don't have any encounters statted out?

Several years ago I was running a sandboxy FR campaign, and the PCs would occasionally do something unexpected like that, and I would find myself having to call a 15-minute smoke break while I rushed to stat out, say, a gang of bandits, or prepare an encounter, or whatever.

How do you deal with this?


Do lots of generic prep. Have sets of universal stats.

Prepare some adventure suites, short 4,5,6 oom dungeons that are tied to specific locations. these suites are where yuo put in the hard work full of flavor and description. prepare generic dungeons. A couple of levels deep at most that can be used almost anywhere. Peopel travel to "the grotto of gruesome death' and yuo have nothing planend pull out a generic dungeon it's now 'the gruesome grotto of death". players want to go to" the pit of howlign death" and you have the suite already but need a little more, pick out a generic dugeon and tie in the suite for the "the pit of howling death".

The generic dugeons can be randomly generated just do a once thru edit dropping in a few campaign spcific details, delteign thigns you really dont' like and don't worry about the rest.

Make a big list of names get ready to use it when folks ask generic warrior #4..."what's your name?' otherwise don't use the brain power in case the players never ask.
 

Lord Zardoz

Explorer
A sandbox style game that does not impose any direction on the person playing it is generally only as the things you can do in that sandbox, and the 'toys' you can play with.

By toy, I mean things within the game world the players can interact with. But with D&D, you need to find a way to let the players know that the toy at least exists. The big risk of a sandbox game is that you create some awesome toys and then bury them deep in some corner of the sandbox where no one can find it.

As has been pointed out, the potential for wasted work is pretty high if the players do not know to go looking for things to do in the campaign world. And if the only things in the world are just static dungeons full of loot, there really is not much difference between trying to run a sandbox and running a string of unconnected dungeon crawls.

At this point, I will drop the metaphors.

I find a better approach to an undirected campaign is to flesh out some broad details about the world, a basic who is who, what is where. Then on the first adventure, feed the players 3 unconnected plothooks, and watch which way they jump. Keep the early stuff simple enough to pull out of your arse on the spot, and figure out what details your players jump on.

From that point, all you need to do is stay about 2 or 3 steps ahead of the players. Work out the NPC's you need. Introduce plot elements that the players can choose to act on or ignore, and decide what happens if the players ignore a threat long enough. Create some simple villains, and work out basic escape plans. Any villain that can live through 2 fights against the players should automatically be worked into whatever plot threads you can work on.

Between games, figure out who the players were unable to kill, or ignored, or otherwise worked with, and figure out how they react to the players. Then just keep notes.

Sometime around level 6, you should have a pretty solid list of viable plot hooks on the go that have a direct connection to the actions of your players in addition to any static elements you introduced. This should be enough to keep your game going for a long time.

END COMMUNICATION
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Lord Zardoz said:
A sandbox style game that does not impose any direction on the person playing it is generally only as the things you can do in that sandbox, and the 'toys' you can play with.

By toy, I mean things within the game world the players can interact with. But with D&D, you need to find a way to let the players know that the toy at least exists. The big risk of a sandbox game is that you create some awesome toys and then bury them deep in some corner of the sandbox where no one can find it.

As has been pointed out, the potential for wasted work is pretty high if the players do not know to go looking for things to do in the campaign world. And if the only things in the world are just static dungeons full of loot, there really is not much difference between trying to run a sandbox and running a string of unconnected dungeon crawls.

At this point, I will drop the metaphors.

I find a better approach to an undirected campaign is to flesh out some broad details about the world, a basic who is who, what is where. Then on the first adventure, feed the players 3 unconnected plothooks, and watch which way they jump. Keep the early stuff simple enough to pull out of your arse on the spot, and figure out what details your players jump on.

From that point, all you need to do is stay about 2 or 3 steps ahead of the players. Work out the NPC's you need. Introduce plot elements that the players can choose to act on or ignore, and decide what happens if the players ignore a threat long enough. Create some simple villains, and work out basic escape plans. Any villain that can live through 2 fights against the players should automatically be worked into whatever plot threads you can work on.

Between games, figure out who the players were unable to kill, or ignored, or otherwise worked with, and figure out how they react to the players. Then just keep notes.

Sometime around level 6, you should have a pretty solid list of viable plot hooks on the go that have a direct connection to the actions of your players in addition to any static elements you introduced. This should be enough to keep your game going for a long time.

END COMMUNICATION

This is all good stuff. In addition, i think it is important to remind your players to self motivate. They need to know that there is lost of cool stuff out there and all they have to do is go find it.

Sandbox design is likely a whole lot easier with a group with which you are extemely familiar. If you have been playing with the saem guys for 10 years, you know what interests them, what kinds of plot hooks make them bite and what sorts of villains they just love to loathe. Unless you are planning on trying to sell it or use it with unknown players, there's no reason to make a sandbox generic. It can be open and free and still be specifically tailored to the players whose characters are going to be digging around in there.

(PS: I think we've hit ever metaphor possible for "sandbox", except perhaps something related to cats and unclean bodily functions.)
 

DestroyYouAlot

First Post
Jorunkun said:
I'm with Destroyyoualot in that half the fun in sandbox play is that it empowers, nay, requires the DM to improvise within a preset framwork. I'm also all for letting the dice fall where they may wrt encounters and combat, provided you gave the players enough opportunities for getting information to know what they were getting into. I mean, for once you don't have to worry about your precious plot progressions being derailed because of PC death.

That's the miracle of this style - Story is what happens at the table, not beforehand in your notebook. ;) You don't need to write scripts; PCs will make stuff happen whether you want it to or not. And I get to sit back in wonder at the crap they'll come up with. I'm never going back.

Jorunkun said:
How far do you take this framework? Is it acceptable to fudge encounters when things get boring?

Hell yes. I can't think of a game (a FRPG, at least) that doesn't explicitly give the GM go-ahead to screw with encounters; letting the dice fall where they may (a worthy goal at all times) doesn't conflict with this. I recently made the mistake of running a whole "town bookkeeping then travel" session without a single combat encounter while the party was traipsing around in the mountains (the die just wouldn't come up "1"); I won't make that mistake again. Just remember that it's your game, if you spring an extra encounter on the party when things are too quiet, You're Doing It Right.

Jorunkun said:
Do you set up encounters that will happen to the players regardless of where they go? Should there be accidents waiting to happen, triggered by player choice or by them reaching a certain level etc? Is there an end state to the campaign, like "kill foozle", or are you rolling dice to see what faction will win?

Maybe, maybe and maybe, maybe, maybe again. The thing is to keep player decisions in the mix, and be ready for events to go where you didn't plan. Let them entertain you; they'll keep themselves happy while they're at it.

Jorunkun said:
What kind of plot generating preparations are right for sandbox play?

Big strokes. I keep a page filled with "what's going on" at any given time; the PCs may go sessions without interacting with any of the things on that page, or they may hit up five at once (and cause me to alter or cross off as many). Just so you have some threads for them to pull at here and there.
 

DestroyYouAlot

First Post
S'mon said:
Lots of good advice from Destroy. :) The write-it-down point is especially important, you may find stuff you create off the cuff while winging it is more inspired than what you laboured over pre game, and it shouldn't go to waste.

Re Wilderness "ELs" - I suggest that something in between 1e's "Orcs are always encountered in numbers of 30-300" and 3e's "Those hills are EL 1, those swamps next door are EL 12". IRL some wilderness areas are extremely dangerous, others less so but still challenging. I think 1e's approach where wildernesses were barely survivable before about 7th level was poor design and not very plausible, but neither would I expect 1st level PCs to conquer the north pole. I'd suggest that borderland or safer areas be mostly around EL 3-5, with a few more dangerous encounters - certainly in borderland there may be powerful fortresses and maybe the occasional dragon lair or similar. Other wilderness may be more like EL 6-8, with rare areas of extreme danger around EL 9-12. Those suggestions should be changed to fit your campaign demographics - eg if level distribution is 1-10 rather than 1-20 then maybe halve them (1-3, 3-4, 5-6).

Keep in mind that the Monster Manual advises you to adjust "# encountered" according to the situation and the PCs' abilities. Bad (or lazy, or sadistic) DMs were the root of that issue, not 1e. ;)

I was running T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil with 1e rules earlier this year, and I had a whole hexmap for the region around Hommlet, with different "zones" marked off, each with their own encounter table. The tables were derived from the appropriate climate/terrain listing in the MM, and the overall difficulty was appropriate to the area - you just aren't going to find hordes of orcs wandering up and down the road to Verbobonc; it would interfere with trade, and the Viscount would have to hear it from the merchants, so the road is patrolled. Off the road, in the Kron hills, though - that's a different story. What's more, once an encounter came up (and presuming the PCs defeated the beasties), that entry was crossed off the chart, with a fixed chance per week of a new entry taking its place. (I'd just do all the maintenance for all the zones by week, it's not like the PCs are gonna notice when the change happens.) Sometimes an entry would migrate from one zone to another; if you kill all the owlbears in the Dank Forest of Dankness, the wolves that roam the Desolate Plains of Desolation are likely to move in.

It's some work, but I enjoy this kind of fiddly crap. And it takes care of itself with minimal maintenance once you get it running. (I have a background in programming, so this makes me happy.)
 

S'mon

Legend
DestroyYouAlot said:
Keep in mind that the Monster Manual advises you to adjust "# encountered" according to the situation and the PCs' abilities. Bad (or lazy, or sadistic) DMs were the root of that issue, not 1e. ;)

Maybe I'm a bad DM, but it wouldn't have killed EGG to put eg:

Orcs
No Appearing: 2-12 (band), 30-300 (tribe)

Which would have made it a lot easier for the harried Sandboxing GM using the wilderness emcounter tables to avoid rolling up 240 orcs encountering his 1st level PCs and rolling a '1' on the Surprise check.
 

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