Friday, April 3, 2009

How I play in the sandbox (campaign)

Today I got a PM through a gamer forum that I frequent. In it, a fellow gamer asked me about sandbox campaign game play. There has been much talk about sandbox campaigns on various old school blogs. But I'm not sure that has been a lot of explicit detail about exactly how these sandbox campaigns develop. I learn best by example. So I tried to to answer with examples from my current experiment with old school gaming, Blue Dancer. My PM reply turned into a very long message. And so to make it worth my while, I've edited a version for this blog.

My fellow gamer wrote:

I wanted to ask you something about "sandbox" style campaigns. Do you still have events going on in the background that may or may not influence the PC's? What about the PC's influencing those events?

Where I am going with this is that I too often run into the pitfalls of the story arc. It sounds great at first, but the PC's don't get that one clue they should have, or they don't kill the guy they should have, or maybe they killed somebody they SHOULDN'T have.
In answer to the question, I do not have events going on in the background that may or may not affect the PCs. At least, not at first. And maybe not the way one would expect. Instead, I have factions of monsters and NPCs that are set in place within the campaign world that are poised to react to the PCs if they are encountered. From there, stories might spontaneously generate themselves through the improvisation of both the PCs and the DM.

For example, I've started a 1e campaign with some folks I met through KnoxGamers. I have Castle Xeva, a tent pole mega-dungeon, outlined but I've only mapped out a couple of levels. At the beginning, I told the players that one of them acquired a map to a secret entrance. We had the obligatory tavern scene. They were expecting various adventure hooks but I gave them none. The way was paved to the entrance of the dungeon. I had random lists of various types of names that I could fish from to assign to NPCs. On the way to the dungeon, I rolled a random encounter in the woods. Goblins! They laid ambush. I was surprised that they took one goblin prisoner and questioned him. I had absolutely positively nothing prepared. I improvised. The goblin said he was part of a patrol sent out from the castle dungeon (where the party was going). While the PCs were arguing about whether or not to slay the goblin, a treant snatched the goblin and ran off into the woods. This gave me ideas about where the goblin came from, what the treant was up to, and what might happen in the future.

When they got to the castle's dungeon, I still hadn't filled all the rooms with details, monsters, and traps. I had noted some of the monsters near the entrance. When the players traveled beyond what I noted, I randomly picked out appropriately powerful monsters and improvised. Their tentative explorations have given me ideas about how to flesh out the dungeon further. The PCs have been discussing their theories about how the various monster factions within the dungeon are interacting based upon my sparse (and sometimes improvised) hints. Privately, I've been taking note and preparing for future adventures.

I've repeatedly explained to the PCs that I would not be easy on them. I would not look the other way at bad dice rolls. Thus they burst into a goblin training room without listening at the door and two of their characters went down. They rest barely managed to escape and regroup. Were the players upset? Absolutely not. They all had a good laugh and were ready to roll up new characters. But, since the players were taken prisoner and not permanently destroyed, I told them to hang on until the next session. You see, I had some vague ideas about how the PCs could find their way out of this mess.

In their previous encounter with goblins, one of the players asked if they bore a common symbol on their armor or shields. Perhaps this would indicated what tribe they were from or what organization they represented. That caught me off guard and so I said they did not wear any sort of symbol. But that gave me ideas for the future. When they encountered goblins in the dungeon, I said that they all had white symbols on their armor.

The following week, I introduced an NPC thief, a character I had used last year in this same campaign world but with a different group. With her help, the PCs escaped. The NPC thief promised that she could repay them by introducing the party to a powerful magic-user that she knew in the nearby capital city. (Yet another character I used in a previous campaign.)

When the PCs left the dungeon, they encountered an elf and a treant holding a tied-up goblin. The elf explained that he was a ranger from a nearby faerie city in the woods to the north-east (the name of which I randomly chose from a list right there at the table while we were playing). The treant, of course, was the one they had encountered before entering the dungeon. The elf explained that the goblin was not from the castle dungeon but was actually from a tribe that had occupied a nearby abandoned manor house somewhere to the west. This explained the goblin's lack of identifying symbol. The PCs decided to go check it out next time. This has somewhat eased up on my session prep because I plan to use an existing published module. That's why they called them modules, after all. So you could modularly insert them into any campaign world.

At the beginning of the campaign, all I had prepared were some spare dungeon notes and some general ideas about the surrounding wilderness. There were no adventure hooks other than the map to the secret dungeon entrance. Now that they are returning to town for the first time, they have at least three or four choices of where they could take their adventures. My main castle mega-dungeon is, of course, the central focus of my campaign and allows for endless adventure possibilities. But there are other places that they can now explore.

What matters is that the PCs are given an adventure that proceeds at an interesting pace. And at their own pace. What matters is that they have monsters to slay, traps to avoid, treasure to find, and NPCs with whom to interact. What matters is that each player can be given challenges appropriate to their PCs' classes. Their ultimate goal is to reach higher levels so that they may attract henchmen, build strongholds, create temples, start guilds, or whatever the players want to do. Each class has an endgame that is specified in the earliest editions of D&D but were abandoned in later editions. PCs need to be able to carve out their niche in the untamed chaotic wilderness between the "points of light" that are the waning remnants of lawful civilization. How they do it is up to them. It's up to the DM to provide realistic obstacles to whatever the players want to do. But a DM planning out every last level and room of a dungeon that the PCs might not completely explore is folly.

Along with rule books full of monsters to fight, spells to cast, treasure to loot, and magic items to wield, all of these parameters allow the DM to easily improvise a "story" right there on the spot as they are playing the game. Based on what happens in previous sessions, further story developments can be improvised. As more information about the game world is accumulated, the easier it is to improvise new story developments.

When I started my recent campaign, I had no idea that they would encounter some goblins in the woods. But this inspired the use of the module with the goblin-infested manor house that the PCs can explore. The treant encounter, which I had vaguely planned before the start of the campaign, inspired a possible future plot development and a "mission" that the PCs can complete. The elf encounter, which I had also vaguely planned before the start of the campaign, might allow potential allies for the PCs. The thief that helped their escape created a powerful connection in the nearby city. But I hadn't planned this connection at any time before the PCs were captured by the goblins. And the big bad guy? He/she/it is within the castle ruins and has yet to notice the PCs. I'm not even sure about the agenda of all the factions yet. Whatever it is, it's up to the players (and the DM) to figure it out. There is always a possibility that the players will figure out the bad guy's nefarious plot before the DM!

With sandbox campaigns, there is no railroading. The possibility of the PCs doing or saying the wrong thing is irrelevant. Excessive game world design is pointless. It's good to have some extremely general details worked out about what's nearby the first dungeon that the players explore. But there is no point in planning out agendas and rolling up NPCs until you know that the players are going to have anything to do with them in any significant way. Over time, NPCs flesh themselves out. Plots play themselves out in an improvisational manner. The so-called "plot" of the campaign could very well result in Total Party Kill. So be it! It is a game, after all. Adventure paths with story arcs are what I call "gaming entertainment" and are not actually games in the true sense of the word. The players can roll up new characters. And when they do, the DM already has the campaign world fleshed out even more than when the group first started out. It gets easier and the pace of the game moves faster than before because both the DM and the players are already familiar with the established stories of previous game sessions. I had already played a campaign with another group within this game world and so I have several characters that I can call upon as NPCs. Back when I still thought campaigns needed story arcs, I had even developed a rough outline of a world-shaking event for this campaign world. Will that story develop in this campaign? Only if it seems relevant to the actions of the PCs. I could care less if they pursue that plot hook.

My gamer friend also asked me:

Anyway, I was just wondering more about this free form stuff. Are you running anything like this during the 3 River Con? If so, I would be very interested in playing or, if you are already full, just observing.
As for running a sandbox campaign at 3 River Con, I don't think that will happen. The very nature of a sandbox campaign is that it's a multi-session thing that snowballs over time. Gygax and all the rest of the old schoolers carefully prepared adventures in advance for their convention games. These were known as tournaments and even had their own scoring system.

It's been theorized that Gygax's 1st edition AD&D was actually a formalized version of the original edition in order to be used for tournament play. (James M. over at Grognardia mentioned this but I can't find the specific post at the moment.) Many of the tournament games from way back when were eventually published as some of the famous modules that we know today. This probably encouraged gamers everywhere to emulate the style of carefully pre-planned modules and eventually encouraged the development of adventure paths with story arcs. I don't think there was ever a formal presentation or "how-to" guide for playing RPGs like they did back in the early days. Lately, folks like me have been re-examining what playing D&D is really all about. I've been wondering about this for the last couple of years. To my delight, I've found through the magic of the internet that there are many other people who are of a like mind. Thus, we seem to be having an "old school renaissance."


kaeosdad said...

Hey, I started a 4e sandbox game recently. It's only been a couple sessions but it seems to be going good so far. I know you gave up on 4e but I think the rules system has potential for sandbox gaming.

Check it out @

I use a few house rules to give more support to the sandbox campaign style but it's still pretty early in the campaign.

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