Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sandbox Encounters (Sandbox)

So what makes for good sandbox encounters? Like everything else in the sandbox, it springs from the environment. My own sandbox campaign is based on the Isle of Man, expanded to ten times the normal size.

Why? Because reality lets me cheat. The geography is always right. Settlements are there for real reasons. The natural resources make sense. Unless you're a geologist, it's going to be kind of a crap shoot to place a mine or the proper type of rock in an area. Reality lets you cheat with details. It's amazing how many campaign ideas can spring from these details.

My real-world map gives me a starting point. From there I can work outwards and ask "why" questions. Why are people in the town of Tara? Well, there's a source of fresh water, a natural port, a nearby iron mine, and a valley protected by hills. That's really boring stuff, right? Well now lets add the fantasy elements. My most used magical motif is ley lines.

Tara is on a ley line that leads up through the hills, allowing for wards that protect the region and teleportation circles for arcane travel. The power from those ley lines make it convenient for others to tap that power, like a power line running through the valley. So we have a cultist temple in the hills, a closed portal to the Far Realm in the forest, and other shenanigans that makes this a place of power. This ley line motif works its way throughout the island, giving reasons for strange things in unusual areas.

The next step beyond the environment forming ley lines was the magic from these ley lines changing the environment. In several cases, powerful wizards tapped these ley lines for seemingly unlimited power. That kind of power warps the environment, creating unusual terrain types (I have a volcanic region where there shouldn't be one), distortions of time and space, and regions of planar creatures that warp in and out of reality.

My ley line conjunctions were often places where the material world and the planes formed a conjunction. So the Fey Woods to the north had a conjunction with the Fey Realm, which naturally meant there were a lot of fey living there. Each plane had representation, which allowed variety in encounters and some very odd problems to crop up with other local settlements when people started meddling with standing stones on ley lines.

Regular things can be made fantastic. As much as I want my iron mine and quary to be just some natural resources to plunder, you can bet there is trouble there as well. The iron mine had a haunt that needed put to bed, a poor miner who died an unjust death on the road to the mine. The quarry manager was murdered and his body never recovered. Those who venture too close to the watery pit might learn more about that.

Much of the area has issue with hauntings. As the old Northman culture abandoned this area to the Celts, they settled a lot of scores. A murdered official haunts the local castle as a spectre, along with his ghostly dog. The men stationed on the wall to the north were left to die of starvation. The salt mine is full of prisoners who were abandoned.

Besides that, you have the usual encounter locations. Cairns dot the hills, often protected, since it was tradition to bury warriors with their gear. Broken castles, towers and lighthouses dot the coastal road, the perfect home for bandits, cultists, and monsters. As the characters clear and repair these locations, the region begins to grow and improve. The town population increases. There are no more random encounters on that particular road (for a while). They can create additional bases from which to push outwards in their exploration.

Although you could have a mega dungeon or special delving location, it's not really necessary in the sandbox. There are many locations to explore that make ecological sense. Most "dungeons" are no bigger than they needed to be for their intended purpose. Make sure they had a purpose and feel free to re-purpose them with the new residents. I try to keep these locations naturally small, no more than 4-5 encounters in perhaps a dozen keyed locations.  Too much dungeon crawling and the players will stop caring about the sandbox.

The Random Encounter (Sandbox)

In a standard game, what's the role of a random encounter? It plays a few roles. It's window dressing to show a region or dungeon is dynamic. It's incentive to get a move on, a plot device to create a sense of urgency. It's also a punishment of sorts. If you aren't going to be quick about it, we'll make you expend your resources on this meaningless encounter. Most players hate random encounters. I know I do.

The sandbox is different. The world is in motion, so a random encounter demonstrated this motion. A random encounter shouldn't be a haphazard chart of monsters from the back of a book the DM rolls on to come up with a fight. It should be an unexpected thing that happens, tied in with the environment. This is where the traditional random monster chart comes in handy, but with some tweaks.

First, all the monsters on that chart are hand picked. I know where they live. They're part of the campaign region. My campaign region doesn't have orcs, so you won't find orcs on the chart.  If it's close to civilization, the various bandits, cultists and other impeding groups are included. Don't forget the people.

Whenever the party encounters one of these groups, I either cross it off or put a check mark next to it. Kill enough angry bears around town and eventually you won't be fighting any more angry bears. The bandit groups only have so many people in them. There might be only one bugbear, and you just defeated it. That's part of the dynamism of the sandbox.

I make my chart in a spreadsheet so I can sort by CR and get an average when I'm done. I want my concentric circles out from civilization to get increasingly dangerous. So my local forest encounter chart (below) is dangerous for low level characters, but hopefully not lethal with an average CR3 (The default Pathfinder forest table has an average CR5). Head into the hills or forests farther from town and I'll probably have a chart around CR5. Head deep into the mountains and it might be CR 10. The ocean is naturally dangerous, with most encounters in the CR 7+ rating, although I suppose you could make it easier with some work.

Also don't forget animals. Understand your local ecosystem and try to include as many as possible, especially the giant kind. For Pathfinder, Tome of Horrors was a godsend for its huge number of animals, along with monstrous plants. The new D&D 5 Monster Manual has a satisfactory number of these.

Second, what are they doing? if you have an encounter, it doesn't necessarily mean you're having a showdown with a monster. It's not always Perception checks and Initiative rolls. What is the "monster" doing? They might be returning from a hunt (possibly injured), on their way to a hunt, looking for food (or victims), building a shelter, or even fighting another monster. They might even be dead. Who killed the bandits? Hmmmm.  If alive, they might not want a fight.

One of my favorite encounters from my last campaign was two Rocs fighting over a shark one of them nabbed from the ocean. The Roc was randomly rolled, along with fighting another creature. To make it more interesting, all the party could hear from the cloudy skies was the fight, followed a moment later by a shark, plummeting to earth (roll scatter dice). The victor came down for his shark and the party fought it and won (surprisingly).

From Telecanter's Receding Rules blog

Third, maybe it's not a monster at all. my highest numbers on my chart (95-100 rolling percentile) is not a monster at all. It's a random thing. There are various charts people have made out there, but they're pretty easy to come up with. You find a medicinal plant, there's a hazard, the road is washed out, the path is somehow lost, or signs of a battle. Perhaps a party member gets sick or loses something, or they notice they're being followed. Look online for other peoples charts, along with your own ideas (I stole mine entirely, and can't remember from where, so I won't post it).

Should you roll this in advance? It's up to you, but if you use miniatures and need extra work learning about a monster because you're new at this, then maybe yes. I don't like in media res (in the middle of things) encounters in the game, with that goblin fighting that elf, perpetually stuck in time. However, this might be a conceit worthy of that.

How often should you roll? II like to do it once during the day and once at night. I'll roll a D6 and something happens on a 1 or 2. I'll often not roll if we're in the process of doing something interesting, but when we're hex crawling, it might be the only possibility of action for miles.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Encounter Regions (Sandbox)

Discussing the last post on Facebook yesterday, Ken mentioned the big problem with designing a sandbox game with the D20/Pathfinder system. Characters advance too quickly. A game world that might have taken a decade to explore in previous editions, finds the characters incredibly powerful after just a couple of years of real time, even god-like in a matter of months in game time.

For example, In my sandbox campaign, two years in, they were 12th level, and had explored about a third of the island.  Coming up with challenges at that point was difficult without the verisimilitude of the island falling apart. The campaign was pretty much over. There were only so many dragons and lichs to fight before the whole thing started looking silly. Plus, going back to regions closer to their starting point put them into far less dangerous zones, trivial levels of danger, really. This is because of the linear nature of the D20 system, which makes high level characters impervious to low level threats.

Players stitched this explored area together from the maps I would give them

This linear nature also means creating regions of sandbox encounters is both easy, but also fragile. I want to go over the process to show how this is a problem and also why I hope 5E solves this.

Here's how I do it:

You have your base of operations for low level characters. It's assumed that threats to this base are easier to handle by low level characters because the town would have either dealt with mid level threats or would have been wiped out already. It's also good to have a power base of "good guys," who can keep the mid level stuff in check, but also have some indifference towards the plight of the PCs. I have druids, rangers, and the forces in town keep the local threats in check, while some powerful boundary magic thrown in gives some justification for why a civilization hasn't been overrun. My good guys are actually neutral, have plans and designs of their own, and generally don't want PCs upsetting the balance. Really, don't rock the boat or bad things will happen. And they did rock the boat. And bad things did happen to the town.

So here we have a region of low level stuff, enough to get the PCs to that sweet spot of around 5th level or higher. They might be told not to go over the hills or not to explore the ocean because of the danger. Eventually they get their courage (and levels) up and take the plunge.

My mid-level regions (encounters for 5th-9th level characters, more or less), are far more dangerous. They're characterized by a balance of power. There probably aren't any good guys in this wilderness, but there are tribes of neutral and evil humanoids kept in check by bigger monsters. Evil wizards are kept in check by dragons. Combinations  of several forces live on the edge of war with their own problems and motivations.

This allows PCs to allie with groups, gain passage for favors, take on missions, or whatever. Going in and squashing a tribe of goblins or killing a dragon is likely to have repercussions. Who was that dragon keeping in check? What kept the goblins tribes from invading the town? Perhaps the legion of undead from the lich kept the big bad guy from overrunning the island (they did). The enemy of their enemy is their friend. This was hard fought wisdom that had them questioning the situation every time they came into a new power dynamic. You know, role playing.

Deeper into the wilderness you can get even more epic, with lost cities, fallen civilizations of cyclops or giants, powerful magics run amok, and mountainous regions that are generally inaccessible (a good boundary). In my campaign, the mountains hold treasures and secrets that all the powers on the outskirts would like to control. That is, if they could conquer the center from the periphery.

This is all very linear. However, players don't explore in a linear fashion, in concentric circles out from home. They tend to do that in the beginning and then they start picking a direction. This leaves a lot of content on the table that will never get used, a reason why a key sandbox rule is to not go nuts designing everything. Again, the linear power levels of Pathfinder PCs means the sandbox becomes its own "adventure path" whether you like it or not. Some stories will fall by the side as they obsolete them with their power level.

The hopes of D&D 5th edition is we see a flatter power curve. The promise that a tribe of goblins can kill high level PCs is one sandbox DMs should hope is true. I see some of that now as I design those mid level encounters. The higher CR monsters don't seem significantly more powerful than low level guys. It's actually deceptively deadly when I run it through this most excellent online encounter calculator. Give a necromancer a couple of skeletons or a hobgoblin some goblin mooks, and suddenly the encounter goes from average to deadly as the action economy plays a role not seen in D20.

If this is true (and I have about 4 hours of D&D 5 play experience at this point), it will make D&D 5 the ideal sandbox game system. Just as Ken points out that back in the day, a solid sandbox campaign could go on for a decade or more with the same party. Let's hope that's true with 5E.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

World in Motion (Sandbox)

If you were to explain the big difference between a regular campaign and sandbox campaign, it would be the world is in motion. In a regular campaign, there is likely a group of villains plotting or some sort of event that will happen unless the characters stop it. That thing that will happen is likely to happen as a result of their failure. It's likely to happen off screen. It's also likely to happen without being part of the game. It's failure. Perhaps we'll role play the aftermath, but more than likely we won't.

Early days of our sandbox hex crawl
In a sandbox campaign, the world is in motion. Bad guys have plots. Good guys have plots. Good guys have bad plots. Heck, even bad guys can become allies. In my last campaign, every region had a complex balance of power. If you go kill the dragon, who was the dragon keeping from realizing their plot? Is it someone worse? You better find out. 

With the sandbox, the players may come back to find the town has changed dramatically. Plots have come to fruition. Perhaps bad guys have exacted their revenge or good guys finally got what they wanted. This is not unlike real life, and it's not failure. It's just some things that happened. The characters may shrug or they may decide to work against change. There's no wrong answer.

Everyone has a plan and a timeline in the sandbox campaign. The PCs may destroy a group, slow a group, or accelerate the plans of a group. In my last campaign, the PCs destroyed the evil satyrs that burned their town down each year. They took the battle to them, along with their allies, and wiped them out. That threat was no more. Meanwhile, it took them until around 12th level to take the fight to the evil Cyclops necromancer. During that nine months of game time, two "undead apocalypse" scenarios unfolded in the region, leading to death and destruction as the party tried to figure out what was going on. They were busy elsewhere at the time. When it came to the Big Bad Guy, they never stopped him, but they slowed down his plans, pushing his schemes outside the window of the campaign (now we begin the second campaign). 

Besides schemes and timelines, in the sandbox, there are repercussions to actions that we don't see in a standard campaign. If you annoy the mayor, expect long term trouble getting people to work with you. If you raid the rakshasa's lair and don't kill him (as happened in the first campaign), he will most definitely be screwing with you. The world is in motion and people are not dungeon mooks. They have friends and allies and resources to bring to bear on those who hurt them. This might also mean that a group of mercenaries who mercilessly kill and silence their enemies while rising in power, might be seen as a threat. Politics and social interactions go a long way in keeping a positive narrative. Suddenly the bard is incredibly useful.

What's lacking in the sandbox is usually a long path of adventuring that precludes understanding these various interactions. If your characters just spent five levels of adventuring out in the hills in a dungeon, do they really care what's happening in town? Their life is in that dungeon. That means adventures, as normally understood, are short. Half a dozen encounters is a long adventure in the sandbox. Mega dungeons will derail a sandbox. A disappearance of even a few weeks means a lot can change back in town, a strategy a bad guy should consider. I don't need to kill you, how about I send you on a wild goose chase or trap you on a time dilated plane (the rakshasa again). Being sidelined in a world in motion is a terrible thing, as all the work to understand various factions and schemes becomes entirely irrelevant. It's like leaving your Sim City computer game on auto pilot over the weekend. In a standard campaign, plot and schemes usually just point to the location of the next hobo murder.