Monday, 21 November 2011

S is for Sandbox Part III: Initial Set Up For Sandbox Games (3): An Overview of the Region

Every area designed for a sandbox occurs as part of a larger whole, and this is no less true for the initial area than for any other.  Nothing exists in isolation.  Unless your starting area is hermetically sealed from the rest of your world – in which case, your starting area is the totality of your world! – this is as true for the game as it is for real life.  Merchant caravans come from somewhere, pirates sell their goods in some distant port.  Even the distant past is part of the larger picture….Who made that castle whose ruins the player characters are busy plundering?

It is important, therefore, to have a general overview of the region that the initial sandbox area is part of.

Two quick notes:

(1)  I have recently been involved in a discussion on DragonsFoot, where one poster seemed to believe that the “box” was an operative part of the term “sandbox” as it applies to role-playing games.  I reject this utterly.  There is, of necessity, an edge to the region currently created by the Game Master and/or explored by the players in a sandbox game – but this edge exists neither to keep the world out, or to keep the players in.  It is just the edge of the work thus far, a frontier that is always ready for expansion!

(2)  Although the last few blog posts have been written as occurring sequentially, there is no reason to do the work in this way.  So long as the necessary things get done, it doesn’t matter what order you do them in.  In fact, the work will be better for as much intersection between steps as possible.  Until the starting area is presented as “ready” by you, the Game Master, everything is fluid.  You should let yourself be inspired by all parts of the work, and you should be willing to go back and adjust stuff, add material, and even throw out things to make a more satisfying whole!

Concentrate first on immediate needs first.

The purpose of an overview is to have answers ready for the most obvious questions that the players are going to ask, while also having in place a vision that both inspires and grounds your imagination.  You can draw a sort of vague relationship map of the surrounding area, noting only major towns, cities, and landscape features.  Feel free to name the country that the starting area is part of, determine the basic gist of the government, and name the other countries it is immediately adjacent to (or otherwise in contact with).  Decide if their relations are currently friendly or not.

You should have some idea of the major religion(s) in the region your starting area falls within, as well as what type of calendar is in use.  Noting the major holidays is also a good idea.  Make certain you know what year it is!  It is a good idea, as well, to know what event the year is counted from.

Celestially, you will want to know if there is more than one sun, or moon, and, if your world uses a system of astrology, what the major signs of its zodiac are.  You may also want to name other known planets or important astronomical/astrological features.  For example, in the northern hemisphere on Earth, you would want to mention the Big and Little Dippers, Polaris, and Orion.  I like to include the phases of the moon(s) on my calendars, as this prevents me from slipping up.  It also helps me keep track of when creatures such as lycanthropes are more active.

What trade goods are available, and where are they coming from?  You don’t need to know everything here, but 3-5 samples (good cloth, for example, or wine; ivory, silk, and gemstones; tobacco; etc.).  This will help you when you are creating treasures, stocking trading posts, and detailing merchant caravans.

Who lived here in the past?  Name 2-3 ancient peoples who are now gone, and give each one 2-3 defining characteristics.  These should be characteristics that remain persistent in the campaign milieu.  For example, in one of my own games, the ancient Esk made great use of amber beads in their decorative work, and raised barrows and monoliths now associated with the fey.  The Partheloneons, on the other hand, were pseudo-Roman militants who delved too deeply into Things Man Was Not Meant to Know (i.e., Lovecraftian mythos stuff). 

 Not only does this sort of work add realism to the game, but it allows you to create undead monsters which really feel like they come from earlier times.  Just as, in a contemporary setting, it is cooler to run into an ancient Aztec vampire or Egyptian mummy than it is to run into the ghost of Joe Modern, it is cooler in a fantasy milieu to interact with the past when you encounter such ancient creatures.  Likewise, folkloric fey often partake of the dress and mannerisms of a bygone age…these details help faeries seem different than contemporary men.

Consider, too, that some player characters might be members of long-lived races, such as elves, whose starting ages make it possible that they were alive when the ancient peoples went away!

Your own particular gaming group will have its own special interests; try to anticipate the questions that the players are likely to raise, and make sure that you have some form of answer available (even if you don’t intend to supply it to them right away!). 

After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most.  Or, take a break if nothing is particularly interesting to you.

This advice never changes….

Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.

…… long as you keep this advice in mind.

You should assume that your world is mostly Earth-like, except in those places where you intentionally create differences.  Thus, in addition to whatever fantastic trees you create, there will be oaks, elms, willows, and pines.  That there will be trees, even, is something that the players ought to be able to assume, unless you tell them otherwise.

If you are going to invent other details, make sure that you use them.  On the Plain of Prax, the grasses are normal, terrestrial grasses, except those unusual ones that you specify.  Those unusual ones you specify should be noteworthy in some way.  They should have an effect on game play (even if that effect is not, strictly speaking, mechanical).  You should get at least twice the time in play value as you spend in coming up with these details.

If you decide that there is a known symbol associated with an evil cult, make sure to use that symbol in concrete ways.  Knowing that symbol should allow the players to (potentially) predict the layout of an area, or even of a secret door.  For example, a cult that is known to use the number three repeatedly can have a room with two obvious doors…a clue that there is another, non-obvious door in the area.  If you spend the time to write it up, also spend the time to use it in every possible way you can think of!  Get the highest yield you can from your design work.


Finally, you have to decide how much of this information to pass on to your players.  My advice is, at the start of the game, very little indeed.  Rather, as you write the background of your world, assume that the players know all the background you do, and refer to it as you would oak trees, bears, and France.  Then let them ask questions as they become interested. 

Put the ball in their court in this way, and they may actually listen to the answers!

Make the answers useful to know within the context of the game milieu, and they may actually be eager to learn more.

Next:  Initial Adventure Sites.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

S is for Sandbox Part III: Initial Set Up For Sandbox Games (3): An interesting outdoors area to explore

In some cases, and in particular in modules like T1 Village of Hommlet and N1 Cult of the Reptile God, the outdoors area is sketchy at best, and non-existent at worst.   As only one adventure site is presented, it is imagined that travel from the base of operations to the adventure site is relatively inconsequential.  You can start a game this way – even a sandbox-style game (so long as the options then open out from those initial choices) but doing so is not preferable. 

If you contrast the above modules with B2 Keep on the Borderlands, The Lost City of Barakus, and Rappan Athuk Reloaded, or similar modules, the appeal of having a well-developed and interesting outdoors area to explore ought to be immediately apparent.  If nothing else, such areas offer players a choice beyond simply travelling to the nearby ruins.  And, as described in previous posts, the point of table top role-playing games is the ability to make choices that matter.  And that means that, the more player choices determine what the play experience actually is, the less the milieu will seem to be “videogamey”.

The key to making the outdoors area work is to make it interesting.  An interesting wilderness area offers challenges, yes….but it also offers landmarks to navigate by, clues that help supply context for choices, and descriptive elements akin to the “dungeon dressing” in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide.  A large part of wilderness adventuring is also dealing with random encounters.  In a way, these things are all part of the “challenge”, but they are also part of making the campaign milieu seem to “breath”.

Concentrate first on immediate needs first.

1A.  Draw a wilderness map.  Either place your initial base of operations near the centre, or ensure that there are strong obstacles (such as deserts, high mountains, etc.) that prevent easy travel  into unmapped regions.  Ensure that your map includes all the features you want in your initial area.  I.e., if you want an element of oceans and coastlines, make sure that you include these elements.

If you can obtain numbered hex paper, it will be easier to key the areas, and you can make changes related to the location of lairs, monsters, etc., without having to change your map.   For an initial play area, a small scale is desirable – an area comprising no more than a week’s travel in all directions, with whatever means the Player Characters are likely to have available.  Mapping the area the characters can reach in three game days is often sufficient.

I prefer to make these maps on a 1 hex = 5 miles scale.  This is a small enough scale to note interesting features, and large enough that the initial map need be no larger than a single sheet of hex paper.  You may wish to experiment with larger or smaller scales. 

For important regions, I will make “nested hex” paper, where the larger hexes match the initial map, and the smaller hexes within are scaled at 1 hex = 1 mile.  This can give a fairly comprehensive picture of an important location.

1B.  Decide the basic parameters of the objects on the map you drew.  It isn’t enough to show a stream; you want to individuate this stream from the others on your map.  If the party gets lost, and comes across the stream, they should be able to get some idea where they are from how the stream itself is described.  Likewise, decide if woods are heavy or light, if grasslands are rolling or not.  Are these hills craggy and full of small caves?  Are those hills forested, with gentle slopes?  The level of detail that JRRT gives in The Hobbit is about perfect for this.

1C.  Decide where your adventure locations will be, and roughly what sorts of adventure locations they are going to be.  If you will recall, we are considering at least three major and six minor adventure locations.  A major location may be a dungeon, a ruin, a lost city, an enchanted island, or whatever else you can imagine.  A minor location may be a ruined farmhouse, a minor cave system, etc.  In general, a major location may take several  sessions to explore, while a minor location will only take about 1 game session (or less!).

Consider how these sites will affect the areas around them.  Brainstorm a list of clues pointing to the location’s existence, placement, and nature, as well as to any creatures that might have a local impact on the environment.  You will want to liberally sprinkle these clues around the adventure site, as far abroad as you think believable, to aid the players in making choices.  Basically, you are providing context here.

If you imagine the story of Little Red Riding Hood, it is the foreknowledge of the wolf in Granny’s bed that gives the story its tension.  Likewise, in any movie or novel, it is our ability to anticipate what may happen that makes us pay attention.  Many first time Game Masters think it important to hide clues from their players.  The reality is actually quite the reverse – the more clues the players have, the better!  Making decisions while anticipating what may occur is far more engaging than making decisions in the dark and hoping for the best.

1D.  Place a few lairs of creatures that are not full adventure sites.  They are just places where a creature may be found, analogous to a single room in a dungeon.  Likewise, you can place a few tricks, traps, and treasures without any creatures at all, just as if you were stocking a dungeon.

Don’t assume that all of these will be hostile encounters.  Some may begin neutral; some may be potential friends and allies.  Here woodsmen have a small encampment from which they range during daylight hours.  There a single fortified farmhouse is found in relative isolation.

Don’t be afraid to have these areas “bleed into” one another. 

Consider:  Crossing the Misty Mountains, the party encounters stone giants, which are largely disconnected from everything else.  However, when the party takes shelter in a cave, they unknowingly enter the Goblin Lair adventure site.  Escaping this, they encounter a “potential landslide” natural trap, and stumble into a gathering place of wolves….which is also the destination of the goblins they escaped because the wolves and goblins are linked.  The disturbance caused by this encounter triggers a nearby lair – that of the Lord of Eagles.  And so on.

1E.  Place other settlements, if desired.  If you place nearby villages and settlements, give them the same sort of development that you did the initial base of operations….but, in each case, do about 1/4 of the detail you did previously.  You can always add detail if the players are interested; if not, you need do no more.

1F.  Create basic encounter tables for random encounters.  These should reflect your design work to this point, indicating the creatures and peoples living in your wilderness area.  Your encounter tables can and should include more than simply one fight after another.  Normal animals, for instance, should be included both in description of the wilderness, and in “encounters”.

You can also create a list of “specials” that can occur – random encounters that are either essentially dressing (a cart fallen over and half-buried in mud/vegetation, with a broken axle) or an analogue to a dungeon room (i.e., fully described creatures with or without treasure, possibly a mixed group, possibly not, maybe a trick or a trap, etc.).

There are many products with random tables that can help you with this work.  The random ruins tables in Wilderlands of High Fantasy are of much use, for example, and that product also includes a lot of examples of potential wilderness encounters and lairs.

After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most.  Or, take a break if nothing is particularly interesting to you.

As before, once you’ve completed the most important work, do what interests you.  No level of detail is too great, if you are creating that detail because you want to.  But, if more detail doesn’t interest you at the moment, take a break.

The wilderness area should be in constant motion.  Refine your encounter tables.  Create more specials.  Move new creatures into the area, and change the status of those you’ve already placed.  Consider how things interact, and how you can supply more context or more conflict.

Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.

As in the previous post, keep in mind Ray Winninger’s Rule, “Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.”

Individual lairs are not necessarily significant, unless the creatures therein are friendly enough, numerous enough, or powerful enough to last beyond a single encounter.  Instead, consider the secrets of particular forested regions, hills, lakes, ponds, and beaches.  Whatever is likely to stay in the campaign milieu and have replay value.

Remember, if you accept my rule that “Whenever you devise a major piece of the campaign world, always consider how that piece can be used for replay value” you should also accept the converse:  “Whatever has little or no replay value shouldn’t be developed more than necessary”.


Sometimes it may seem that the outdoors areas are analogous to the corridors in a dungeon – just something that separates the more interesting rooms/encounters.  This is, of course, somewhat true, just as it is often true of a dungeon corridor, and for much the same reason – the wilderness and the corridors are seldom well developed. 

But, of course, the condition of the dungeon corridors can give a major indication about the nature of what is to be found within the rooms.  Also, dungeon corridors can be encounter areas in their own right, with creatures living in them, or with tricks and/or traps of their own.  Likewise the wilderness.

No one suggests that every corridor in a 20-level megadungeon complex should be individually keyed.  Likewise, no one is suggesting that every tree and flower, every rill and sand dune, of the wilderness need be detailed.  Indeed, doing so would violate the “Whatever has little or no replay value shouldn’t be developed more than necessary” rule to no one’s benefit.

In the wilderness, as with corridors, a strong overview and an occasional reminder, together with a little development, can go a very long way.

Next:  An overview of the region.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

S is for Sandbox Part III: Initial Set Up For Sandbox Games (2): Initial Base of Operations

I have noticed a number of threads on various RPG sites that seem to relate, at least tangentially, to this discussion.  In some, the idea of “story” (things happen for an understandable reason, from cause to effect, to form a narrative) and “story” (the GM determines what overarching choices the players will make) are conflated, so as to claim that if you don’t have the second type of “story”, you cannot have the first.  This is obviously poppycock, but there you have it.

The “I don’t know what you mean by X” (and X in this case by either a sandbox or a railroad) meme has also made its standard appearance, in its standard form of “Although I don’t understand what you mean by X, here is why you are wrong about what you mean.”  Again, poppycock, and the first part of the meme (“I don’t understand what is meant by X”) should serve to automatically discount any authority on the part of the speaker as to whether what is meant is correct or not.

Of course, if you are not interested in sandbox-style play, you should play what you want.  Likewise, if you are not interested in railroads/linear play, you should avoid them.  But let’s not pretend that they are the same thing, or that the difference is really all that hard to understand….hmm?

However, let us assume (again) that you are interested in setting up a sandbox.  Part of this is setting up the initial base of operations, which is what the remainder of this post is about.

The initial base of operations is most often a small settlement, near the borders of a dangerous area in which adventures can be had.  The base is mostly safe, and offers the PCs a haven to rest, as well as resources to adventure – sales of weapons, armour, and other gear; perhaps magical healing; perhaps an NPC or two who can help round out a party, or who can offer useful advice.  This is the model of the classic TSR modules, Keep on the Borderland and Village of Hommlet.

In his mostly excellent column, Dungeoncraft, Ray Winninger listed the “First Rule of Dungeoncraft:  Never force yourself to create more than you must” and suggests that failure to follow that rule has been the downfall of many campaigns. 

Now, Mr. Winninger offers a lot of excellent advice in his columns, but I’m going to caution you to not take this one at face value.  Or, at least, not to do so without first considering exactly what this rule is saying.  For example, it suggests that the prospective GM actually knows what is needed, and imagining that this is so takes one into the linear adventure path all too easily. 

Also, it is all too easy to read “Never force yourself to create more than you must” as “Never create more than you must” – I’ve had that argument several times on RPG boards, and it rises hydra-like every time you think it is truly slain – and it is that “force yourself” that is actually important in the rule.  Don’t burn yourself out creating material that you don’t think you’re going to need, if it is not fun for you.  Don’t force yourself.

I would rephrase Mr. Winniger’s rule to two rules:

1.  Concentrate on immediate needs first, and

2.  After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most.  Or, take a break if nothing is particularly interesting to you.

Obviously, if you fail to do (1), then you don’t have the necessary material to play the game, and if you don’t do (2), GMing will become more of a chore than a joy.  That way GM burnout and ruined campaigns doth lie.

In my own “Rules”, I would include this as a salient one:  Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.  Actually, my goal when prepping is closer to “at least five hours of game time”.  These three rules together inform how I prep an initial base of operations.

(As an aside, there is a lot of “back-and-forthing” involved in setting up a sandbox milieu.  When you begin to design wilderness areas and adventure sites, you are going to reference and modify your initial base of operations.  If you are writing notes longhand, leave space for this.  I find that the computer is idea for this, but I still prefer to make handwritten notes first, as writing something down tends to imprint on the memory better than typing it up.  Seriously.  There have been studies.

You may also find that you are coming up with cool wilderness or adventure site ideas while working on the base of operations.  Write them down!  Let the work you are doing now inspire the work you will do in the future, and vice versa.)

(As a second aside, I would say that the Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time rule applies even when a GM decides to write a treatise on the wildflowers of some particular reason.  The key is to find reasons to make that work relevant, rather than just boring your players with pseudo-scholarship. 

Likewise, if you spend a minute deciding that “Bree-Yark” is goblin for “Hey Rube!” make sure that you also get at least two minutes’ worth of fun out of it at the gaming table.  Re-using lore is a good way to do that.  The first time, the PCs might think that “Bree-Yark” means “We surrender!”  The second time, they might know what it really means, and it might seem to be simply colour.  Still later, they might use the phrase to trick some goblins into thinking an intruder is coming from another direction.)

Concentrate on immediate needs first.

The immediate needs of a base of operation are determining the resources available to the PCs, including any possible spellcasting or magical resources (such as healing, or identify and other divination spells); determining what NPCs there are who might aid or hinder the PCs, and determining what threats, if any, exist within the settlement itself.  What is the overt power structure of the settlement?  Who is in charge, and who is known to be influential?

These are the things that players are likely to be interested in during the first game session or so.  As a result, they are the things that you need to know first.  You can get away with not naming every guardsman; you cannot get away without knowing whether or not a suit of chainmail or a lantern can be purchased.

“Background” NPCs can, likewise, be developed as needed, but you need to know the characters in the area, now, which can be especially helpful or useful.  This includes NPC adventurers that might offer the PCs advice, aid, or their direct services.  Some of these last NPCs should be normal folk who seek a better life (and therefore have no real class levels), and a very few should be “ringers” that are really baneful.  As a rule of thumb, for every ringer you include, ten NPCs must be on the up-and-up, or the players will (rightly!) stop trusting NPCs altogether.

Difficult NPCs might be ones who overcharge for services, are rival adventurers, are secret thieves or spies, etc.  Again, these folks are most effective when sparsely encountered, so the “No more than 1 for every 10 non-problem NPCs” rule should be followed.  Failing to include these types, though, makes the game lose some of its charm.  For many players, ferretting out the weasels is one of the joys in the game, as is rivalling with, and finally besting, a long-term foe. 

Remember that a “problem NPC” need not be evil – a rival adventurer can be honourable, graceful and courteous, never try to kill the PC, and even help the PC from time to time.  So long as there is a serious chance that he will get the treasure first, he can be effective.  Especially if the PCs occasionally get the chance to return the favour – both by scooping the loot, and by saving him from some danger!

 If you have players with a keen interest in anything else in particular, make sure you include addressing their interests in the “immediate needs” phase.  This is why so many commercial modules (ex. B2, T1, and N1) develop inns and taverns more than, say, the local tanner’s establishment.

In some cases, the PCs are intended to be would-be adventurers who come to the area to seek their fortunes.  In others, they are intended to be natives of the location.  If the PCs are natives of the location, you need to ensure that the support structures are in place to make this possible – for example, a temple of the PC cleric’s god, a more powerful wizard to have trained a fledgling magic-user, etc.  It is completely okay to say that some PCs start as locals, and others as migrants, if it doesn’t make sense that some PCs come from the starting area.

Adventure sites within the base – sewers, a haunted house, an abandoned mill – are good ways to allow a group to sort itself out with a minimum of risk.  Assuming the risks are minimal, which need not always be the case.  If you have such an area, you need only place it at the moment.  When we discuss filling in initial adventure sites, we will come back to this topic.

After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most.

Once you’ve completed the most important work, do what interests you.  No level of detail is too great, if you are creating that detail because you want to.  But, if more detail doesn’t interest you at the moment, take a break.

Information about travellers at the inn, details of the local temple’s religion, quirky background NPCs, the hopes and dreams of the local blacksmith’s apprentice….all of this can make for interesting gaming, but only if you are actually interested enough to do the work with some flair.  Otherwise, you are better off “winging it” if the players inquire into these things…or, better yet, putting it off until you become interested in it.

Keep in mind, though, that the initial base of operations is the one “safe” place that the characters are likely to spend the most time in during the entire campaign.  Once the characters have outgrown it, they will also have outgrown the need to stop anywhere for as long a time.  Many things that can be glossed over in a town the PCs are likely to merely pass through – or even permanently live in – cannot as successfully be glossed in the initial base of operations.

This area is “home” to the PCs.  The more you work to make it feel like a real place, the more enjoyment your players will have.  Also, the more attached they will become to the game milieu, considering it “theirs” by proxy.   This is a good thing.  It is probably one of the most rewarding things a Game Master can experience.

Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.

Ray Winninger had another Rule, that I think is a good one:  “Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.”  To this I would add, “Whenever you devise a major piece of the campaign world, always consider how that piece can be used for replay value.”  Having secrets that the players can uncover can bring them back to a piece of the game milieu that you devised long ago, and that they thought they were done with.  It increases replay value.

Likewise, for each of the major NPCs and major resources in the base of operations, you want to create both at least one secret, and at least one connection to something else.  That something else can be inside the base of operations, but it can also be a connection to locations in the wilderness or in an adventure site.  For example, the local lord might desire some particular creature type for his menagerie, while another’s daughter went off with a band of adventurers to explore the Caverns of Deadly Doom, where her skeleton yet moulders. 

Remember, every time you get to reuse an element that you created previously – every time your hour’s work adds more at-table play time – you win.  If what happens in the wilderness sends the PCs back into a dungeon they’ve already visited, or back to see someone in town – you win.  If it makes the players even consider it, you win.  You are getting extra mileage out of your design work.

This is not to say that your goal is to frustrate players – it is not!  Rather, you wish to intrigue them, to offer them connections, and to reward them for paying attention to what is happening in the game milieu.


If it seems that these remarks apply only to a village in a wilderness, think again.  The base of operations could be a neighbourhood in a city, where the city becomes the “wilderness”.  Likewise, in a Stars Without Numbers campaign, the base of operations could be a spaceport, with the “wilderness” being the planetary body the characters begin play on.   The details change, but the basic ideas are still the same.

Next:  An interesting outdoors area to explore.