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Building a Sandbox

Melan

Explorer
I don't see why that is a problem.
"There is the sound of great horns as several orcs appear on the cliffs, from behind boulders, and more emerge from crevices you never suspected were there. Even a swift look tells you they must number more than 150, and that you are completely surrounded with no possibility of escape. Some carry crude bows, pointing in your direction."
"We lay down our arms and surrender."
"The leader of the orcs, a giant clad in filthy animal skins grins as he calls out, 'Carry these humanlings to the mines, now they will pay for what they did to our brothers at Sheragod.' They strip you of all belongings except clothes, and bind you together with heavy iron chains. To the beating of drums and the clashing of cymbals, you are marched towards Zul-Bashire, stone fortress of the Shadow from Beneath."

The intent of sandbox games is not to kill PCs randomly all the time (although that's good fun now and then, for both DM and players); it is to keep the game moving fluidly in an open environment where the players have a strong influence on the direction of the campaigns. Horrible dictu, I could imagine a sandbox game where death is very rare, and loss is more along the lines of capture, loss of equipment, or other unpleasant consequences (e.g. as in Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga). And of course, and encounter can be completely different from a face-to-face combat encounter. If the above example had been with 6d6 wolves, the PCs may have seen the pack stalking them from a worryingly close distance. If it had been with a dragon, it could have surprised them and demanded all their treasures (or flattery). And so on.

Of course, if hypothetical 1st level PCs (who, OTOH, have no business straying far from civilisation) attack the 240 orcs, there are always new character sheets in a prepared DM's folder. :D
 
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S'mon

Legend
Melan said:
I don't see why that is a problem...
...
"We lay down our arms and surrender."

Um, Melan, IME the chances of a PC group surrendering to the orcs, no matter how big the force discrepancy, is no more than 10-20%. Most would far rather fight to the death.

Edit: One time we were playing Midnight, I was a player, the Shadow minions were kicking our butts, and I surrendered to them in the hope of keeping another PC alive. I have to say that it was the hardest thing in-game I have ever done. The GM wisely ended the session there and prepped a rescue/escape attempt session for the next game, which was mind blowingly amazing - I lived, but another player cocked up and the person I was trying to rescue (played by ENW's Randomling) died anyway. It was all very tragic and Midnight-ish.
But you can hardly rely on PCs surrendering as a routine event.
 
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exile

First Post
This has been an incredibly enjoyable thread for me. It has made me think a lot about campaign design and the type of game my current group wants/needs. What I would really like to see are some sample sandboxes, especially some in their infancy, or parts thereof.
Any takers?

Chad
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
exile said:
This has been an incredibly enjoyable thread for me. It has made me think a lot about campaign design and the type of game my current group wants/needs. What I would really like to see are some sample sandboxes, especially some in their infancy, or parts thereof.
Any takers?

Chad

Chjeck my sig for one that's still in-utero.
 

painandgreed

First Post
Raven Crowking said:
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).

Ditto.

My games are usually sandbox games. I make up the NPCs and world, and decide how the plot and world will develop without the intervention of the PCs. How things develop from there depends on the PCs and their actions. In my last game, to make the PCs pivotal, I made the setting with about five different factions all balanced against each other or unable to upset the balance. The PCs were the last bit of weight that upset that balance. If they sided with one of the three major powers, they would tip the balance in favor of the power they sided with. if they sided with one of the minor powers, they would have allowed that power to become a major one. If they decided to maintain the status quo, they could have done that also. Needless to say, each faction was trying to sway the PCs to their side, and I found it surprising how much the PCs decisions were based on NPC/PC interactions and roleplay. They notably turned down greater in game rewards of both a material and status nature to side with the NPC they liked the most but had less to offer.

However, PCs need plots. They need to be given a hook to catch them. Besides that most players are simply conditioned this way and will sit at an inn drinking as a party till they run out of money and starve, their characters would be experiencing the world 24/7 while the players do not. A players experience sitting in the inn for a night is limited to a few sentences, the characters experience is a night of talking, hearing rumors, adn telling stories where even idle chit chat would have clues for the character as to where to find adventure and what is happening in the world. It's the GMs job to condence that and give the 'good bits version' to the players. Besides obvious things going on in the world, I typically provide three hooks, easy, medium, and hard to the players and then let them decide which one to follow. I also try and get the players to flesh out their characters with backgrounds and goals, and then provide them with hooks that are based on those (which they may or may not decide to do something with).

One thing that I find useful is to let time pass. If nothing of interest is going on, then ask the players if there is anything they wish to do, and simply say "nothing of interest happens for several weeks until..." If they want to stop you and have their characters do something in that time, let them, but cut out all the time they would normally be standing around doing nothing. A character standing around doing nothing for a month is a sentence or two, a player having to role play standing around and doing nothing for a month or two is a pain for both the DM and player.
 

S'mon

Legend
exile said:
This has been an incredibly enjoyable thread for me. It has made me think a lot about campaign design and the type of game my current group wants/needs. What I would really like to see are some sample sandboxes, especially some in their infancy, or parts thereof.
Any takers?

Chad

I ran the Lost City of Barakus campaign, which is basically a sandbox from Necromancer Games, though the main dungeon has some matrix elements (collect the keys to get the maguffin type stuff). Here's my campaign web page for it:
http://www.geocities.com/s.t.newman/barakus.htm

"The Vault of Larin Karr" from the same author is a sandbox type design but again includes a Matrix key-collecting element leading to the intended campaign climax.

Again, my Borderlands campaigns was sandbox design, at least initially. It got locked down a bit later, I think because some of the players weren't well suited to the sandbox style, which needs a proactive approach from the PCs.
http://www.geocities.com/s.t.newman/Borderlands.htm

The traditional mega-dungeon, if sufficiently large in scope, can amount to an underground sandbox. One good example is the Caverns of Thracia, again from Necromancer.
 

DestroyYouAlot

First Post
S'mon said:
The traditional mega-dungeon, if sufficiently large in scope, can amount to an underground sandbox. One good example is the Caverns of Thracia, again from Necromancer.

I'm working on my personal MD now, and it's very much designed for this kinda play. Lotsa power groups, lotsa hidden entrances, tons of secret stuff (some of which is in absurdly out-of-the-way places, like you'd need to do some mining to get there), yadda yadda yadda. The great thing about the "supah oldschool" approach here (where you've got stuff hidden all over the place, and lots of really obscure things to find) is that there's not gonna be just one party going through once - I can (and will) use this with multiple parties, multiple groups. I can invest a TON of work into it, because it's not going to see just one use. The stuff one group does will affect the experience of the next group in. (Personally, I've never managed the "multiple parties / one world" thing before, so I'm pretty excited about this.)


Ooh - and going on record here recommending the original Caverns of Thracia from Judges Guild if you can get a hold of it.
 

Jorunkun

First Post
So judging from the discussion and some of the examples posted the general consensus seems to be that a sandbox game needn't be entirely plotless, just that the plot shouldn't be built around and custom tailored for the characters. Also, most plots seem to be open-ended but heading for a world end-state, with the players growing into more of a force in the greater scheme of things as they progress.

As to how many plotlines are offered and to what depth they are prepared in advance this seems to differ from campaign to campaign. While I see the risk of preparing material that never gets played, I must say I like the idea of having the major adversaries and their locations all spec'ed out before the campaign gets underway. My ideal is to have multiple minor and major plotlines going on in parallel, over long periods of time. (*)

The old Ultima CRPGs (4, 5 and 6 esp.) did a really good job of creating this kind of depth; wherever you went, you'd progress certain plot strands a bit, but because there were so many of them (and many were minor, relating mostly to you mechanical progression) it never felt like the game actually pushed you in any one direction.

So how does one weave a deep plot like this, and how do you organise your output? Is there some kind of ... I dunno ... flowchart or pattern language for setting up scenarios with multiple plotlines, matrix elements, triggers etc.?

Really loving this thread, please keep your input coming.

*EDIT: This in addition to random encounter tables and "scripted but not placed" Book-of-Lairs-style encounters, natch.
 
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DestroyYouAlot

First Post
Jorunkun said:
So judging from the discussion and some of the examples posted the general consensus seems to be that a sandbox game needn't be entirely plotless, just that the plot shouldn't be built around and custom tailored for the characters. Also, most plots seem to be open-ended but heading for a world end-state, with the players growing into more of a force in the greater scheme of things as they progress.

At least for me, that's as much as result of the systems I play as it is anything else. Older editions of D&D (and simulacrum games that base themselves on same) have these assumptions built into them, to a certain degree - as you get towards the lofty levels, your personal power gain tapers off, and your influence ramps up. At name level, you stop gaining hit dice and powarz, but you start gaining followers, strongholds, etc. That's in AD&D, in Classic (Mentzer BECMI and/or Rules Cyclopedia), things are even more scaled that way, where the armies you command and - eventually - the worshipers you attract are as important (if not more) than your +27 letter opener of hamster slaying.

As to how many plotlines are offered and to what depth they are prepared in advance this seems to differ from campaign to campaign. While I see the risk of preparing material that never gets played, I must say I like the idea of having the major adversaries and their locations all spec'ed out before the campaign gets underway. My ideal is to have multiple minor and major plotlines going on in parallel, over long periods of time.

The one thing to remember is that, once you have your sandbox set up, you can play in it as long as you like. Eventually, you'll find somewhere to use any damn thing you can think up.

The old Ultima CRPGs (4, 5 and 6 esp.) did a really good job of creating this kind of depth; wherever you went, you'd progress certain plot strands a bit, but because there were so many of them (and many were minor, relating mostly to you mechanical progression) it never felt like the game actually pushed you in any one direction.

Big influence, here. VI rocked my world.

So how does one weave a deep plot like this, and how do you organise your output? Is there some kind of ... I dunno ... flowchart or pattern language for setting up scenarios with multiple plotlines, matrix elements, triggers etc.?

I'm sure there is, but quite honestly I don't know how. I really just have to kinda wing it, sometimes - look at a page full of ideas, think about something significant that the PCs did, and see if anything pops out at ya. Sometimes it'll be obvious, sometimes it'll be somewhat contrived on your part. (So, the PCs burned down this inn, huh? Well, what if this representative of that power group just happened to be staying there, what then?) I don't know any science to it, but the flowchart definitely is your friend.

Also, the blob diagram. (That's what I call it, anyway.) I started using this the first time I tried to plot out a conspiracy (IN GAME, Mr. Homeland Security Agent), but it's a great tool for diagramming power structures and "plot" elements. This thing gets one circle with its name in the middle, this other thing gets another circle, and they both get a line connecting them with the name of whatever the connection is. It's not rocket science, but looking at things that way can shake ideas loose from your brain, ones you didn't know were even up there. (You should really clean up there more often; have you considered engaging the services of a chimney sweep?)
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
So judging from the discussion and some of the examples posted the general consensus seems to be that a sandbox game needn't be entirely plotless, just that the plot shouldn't be built around and custom tailored for the characters.

I'm with various posters above- overarching campaign-world plots & sandboxes mix just fine if handled with care.

FWIW: I'm a big fan of the "Caravan" method of running a sandbox- it has many advantages. As hirelings of the Caravan master, the PCs may have varying duties within the caravan as he sees fit. Its especially useful if your group has problems getting everyone to show up every time. If someone is not there one night, perhaps their PC is on "spud-peeling" duty...finishing up that duty just in time to be the next session's "cavalry."

In addition, the caravan moves through the campaign world at a pace you, the DM, set. As the caravan camps for a while to trade or restock, your players may wander here and there, but they also are within a certain area that you (should) have prepped.

BTW- "Caravans" need not be a string of camels or horses winding across the land- it could also be a massive fleet of merchant ships sailing the seas...or in a high-fantasy world, the skies.
 

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