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Gabe / on Wed, Jan 20 2010 at 10:26 am

Sandbox D&D

I mentioned a while ago that I was pushing my D&D game into a new direction, that being more of a sandbox style adventure. I also said I’d answer your questions about it and now that I’ve got three games under my belt I feel like I can do that.

Q. Are you running the game completely sandbox, just making things up as you go along, or do you have some kind of plan with regards to what kinds of encounters the players might face, what the next hexes out might look like, and so on?

A. I got this question a lot and it’s tricky for me to answer because I know my players read the site and so as much as I’d love to just post my map, I can’t do that. Before I started running the game I sat down and mapped out the “Estwild” ,the place they would be adventuring in. I broke it down into zones similar to World of Warcraft. I gave each zone a unique character, from the stinking mud pits of the dead bog to the silver trees of the Black Hollow.

At this point I roped Tycho in to help me flesh out the story elements that would run through the various zones. We created side stories that would live in one or two zones as well as overarching stories that would run through the entire Estwild. I also started drilling down and populating each zone with what I called “points of interest”. I took the first zone they would enter to start. This was a verdant forest called Edgewood. I started creating these points of interest and then dropping them into the hexes all through the zone. Here is an example that the party has already seen, so I’m not spoiling anything:

Draconian Camp
(hex 1919)
The ruins of Thol Taer
A circle of heavy canvas tents sits in the center of ancient ruins. The remnants of a camp fire smolder in the center of the camp with a filthy black kettle resting atop them. The camp is surrounded by the remains of what must have been a large stone temple. The massive white stone walls are cracked and broken now. Vines crawl over what remains of the temple. It looks as though the it has been devoured by the forest. This camp serves as a base for Draconian scouts charged with watching Samekin as well as the Outrider’s Trail. If the party is stealthy they may be able to sneak up on the camp and gain a surprise round. If not they are spotted by guards and attacked.

Here is another that they discovered in the Dead Bog:

Ruined Caravan
(Hex 1721)
A line of a dozen or so wagons lay buried in the bog. You can find no bodies or even skeletons but that does not surprise you considering all the scavengers here in the bog.

-The markings on the wagons imply Eladrin origin. 
-Inside one of the Wagons the Party finds a collection of statues as well as a large ornate chest.
-closer inspection of the statues reveals them to be mostly bullywugs and a few Draconians. Their expressions are a mixture of fear and surprise.
-The chest has a magical lock on it which petrifies would be thieves.

Perception DC 25: The character notices the tiny runes etched on the chest that indicate it has magical properties.

Arcana DC 30: The character knows what the runes signify. The character must have detected or been shown the runes to attempt this check.

Trigger: A character disturbs the chest Close burst 1 Target: All creatures in burstAttack: +16 vs. Fortitude Hit: 4d8 + 3, and the target is immobilized (save ends). On its first failed saving throw, an immobilized target is restrained. On its second failed saving throw, the target is petrified.

So as the DM I have this map in front of me populated with all these points of interest. When the party moves into a hex, I simply consult my master map and tell them what if anything they see. The party has a cartographer who keeps track of their progress and builds out their own map. He marks important locations like ancient ruins and roads or rivers.

So far this system has worked out really well. So well in fact that the past two games have been dominated by events keyed to these points of interest rather than the parties overarching goal of stopping Tiamat. Two games ago the party discovered the Ruined Caravan early in the night. They were cautious about opening the chest, and decided in the end after much discussion not to even try. However one of them figured that if they weren’t going to open it they could at least take it with them. As soon as he tried to lift the chest the magic kicked in and after two failed saving throws he was turned to stone.

We had just started the night and already one of their players was essentially dead. I had created an NPC who lived in the dead bog though. An old hag who was a powerful witch and could help the party but always required them to help her in return. Any aid she gave them had to be repaid, so entering into deals with her could be dangerous. I had the hag show up since they were near her hex and she offered to reverse the spell if the party helped her. They agreed and followed her back to her hut. It turned out that the hag had a Bullywug problem and as payment she told the party she wanted them to travel south and wipe out a Bullywug warren there.

On the spot I whipped up the warren and drew it out on a mat. They spent the rest of the night slaughtering bullywugs in the service of this crazy old witch.

Last Monday’s game ended up going similarly. One of the party members jumped through a magic portal in pursuit of a Draconian. They were both teleported halfway across the Estwild to a place they had never visited. The portal back was destroyed in the resulting fight and he ended up dying there in the middle of nowhere. The rest of the night ended up being an adventure to try and find their lost comrade. Trekking into the unknown searching blindly for his body. 

This is exactly the sort of thing I have come to love about this style of play. I sit down at the table with no idea what they will do or where they will go that night. The adventure ends up being just as much a surprise to me as it is to them. It’s a real test of my improvisational skills but so far I feel like I’ve done a good job. I honestly think that I could not have started out running this type of game. I think having a year of running more structured adventures under my belt gave me the skills I needed to open the world up like this. I think the same could be said for my players as well. They really needed that year to learn how to play and get comfortable with the idea of role-playing before I could turn them loose like this.

If you’re interested in our game you can check out our Obsidian Portal site. You can also follow PADnD on twitter for a live play by play of each game. If you have questions about playing as a PC in this sort of game you can find all my players on twitter by checking out who PADnD is following.

I hope this gives all you DM’s out there some inspiration. 

-Gabe out

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