Sandbox style: How to handle challenge levels

Doug McCrae

Legend
I'm thinking of running a more sandbox style game next time. But I don't know if I'd enjoy running fights where the PCs easily outmatch the opposition.

How do you handle challenge level in a sandbox style game? I could see a possible hybrid style where the PCs have many choices but the opposition scales to become a level-appropriate challenge. For instance there are always bugbears on Clover Hill, but if the PCs are 10th level, then they're bugbears with 5 class levels each. Another possibility would be to make them normal bugbears but not play out the fight in detail - "The bugbears are easily defeated, but the loot is meagre."
 

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kaomera

Explorer
Doug McCrae said:
I'm thinking of running a more sandbox style game next time. But I don't know if I'd enjoy running fights where the PCs easily outmatch the opposition.

How do you handle challenge level in a sandbox style game? I could see a possible hybrid style where the PCs have many choices but the opposition scales to become a level-appropriate challenge. For instance there are always bugbears on Clover Hill, but if the PCs are 10th level, then they're bugbears with 5 class levels each. Another possibility would be to make them normal bugbears but not play out the fight in detail - "The bugbears are easily defeated, but the loot is meagre."
As I have seen sandbox-style played (and as I have run it) it works mostly as you described it. The number of Bugbears (asuming 1e, in 3.5 you've got the right idea in adding character levels!) and who / what was leading them or hiding in the lower levels of the dungeon (if anything) would usually depend on what level the PCs where when they decided that these Bugbears where important to them. BBEG-types would usually get statted up when they entered play (often several levels above where the PCs could really take them on at that point). That tended to be more static (assuming the players had some idea of what level they where supposed to be) in order to avoid problems, but even there there could be a nasty suprise waiting for the PCs... (Like the "Thaumaturgist" that turned out to actually be an Evil High Priest laying low when confronted by a pary of 7th to 9th level PCs!)

One other thing to keep in mind (or not): It's all about giving the players as much rope (as in "enough rope") as they want. If they want to pick up much lower-level encounters, then whatever or whomever is backing them is going to take notice... Not that you should do this maliciously, but players will have to be willing to deal with whatever consequences there are for their characters' actions, even unexpected ones. Bad guys should have alliances and chains of command and such, there should be something bigger and badder behind almost any foe (ok, maybe not the Monstrous Centipedes...). And smart PCs (or at least smart players) should take advantage of this too. If they want an alliance with the local church they should be able to arrange one, with benefits that are worth at least as much as any services that may be asked of them...

One thing I keep telling my players is this: If you want to go do a job for Joe Noble (or Jim Guildmaster, or Jack Wizard, or whomever...) you should expect that the job is going to benefit Joe Noble. Not that it won't benefit your PCs too, but if that's your #1 goal you may be better served going out and taking what you want. Want a Keep? I'll bet the local Laird will let you keep the one that Anti-Paladin's been hiding out in with his bandit gang, if you promise to fix it up and keep the trade route safe. Want some gold? I'll bet that Dragon up in the hills that attacks a local village every few years has a pretty penny to lay down upon. Want a magic sword? Well, who do you know who a) owns one, and b) you wouldn't mind seeing dead?

Er, sorry, I'm rambling...
 

KingCrab

First Post
The players need to be given information that certain areas will be too hard for them. This isn't too hard to do through NPC's. The players should be allowed to adventure in areas that are too easy for them, if they really enjoy doing so. They won't get much xp, the amount of treasure will be too low for their taste, but it adds to the realism of the amount of freedom they have if you allow them to do so. They won't stay in easy areas for long if they aren't getting any xp, but they should be allowed to hang out. Plus if the game starts off at low levels they'll get to later enjoy the feel of power that comes from now being able to easily handle deadly challenges of the past.
 

Gundark

Explorer
Doug McCrae said:
I'm thinking of running a more sandbox style game next time. But I don't know if I'd enjoy running fights where the PCs easily outmatch the opposition.

How do you handle challenge level in a sandbox style game? I could see a possible hybrid style where the PCs have many choices but the opposition scales to become a level-appropriate challenge. For instance there are always bugbears on Clover Hill, but if the PCs are 10th level, then they're bugbears with 5 class levels each. Another possibility would be to make them normal bugbears but not play out the fight in detail - "The bugbears are easily defeated, but the loot is meagre."

Something that's always bugged me about D&D is how regular monsters go away after a few levels. I've always been a proponent of having creatures (orcs, hobgoblins, etc) gain levels with the PCs (not 1:1). You wouldn't believe how many people here absolutely hated that idea here on Enworld.

oh and BTW what is "sandbox style?"
 

rounser

First Post
You wouldn't believe how many people here absolutely hated that idea here on Enworld.
How very odd.

For the record, NPC Designer is really really useful at churning out scaled stats at say 3-5 level increments ahead of time, and just copy and paste. In a scaled sandbox campaign, heavy use of classed monsters might be a good idea, but be careful of giving out too much magic gear as defeated NPC equipment.

Traps: Use the guidelines for CR, like changing the search DC by 5 (-1/+1 CR), damage by 7 rounded to nearest multiple (-1/+1 CR) and disable device by 5 (-1/+1 CR) etc. to pump up or tone down. Try and make it similar to a "normal" trap of that CR number.
oh and BTW what is "sandbox style?"
Something like the modules "Ruins of Adventure" (i.e. Pool of Radiance) and "Secret of Bone Hill". PCs are presented with an overworld adventuring environment they can explore and find detailed with encounters and lairs and dungeons and adventure hooks and whatnot.

This is as opposed to something like a railroaded Adventure Path style of play, where tonight's dungeon is pre-scripted, it's the only place available to explore which is detailed.
 
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Aaron L

Hero
Gundark said:
Something that's always bugged me about D&D is how regular monsters go away after a few levels. I've always been a proponent of having creatures (orcs, hobgoblins, etc) gain levels with the PCs (not 1:1). You wouldn't believe how many people here absolutely hated that idea here on Enworld.

oh and BTW what is "sandbox style?"


Who here hated the idea of low level monsters with class levels to present a challenge at higher levels? I've always loved the idea of high level hobgoblins and such, and have never seen any opposition to the idea on ENWorld.

Now, if ALL the hobgoblins in the world gained levels to match the PCS, then that would be hokey. But if, at higher levels, you start running into elite, equally high-level hobbos, now that's cool.


And I add a second "?" to "what is sandbox style?" By context I'm gathering it means a "static" world vs a world where all adventures are tailored to the PCs, and if so then that's what I've always preferred. I absolutely hate the idea that just because the PCs are tougher, so are all the challenges. The goblin tribes in the valley that were regular gobbos back at first level shouldn't suddenly become 10th level gobbos when the PCs hit 12th level. I say that when the PCs get higher levels, they should start going after higher level threats and NOT keep facing the same enemies that scale with them. Unless it's an arch-enemy or something which grows in power alongside them; now thats fun. But if, for some reason, the PCs have to go after the goblin tribes again when they're 12th level, leave the gobbos the same and just let the PCs clean house, and let them feel the power they've earned.
 

rounser

First Post
I say that when the PCs get higher levels, they should start going after higher level threats and NOT keep facing the same enemies that scale with them. Unless it's an arch-enemy or something which grows in power alongside them; now thats fun. But if, for some reason, the PCs have to go after the goblin tribes again when they're 12th level, leave the gobbos the same and just let the PCs clean house, and let them feel the power they've earned.
That's all fine and dandy, but on the other side of the coin do you let the tribe of giants clean the clocks of the 2nd level PCs because they've wandered into the wrong area in the overworld? I don't agree with the "PCs should know about it" thing as sufficient warning, should they know the CR of everything too? One of the biggest conceits of D&D is that PCs meet challenges commensurate with their level. If the goblins turn out to be goblin vampires, and the terrible dragon rumoured to be destroying the countryside a mere hatchling, is any harm done? What if you've dropped hints that these scenarios might be the case from earlier in the campaign, and these rumours turn out to be true or not depending on when the PCs encounter them?

I'm glad these ideas are being aired, because they're a bit of a blind spot in wilderness exploration D&D campaign design IMO.
 
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Aaron L

Hero
rounser said:
That's all fine and dandy, but on the other side of the coin do you let the tribe of giants clean the clocks of the 2nd level PCs because they've wandered into the wrong area in the overworld?


Well... yeah. Personally, if they were smart enough to run, I'd let them get away without a problem. If there was a place in the world full of hostile giants, I would imagine it would be common knowledge to everyone who lived within the area.

Way too may people complain about 3e's "slavery to CR" and it's really funny to see people arguing from the opposite end.

And yes, the PCs should have a general idea of CRs, such as "giants are very powerful" and "beholders are very powerful" and "dragons are even more powerful." Yes, PCs encountering appropriate challenges is how it usually works, but I think that tailoring every part of the world to the PCs is a bad idea.

And the part about vampire goblins and the baby dragon, well, that's how I would handle it myself. Even an itty bitty dragon is going to be able to kill commoners and eat their cattle and be a threat to the countryside, and if you want to allow the PCs to save the countryside from a marauding dragon at low level then that's a great way to do it, with the added bonus of being a very good excuse for them to encounter a tougher dragon in the future, when the baby's mother comes along later to get the revenge on the PCs (after they've gotten higher level). And if you wanted to have the PCs fight the goblins in the valley but keep them a threat, then having the goblin tribes infested with vampirism is a great way to do it.

But doing something like that every single time just cheapens it.
 
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Melan

Explorer
In sandbox play - as opposed to a cop-out/hybrid where the severity of challenges is scaled to the party - the responsibility for managing threats rests on the shoulders of the players, who have to make choices whether to explore a certain hazardous area, range far from civilisation centres or not, etcetera. Collecting information becomes very valuable. Rumors, and listening to them, is very important; augury and more advanced divination spells become better lifesavers than fireball (no exagerration - PCs in my campaigns have been saved more times by the first than the second) and of course, sacrificing to deities or consulting sages for their advice is a prime way loot is spent. This is, in many ways, outside the currently fashionable D&D paradigm. It is often the experienced players with set-in playing procedures, who are less successful in it, and newbies who adapt more quickly (while certain old hands are immediately "at home", and fare very, very well - that's the mythical "player skill" in action ;)).

Of course, none of this preserves the party from random encounters, or accidentally stumbling into something way over their heads. Here, responsibility gets divided between the DM and his players. The players must shed the mindset that challenges in the world are tailored to their abilities. They must be prepared to say "We are not going there", they must be prepared to declare "RUN!", and they must be prepared to negotiate or, yes, grovel/surrender before an obviously superior and intelligent foe. Getting out of an unpleasant situation imposed on them by a demon, lich or dragon (who could, for example, take their valuable equipment, even spell books hostage to prevent flight, or use a magical sort of compulsion) is always possible, while death is very final.

But the DM must excercise care as well. It is not ethical to slaughter the party by a proverbial lightning bolt from the sky. He should provide clues to draw attention to the fact that danger may be present (although, of course, some places may be innately dangerous: weird temples, very ancient ruins, swampland and mountains, for example, are always hazardous in my campaign). He should also handle encounters with a certain amount of flexibility, and usually allow a way out if there could concievably be one, and the players are willing to take it.

Finally, let it be noted that sandbox play is not for the cautious. It only works properly for players who are risk-takers, and don't mind a higher death rate. It is, simply put, not always the material of D&D's usual "quest fantasy" when you die more or less without a special significance. I could recount the tales - of Brantar the Cleric, who was flattened by the ceiling, or Mutambo the Fighter who was cut down by enraged amazons, or Grond, Morgos and Panther who were killed by orcs, and Tyr Wulos, Eldon the Purse and Valmard Levandell who came as a rescue party for the previous and were also killed, this time by a shambling mound (well, except poor Eldon, who died when he accidentally shot the party barbarian in the back). For risk-averse players, or those too attached to PCs, sandbox games are inappropriate, because they induce a sort of paralysis, where, by avoiding risk too successfully, the PCs effectively remove themselves from the ranks of adventurers. Alas, I have seen this in person, and it made for a very boring campaign. Having learned my lessons, I live by the sage advice now seen in my signature:
 

Melan

Explorer
Aaron L said:
And the part about vampire goblins and the baby dragon, well, that's how I would handle it myself. Even an itty bitty dragon is going to be able to kill commoners and eat their cattle and be a threat to the countryside, and if you want to allow the PCs to save the countryside from a marauding dragon at low level then that's a great way to do it, with the added bonus of being a very good excuse for them to encounter a tougher dragon in the future, when the baby's mother comes along later to get the revenge on the PCs (after they've gotten higher level). And if you wanted to have the PCs fight the goblins in the valley but keep them a threat, then having the goblin tribes infested with vampirism is a great way to do it.

But doing something like that every single time just cheapens it.
Not only this. More significantly, it damages the players' ability to assess their chances, especially when there are no tell-tale signs (like the place being called "Valley of the Vampire Kobolds"). It is good to spice up things now and then (and in my mind, this is the proper use of classed/templated monsters), but most of the time, the DM should just use regular foes.
 

wedgeski

Adventurer
Gundark said:
You wouldn't believe how many people here absolutely hated that idea here on Enworld.
I would never 'hate' the idea, but the reality of my gaming table is that when PC's start rising in levels, they want to start fighting new, interesting, really deadly and challenging critters. Now that's not to say that a 15th level kobold sorcerer wouldn't be a challenge... but it's still a kobold, and still just a sorcerer. There's (soon to be) five monster manuals worth of beasties to choose from... why pick a kobold?
 

Imp

First Post
A sense of not making the story about the boring parts should serve you well.

Though changing it up can be good. Not always, but sometimes, it helps in a keep-your-cards-to-your-chest sense if you play out the first few rounds of a goblin-trouncing, until it becomes apparent the fight is a pushover. Will the goblins with ten class levels come out of the crowd this time? Oops guess not.

But then, if say the PCs decide to make a career for a couple of game-years of cleaning out low-level goblin lairs, and that's boring + provides minimal XP, don't play out that part. Play out what happens when somebody or something comes looking for the stream of plunder coming into the PCs pockets. It's not just the PCs' sandbox...

I mean, in a sandbox situation, there are times when I would just want to carve up some low-level threats for some low-level loot: say the wizard needed cash for scrolls or spell components, or we just needed another thousand gp to buy us a ship. I'd be a little annoyed if every time that scenario presented itself the goblins wound up being vampires or the bandits wound up being half-dragons or whatever. But then, the easy score can always go wrong, and not necessarily in an added-CR sense...
 

Melan

Explorer
Beyond a certain level, though, it is sometimes more economic to say "You have mopped the floor with them. Joe, you take ... roll roll ... 3 points of damage. Now, Tom, ..."

And of course, if the PCs can surrender, so can the enemies.
 

Imp

First Post
Absolutely. But every now and then it also makes sense to have them jumping at shadows. Oh no, he's playing this out, gotta be something scary here... what about that orc in the black spiked armor? BUFF BUFF SPIRITED CHARGE Whoops that was quick.

I've never seen an orc head fly quite that far before.

And then you just roll a few d6s for the rest of the damage sustained and call it a fight.

Next group of orcs, maybe big black armor guy's the real thing.
 

S'mon

Legend
rounser said:
That's all fine and dandy, but on the other side of the coin do you let the tribe of giants clean the clocks of the 2nd level PCs because they've wandered into the wrong area in the overworld?

1. PCs should have reasonable opportunity to learn 'giants live there'.

2. 2nd level PCs shouldn't expect to roam the world freely; in 1e it was expected PCs would be 7th-10th level before they could go anywhere.

Best approach is to design the world with areas of different EL, start the PCs in a low EL area and let them go where they will, but provide adequate warning of particularly dangerous areas.

If the 10th level PCs attack the bugbear nest, and you want to play it through, it's best not to add 5 class levels to every bugbear. Let the PCs win easily, but rewards will be meagre.
 

RFisher

Explorer
I'm probably not going to say anything that hasn't already been said, but here goes anyway. (^_^)

The DM assigns "threat ratings" to areas. (You could call them "levels".) I'll call it "TR". Generally, the threat rating doesn't spike but only changes a step or two between adjacent areas. (Like adjacent levels of a dungeon.) The TR determines the range of EL that are found therein.

The PCs may hear rumors that give them an idea of an area's TR. "That's the land of the giants!" They can usually assume that the deeper underground, the higher into the heavens, or the deeper into the wilderness they venture can mean an increase in TR. They can't really know until they go there themselves, though.

Plus, events may cause TR to shift so that an area that the PCs once thought of as safe might be so no longer.

In the sandbox game the DM really should go easy on the PCs when it comes to retreating. That's not to say that the PCs shouldn't adequately plan for retreat. But the DM should give them the benefit of the doubt.

The DM may still adjust the encounters slightly for the party. A little fine-tuning just to keep things running smoothly.

Of course, there's room for the occasional anamolies to spice things up a bit.

& when the PCs steal the giant's goose & harp, that giant isn't going to stop persuing them when he get's to a TR boarder. (^_^)

That's how I try to do it.
 

Delta

First Post
Aaron L said:
Who here hated the idea of low level monsters with class levels to present a challenge at higher levels? I've always loved the idea of high level hobgoblins and such, and have never seen any opposition to the idea on ENWorld.

Now, if ALL the hobgoblins in the world gained levels to match the PCS, then that would be hokey. But if, at higher levels, you start running into elite, equally high-level hobbos, now that's cool.

...But doing something like that every single time just cheapens it.

I kind of hate it. In particular, I never see it used any way other than "all the hobgoblins in the world gained levels to match the PCs" and "something like that every single time". i.e., any time I see it does in fact look hokey and cheap.

Having elite humanoid troops always show up of exactly the same level as the PCs strikes me, as you say, as cheesy and cheap and gives me a sour taste when playing D&D. What I'd prefer is to sit down at game start and specify who and where the toughest "elite band" of orcs is, make sure there are legends and tales of exactly who they are, and not surprise the players with previously-unheard of bands of goblin superheroes just because it's mechanically easy for the DM to use them.
 
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RFisher said:
The PCs may hear rumors that give them an idea of an area's TR. "That's the land of the giants!" They can usually assume that the deeper underground, the higher into the heavens, or the deeper into the wilderness they venture can mean an increase in TR. They can't really know until they go there themselves, though.

Obviously, the easier monsters are found on the plains, tougher monsters in the forests, and the really tough ones live in the mountains and the poisonous swamps. :D
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
When the party in my last game was trekking to a city and moving through a hill region to find something on a map the ranger made a few tracking checks and found a lot of very large footprints that lead off into a small canyon where they found a group of hill giants living. They were 1st-2nd level and were trying to think of a way they could wipe them out. Sure it would have been a quick TPK but they didn't have to attack, they could have noted it and moved past it, maybe come back later. "here they be Giants" as someone said. I wouldn't have felt bad if they had tried to attack and died, they didn't have to attack as I said and they should know better anyway. Its a big scary world out there and you run into stuff you can't handl sometimes.
 

Stormborn

Explorer
I do think that danger level should be communicated to the PCs in a Sandbox style game. Do this both in game and out of game. Out of game tell players: "Just because you can get there and just becuase you meet something doesnt mean you can beat it. Learn other ways of dealing with challanges early. On the otherhand just because you run into a band of kobolds at 10th level don't expect them to be a challange or to get any XP for killing them."

This should encourage players to do a couple of things. First is to plan on a variety of ways to meet challanges. That means those ranks in bluff, diplomacy, and sense motive aren't going to go to waste and enchantment spells are very useful. It encourages them to think creatively and pay attention to the world around them.

In game there should be multiple ways for smart players/PCs to realize that something is going to be to much of a challange, or not enought of one, for them. Let them hear rumors or reports from different areas, make Knowledge (X) checks for them and tell them what their PCs know about a particular thing, or have physical signs that they can observe that allow them to judge the nature of the kinds of threats they will face in an area (a giant foot print, the signs of dragon breat weapons being used, or an obviously kobold made spear left in a looted farm house). You should also make it possible for them to deal with encounters in ways that dont require fighting. Either allow them an opportunity to retreat or make some other plan. IOW don't say "You see a giant, roll iniative." That tells the players that the giant is going to attack them. Maybe he wont. Maybe he is asleep, maybe he is hurt and if the cleric heals him he will go away and leave the village alone, maybe he is looking for soemthing and the PCs can get it for him, etc. Give them the opportunity to deal with higher EL events in creative ways. The same applies for those challanges that are too easy. Personally I think that its good for PCs to occasionally wipe the floor with an opponent. Show they are the powerful butt-kicking heroes they want to be. But repeatatvie encounters would get dull quickly. Handwave them, and dont give out XP or significant loot, or make them an opportunity for something else to happen. Maybe the band of kobolds have a sorcerer who can detect magic at will. He sees the PCs and realizes that his clan is outmatched - they surrender to the great and powerful ones and beg them to spare their lives. They agree to give them all their treasure, which just happens to have been stolen from them by an evil Troll Blackguard. Or they start worshipping the sorcerer PC and become equal parts help and hinderance as they go into town shouting that all should bow low before the dragonblooded god that walks the earth.

Don't change the CR of things just becuase the PCs level up, or at least don't do it always. The bandit king that would have been an appropriate 3rd level encounter is going to be gaining levels of his own if the PCs don't deal with him - it makes sense in game because in a way he is an adventurer too. Having an isolated band of goblins doing that doesnt. Do give the players a chance to have a creative and fun encounter whereevr they go. Don't be afraid to kill PCs when they do something stupid. Do warn them off, in game and out of game, when they are wasting their time in the valley of the 1st level commoner kobolds.
 

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