Mod+ Sandbox Discussion & Resource Thread II

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TristramEvans

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S is for Sandbox Part III: Initial Set Up For Sandbox Games (4): Initial Adventure Sites​


I recommended earlier that the initial area for a sandbox milieu contains at least three major and six minor adventure sites. The reason for this should, by this point, be obvious – if the goal is not to railroad the players, then they must have choices about what adventure sites they will explore.

At the same time, I recommend that any campaign megadungeon is not located in (although it may be adjacent to) the initial area. This is because it is desirable that the players think of the game milieu as more than just a village and a nearby ruin.

Why is this desirable? Because, no matter how interesting the megadungeon may be, without the context of a larger world, such campaigns tend to grow stale rather quickly. If your experience, or your particular strengths as a Game Master, suggest otherwise, you should disregard my advice, and go with what feels right to you.

Within the context of this discussion, a minor adventuring site is any area that can be fully explored in 1-2 game sessions or less. Examples of minor sites might be a “five room dungeon”, a ruined villa or inn, a modest tomb, a small cave complex, or an abandoned lighthouse.

A major adventuring site is any site that requires more time and care. Note that it may not be immediately apparent to the players which sites are major, and which sites are minor. What appears to be a small cave complex may lead deep beneath the earth. What appears to be merely a ruined villa may have several dungeon levels beneath. Only by actual exploration may the players learn the truth.

Concentrate first on immediate needs first.
Although the following is given in a step-by-step format, individual Game Masters are advised to strike while the iron is hot. If you find yourself moved to work more on a single location, do that work first. The steps are given in order to supply structure, and in order to supply direction when you are foundering. They are not included to suggest slave-like devotion to a process in total disregard to your own creativity!

1. Start by deciding on the nature of each adventure location. Describe it in a single-sentence or a short paragraph. For example:
  • “Ancient ruins in jungle of the mysterious Olmatec people. Step-pyramids have fallen into ruin. Jaguars and pseudo-Aztec monsters.”
  • “Sea caves where pirates hide their booty.”
  • “A hidden temple to an evil deity has attracted monsters to the caverns lining these ravine walls. The monsters live in an uneasy alliance with each other, for the most part. The priests work at excavating a collapsed tunnel into another, more ancient, complex.”
2. Select or draw maps for each of your adventure sites.

3. Decide what major creatures are located at each site, developing a random encounter chart if applicable.

At this point, if you are forced to “wing it”, you have enough information to offer a consistent presentation, so long as you take notes on what you decide in play.

After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most. Or, take a break if nothing is particularly interesting to you.
Further develop your adventure location. Do encounter area write-ups, place monsters, place treasures, etc., etc. This is, in fact, similar to what you would normally do when creating an adventure site.

Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.
Some modification of this advice is in order, for this particular step, because you do not, under any circumstances, want to force your players to interact with any particular area in a sandbox milieu. The trick, then, becomes to (1) maximize value while (2) maximizing player choices.

Doing so requires that you accept, a priori, that some treasures will never be found, some monsters will never be encountered, and some areas will never be explored. If you’ve gotten into the habit, pushed by later versions of D&D, that the unit of play is the encounter, that encounters are set pieces that the players must play through, that treasures are “rewards” which must be found to ensure proper wealth by level….you need to get yourself out of those ruts right now.

That is not how things work in a sandbox milieu.

If you can, grab some old and new edition modules, and look closely at the maps. You will notice that, even in the most railroad-y of the older modules, there tend to be multiple ways to reach various areas, with a few choke points. There may be much treasure hidden, but there is an assumption that finding it will rely at least in part on chance. Module B1 actually states that in any good dungeon the PCs will not find all the treasure.

Melan did an excellent analysis of these maps, which can be read here: http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/dnd/dungeonmaps.html

Adventure sites have replay value if the players decide that there is more to explore – simply using a complex map means that an area will gain more bang for the effort put into it.

Rather than trying to create a complex narrative of events that will happen, when you create an adventuring site, you should create minor threads of events….things that link the various creatures in the area. Bits of politics. Secrets small and large that can explode out into a narrative. Basically, you are supplying hooks upon which you can build your improvisation when determining how various creatures react to the player characters and to each other.
In this way, you will allow the choices of the players, and the actual interactions within game play, to push various elements to the foreground. Because you have done very little work on these snippets, it doesn’t matter if most of these are pushed into the background. Also, in a persistent campaign milieu, the hook that is pushed into the background today may be thrust into the limelight tomorrow! In this way, previous interactions will be given greater context, and take on a depth of their own.

I cannot stress enough how reading the older fantasy and adventure fiction authors – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, etc., etc., etc. – helps with this. These authors make use of characters who could well be PCs and NPCs in a role-playing game. The protagonists run into characters who have agendas of their own, and those agendas make the main thrust of the story richer simply by interacting with the protagonists. This means that these stories are less tightly plotted….but less tightly plotted is exactly what is desired in a sandbox. These authors can really help you learn how to deliver on that desire!

You can increase the value of your design work by referencing other adventure sites in the site you are working on. For example, a log in that abandoned lighthouse might mention the ruined jungle city. A group of slavers operating out of part of the jungle ruins might be in league with the pirates that buried their gold in those sea caves. A letter found in the collapsed inn refers to a treasure hidden in a small cave complex long ago.

In this last case, the party might have already wiped out the goblins who were once living there, but never located the hidden treasure (which neither they, nor the goblins, knew about at the time). Suddenly those caves are worth another look!

Imagine that you wish to present the players with a “rescue the prince” scenario. A merchant’s son is taken by cultists, and is going to be sacrificed in a cavern temple to a spider god. The merchant will pay good money to save his son.

Imagine also that you want to use other parts of the cavern complex as a further adventure site, to increase the value of your work in this area. How can you do this?

First, provide both an obvious entrance to the complex, and a concealed entrance that the cultists use. Vermin of various sorts are good encounters for the opening areas of the obvious entrance; the cultists bypass these by using the hidden entrance. Note that the players may use tracking, divination, or other means to also bypass these areas. This is not cheating; this is playing the game.

Second, ensure that there are other ways to go that merely straight to the cult’s spider temple. And some of those ways should have intelligent inhabitants. Kobolds may attack intruders on sight, but they know about the temple, hating and fearing the priests there. If the party can find a way to communicate, they might glean some valuable information!

Finally, include one or two bizarre things not associated with the temple itself. For example, when I used this scenario, I included a tentacled horror that was actually quite cultured, and was more than willing to talk to the party as soon as it realized that they could actually fight back. This provided the players with a strong clue that there was more going on in the complex than merely spider cultists and kobolds.

I also included a fountain carved in the rock – clearly feyish in nature – next to a long drop-off, just where the PCs needed to turn to locate the spider temple. There was more than one way to go, but one way was obviously easier than the other. Yet, the presence of the fountain clearly piqued the player’s interest…and if they went down the shaft, there were more indications that deep fey dwelt in that region.

Simply leaving “other ways to go” is insufficient to make your design hours really work for you – actively give the players reasons to examine those other locations.

Likewise, if you are considering including one or more Killing Fields, Megadungeons, or potential Epic Endgames in your campaign milieu, you can begin foreshadowing other adventure possibilities by including them now. If you are interested in expanding the initial starting area beginning with the region to the immediate south, put in hints about that region right now – goods from trade routes arising in that region can appear in a bandit’s lair, for instance.

Conclusion
Again, supply of information is key to creating these sites, and making them work for you. If you create 9 sites over the course of 20 hours, and three sites are used for a total of 40 hours or more of game play, you win. If six out of nine are used for 60 hours of game play, even better.
And the key to “even better” is to provide linking information, put the ball the players’ court, and then enjoy the ride!
 

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S is for Sandbox Part IV: A Sample Minor Adventure Site (1)​


Picking up from the last “S is for Sandbox” column, we are looking at the creation of a sample minor adventure site. As previously discussed, setting up such a site has several goals, including both speedy play (the average minor site should be explorable in a session or so), reusability, and usefulness in pointing toward other adventuring sites.

I did some initial brainstorming on Christmas Eve, and decided that the site would be the ruin of a temple, mostly lost to time, beneath which remain a smallish dungeon area. In order to meet my goals, I considered the following:

(1) The temple was once that of a good deity, but the high priestess turned to evil. She is still imprisoned in the dungeon as a powerful undead spirit. This spirit can communicate with the living through her preserved skull, and her knowledge of the area is extensive (if out of date). Part of her reasons for communicating with the living is to trick them into freeing her, which requires three objects. She knows where they were kept in her lifetime, but one of these objects has been moved beyond the initial starting area in the intervening years.

The purpose of this character is threefold: First, she supplies a link to three other sites in the starting area, encouraging characters to seek out three specific treasures for her own fell purposes. Second, she supplies a reason (information) for returning to the ruined temple. By occasionally restocking the area with new inhabitants, both malevolent and benign, I can make additional use of my original design work. (You may recall the importance of this goal – every hour of prep should result in a minimum of two hours of play!) Finally, she supplies a potential Epic Endgame (or Midgame) if released.

(2) A major treasure will be hidden in the temple dungeon, in an area unknown to the high priestess. This area will be hard to discover without additional information, and a map in another adventure site will indicate where to look. This gives the players another motive to return here if they have already “cleared” the site, and will give the players a motive to come here if they have not already been here, thus potentially bringing the skull into play.

(3) The upper ruin is inhabited by a hermit who has dealings with the inhabitants of two other adventure sites…let’s say, a group of goblins inhabiting a nearby cave system, and a group of pirates in a major adventuring site consisting of a fort, the dungeons beneath, and a series of sea caves. The hermit helps both groups fence stolen loot, and members of either group may be present at any given time. Obviously, for the most fun, both of these groups dislike each other.

The hermit needs a contact in the closest thieves’ guild, and can certainly help PCs deal with their own stolen goods, if he believes them trustworthy. If not, he can pass information about the PCs on to the pirates and the goblins. Likewise, if the PCs take on either the goblins or (especially) the pirates, clues/documentation may lead them to the hermit. (Goblins do not keep good records, but they may treat the hermit as a religious figure, and wear the same holy symbol, for example.)

It should also be noteworthy that the hermit may have a fair amount of treasure available to him at various times. Whenever either the goblins or the pirates are particularly active, the hermit will have booty to fence. PCs looting the hermit at this time will acquire this booty – stolen goods that may serve to connect them with either group if sold/displayed indiscriminately!

The hermit has no interest in exploring the dungeon area, and calls himself the “caretaker” of the ruin. He will ask for donations for its upkeep (although there is no sign of actual upkeep), and may be able to give the PCs some support in terms of minor healing, simple food, rough accommodations, etc., after any foray. Of course, he has better food and accommodations for himself, but he is loathe to let anyone learn of them.

Requirements
From the above outline, born of simple brainstorming over the holidays, a clear idea of what is needed to make the site useful is clear:

(1) Maps of the upper ruins, the dungeon area, and the surrounding terrain. The upper ruin must include an area for rough accommodations, a semi-hidden better area for the hermit, and a place for stolen goods to be hidden. The dungeon area must include a space for the skull, and a place for the hidden treasure.

(2) Statistics for the hermit, the skull, goblin visitors, and pirate visitors. The fence probably sends a cart to the hermit to pick up goods, and so there should be statistics for these folk as well. I can get away without statistics for the undead high priestess immediately, but I need to know roughly what she knows about the area, what the three items are she needs to be released, and where she believes them to be.

(3) Potential hoards for treasures ready for fencing, both from goblins and pirates. The hermit’s personal hoard of luxury goods, and his hidden cache of better food.

(4) A signalling system whereby the hermit can let the fence know to send the cart. This signal system might eventually be penetrated by the PCs, allowing them (potentially) to uncover the fence, recover stolen goods, etc. It is therefore sensible that the signal is only sent after “guests” (including adventurers, goblins, and pirates) have gone away.

(5) Odds of pirates, goblins, cart, and maybe other adventurers or travellers being present at any given time. Who those other travellers will be. Possibly a very simple random encounter chart for the dungeon area.

Once these basic needs have been dealt with, I can key the actual maps. Preferably, each adventuring site in the starting area is outlined in this fashion, the basics are done for each site, and then actual keying begins for each site. What this ensures is that, if the Game Master is forced to “wing it”, it is at least possible to do so with consistency.

Notes
The format for this series of posts, detailing a minor adventure site, came about because simply presenting such a site doesn’t actually demonstrate the steps (or thinking) leading to the end result. At first I was thinking that I could just present a finished product, but that doesn’t actually accomplish the same thing. Nor does a “now you finish stocking it” ala B1: In Search of Adventure. Ideally, you want to supply not only a completed (and usable) adventure site, but also the process that went into creating it.

Note also the focus on not determining what will happen at the site, but rather with making a site rich in possible happenings. That way, the interests of the players at the table, rather than the interests of a single designer (even if the GM) more strongly shape the course of play.

Finally, although as I admire Mr. Gygax’s hermit encounter in B2: Keep on the Borderlands, the inspiration for the hermit here is Peter Butterworth’s excellent portrayal of the Monk (aka the Meddling Monk) in the Doctor Who story, The Time Meddler. The Monk later appeared in The Daleks’ Masterplan, but only a portion of the footage of that story still survives. In TTM, the Monk has stationed himself in a ruined abbey, pretending to be seeking quiet contemplation, while pursuing a very different agenda. The Monk is also the first Time Lord seen in Doctor Who apart from the title character (and, possibly, his granddaughter, Susan).
 

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S is for Sandbox Part IV: A Sample Minor Adventure Site (2): The Great Outdoors​


Picking up from the last “S is for Sandbox” column, we are looking at the creation of a sample minor adventure site. In this column, we are looking at the first of three maps, the outdoor map. I drew a quick map, using a scale of 1 hex = 1 mile.

You will notice that I used hex paper with numbered hexes. This is because I want to be able to create additional encounters by using the hex numbers, and I know that over the course of a sandbox campaign, the encounters in an area may well change.

I have located the hermitage on a rocky hill along the road leading from a large village (campaign starting area, to the north) and somewhere more coastal (to the southeast), with the thought that carts sent by the Thieves’ Guild to receive stolen goods could come along this road. The pirates could use this road to bring treasure up from the coast, and closeness to the road would make visitors seem less suspicious. It would also allow the players to easily locate this site.

The temple is on a bit of a hill so that the hermit can use smoke signals to alert the Guild when there are sufficient materials to warrant sending a cart. The outbuildings are where the hermitage is located, the temple is ruined, and the goblin cave is where goblins who bring materials to fence stay. Belmar’s Seat is the name of another rocky upcrop, named for a hero of old (and which can tie into the area history, and other adventure sites).

In addition to the noted road and trails, there will be numerous, non-permanent game trails. In addition to the two small lakes shown on the map, there will be numerous small rills and streams which appear after a rain or seasonally.

Because the area is close to the village, I know that there are unlikely to be any truly dangerous monsters in the area, but also that I will want to include some other minor lairs. Why? Because it makes things interesting for the players, and rewards exploration of the area. And I want to reward exploration, because exploration may eventually lead them to the goblin cave, wherein clues to unravel what is actually happening at the hermitage are most likely to come to light.

(I am not in a rush for this to happen, mind you. It will happen in its own time, or not, as game play dictates.)

I also know that the PCs are most likely to follow roads and trails, at least initially, in their exploration of any area, so I will want to set most encounters along these roadways and paths. I therefore come up with a provisional list of hexes to flesh out:

0203: Verminous Caverns: This area is the least likely for the players to locate, so I am going to put something interesting, deadly, and rewarding here. I am then going to sprinkle links to it in other areas of the sandbox (or I would be doing so if actually developing this area for play).

This area contains a hidden cave system, more vertical than horizontal, which was once the lair of a green dragon. Much of the dragon’s treasure is still hidden below, although moved now by flowing water from a single location to a plethora of areas throughout the caves. In addition, the caves are now home to many giant spiders, flies, ants, and scorpions. There is a rich haul here, for those capable of retrieving it…and sudden death for everyone else.
For fun, I’m going to say that the dragon’s bones are still in the caverns, where they may be found by adventurers. They might be sold to a sage or collector, or they might be used for some form of magical ritual.

Finally, within this hex, there is a 50% chance that any encounter will be with giant vermin of some sort. Within a 1-hex radius around this hex, there is a 1 in 6 chance that any encounter will be with giant vermin. I will have to develop a separate encounter table to determine what is encountered.

0207: Spider!: A giant black widow spider has stretched its web across the trail in this hex. Some of the husks from its victims, if found, have treasure.

0211: Foundations: Alongside the trail here, the group may discover the foundations of a ruined farmhouse, which can help to offers some shelter from the elements. There is nothing of value here.

0509: Belmar’s Cup: This lake is known as Belmar’s Cup, after the folkhero-king who once ruled in this region. It is relatively shallow and weedy, but offers some fishing. Recently, a forester drowned in the lake, and now haunts this region each night as a ghoul.

0602: Broken Cart: An overturned cart with a broken wheel lies along side the roadway here, quietly going back to the earth. If investigated during the summer months, there is a 1 in 6 chance that a snake takes advantage of the shade it offers…but the snake is non-venomous, and quickly slithers away.

0607: Lake Lugres: This lake is extremely deep, being formed in a narrow fissure not unlike those in Hex 0203. It is fed by rainwater, snow melt, and an underground spring. There is good fishing here the year round, although would-be fishermen must cut a hole in the ice during the winter. Legend and rumour claim that a hungry spirit dwells within the lake’s depths, but this is not so.

0911 Belmar’s Seat: An outcrop of rock named for the hero-king Belmar. A flat-topped boulder at the apex of the hill is known as Belmar’s Chair. It is said that those who sit at Midsummer’s Even on Belmar’s Chair are driven mad, or become poets – if there is any difference between the two.

1005: Outbuildings: This is the site of the Hermitage. The outbuildings include the hermit’s quarters, a common area for guests (including a stable as part of the common area). The cellar beneath the hermit’s quarters includes a secret area wherein treasure from bandits, goblins, and pirates may be hidden.
The hermit is a 6th level thief. This level was chosen so as to allow interaction with starting PCs, where the hermit will not be instantly overwhelmed, while at the same time making it possible for the PCs to defeat him later. Besides which, living alone in the (near) wilds as he does, the hermit will need some class level “oomph”!

1204: Temple: This is the ruined temple, beneath which the dungeon lies. We might as well start calling this the Dungeon of the Skull, because that will be its most important feature. Within the temple, there is an area that allows our hermit to mimic a cleric, effectively giving him access to a limited amount of curative magic each day.

In fact, let us make this a temple of Hermes (as the patron of thieves, healers, and magic, it seems appropriate).

1309: Farmstead: There is a small farmstead located in this hex.

1404: Goblin Cave: When goblins visit the hermitage, they stay here. As a result, there is goblin graffiti on the walls, carvings on the table, etc., that hints at what the hermit really is. Unknown to the hermit, the goblins have begun mining here, trying to break into the Dungeon of the Skull.

1406: Tailings Pile: The tailings pile from the goblin mining – as well as some broken mining equipment of obvious goblin manufacture – is hidden just off the trail here.
 

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S is for Sandbox Part IV: A Sample Minor Adventure Site (3): Hermitage and Temple 1​


Well, a lot has happened since the last “S is for Sandbox” column, including the advent of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which has become my favourite published role-playing game of all time. This isn’t a major problem, but, going forward, I am going to be using that system in my examples.

The DCC RPG assumes that characters begin as 0-level nobodies, and the party of adventurers is whosoever survives the “0-level funnel” that is the initial adventuring session. For this purpose, I am assuming that the party has already gone through the funnel, and consists of either 1st level characters or a mix of 1st and 0-level characters. The temple will therefore be designed under the assumption that it will be introduced at such low levels, and probably explored initially between 1st and 3rd level.

Let’s see how the new ruleset changes the work we’ve already done. I’m not going to go back over the wilderness area – by the time this series is done, you should be able to do that yourself without any difficulty if you want to use this region – except where it is important to ongoing development.

1005: Outbuildings: This is the site of the Hermitage. The outbuildings include the hermit’s quarters, a common area for guests (including a stable as part of the common area). The cellar beneath the hermit’s quarters includes a secret area wherein treasure from bandits, goblins, and pirates may be hidden.
The hermit is a 6th level thief. This level was chosen so as to allow interaction with starting PCs, where the hermit will not be instantly overwhelmed, while at the same time making it possible for the PCs to defeat him later. Besides which, living alone in the (near) wilds as he does, the hermit will need some class level “oomph”!

Now, we can be pretty sure that the hermit is no longer 6th level in DCC. Instead, this is probably a 2nd or 3rd level thief, and following the general rule of each DCC level being equivalent of 2 levels in most similar game systems, I am of the opinion that he should be 3rd. Based on the description of the Thief in the DCC core rules, we can also assume that he is Lawful. Appendixes S and T help us to give him a name: Llulch the Psalmist. You will note that I chose a clerical title, rather than one indicated for a thief, because our thief is disguised as a hermit.

The rulebook suggests not worrying too much about “correct” NPC stats. We don’t have to fully develop a 3rd level Thief to create our rogue. In fact, we probably want something between the bandit hero stats and a fully developed thief. To wit:

Llulch the Psalmist: Init +4; Atk staff +2 melee (1d4); AC 16; HD 2d8; Hp 5; MV 30’; Act 1d20; SP Luck (13, 1d5), Crit 1d14/II, Thief skills (Backstab +5, Sneak +5, Hide +7, Disguise +2); SV Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +1; AL L.

1204: Temple: This is the ruined temple, beneath which the dungeon lies. We might as well start calling this the Dungeon of the Skull, because that will be its most important feature. Within the temple, there is an area that allows our hermit to mimic a cleric, effectively giving him access to a limited amount of curative magic each day.

In fact, let us make this a temple of Hermes (as the patron of thieves, healers, and magic, it seems appropriate).

This remains very much as it was, except that the hermit will have more limited healing, in accordance with the general DCC rules, and that healing will be based on both alignment and Hit Die. We should also consider a bit more about Hermes, and the potential ways to use this temple within the DCC game:
  • As a patron of Thieves and Healers both, we should declare Hermes Neutral. Magic is also certainly not Lawful by nature.
  • “Quest for It”: As a God of Healing, we should seed the temple or the dungeon with the means to gain exception healing, as an adventure or a quest. This can be tied in with the Skull, in that the Skull can be the means by which PCs can learn how said quests can be performed. The Skull, of course, is also working on her own agenda of being freed and restored.
  • “God of Magic”: There should be at least one, and as many as three to five, spells that can potentially be learned through the temple and the dungeon beneath. Moreover, Hermes would make an excellent patron, and we should fully develop him as such.

1404: Goblin Cave: When goblins visit the hermitage, they stay here. As a result, there is goblin graffiti on the walls, carvings on the table, etc., that hints at what the hermit really is. Unknown to the hermit, the goblins have begun mining here, trying to break into the Dungeon of the Skull.

When we were working with Labyrinth Lord, a goblin was a goblin was a goblin. This isn't a bad thing, and works well for that system, but Dungeon Crawl Classics is a different animal. Using the DCC RPG, we should strive to make these unique humanoids that are derived from the basic goblin. Luckily, the DCC core book gives us charts to help with this.

Our “goblins” will be yellow, and will fight with two weapons. The book suggests longsword and dagger, but we’ll leave what the weapons are open for the moment. They are also bald and speak a racial language other than “goblin”….a random roll as per Thief in Appendix L suggested “Gnoll”, but for fun, let’s have them speak the dwarven language, as though they are degenerate dwarves. Our details will progress from this assumption. For example, they can fight with hand axe and dagger. Their mining also makes sense in terms of dwarvishness as well as goblinness. Although they are bald, we can allow them full beards.
 

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Settings with Strata: A Quick-Design Method for Historically Coherent Campaign Settings​



If you're crafting a campaign setting or designing the adventure locations scattered across that setting, there's plenty of advice online. One good tip, for example, is that the different levels in your dungeons and adventure locations might have historically-sensible backgrounds; a ruined human fortress might be built over the earlier delvings of a dwarven stronghold. Ideally, these pairings should make sense; exactly why was that Fourth Dynasty art gallery built above an ancient kobold torture dungeon? (No doubt it involves some kind of weird performance art; very Fourth Dynasty).

To really make this click, of course, it helps to know something already about your setting's historical background. I've noticed, however, that setting-design advice sometimes advocates the following order of steps:

+ come up with a concept
+ draw a map
+ pick locations for settlements, ruins, and lairs
+ then write a history/backstory for your setting


If you use this approach, and if it works for you, then more power to you; but I'd like to suggest that a different approach could be even more fruitful, and almost as fast.

To me, separating the history and the placement of locations - even more, writing the history after you place the locations - divorces things that belong together, and misses important opportunities for greater cohesion and depth in your setting.

In reality, settlement locations reflect not only basic environmental geography, but also the continued influence of previous generations' settlement histories. Think of the layered strata that make up an archaeological site; many sites have been reused over periods and centuries. Sometimes this reflects only the recurring appeal of fertile land or strategic chokepoints; in other contexts, however, the cultural significance of an old site may draw renewed settlement (or even provoke furious destruction) from later generations interested in more than just growing food. Ideally, then, (IMHO) placing and designing adventure locations or settlements should reflect the big picture of the setting's history.

But can this be done efficiently, or does it require unrealistic amounts of time? What if you just want to throw together a setting for a short campaign? How many of us really have time to write those 5-page imperial genealogies or 20-page accounts of the Terrible War of Titans From Before the Times That Any Player Character Will Care About? Not me.

Well, let me walk through an example of the method I’ve been using recently. It can lay the groundwork for a short to medium campaign's setting quite quickly, while adding depth, cohesion, logic, and a lived-in, storied sense to your world in play. As a design method, it’s actually really simple and quite fast, but the fact that so much setting advice online pushes in the opposite direction makes me think that it’s worth me pointing out this approach as an option. Here it is:

+ In just a few sentences, articulate a basic main concept for your setting.

+ Get or sketch a regional map that fits with that concept.

+ Next, write a very brief summary of your setting’s history; in particular, write a 1-3 sentence description of 3 or 4 eras/periods leading up to the present.

+ Now, for each of those 3-4 periods, and moving in order from the past to the present (this is important), mark on your map approximately 3-5 locations that were most significant for the history of that period. You can even push it about 7 locations if you want, but don’t think of this as a comprehensive map of all features from that period; just identify the main places of most interest. They can be new sites just built in this era, or there may be continuity of some important sites across periods - but they should make coherent sense in the developing story of your setting. As you do all this, take brief notes narrating the history as you add locations to the map.

Again, the key idea behind all this is to start in the past, and narrate forward to the present; to build your locations from bottom to top (thinking in terms of archaeological strata). Some sites are created from scratch in every period, but there are often important reasons that old sites are continued, rebuilt, destroyed, and/or commemorated. Let your setting embrace that range of interactions with the past; build from bottom to top.

Below, I’m going to walk through an example of this process. In terms of creative brainstorming time (and not time spent making the map a bit fancier for the blog), it took me a little under an hour to come up with a narratively-coherent setting with over a dozen places for hypothetical PCs to explore.

***********
CAVEAT: As reader Jorunkun has astutely pointed out, there's a problem with the way I drew my rivers here! I stand by my method for imagining a society's history, but don't be like me, kids ... don't split your rivers! See the comments for more details, and thanks to Jorunkun for this helpful critique.
***********






Let's walk through my approach.

STEP ONE: COME UP WITH AN OVERALL CONCEPT.

Ok, here’s my general idea: at the terminus of an important trade-route in a Bronze- to Iron-Age setting with a swords-and-sorcery vibe, two human societies and an aggressive frogman population are vying for domination. One of the human societies (a foreign colonizing empire), along with the frogmen, have turned to necromantic sorcery (lately, for some reason, I’m really digging the idea of amphibian or fish humanoid villains…that are also undead).

Ok, there’s my concept. Not the most original stuff in the world, but it is more than enough to get started.

STEP TWO: GET A REGIONAL MAP.

Here’s one I threw together for this exercise.




Key features include a pass between the mountains at the map bottom and the river-drainage network that runs up to the sea beyond those mountains. You may notice that this base map lacks the forest regions that are on the final end-state map. That is deliberate; even though I’m envisioning this setting as heavily forested, I’m assuming that settlements and land-clearing may wreak havoc on any forest borders I might ink in at this point, so I’ll adjust at the end and put in blocks of forests where I think they’d still be when I’m done crafting the setting (if a habitat like that matters during the process, one can always add them mid-flow). For now, again, I just assume that many or most of the big river plain areas visible are thickly wooded.

STEP THREE: VERY BRIEF OUTLINE OF THE SETTING’S HISTORY IN 3-4 PERIODS

Ok, since my setting concept doesn’t require me to lay out a 15,000 year history, I’m certainly not going to do that. Here are the periods that I laid out, in just enough detail to get me going:

Period 1: humans coming over that mountain pass carry tin and amber to exchange with a port-town of far-away sailors (NW coast). Human settlement, dominated by the local population coming from the inland pass, intensifies. Vicious Frogmen live in the northeastern river delta and are avoided by all humans.

Period 2: Frogmen become numerous and aggressive, and expand in force to the Long Lake, cutting easy human trade downriver. As trade falters, a new foreign nation from overseas conquers and administers the port city on the NW coast. They employ sorcerers and necromancers; in uneasy alliance with the locals, they push back the frogmen.

Period 3: an exiled sorcerer from that city flees to the frogmen and establishes himself as a necromantic warlord over their armies. In a long war with the necromancer, the inland settlements are exhausted and weakened but they finally prevail.

Period 4/Present Day: Now, in the wake of that war a few generations ago, the coastal city is strong (and wicked), and successor chieftains in the south are relying on their trade goods to put together new, rival war bands to fill the inland power vacuum. The undead and the frogs are still a threat, but they are in retreat or in hiding.


STEP FOUR: ADD 3-7 LOCATIONS TO THE MAP FOR EACH HISTORICAL PERIOD

This is the fun part. What I like in particular is how often doing this surprises me; the story of my setting will take interesting turns that I didn’t see coming, and which fit with but weren’t dictated by my initial concept declarations above.

ERA 1: KEY SITES:



1 The foreign port city on the NW coast (let’s name it DRAEL). Its ships have trade connections to gold and exotic goods, which get traded here for inland trade goods coming downriver from the mountain pass.

2 A stronghold at the south end of Long Lake is the seat of princelings who control this end of the trade route. Let’s call this inland culture the KOLOVAD. They have inland access to both amber and tin (from over the pass) and copper (in the eastern mountains here on the map).

3 The Kolovad princes maintain a fortified caravanserai and boat harbor at the first navigable point below the southern mountain pass. Here, caravans coming over the southern pass unload wares into boats which will take goods to (2) and then on to (1).

4 Farming villages above (2) support the chiefdom/emerging proto-state here.

5 Frogmen villages in the delta cluster around a central frog-stronghold. Men know not to head this way.


ERA 2: HISTORY AND KEY SITES:





A: The Frogmen population expands, and the creatures aggressively push inland along the rivers and lakeshores. They found three new strongholds (all labeled “A”) which cut the river trade with Drael, the coastal port. They raid upriver past the Kolovad princeling’s stronghold, harry farming villages, and infiltrate small frogmen bands into the streams and pools of the southern mountains (mainly along the eastern branch; note the Frogmen settlement icon in the western foothills of the mountains).

B: As trade along the river is cut, the Kolovad princelings respond by opening an overland route crossing the hills to the Northwest. They build a stronghold and caravanserai in the hills to give shelter, security, and oversight. Nonetheless, trade overall falters as the efficient boat transit is threatened.

C: As trade falters, the prestige of the Kolovad princelings is threatened. Ambitious Kolovad men controlling the southern boat harbor upriver make a bid for power, cutting off all access to trade goods. Civil war breaks out among the Kolovad communities along the river.

D: Meanwhile the coastal port city Drael, weakened by the loss in trade, falls to a new foreign group: the Iron League, named not only for their command of the grey metal but also for their hard, cruel governance.

The Kolovad march to war? European Bronze Age minis from Foundry.

I’ll end here and add an Era 2.B as this is getting pretty involved.

ERA 2.B: HISTORY AND KEY SITES:




A: Fighting with iron and sorcery, the Iron League pushes up-river and razes the frogman strongholds that block riverine trade. Leaving those loathsome structures in ruins, the Iron League build their own forts on the opposite bank to hold each disputed river-mouth (both labelled “A”).

B: In exchange for major concessions, the Iron League arms and aids the Kolovad princeling, helping him crush his rivals upriver to the south. This leaves major bad feeling among the Kolovad but restores order and (forced) unity for now. In exchange, the Kolovad prince surrenders the hilltop caravanserai (B), which the Iron League convert into an academy for their sorcerers.

C: A rival school of Iron League sorcerers opens their own monastic academy, too, in the northern hills at (C).

D: Finally, the Iron League insists on leaving a garrison to “help” the Kolovad prince at his chief settlements.

ERA 3: HISTORY AND KEY SITES:




A: Rivalry between sorcerous Iron League factions breaks out into vicious fighting at Drael; the sorcerers’ academies in the hills are both burned and abandoned during this disorder(A).

B: The chief instigator, a sinister necromancer, is outlawed and flees inland. He gains the loyalty of the inland Iron League garrisons - except at (B), the stronghold on the east shore of Long Lake, which he leaves in ruins, and at (C), the Kolovad upriver boat-harbor.

D: The necromancer then seizes power-behind-the-throne via the League’s garrison at Kolovad (D). This is the last straw for the embittered southern Kolovad, who renounce their loyalty again to the line of their princes. Aided by the Iron League garrison at (C), and sending overland messengers, they make common cause with the main Iron League force at the port city; meeting, their forces confront the Necromancer in battle. Kolovad (D), the old seat of princes, is burned and destroyed as the Necromancer flees northeast to the frogmen. (Remaining Iron League garrisons surrender to their city’s main army).

TODAY: A LAND READY FOR ADVENTURE…




The Necromancer fled a generation ago into the swamps of the northeastern river. There are reports (or speculations) that he now leads the frogmen, who draw strength from his dark sorcery. The Iron League, in its port city, has been battered by their own civil disorder, but they probably are the single strongest player in the land - for now. The people of Kolovad have lost their own chief stronghold; a new house of princes is emerging in the south, but leadership remains fraught and uncertain. The land is now dotted with ruins; some are empty save for whining winds; others are places of hungry nightmares.

DEBRIEFING

So there we are. If you ignore the time I spent gussying up the map to get pics ready for the blog, the actual creative time coming up with that narrative outline took me a bit under an hour. If I had been in a hurry, I likely could have done it in closer to half an hour. In other words, one can come up with something like this from scratch in a fairly short period of time. What do you gain from this sequential, narrative approach to setting design?

Well, for one thing, we now have a mini-sandbox with over a dozen diverse places for PCs to explore and get themselves into trouble. PCs might be Kolovad warriors, Iron League minor nobles, or foreign merchants arriving by ship or mountain-caravan to seek fortune in this strange land. There are ruined academies of sorcery, fallen towers, razed frogmen strongholds, and a burned Kolovad capital city that I imagine is still crawling with the dark and unclean energies released there by the Necromancer - who is himself, no doubt, stirring up unspeakable things in the swampy forests to the northeast. Alternately, if we favor a bit more social-political intrigue instead, there are ambitious prince-wannabes among the Kolovad successors who need strong arms to help them rise - and probably rival Iron League merchant houses in Drael hiring competent muscle to guard and advance their interests.

Moreover, if the PCs head to any of those dozen-plus locations, I as DM would already have some sense of the general history of the place. Off to dungeon-crawl the ruined sorcerer’s academy in the hills between Drael and Kolovad? Great; it started as a fortified caravanserai, so I should map a ruined structure with animal stables and granaries and barracks - as well as arcane laboratories and archives. Exploring ruins on the east side of Long Lake instead? The razed Iron League fort was burned just a generation ago, so there hasn't been much time for it to be picked clean, or for ancient horrors to set up studio apartments there. On the other hand, when it comes to the ruined frog-stronghold across the river…who knows what awful, older things live in the muck-filled (and maybe gold-filled) tunnels beneath the ruins?

Finally, of course, I'm free to keep adding as much further detail as I want, including new locations. But everything moving forward would be grounded by the context already established; I have a framework that new puzzle pieces fit into.
 

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ncounter Populations​

February 19, 2012 Erin D. Smale
forestCave.jpg


All this talk about encounter tables, and we’ve overlooked what some might consider an important detail: where do all these critters actually live in your setting?
This is a big issue in terms of setting development, and it requires you to make a decision about planning ahead or doing stuff on the fly. As an advocate of the less-is-more approach, which describes your setting via game tools instead of narrative, I want the encounter tables to do as much of the heavy lifting as possible.

A Smartitude​

The idea is to populate your setting via your random encounter tables. You’re going to create these tables anyway, and a combination of nested and dynamic tables does a great job of helping you describe your setting’s inhabitants and what they do.
But where they live is a different matter. Sandbox tradition demands that you populate your map with a number of fixed encounters, which occur when players visit them (or arrive in the hex containing them), then allow for random encounters as if they were merely wandering monsters. I’m suggesting that you populate your map with fixed encounters created via the random encounters tables.
FrDave of Blood of Prokopius offered a possible solution when he wrote about random encounter tables:
Creatures don’t exist until they’re encountered, so you can put rare and unique stuff on the table, even if you don’t really “envision” it as being part of your setting. In fact, it’s not, until it’s encountered, at which point, you have a major campaign event in which something from the realm of fairytales and folklore is suddenly determined to be real. [Emphasis mine.]
This is S-M-R-T: Smart. FrDave’s approach gives you license to create encounter tables with any monster you might like to have in your setting. By subtle extension, monsters have no fixed lairs until they’re encountered, which is a exactly what we need for the dynamic, less-is-more approach.

Dynamic Monster Territory​

Two assumptions: (1) you’re mapping on a regional hex template of 125×125 miles, broken into 5-mile hexes, and (2) all monsters have a home, or at least a semi-permanent lair where they eat, sleep, and make little monsters.
When a monster is encountered, you can assume that the encounter occurs in the monster’s home territory, the range of which is roughly proportional to the creature’s size. Ordinarily, this territory is defined as some neat and tidy radius surrounding the monster’s fixed lair. But that really only works if you’re planning ahead by placing fixed lairs and territorial borders on your map. We’re not doing that.
Instead, we’re populating the map via random rolls, which may or may not indicate the presence of an actual monster, whose identity we don’t know until the roll is resolved. So while we can assume that an encounter occurs inside a monster’s territory, we don’t know how big that territory is or where its lair is in that territory.

Percent in Liar​

Time for another tweak to the encounter table. This is the table I posted last week, but next to each monster, I’ve added a Range value:
monsterTerritory.png
Now with Range
{Range}
This is the size of the monster’s territory in 5-mile hexes, based on monster size:
  • Smaller than Small: 0-3 (1d4-1) hexes
  • Small, Medium, or Large: 0-7 (1d8-1) hexes
  • Bigger than Large: 0-11 (1d12-1) hexes
You’ll note that these values are not only smaller than those suggested in Monster Turf, but also variable in size. This is intentional, and ultimately gives you the flexibility to account for more monster lairs in the available space of a Regional Hex map.
Here are some optional (cumulative) modifiers to the range’s size:
  • Monster is especially territorial or an apex predator: +1 hex
  • Monster is a flyer or can travel great distances with ease: +2 hexes
  • Monster is solitary: -1 hex
  • Monster is unintelligent: -1 hex
  • Monster is subterranean: -2 hexes
For our purposes, the minimum range value is zero (0) hexes.
The territory can be any shape but the hexes must be continuous. This means that the territory may include sub-optimal terrain for the monster, or that it might overlap the territory of another. Naturally, either possibility can suggest a monster’s motivations during the encounter.
The range value not only determines the size of the monster’s territory, but can also suggest how far away it is from its lair. A range of zero (0) means that the lair is in the hex where the monster’s encountered. If the range result is the maximum for the die, then the monster is expanding its borders and is on unfamiliar ground (and possibly lost). For values greater than zero but less than the maximum, assume the lair occupies the most optimal terrain in the territory.

Final Words​

There is one consequence of this approach: Your setting will get crowded over time, as more random encounters end up creating more territories and lairs.
But this actually makes sense. Monster populations will change over time, especially with adventurers rampaging about. The PCs might encounter trolls, track them to their lair, and (if they can destroy them) revert the troll’s territory to wilderness… where something else (via another random encounter) is bound to move in.
 

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ffilz ffilz
Here is the entire series of blog posts by Raven Crowking's Nest in PDF format
 

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Mod Note: As this thread is Mod+ and in order to prevent this thread from falling into the previous pitfalls and keep it focused on the sharing of advice and resources rather than definitional or gaming ideology debates, tangents will be moved to a more general Sandbox discussion thread.
 

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In Praise of the 6 Mile Hex​


I

So just today I stopped by Chgowiz's page and noticed that he was talking about wilderness hexes. (and it looks like Bat in the Attic has been playing with hexes a little too here and here)(and Chgowiz got Stirgessuck thinking a bit). When I left I had actually just started to kick around the old hexagon myself on this blog. And so I have some thoughts about hexagons already to go. I hope they are helpful to Chgowiz and everybody else.

As you can tell from the title, I think that the 6 mile hex is the ideal hex for wilderness adventuring hexcrawls. I used to be a big fan of the 5 mile hex as published by Judges Guild. But someone over at the Necromancer Games (was it Rob S. Conley?) pointed out back in like 2005 that it was actually a lot easier to use 6 mile hexes. And then I learned some more things about hexagons. Check it out:

1. Navigation. Estimateing a party's route through a 6 mile hex is a lot easier than any other hex. No other hex size breaks down as cleanly as a 6 mile hex. Trust me, I did the math. The numbers above are accurate to the first decimal. Thats good enough for general overland travel. Take a look at the diagram above. Its six miles from face to face. Vertex to opposite vertex is 7 miles. From the center to any face is 3 miles (half of 6). From the center to any vertex is 3.5 miles. From a navigation standpoint pretty much any route through the hex in general is covered. Enter from the vertex and leave through a face? You can approximate it pretty easily. 5 mile hexes do not lend well to this. If you wing it go with a 6 mile hex, you'll be glad you did.

2. Horizon. Your average human in a flat area without any obstructions in view (think a becalmed sea) can see up to 3 miles. Thats the distance to the horizon best case scenario. So a party travelling straight through a 6 mile hex is not going to see out of it. Unless they climb a tree or find a high place with a view. But the idea is that a 6 mile hex with varied terrain covers the distance that the party can see. A good rule of thumb is that if they take the time to survey the surrounding land then a party should be able to be aware of the terrain of the next hex over. Some pushback might come with the idea that you can see a mountain quite a ways away. But mountains are tricky in that you really can't tell how far away they are until you are a few hexes away. Getting a good vantage point (like the top of a hill or mountain) could be the opportunity for adventure in itself and being aware of the lay of the land can be its own reward. If you want to be able to tell your players how far they can see when they climb up the hill or tree or tower a good rule of thumb is that the distance to the horizon is the square root of thirteen times the height they are viewing from (http://enwikipedia.org/wiki/horizon).

3. Sub hexes. The 6 mile hex can break down into half mile sub hexes. That is 12 hexes accross. (Mr. Chgowiz, this next bit is for you) If you put a dungeon or a settlement or some other important element in a hex, it is good to know where in the hex it is. Thus it makes sense to map out the hex in subhexes. Having these is good for distant encounters, chases, and well looking for that dungeon that is supposed to be around here somewhere. But wait, theres more. Each of these hexes can break down into sub hexes that are 1/24 of a mile accross. At this point your hexes can start measureing thing like furlongs, chains and all the other medieval land measurements. Thats really convenient when you want to figure out how many hexes should a farm take up. Also, 1/24th of a mile is a distance you can put on a battlemat. 5280ft/24 = 220 ft. 220 ft/5 = 44 battlemat squares. A Chessex Mondomat covers that area. Furthermore, if you are always using hexes that have 12 subhexes accross you only have to use one type of graph paper to keep track of all the projections. That is, the graph paper that you use for your sub hexes is the same as the graph paper you use for your subhexes of subhexes.

What this all comes down to is: The one-page wilderness template just got a lot cooler.
 

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[P.S. As this is a Mod+ thread, lets leave off on the High Gygaxian, use of exclamation points, TSR Corporate Gary, or all the other detritus that comes with the mere mention of the guy's name. Just read.]

Here's Gary on scale, going from a single village to a cosmology.


"Unlike most games, AD&D is an ongoing collection of episode adventures, each of which constitutes a session of play. You, as the Dungeon Master, are about to embark on a new career, that of universe maker. You will order the universe and direct the activities in each game, becoming one of the elite group of campaign referees referred to as DMs in the vernacular of AD&D. What lies ahead will require the use of all of your skill, put a strain on your imagination, bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time. Being a DM is no matter to be taken lightly!"

"Your campaign requires the above from you, and participation by your players. To belabor an old saw, Rome wasn’t built in a day. You are probably just learning, so take small steps at first. The milieu for initial adventures should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants — your available time as compared with the demands of the players. This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby. As background you inform them that they are from some nearby place where they were apprentices learning their respective professions, that they met by chance in an inn or tavern and resolved to journey together to seek their fortunes in the dangerous environment, and that, beyond the knowledge common to the area (speech, alignments, races, and the like), they know nothing of the world. Placing these new participants in a small settlement means that you need do only minimal work describing the place and its inhabitants. Likewise, as player characters are inexperienced, a single dungeon or ruins map will suffice to begin play."

"After a few episodes of play, you and your campaign participants will be ready for expansion of the milieu. The territory around the settlement — likely the “home” city or town of the adventurers, other nearby habitations, wilderness areas, and whatever else you determine is right for the area — should be sketch-mapped, and places likely to become settings for play actually done in detail. At this time it is probable that you will have to have a large scale map of the whole continent or sub-continent involved, some rough outlines of the political divisions of the place, notes on predominant terrain features, indications of the distribution of creature types, and some plans as to what conflicts are likely to occur. In short, you will have to create the social and ecological parameters of a good part of a make-believe world. The more painstakingly this is done, the more “real” this creation will become."

"Eventually, as player characters develop and grow powerful, they will explore and adventure over all of the area of the continent. When such activity begins, you must then broaden your general map still farther so as to encompass the whole globe. More still! You must begin to consider seriously the makeup of your entire multiverse — space, planets and their satellites, parallel worlds, the dimensions and planes. What is there? why? can participants in the campaign get there? how? will they? Never fear! By the time your campaign has grown to such a state of sophistication, you will be ready to handle the new demands."

Here's more specific Gary advice on getting the sandbox rolling, and getting to the point where the momentum of player choices and consequences begins to take on a life of it's own, and becomes the clockwork, interlocking gears, World in Motion, whatever your metaphor or term is.

"There is nothing wrong with using a prepared setting to start a campaign, just as long as you are totally familiar with its precepts and they mesh with what you envision as the ultimate direction of your own milieu. Whatever doesn’t match, remove from the material and substitute your own in its place. On the other hand, there is nothing to say you are not capable of creating your own starting place; just use whichever method is best suited to your available time and more likely to please your players. Until you are sure of yourself, lean upon the book. Improvisation might be fine later, but until you are completely relaxed as the DM, don’t run the risk of trying to “wing it” unless absolutely necessary. Set up the hamlet or village where the action will commence with the player characters entering and interacting with the local population. Place regular people, some “different” and unusual types, and a few non-player characters (NPCs) in the various dwellings and places of business. Note vital information particular to each. Stock the goods available to the players. When they arrive, you will be ready to take on the persona of the settlement as a whole, as well as that of each individual therein. Be dramatic, witty, stupid, dull, clever, dishonest, tricky, hostile, etc. as the situation demands. The players will quickly learn who is who and what is going on — perhaps at the loss of a few coins. Having handled this, their characters will be equipped as well as circumstances will allow and will be ready for their bold journey into the dangerous place where treasure abounds and monsters lurk. The testing grounds for novice adventurers must be kept to a difficulty factor which encourages rather than discourages players. If things are too easy, then there is no challenge, and boredom sets in after one or two games. Conversely, impossible difficulty and character deaths cause instant loss of interest. Entrance to and movement through the dungeon level should be relatively easy, with a few tricks, traps, and puzzles to make it interesting in itself. Features such as rooms and chambers must be described with verve and sufficiently detailed in content to make each seem as if it were strange and mysterious. Creatures inhabiting the place must be of strength and in numbers not excessive compared to the adventurers’ wherewithal to deal with them. (You may, at this point, refer to the sample dungeon level and partial encounter key.)"

"The general idea is to develop a dungeon of multiple levels, and the deeper adventurers go, the more difficult the challenges become — fiercer monsters, more deadly traps, more confusing mazes, and so forth. This same concept applies to areas outdoors as well, with more and terrible monsters occurring more frequently the further one goes away from civilization. Many variations on dungeon and wilderness areas are possible. One can build an underground complex where distance away from the entry point approximates depth, or it can be in a mountain where adventurers work upwards. Outdoor adventures can be in a ruined city or a town which seems normal but is under a curse, or virtually anything which you can imagine and then develop into a playable situation for your campaign participants."

"Whatever you settle upon as a starting point, be it your own design or one of the many modular settings which are commercially available, remember to have some overall plan of your milieu in mind. The campaign might grow slowly, or it might mushroom. Be prepared for either event with more adventure areas, and the reasons for everything which exists and happens. This is not to say that total and absolutely perfect information will be needed, but a general schema is required. From this you can give vague hints and ambiguous answers. It is no exaggeration to state that the fantasy world builds itself, almost as if the milieu actually takes on a life and reality of its own. This is not to say that an occult power takes over. It is simply that the interaction of judge and players shapes the bare bones of the initial creation into something far larger. It becomes fleshed out, and adventuring breathes life into a make-believe world. Similarly, the geography and history you assign to the world will suddenly begin to shape the character of states and peoples. Details of former events will become obvious from mere outlines of the past course of things. Surprisingly, as the personalities of player characters and non-player characters in the milieu are bound to develop and become almost real, the nations and states and events of a well-conceived AD&D world will take on even more of their own direction and life. What this all boils down to is that once the campaign is set in motion, you will become more of a recorder of events, while the milieu seemingly charts its own course!"
 

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Have you got any links to good gaming podcasts? I can stick them on my ipod and listen to them at work. It would make a nice change from Big Finish stories.

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with podcasts at all. I know our Baulderstone Baulderstone does one with Bedrock Brendan I think?
 

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So, very interesting product I stumbled acr oss in my research...

124392-232x300.jpg

The D30 Sandbox Companion by New Big Dragon Games Unlimited

d30.JPG

Endzeitgeist did a rather comprehensive review...

Okay, the first thing you need to know, is that while this has been penned with an eye towards the 0e, 1e and B/X-rules in particular, the VAST MAJORITY of this book ultimately works for most games – whether they be 2e, another retro-clone, or even modern games; one could use the majority of this book just as well with e.g. 13th Age, PFRPG (1 or 2) or 5e.

To start off with an important thesis of mine: This is one of the most OCD, capital letters WORK supplements I have ever reviewed – and I mean that as a compliment. Making this book, if you’re even remotely familiar with how game design works, must have been a tremendous amount of WORK.

As before, in the D30 DM’s Companion, the supplement kicks off with an explanation of how to use the D30 in conjunction with the tables herein. To recap: There are essentially 3 rolling conventions: A single result can spring from a single d30 roll; two results can be sourced from a single roll, and thirdly, there is the convention where the d30 (almost) faithfully replicates a simultaneous rolling of a d3 and a d10. The tables sport 4-letter title codes for quick and precise referencing, the respective entries, if leading to other tables, reference the respective pages, and there are plenty of alternate tables – these are denoted by the same capital letter and number, plus a lower case letter.

After thus establishing how to use this toolkit in a concise and easy to grasp manner, we proceed to the sandboxing generators, which can roughly be categorized in three chapters: We have the means to generate material on a hexcrawl level; we have means to generate material on a settlement level, and we have the NPC-level. All three levels have their own helpful record sheets included, and the hexcrawl-level also sports glyphs for mines, mountains, mountain strongholds, different terrains and even floating strongholds (!!). Yep. There is a map glyph for floating strongholds. See what I meant by “OCD”? Who includes a separate map glyph for floating strongholds? Better yet – there are properly drawn glyphs, and there are abstract ones. And the abstract ones are so easy to draw that even ole’ me, with my hand-tremors, can use them without much hassle. Huge kudos for that. Anyhow, as in the D30 DM’s Companion, I would have loved to have the option to drag and drop the glyphs on hexmaps, but that may be me.

Of course, not all hexcrawls take place on an equal scale, and as such, the worksheet does include room for noting down the scale, entries for key locations and there is room for 4 d10 tables of wandering monsters – AND these sport lines to “check every…” While we’re on the subject of the worksheets included: The settlement worksheet establishes keys for vendors/shops: Magic supplies? MG; Fletcher? FL. Boatwright? BW. These are detailed, but focus on professions that, in some way, may be relevant to adventurers. In case you’re totally stumped regarding adventures, the next two pages provide a quick and dirty baseline: 10 tables, which include trigger, major goal, obstacle to goal, location, location feature, phenomena, villain goal/reason, artifact, theme and key NPC. Each of these has 30 entries, so you could for example get the following:

“The group is prompted by a trap (trigger) to root out spies (major goal); in order to do so, they need to race against the antagonists (obstacle) to an undercity (location), its access hidden by a well (location feature). Inside, strange vegetation (phenomena) exist, and the villains are actually motivated by honor (reason); a magical scarab may be found (artifact), and the general theme will be freedom. As for a key NPC involved, we have a pilgrim.” This is, obviously, not yet an adventure, but it most assuredly is a great little outline that nets a good skeleton you can flesh out.

After this, we receive something I very much adored: A massive weather generator organized by climate zone, season and month of the season, with two versions – the simple one has you just consult the table; the advanced method sports modifications for the median temperature of the day, and them are yet more mean temperature variations. It probably says a lot about me that I’ve smiled a lot while reading this one – it’s just so beautiful to me, and something I wouldn’t bother making myself, but certainly love having. One downside if you’re like me from a country using non-Imperial measurements and temperature scales: The book doesn’t designate them as such, but it’s in degrees Fahrenheit, which never made even the remotest bit of sense to me. I have a decent grasp of feet, inches and yards due to years of roleplaying. Degrees Fahrenheit, though? They make no sense (just look up how the system came to be…) to me. Even with all my immersion in American culture, I just can’t get wrap my head around it. I guess you have to be born into that. Anyhow, the point of my long digression: I’d really have appreciated a second value for degrees Celsius; as much as I adore the table, I won’t be using it due to the Fahrenheit measurement unit employed.

What does make sense, though, would be the next table, which has my unconditional appreciation. How can you get more OCD than the median daily temperature? What about a precipitation generator? No, I am NOT kidding you! The generator differentiates between non-severe and severe cells of storms, with the tables providing entries for rain, wind, hail and sleet and hook chances to determine tornadoes. The weather thus generated can be pretty extreme for European sensibilities, but if you’re from the American continent or some rougher climates/the tropics etc., this’ll feel right for you. Heck, even as a European, I can get behind the harsh clime generated here – it feels fantastic in both depth and severity. The book goes farther, though: We have a whole page determined to three degrees of getting off course, using the d30 to an absolute perfect extent – even if you’re using another game, the visual representations of being lost and randomly determining the direction, is absolutely awesome.

The book also presents a very simple foraging/hunting engine by season and terrain, with chances based on d30 rolls, including a non-specific game type generator and an optional hunting success table – this lets you determine number of missiles used and number of animals killed. While I personally prefer my own foraging/hunting engine (which you’ll see one day), I can get behind and genuinely appreciate the simplicity and elegance of the system provided here. After this, we have tables of natural phenomena by terrain type, including lava tubes, blowouts, cuestas, cypress domes, pseudocraters, etc. – it may sound weird, but these actually added to my dressing table array as easy modifiers/replacements for more commonly featured things such as groves, glades, etc.

Okay, so, what about settlements and the content of the individual hexes? Oh boy: The settlement generators differentiate between 5 different inhabitation levels by population density, with habitation types noted and some further instructions; you see, the generators include a subtable of special inhabitation types by terrain, as well as inhabitation types by population density. Unsettled land? You can find hermits and monasteries, for example. Are you beginning to see the attention to detail? This extends beyond the settlements themselves – types of ruin, degrees of decay and inhabitants + rough numbers…there is a lot here, though the suggested inhabitant table seems like an afterthought. It should also be noted that this supplement is not about detailed dressing; the book and its generators are there to present frameworks to work in, to provide a baseline to expand upon. So yeah, you still will want e.g. Raging Swan Press’s Wilderness and Dungeon Dressing files to fill out the details, but as a metastructuring element? Gold.

The book does not stop there: D30 tables to generate temples with brief types and descriptions included; add to that the cult generator, and you can have pretty easy means to provide baselines for cults out there – interestingly, the 5-tables cult generator can provide more interesting results than quite a few modules out there. “The partnership of the sun follows a rakshasa, wants to destroy libraries/books and its weird practice is zoösadism, i.e. animal cruelty.” – immediate framework to elaborate upon. There also is a magical place generator, with each entry sporting a boon that can be achieved at the location. These are obviously one of the components that are ruleset-specific; minor component here: Formatting of magic items/spells isn’t implemented in that table. The book also contains a massive pilgrim generator (!!).

The pdf then provides road encounter generators – not ones for individually distinct components, but ones that focus on the general structure: Marker, ambush, etc.; the respective NPCs are focusing on classic humanoid races, and a quick and brief treasure generator for these is included, alongside an attitude/reaction component. Once more – this is a structural baseline – add dressing, and you’re good to go.

The book then proceeds to provide a pretty massive castle/keep/stronghold generator – you can roll to determine owners, patrol sizes and makeups, castle types and sizes (yes, including halfling shires and tree strongholds) and optional construction tables. With 2d30s, you can generate a huge array of heraldic crests, with the division and charges all coming with their sample icons – I loved that! Once more, a drag and drop/color book style-version would have been awesome, but that is me complaining at a high level, particularly since there are 7 additional tables to further expand the heraldic crests.

Need a general background? You can determine the government, reaction to outsiders, economic background, settlement issues and nearby threats for a settlement. Need more adventuring fodder? Unprovoked attacks, annoying encounters, propositions to PCs to engage in illicit activities and celebrations/events allow for further modifications here. Need a detailed generator for city guard, city watch and border patrols and their armament? Included.

On the more grisly side of things: What about a d30-table of methods of execution and/or torture? Yes, I liked these, considering that punitive judiciary measures were very much the norm during medieval and early modern periods.

Don’t want to choose be hand which shops are present? Guess what_ A massive settlement supplier generator by size is featured alongside shop stock, interior and keeper being covered. The availability and pricing modifications and bartering information? All part of the deal. The book also features a massive tavern name generator as well as a means to determine available accommodations, rooms and beddings, physical features, reputation and food available.

On the more rules-specific side, we have 0e/1e & B/X-relevant classed NPC generators that determine class, race, sex, and level as well as quick ability score generators. The book also features quick NPC character inventory generators (including class specific ones) and similarly, a magic item generator. The latter might be mighty, but it’s easily the weakest thing in the book – it’s frankly boring and pretty vanilla.

More interesting would be the massive NPC occupation generator that yields almost 2.5 million different combinations of freeman occupations. A similarly mighty generator is provided for nobles and their household personnel, and there also is a ginormous sage specialty generator. NPC physical traits and persona/behavior generators can also help providing a base line, with e.g. bad habits, burdens and quirky behaviors included…and you can quickly expand on that: You can determine NPC parents, additional family information, personal life, eccentricities and talents, and end up with surprisingly well-rounded base personalities that only need some dressing to become full-fledged characters. Oh, did I mention the massive table to determine NPC languages?

And of course, there is a massive henchman/hireling recruitment generator, which includes reactions to offers of employment, recruitment modifiers and a brief retainer loyalty modifier table.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch on a formal level; on a rules-language level, magic components often are not formatted as something that stands out, but otherwise, the book is precise. Layout adheres usually to a landscape standard to account for the plethora of tables; the book is b/w, easy to parse, and a massive amount of content is on every page. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and I can’t yet comment on the merits of the print version, since I do not YET own it; I will buy it sooner, rather than later, though – the book is, frankly, too useful, and I love having this type of book in print.

Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr.’s second D30-companion manages to do the almost impossible: It outdoes its predecessor.

This is, once more, NOT a setting supplement; it is a TOOLKIT. This is not a book you’d usually READ. It’s a book you flip open when you stare at the blank page and have no ideas; it’s a book you open when you’re as obsessive as I am regarding the details, have your main adventure planned out, and want to simply fill in the blank bits. You know, all the tedious work that goes a long way making your world seem plausible and organic? The type of WORK that makes even the remotest off-the-rails region feel organic? Well, this book VASTLY speeds up the process, allowing you to focus on the stuff you actually WANT to focus on. Combine this with e.g. Raging Swan Press’ Dungeon Dressing and Wilderness Dressing books, and you can create vast stretches of lavishly-detailed lands in a few hours. I’d be willing to bet that I can use these books to craft an entire continent in lavish detail in a single afternoon – and have a bunch of details that can spawn adventures ready. all good to go to see which hooks the PCs will engage with.

This is a phenomenal resource, one that I can recommend unanimously to pretty much any GM out there who really likes their fantasy to be detailed and structured. 5 stars + seal of approval, and as an all-time favorite, this does get my EZG-Essentials tag, as a supplement that truly makes the GM’s job so much easier and rewarding.
 

ffilz

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I've had the D30 Sandbox compendium for some time. It definitely has a lot of good stuff. Yet the fact that EVERYTHING is a d30 table doesn't always work. The weather tables are neat, but when I looked at it, I felt it had some holes in it, but it is one of the most extensive weather treatments I've examined.
 

Baulderstone

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The D30 Sandbox Companion is a great resource. LeBlanc's blog has a lot of additional resources along the same lines as well. It was dormant for a long time, but he recently started posting again.

Ben Milton just put up a video discussion with Sandy Peterson, John Wick and Lindybeige focusing on running a sandbox. I've only been able to watch 20 minutes of it, but it is all good stuff so far.
 
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TristramEvans

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He has some great videos on ancient history such as an analysis of the Iliad and an infectious love for Runequest and Glorantha. Cool dude.

Yeah, I like his videos, even if some of his early rants make me facepalm. His historical and gaming stuff is usually pretty great though. It's really unfortunate the KS debacle has cast a shadow over the channel the last few years.
 

BedrockBrendan

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The D30 Sandbox Companion is a great resource. LeBlanc's blog has a lot of additional resources along the same lines as well. It was dormant for a long time, but he recently started posting again.

Ben Milton just put up a video discussion with Sandy Peterson, John Wick and Lindybeige focusing on running a sandbox. I've only been able to watch 20 minutes of it, but it is all good stuff so far.

Man, I missed that because I didn't click the notification bell.

Really curious what Lindybeige has to say
 

TristramEvans

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Youtube really needs a transcript feature. I just got outta class and clicked on the video and saw the length, and my whole brain sighed
 

Voros

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The D30 Sandbox Companion is a great resource. LeBlanc's blog has a lot of additional resources along the same lines as well. It was dormant for a long time, but he recently started posting again.

Ben Milton just put up a video discussion with Sandy Peterson, John Wick and Lindybeige focusing on running a sandbox. I've only been able to watch 20 minutes of it, but it is all good stuff so far.

Sandy Peterson is the legend I want to hear from the most here. I mean he created CoC, Ghostbusters and levels for Doom! Will have to skip around I guess.
 

Baulderstone

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Man, I missed that because I didn't click the notification bell.

Really curious what Lindybeige has to say
Of interest to you, he talks about Hillfolk some more, and how he combined the character generation in it with Judge Dredd.
Sandy Peterson is the legend I want to hear from the most here. I mean he created CoC, Ghostbusters and levels for Doom! Will have to skip around I guess.
Peterson is great. Since this forum never gives Mythras enough attention, I'll also bring up that the GM section for it has Peterson's rules for good gamemastering.

It's actually a pretty good discussion, so I didn't mind the length.
 

hawkeyefan

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It's a good video so far....I'm about halfway through and will watch the rest later today.

I was kind of amazed that Sandy didn't know what sandbox meant. Hysterical. Once they explained, he was like "oh yeah, that's how I always run a game" but the term itself was one he only associated with video games.
 

robertsconley

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It's a good video so far....I'm about halfway through and will watch the rest later today.

I was kind of amazed that Sandy didn't know what sandbox meant. Hysterical. Once they explained, he was like "oh yeah, that's how I always run a game" but the term itself was one he only associated with video games.
Because it was taken from video games in the mid aughts as a description of a type of RPG campaign. Make perfect sense if somebody wasn't following what people were publishing and sharing about sandbox campaigns. And why sandbox campaigns were not invented in the mid aught. We were just trying to describe something we been doing for a while.
 

chuckdee

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I was just going to pass, but someone pointed out a discussion they had on fail forward about the 30 minute mark. Still didn't get through the whole thing, but it was very good.
 

hawkeyefan

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I was just going to pass, but someone pointed out a discussion they had on fail forward about the 30 minute mark. Still didn't get through the whole thing, but it was very good.

Yeah, I listened to the rest and it was a pretty interesting discussion. I found their views on things to be well rounded, all in all. Fail forward was something I wasn't sure would have been so embraced, but it was. Same with the idea of players establishing facts in the game.

I didn't agree with the general idea about the best roleplaying sessions involving no dice rolls. I mean, I agree that you hear that a lot, but I don't know if I consider that the best sessions. I do like fewer rolls so that each roll carries more weight; when paced properly, a roll of the dice to me IS what the game is about.....a good roll and things go one way, a bad roll and they go quite another.

But other than that quibble, it was a good discussion. I like the series of talks Questing Beast is doing.
 

TristramEvans

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I wouldn't stand behind any blanket statement like "sessions without dice rolls are the best", but I get the sentiment, as being able to go through a session without any rolls demarks a point where the players are that comfortable and invested in role-playing their characters that discorse is enough to carry the game.
 

robiswrong

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I don't necessarily agree that "the best" sessions are ones without dice rolls, but I'm also perfectly good with rolls being involved in some social situations, so take that into account.

I'm also perfectly fine with a session that's pure roleplay (aka, no real "stakes", just in-character chat and hanging out) if everyone is into that.
 

hawkeyefan

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I wouldn't stand behind any blanket statement like "sessions without dice rolls are the best", but I get the sentiment, as being able to go through a session without any rolls demarks a point where the players are that comfortable and invested in role-playing their characters that discorse is enough to carry the game.

Yeah, I get the sentiment. And it was more that they were discussing comments they tend to find online where folks say something like "oh that was the best RPG session the other night, we didn't even roll the dice once". John Wick then offered the idea that roleplaying is actually what happens in between the rules....or in between rolls. And again, I get the sentiment.....but I just come up short of agreeing because I think dice rolls (or the equivalent) are an integral part of the game.
 
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