First Steps in a Sandbox - Going Forth Without Strider to Protect Us

"Are you frightened?"
Something that gets discussed in the "old school" gaming community is the idea of a sandbox game. I'm not certain I'd consider myself an "old school" gamer - I've played all sorts of games, starting with D&D Basic to some funky indie games like Risus and Wushu. So I'm the last person in the world to be an evangelist.

The idea of a sandbox game is the Dungeon Master/Game Master/Judge (I'm just gonna go with GM) sets up the environment and lets the players adventure. There is no plot the players have to follow - heck there is no dungeon the players have to go to. They can go wherever they want. For some, the preferred sandbox is a "megadungeon". For others it is a wilderness setting. And for others it could even be a political game. I'm having visions of a game based on the legend of King Arthur where players get to choose their own destinies. "No, we do not acknowledge Arthur as our king." And such players could conceivably win.

I've been looking at expanding my group for a while - right now it's me and three players. It's a decent number but ver susceptible to the "real world". We've got parents, engineers, educators, IT professionals, and mixes of all of those. We can endure losing a single player, though I find one GM and two players less than optimal. What I've found is the magic lower bound to be four people - the GM and three players. With that you've got lots of dynamics and variety. Bump it up a little more and you increase the dynamics, though you do reach a point where the nature of the game changes. It has been a long time since an upper limit has been a problem for my gaming.

I did some poking on Google+ to get an idea of what gaming communities are the busiest and while my beloved Call of Cthulhu community is rather small, I found some very active communities dedicated to Swords & Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Basic/Expert D&D, etc. So we decided to look into expanding simultaneous with kicking off a fantasy campaign. The idea of doing a sandbox campaign holds a certain appeal to us so that's what we're going to be doing. I've also posted some recruitment posts on Google+, advertising we'll either be doing Swords & Wizardry or Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS). Swords & Wizardry has gotten a lot more interest - more than I'd've anticipated. Truth be told, if we do use Swords & Wizardry, I'm going to borrow a lot from ACKS. I suppose that's one of the appeals of "old school" gaming - it is super-easy to customize and house rule. One thing I found early on in playing D&D 3.x was that houseruling such a system was tricky. It's not to say it can't be done, but one must be very careful. For example, if you get rid of miniatures and switch to abstract combat, you must be cognisant of the fact that a number of feats and abilities are based around grid-based combat.

I've begun developing a sandbox setting. Truth to tell it's a bit of a first for me. I've run some pretty wide-open dungeon crawls in my gaming past (I seem to recall weeks and months spent in the Temple of Elemental Evil) but never what I would consider a full sandbox. The development of this has been an interesting process. My first pass at this has revealed a number of things...

I think the most important thing I've learned is I will never have enough time to "fully" prepare it. It will almost certainly mean some "winging it". That's also illuminated to me why so many of the early gaming products were maps, encounter tables, etc. I can see how such things are invaluable to the running of such a game. I remember in 6th grade study hall we'd sometimes manage to convince the teacher to let us play D&D where the DM would basically just roll up an encounter for us and we'd have at it - or figure out how the heck to get away from it.

I've also learned that things aren't totally outside of the GM's control. I'm establishing a home base at the borderlands of a realm that used to be part of an empire, though that empire has since withdrawn and is a shadow of its former self. Looking through wilderness encounter tables one can see how dangerous going far from civilization can be for novice adventurers. So for the first few games I'll be giving some options but realistically, the characters are not going to go on a journey of a thousand miles. It makes me think of how long Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin would have made it had they not run into Strider in Bree. 1st level adventurers in a sandbox game are not going to have the advantage of running into a Strider who is willing and able to assist.

From this you can see a number of things about my thought process. For me, the sandbox is a wilderness one. I absolutely love fantasy novels that feature engaging trips through the wilderness. Vance's Dying Earth, Lewis' Narnia and Tolkien's Middle Earth all leap to the mind. A dying sun overhead. A winter that never ends. Traveling to the ruins of Weathertop.

Also, I'm going with some common D&D tropes - a fallen empire to explain all the treasure and ruins and beginning on the borderlands. A dangerous region but not one so dangerous that our budding adventurers can't test their skill and luck with at least a chance of success.

As far as the setting goes I'm finding myself borrowing from a variety of sources, historical and gaming related. I rather like ACKS assumption of a "late antiquity" inspired setting. The classical empires are receding and their replacements aren't fully developed yet. A great opportunity for adventure. For the immediate region of the campaign I've been inspired by the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada. My younger daughter has been loving the American Girl stories of Caroline, a young girl growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. I have visions of something like Niagara Falls plunging into a river leading into the lake. And I see a dwarf-built canal that allows one to bypass the falls.

As I thought of Niagara Falls I thought of a city from an old Necromancer Games adventure, one I never used - The Grey Citadel. It features a small city in the middle of a ford before a great waterfall - perfect for our needs. It's a frontier trading city, just what we'd want from a home base. Not a teeming metropolis. A good base to venture into the wilds for brief trips.

I don't have a detailed timeline of the formerly great empire - I don't know if I will to tell the truth - I'm learning broad strokes are my friend. I have found myself putting pieces in play. Orc tribes in the nearby woods. Nomadic humans who often encamp in the area. Ruins of an even older fallen empire, one defeated in the early days of our Roman Empire equivalent. I'm looking forward to doing a local campaign map I've just finished a larger scale map to give me an idea of the general surroundings of our starting area. It's got Vikings. I suppose I'll need to add robots and ninjas too at some point....

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