To my mind a good sandbox campaign doesn’t just plop the PCs down and tell them to find some way to entertain themselves. A good sandbox is seeded with points of interest to give the PCs something to start with. The PCs can find their own trouble after that, but they need to know something of their surroundings to be able to do so.
My library has some good resources on sandbox campaign design, and I’m going to pick and choose some of the bits I like best.
- From Kevin Crawford (Sine Nomine Publishing), An Echo, Resounding: A Sourcebook for Lordship and War has a few things.
- Keep the initial campaign region to about 40,000 square miles (200 mile square).
- Points of interest come in several types: population centres, ruins, resources, and lairs.
- Population centres, ruins, and resources can have ‘obstacles’, things that need to be overcome before they can be claimed or exploited. Lairs basically are obstacles, to everything around them.
- Build a Hall of Infamy, a hierarchy of threats that can be alluded to and foreshadowed, so the big bads don’t come a surprise later.
- Again from Kevin Crawford, this time from Red Tide: Campaign Sourcebook and Sandbox Toolkit:
- A bit of advice I must always try to keep in mind: “Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session.” I have a habit of taking big bites, and I need to not do that. This is a sandbox and I can expect the PCs to go anywhere but where I have prepared for… so don’t.
- Overlapping the points of interest concepts from An Echo, Resounding, ‘sites’. Court sites, borderland sites, city sites, and ruin sites. I’ll likely use these to flesh out points of interest above.
- TAGS! Red Tide identifies borderland and city ‘tags’ that each identify a situation that could lead to adventure scenarios. Bad Water, Bungling Leadership, Exiled Magistrate, and so on. Each tag identifies ‘enemies’ (likely adversaries to the PCs), ‘friends’ (likely allies or sympathetic characters), ‘complications’ (twists — the adversary is right!), ‘things’ objects or events that could be associated with the situation, and ‘places’ (likely locations for recurring or important scenes). I love this mechanism and I can see using them to flesh out obstacles.
- Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number is probably most useful in devising ages of history than it is for defining aspects of the sandbox as it is today.
- Some world tags might be applicable to ‘modern regions’, but look more suited to describing conditions when the world was different. They might serve to identify some critical events during those times, also.
- The temperature and population tables might be useful, the tech level table would probably need to be adapted or replaced.
- Kevin Crawford’s Worlds Without Number looks more useful than Stars Without Number, being focused on a single world with more standard fantasy (rather than science fantasy) elements.
- The section on… actually, the whole “Creating Your Campaign” chapter.
- And the “chapter on “Creating Adventures” chapter, which outlines several kinds of challenges: combat, exploration, investigation, and social.
- I think this might be the “integrated sandbox book” I have been hoping Kevin would put together. It has some trappings I don’t need, mostly around higher tech, but I can work around that.
- Pelgrane Press‘s 13th Age doesn’t seem to lean so hard into sandbox play, but it does have something I very much like: icons.
- Icons are probably the defining element of this game and setting. I’ve explored icons in a sandbox campaign before, and while I think it unlikely I will use these icons again — they don’t really fit the way I see this sandbox shaping up — I certainly expect I’ll want something like this.
- I’m not entirely certain yet how these interact with the Hall of Infamy from An Echo, Resounding. First instinct is that each icon could be the head of a Hall of Infamy, but we’ll see how it comes together.
- From The Goat’s Head, Izirion’s Enchiridion of the West Marches is all about running a West Marches-style in D&D 5e.
- This book leans harder into old school play than even I want to, with lots of consideration around basic survival (food, exposure, getting lost or not). I can imagine skipping much of the chapter on survival and travel.
- The worldbuilding chapter, on the other hand, gets into some very good material on developing regions, factions, and dungeons, and I can see using this a fair bit.
- The chapter on Narrative is quite a bit shorter but also has some good overarching advice, both on how to let the game happen and how to tie in lore and how the pieces the PCs find fit together.
- From Modiphius, in particular the 2d20 Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of books, there is quite a bit that can work here. This game is centered on ‘pulp stories’, which is to say largely episodic and often disconnected… which actually makes the tools still quite useful to me.
- Of specific note, Ancient Ruins & Cursed Cities has some great material to help flesh out an adventuring site. The first step of procedurally (i.e. randomly) creating a ruin starts with identifying the age of origin, which guides to likely obstacles and foes. I’d probably want to expand this concept. I can see other things that would be affected by the age of origin. There are other tools here that are more generic (ruin size, area types and descriptors) but still useful.
- The Conan: Gamemaster Screen + Gamemaster Toolkit has good tools for fleshing out an actual ‘adventure’ or scenario to be resolved. This starts with an adventure title (always a bonus), setting an opening scene, providing an immediate hook, an antagonist and what they want, and a bunch of other supporting tables and material. I can see relating this to tags from Red Tide.
- I think Conan: Nameless Cults has little of help to me mechanically or procedurally, but I feel it does a good job showing me how I might want to flesh things out narratively.
- Technically from Mongoose (but acquired via Modiphius as part of their Kickstarter for Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of because Mongoose no longer holds the license)
- The “Creating Ruins” chapter of Ruins of Hyboria looks much like the similar chapter (as one would expect) in Ancient Ruins & Cursed Cities. It seems to be less bound to the setting (apart from naming ethnic groups or nationalities, and expands rather more on the relatively generic bits. This might be rather more suited to my purpose than the Modiphius version, I’m glad I thought to check.
- It looks like Catacombs of Hyboria might serve a similar purpose for natural (caves and caverns) underground areas. There’s less to be said because they do not tend to have purpose the way ruins did (before they were ruins), but it’ll be worth looking more closely at when I get there.
- Similarly, Cities of Hyboria has a few dozen pages of material for fleshing out settlements. They might even go to greater detail than I need, but I see elements I’ll want to look into.
- Last, certainly not least, Mythmere‘s Tome of Adventure Design.
- This book does not really provide the same sort of advice for sandbox construction. However, it is chock full of tables useful for prompting ideas or fleshing out topics.
I’d started this post to describe the structure I’d be applying in my Hex Marches sandbox, but in itemizing the resources so I could point back at them as to why I made the decisions I did, I realized I had enough to warrant it’s own post.
Next post I’ll get into what I cam here to do.