Friday, September 12, 2008

How I discovered sandbox campaigning

When I got back into playing D&D in 2005 after a long haitus, I wanted to dungeon crawl. I had started reading Knights of the Dinner Table comic book and it made me nostalgic for the game session of my youth in the 1980s. So I was happy to join up with a group that had started delving into a couple of the famous modules by Necromancer Games, Tomb of Abysthor and Rappan Athuk. Although I ended up leaving that group for various reasons, I did appreciate the manner in which they approached their campaign. Even though they were using 3.5e rules, they were playing D&D the old school way. And it seems that this year a term for this mode of play has developed among various D&D bloggers: the sandbox campaign.

Back in the 1980s, I usually played modules as one-shot adventures. I don't recall playing a character through more than one module. However, I was fascinated by Darlene's map of Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk. It is a hex map. There are specific rules in the 1e DMG for hex mapping campaign worlds. But I had never actually played a campaign with that attitude towards personal player freedom.

I'll never forget an occasion in the late '80s when I attended a party at an older gamer's house. I was in my teens and had played D&D for several years. This guy was in his forties. In one of his rooms he had a very large hand-drawn campaign hex map up on the wall. I asked him about it and to my surprise he told me that it was an old D&D campaign that he and some others had played many years before. Presumably during the '70s when the original D&D rules were published. Ever since then, I had wondered what it would be like to play such a campaign.

Last year, when I wanted to start up my own D&D group, I wanted to do just that. I wanted to run a campaign world of my own design. It was explained to my players that I was going to start them off with an old published module and that their adventures would lead them elsewhere. I also tried to emphasize that they were free to do what they liked. I studied 3.5e rules and prepared encounters. I developed a quasi-Cthulhu story arc that I knew my players would appreciate. It seemed that the so-called adventure path style of gaming was the latest evolution of RPG.

The adventure path is a term that I think was coined by the writers of Dungeon magazine for their series of published adventures. Over the years, I had taken for granted that RPGs were all about story. An improvisational story in which the players helped to construct. Although the players created their own tone and style, there was always required an overall story arc that was provided by the game master. One of the initial reason why I ditched D&D back in the '90s was because of what I perceived to be a limitation of style. RPGs, I thought, were more than hack-and-slash. Stories were important!

Thus I concocted a campaign with a story arc. And I found that I hated it. I realized that no matter how much I dressed it up, this adventure path method of play was nothing more than railroading. With the 3.5 rules, I spent too much time preparing encounters. Since there is no way of predicting which way the players would go, I had to put a great deal of preparation for contingencies. And those contingencies had to have the primary goal of keeping the players on the adventure path's track. To me, it felt dirty and dishonest. Like I was rigging the game. What was the point? Where was the challenge?

This was my epiphany. I subconciously realized that adventure paths dictated avoiding the dreaded Total Party Kill. This was no longer a challenging game for the palyers. Sure, the adventure path is entertaining. But if a DM spends time and money preparing a complicated story arc, he will naturally have the tendency to spare the PCs in order to complete that story. The players will always be victorious. Where's the challenge in that?

When I started my D&D Meetup group, I stated from the outset that I wanted to run a do-it-yourself campaign. I would provide various adventure hooks or knowledge of such-and-such nearby dungeon. But I wouldn't tell them what to do.

As I explained elsewhere, the Meetup group didn't work out for various reasons. Scheduling was the main problem for each individual player. One of the most loyal attendies listened carefully to what I was looking for in a campaign. I lamented that I was unable to keep a weekly campaign going if people were not going to show up regularly. I wanted the players to be able to explore and do what they want, to build strongholds, to create wizardy schools, to build great temples, to start thieves guilds. I wanted to make dungeons and adventures available to the players but not require them to follow a specific story path. I said I wanted to run a game like the ones that they had in the old days.

That loyal player recommended that I read a couple of blogs about something that's been termed, "sandbox campaign."

Yes, that's exactly what I'm looking for. And I've decided that this is the only way I'm ever going to play an RPG from now on.

(For further reading on sandbox campaigns, I recommend Alex Schroeder's post on the subject and its related links.


Mark said...

Great blog man!

I have two long campaigns (5 years each) and they were both sandbox and I didn't even know it. ;)

First was 5 years in Lankhmar (1st & 2nd Edition) and a Forgotten Realms campaign in Western Heartlands.

In both cases, I rarely provided adventures that were set out for the group unless they stumbled on them.

In that respect, I learned nto to invest TOO much time in adventure creation as they tended to be dense and miss/ignore some adventure hooks completely.

That is the only weakness of sandbox campaigns in my opinion.

Cheers & keep up the blogging!

M.gunnerQuist said...

The trick is to have very general preparation and a knack for improvisation.

For example, there is no need to prepare stats for all NPCs. This is something that the 4e rules suggests. And that's a good thing.

Jonathan said...

This is great writing! Thanks for the addition to my notes on sandboxing. Acutally - i just posted something about this over at The Core Mechanic - I'll edit that post and add a linkback to this blog.

is this blog new? or did I just miss it?

in any case, Hello!

M.gunnerQuist said...

This is a new blog. I was inspired by James Maliszewski's blog, Grognardia. I sometimes post comments there.

Craig J. Brain said...

I got a bit fed up by the poor (or rather, over complex) definitions being used and have started a forum to try to translate this for old school gamers at:

I am hoping to get some constructive and helpful info from this.

Craig J. Brain

Questing GM said...


Great 1st post! (if i'm not mistaken).

I see that everyone's into the whole sandboxing thing and I think you've just inspired me to a new train of thought.

Thanks and keep up the good writing!