Unusual Rewards in the Sandbox

A-Z 2014 UThe other day I was working on The Keys of Heraka-at and realized that by and large ‘conventional treasure’ is not a major feature of this adventure. The primary reward of this adventure is the knowledge needed to become the new Donnerkonig — the items that are needed, where they can be found, and what needs to be done with them — rather than gold or jewels or even magic items.

That got me thinking, and I wonder: is conventional treasure really that significant a draw in play?

I’ve been playing mostly old school games for the last few years: D&D 5e playtest to start, and that version felt pretty old school, then Adventurer Conqueror King, OSRIC, and currently Swords & Wizardry. We’ve even had someĀ Tunnels & Trolls in there, if only one session. In all cases, anything we find that looks valuable and we can find a way to get home comes with us, if we have any say in the matter. Coin and gems, magic and mundane, if we reckon we can either sell it or use it, we take it with us.

Maybe it’s an old school thing, but honestly, except for the experience points I find I have little use for the treasure itself. Magic weapons and armor (Erik? Can I have some magic armor? Please?) I can put to use, other magic items (such as the bag of holding and the rope of climbing) are useful, but monetary treasure itself? I find I don’t seem to have much to do with it, except buying the occasional potion of healing or lending it to Joe so he can scribe more spells into his spell book.

In newer editions of D&D monetary treasure can be rather more important because, thanks to the MagicMart-style market rules, it maps directly to personal power. Accumulate enough gold and you can buy your way to increased personal power. In old school games I have the impression that many of the uses of money are to take care of things present to bleed off money (training, I’m looking at you, but spell transcription and some other activities certainly count too).

I think perhaps in this sandbox many rewards will be less tangible, but perhaps more useful. Knowledge that helps you work toward your goals, favors from powerful entities, tools that help you achieve your goals. Even magic items, at least in some cases — consumables are basic resources and I think should be readily available, but more profound items should probably be more significant, such as the treasures of the Donnerkonig. The simple accumulation of gold can have some utility, but maybe these other things will have more appeal.

Am I off track? What do you think? Does monetary treasure have more utility and value to old school play than I think it does? Does it serve greater purpose than giving experience points and taking care of things whose primary purpose is bleeding off money?

Or is it better to link rewards to goals more directly? Is it likely to encourage players to become more engaged because they seek out specific rewards to help them achieve their goals?

Tales of the Donnerkonig

A-Z 2014 TThe other day I described the Hall of the Faded Kings as — or rather, updated the description to —

This great hall is lined with mosaics showing great acts of the Donnerkonig over the centuries they ruled, from the mighty acts that established their powers, through acts during their reign, and even the diminishing acts during their decline. [...] the central area, where the floor has a large mosaic of the sign of the Donnerkonig [...]. From this central chamber are four others, each with mosaics alluding to stories of one of the Donnerkonig treasures.

It might be sufficient to leave it basically at that, but I think even a bit of concrete background will provide some useful flavor for the players and help realize the setting.

Cycles of History

“Cycles of History” can be a useful trope because it can be used to form a road map of sorts for those who know enough to examine history. I’ve got some notes about possible adventures to establish the power of the new Donnerkonig, and I think it might work to have them reflect what came before. These are

  • Purging of the Xotan Deep (Crown of Rain, near ‘X’ on the map)
  • Cleansing of Nilat Wood (Trident of Lightning, near ‘N’ on the map)
  • Pirates of Savern Reach (Horn of Gales, near ‘S’ on the map… I don’t know what actually would be done, but while it’s easy to make it ‘remove the pirates’, I kind of like the idea of becoming their king… perhaps that should be a viable means of neutralizing their threat)
  • Sack of Ulin (Ring of Waves, near ‘U’ on the map)

(Names may simply be placeholders; I obviously picked them so they aligned with the letters on the map for convenience. See the map at the bottom for reference, Sturmhame is at ‘T’.)

Part of the consequence of the Donnerkonig decline is that the conditions that brought about these events are coming about again. It may not be necessary to repeat these events, but the identify situations that should probably be resolved — before or after the return of the Donnerkonig, and may affect the outcome of the missions to establish their power.

I think also including a mosaic for each that provides some hint about what to expect at the place the treasure will be found will be useful. The Trident of Lightning is at Storm Mountain, so a mountain with numerous lightning strikes and the Trident at the top (said mosaic may well have storm metal in it… hmm, perhaps I should figure out the metal associations I was talking about earlier and incorporate them in each of the critical mosaics). In the Grotto of Aeshtua, provide an indication of what Aeshtua is and the sorts of sacrifices she finds appropriate.


Spotlight: Sine Nomine Publishing

A-Z 2014 SKevin Crawford and Sine Nomine Publishing have consistently produced high-grade roleplaying game material across several genres. Most of the products are based on or more or less compatible with the Labyrinth Lord rule set, which in turn means they are pretty portable across most old school games.

Settings and Rules Sets

Sine Nomine has several settings in the works: Red Tide Campaign Setting, Stars Without Number, Other Rust, and Spears of the Dawn (listed under Kickstarters, below).

Red Tide Setting

I think I first became aware of Sine Nomine when I was directed to get a copy of An Echo, Resounding: A Sourcebook for Lordship and War. This is a book set in Kevin’s Red Tide setting (as much as any setting) and provides excellent advice and rules for sandbox construction and demesne-level play. That is, a stark wilderness to be explored, full of ruins and lairs, with only a few bastions of civilization… and the facilities for carving out your own demesnes, be they city-states or full nations.

This led me to get Red Tide: Campaign Sourcebook and Sandbox Toolkit, which isn’t quite as focused on demesne-level play but provides complementary tools for sandbox construction. This includes expanding on the Stars Without Number tags system (also present in the Stars Without Number: Core Edition, which has another 40-some pages of content).

The setting itself is heavily influenced by Asian themes with some European influences mixed in. It is something of post-apocalyptic setting, or ‘current apocalypse'; the setting background consists largely of trying to survive the destruction of the world, though that can be shifted further to the background if it proves too bleak.

There are also several smaller (and often free) supplements supporting this setting, including The Crimson Pandect: A Handbook of Eldritch Lore (not free) and the Black Streams series (four smaller supplements for the Red Tide setting, all free).

Refining the Keys of Heraka-at

A-Z 2014 ROn Saturday I posted an overview of The Keys of Heraka-at, breaking out the various areas of the adventure. Now it’s time to start working toward more detailed development.

I’m not ready yet, but considering that each of the areas of the adventure site could be small maps and are at a bunch of different elevations it is tempting to try my hand at isometric mapping when I get that far.

Intermediate Development

At this point I’m going to expand on the ideas I had yesterday and start exploring how they fit together. I won’t have all the mechanical information yet, but I can expand on what I do have so I know what mechanical information I need.

I’m making some changes to the original map (shown below) that increase some of the interconnectivity. Not all will be obvious (especially since I’m adding extra), but they will be there.

Keys of Heraka-at Locations

Keys of Heraka-at Locations

Note on Encounters

There are some potential residents identified, and several of them could be reasonable random encounters. There are also likely to be safeguards against vandalism, the entire place was set up to protect knowledge until it can be used (and the Last Donnerkonig may be able to do something to trigger defenses as well).

For the most part I think I’ll roll with random encounters. Many areas are exposed to the outside, after all.

A Quick Overview of The Keys of Heraka-at

A-Z 2014 QThe Keys of Heraka-at is an adventure that allows the PCs to learn the truth of the fall of the Donnerkonig, and to potentially become the new Donnerkonig.

This adventure takes place in and around a large stone outcrop near Heraka-at, the capital of Sturmhame. The adventure site as a whole is intended to guide the Donnerkonig heirs to their immediate tasks

Locations on the Map

Here I describe the major areas in this adventure location. Each is to be a significant area of interest and might be a ‘single room’ or ‘group of rooms’. I won’t fully flesh these out yet, I aim only to get a feel for the key elements and their relative location. Specific threats and non-critical rewards are similarly not done yet.

Any windows mentioned are expected to be primarily for light and fresh air, but are probably hard to see, being generally deep-set between ledges providing shelter from vision from below and some slight shelter from rain from above. As might be expected, rain and wind are not major problems here, though.

The Last Donnerkonig, or rather his ghost, is obviously very interested in the Donnerkonig returning, because this will lay him to rest. He will observe but not interfere with or assist explorers overtly. If he does so the new Donnerkonig may not have the strength or ability to hold their position, ultimately leading to their failure.

Preparation and Player Agency in the Sandbox

A-Z 2014 PPlayer agency is a critical element of role playing games to me. One of the things that great dissatisfies me about most series of modules is how much they tend to need the story to progress in a certain direction. The label ‘Adventure Path’ itself rings player agency warning bells in my head — ‘path’ implies a linear relationship between the adventures.

The GDQ (Giants-Drow-Queen of Demonweb Pits) series of modules is often held up as an example of how a series of modules can be done well… but I have to admit that as much as they could be a wonderful example of sandbox adventures, they honestly don’t work for me that way. Individually they mostly aren’t bad, in that they presented as a situation, a problem to be solved. The approach to each one has some options, so there is some player agency involved in the situation… but from my perspective, there is little player agency about getting involved. The entire series is driven by “go here or else” and really no way to not find the next module.


Overkill? Somewhat, But For Reasons

A-Z 2014 OI’ve been asked on Google+ if it is really necessary to do all of this work making graphs and thinking about things far away from the adventure I’m actually working on.

My answer is, I suppose, a mix of “not really” and “it can help”.

Not Really

If I want to create a standalone adventure, I don’t have to think of what is outside it. I might make some vague references to fairly generic entities to help make it easier to fit into an existing campaign (“a local temple”, “a powerful noble”, etc.), but that’s about as far as I might go. The very nature of standalone adventures is that they don’t connect to anything.

On the other side, I know people who can design adventures of some complexity and interconnectedness without the graphs and multiple layers of relationships and so on. I think either internally they are still doing much as I am in this series of posts, but simply aren’t capturing the thoughts to paper, or they are introducing elements that may or may not be followed up on.

I used to do a mix of the two. I’d give some thought to possible links, identify them in the (rudimentary) prep that I did, and present them in play. If the players followed up on them, great, if not, that was okay too. It worked well enough, but it always felt a bit slipshod to me. I knew I was overlooking relationships and forgetting themes that could have been reinforced and strengthened the campaign.

Standalone or ongoing, many people can get by without going to the degree of effort shown here. Given more time to invest in campaign and scenario development I can get by without it, but don’t know that I do as good a job.

Next Steps in the Sandbox: Developing Donnerkonig Heirs

A-Z 2014 NYesterday I started moving from macro scale to micro scale, outlining a set of possibly-related campaigns. Now I’m digging for some more detail in Donnerkonig Heirs.

I’ll start by working on the graph for the campaign. I know I’ve got Keys of Heraka-at and four adventures to acquire the treasures needed later. I’ll be looking for at least four more adventures to associate with these. I’d like to have about ten adventures available to me, but I’m going to start with a graph of fifteen to give me the option of culling, removing adventures rather than looking for an exact fit.

Donnerkonig Heirs adventure map 1

Donnerkonig Heirs adventure map 1

This graph clearly has a central adventure (K) that I will take to be Keys of Heraka-at, and five branches out. The PCs should be able to find something to do. The Keys of Heraka-at may actually reveal the locations of the treasures and the PCs can go get them, or may provide some direction toward the treasures and the first step there. I’d like to see an average of two adventures possible related to getting each treasure, but allow shorter routes in some cases.


Macro to Micro in the Sandbox: Mapping the Donnerkonig Chronicle

A-Z 2014 MIn Layers Upon Layers in the Sandbox I described how things can be linked together. Now it’s time to put it into practice.

First, I’ll map out some potential campaigns. I know of two already, The Donnerkonig Heirs and Return of the Donnerkonig, and can imagine several others. Some are possible follow-ons from Return of the Donnerkonig, which could come out of the decisions made and the consequences of that campaign, and others could be diversions from theĀ Donnerkronig Chronicle altogether. I don’t know a lot about them because at this point I mostly posit their existence, I can flesh them out later. For now, though, the campaign graph might look something like is shown below.

Donnerkonig Chronicle campaign map

Donnerkonig Chronicle campaign map

This is very high-level and somewhat tentative, showing potential campaigns around this area of the setting. At this point I don’t know much about each of these possibilities, and I don’t really need to.

The white-background campaigns are anticipated parts of the Donnerkonig Chronicle. The greyed-background campaigns are not directly part of the Donnerkonig Chronicle, but may be routes into or out of it.


Layers Upon Layers in the Sandbox

A-Z 2014 LThe campaign and scenario design methods I use encourage nonlinear design and play. They are fractal in nature, applying to many levels and degrees of scope. This can lead to a rich and complex campaign setting.

At the adventure level, it is pretty easy to devise encounters that hold nonlinear relationships to each other. Multiple encounter areas and creatures, each having information (or even just passageways, in the case of constrained spaces such as dungeons). I like to have the encounters that interact with each other, such as by changing the scenario dynamics by aiding, hindering, or even removing certain entities from the scenario. Given an adventure prepared in this fashion, PC involvement and decisions can have significant effect on the outcome.

The same reasoning applies at the campaign level. It is possible to devise adventures such that they hold nonlinear relationships with each other. Each adventure can provide direction to other adventures, and have consequences that affect the scenario dynamics in other adventures. For example, you might learn that a particular major NPC (one with campaign scope, who is probably a recurring character in several of the adventures) has a base and where it is (you have a direction to a new adventure, if you want to track him down). If you manage to befriend (or antagonize, or even kill) the NPC you will likely find different results when you get there.

Even beyond that, though, it is possible to do the same thing with campaigns. I consider a campaign to be a series of related adventures ultimately leading to the achievement of a goal… or more precisely, answering a question. In fiction terms, a campaign might be similar to a trilogy or other small collection of books that tells a story longer than fits in a single book. It is possible to have multiple such series that each tell a similarly-scoped story. To use a common example, David Eddings has two such, The Belgariad and The Mallorean (five books each, plus some ‘side books’); and The Elenium and The Tamuli (three books each). Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia setting has a rather large number of campaigns, and of course the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings do as well… though I do not pretend to know any longer how they all relate.

It is evident to me that the relationships between campaigns can have a structure similar to those between adventures in a campaign, and to those between encounters in an adventure. It is possible for a campaign to have more than one ‘potential sequel’ that explores different aspects of the result of the campaign. It is also possible for a campaign to have more than one ‘potential prequel’, paths that lead to asking the same question.