Sandbox Cthulhu

I've had a little time to brainstorm a little as we've skipped a session of our ACKS campaign with the start of the school year and the beginning of organized insanity as the kids and my wife go back to school.

One thing I've discovered in our ACKS campaign is how over time a non-plotted campaign begins to write itself. Right now our band of adventurers has two dungeons it has visited (and may return to either) as well as a third dungeon they are aware of. They've also developed two bases, one an outpost near the dungeons and the other the capital city of the region with better access to equipment, healers, and the like. Having put things in motion I can honestly say I really don't know where the adventurers will go in our next session. Will they finish cleaning out the kobold lair - with its rumored green dragon? Will they return to the dungeon beneath Skull Hill? Or will they venture to the Tomb of the Goblin King - now having a few magic items and possibly having a chance against the undead sure to be there.

All that said my favorite game is still Call of Cthulhu. As a huge fan of history I love the most common era of the 1920s - and had a blast with the Gaslight era. I like the heroism inherent in standing up to an uncaring universe. And I especially enjoy the cleverness it encourages - almost always overmatched I've seen players take some extremely clever and practical solutions, from dynamiting a mine to getting the hell out of the county upon gaining the enmity of a cult.
Joseph MoralesLovecraft's fictional town Arkham

Thinking about this got me wondering if the lessons of sandbox style play could be applied to Call of Cthulhu? At first glance it seems unlikely - your typical Cthulhu adventure begins with the investigators being hired to take care of some problem or solve some mystery. With that in mind it occurs to me there are ways to combine the two forms of play - and indeed there are adventures which have done just that. The classic Masks of Nyarlathotep from 1984 and reprinted many times since then has a definite starting point but from there on the investigators have complete control how they handle their investigation. More recently The Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man brings investigators to the Dreamlands with a need find a way out.

New York City, 1928. Fairchild Aerial Surveys
What about a more traditional sandbox? Well, the first thing that occurs to me is that our environment is not likely to be the wilderness of fantasy RPGs - rather we are looking at an urban environment - or at the very least, a suburban one. You'd want a base of operations where adventure isn't far away. You could set it in Lovecraft Country, based in Arkham with forays to Dunwich, Innsmouth, Kingsport, and the like. Or you could go more urban and go for a large city like New York City, Boston, etc. It's a bit like the difference between the two television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, set in beautiful suburban Sunnydale, California, vs. Angel set in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles.

So how does one avoid the cliche of "your long lost cousin writes to you" or "a stranger shows up in your office?" To some extent, I don't think you do - but rather you make it part of a larger whole - and never rely on a need for the investigators to follow some lead.

How do we make it part of a larger whole? Here, I believe, one needs to lay the groundwork. Figure out just what is going on in the town or city. What cults are present? What monsters are loose (or might become loose)? What mundane forces can cause trouble? Are there any sorcerers, mad scientists, etc. who are up to no good? Do they have everything they need and if not, how will they get it? Any artifacts just waiting to cause trouble? Any forbidden tomes in the area?

With this sort of a setup we can more organically have those people show up in the investigators' office. Why is the client's brother missing? Well it turns out he has the Innsmouth Taint and we already established they have a colony in the area. Who robbed the university's collection of forbidden tomes? It was that sorcerer we already dreamed up, he needs that spell to summon Yuggoth - but its not the only thing. In the course of the adventure the sorcerer might make some sacrifices, kidnap some kids, etc. So even if the investigators turn down the first case the sorcerer still does his thing and might appear later in another case.

I'd likely also add a good place in the town or city where characters can begin adventures, meet with patrons, gather rumors, etc. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series has McAnally's Pub, a place in Chicago frequented by the supernatural but also a place which is guaranteed neutral ground. Angel featured Caritas, a nightclub which served a similar purpose. I could picture in a 1920s campaign a speakeasy which investigators frequent. There would likely be police and private investigators and gangsters who know about it as well and would visit it if they had problems of a supernatural nature which needed addressing. This would provide a place where investigators could pick their missions and also find out what is going on in the supernatural world. This need not be over the top - for example sinister sorcerers might frequent it as well with an uneasy peace - and it is unlikely insane cultists would respect it and the alien creatures of the Mythos most certainly would not. In a more modern game it needn't even be a physical site - picture a specialized sort of  Facebook or Twitter used by the supernatural community. Heck they could even use regular Twitter or Facebook with most people completely unaware of what they are talking about - hiding in plain view.

At this point I'd like to consider what game engine to use for this. Being a fan of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu  RPG that seems an obvious choice. And I am certain it would work well for such a game. Gumeshoe would work well though it might need a little tweaking to make certain investigative abilities refresh properly if a case is ever abandoned or multiple cases are pursued simultaneously.

As I wrote the premise above, it occurred to me I this would also be a perfect match for Fate - whether a general incarnation of it or for a Dresden Files game. Fate Core discusses generating the background and Dresden Files details city creation in great detail. There is no reason that all the work I described up above needs to be done solely by the GM. The players being involved in the process assures that there will be hooks they find interesting. Have a player who loves the Deep Ones? Of course he'll want them to have a colony in the city. While Fate's assumption of heroic, competent characters may seem at odds with Call of Cthulhu (and I'm by no means a purist - I'm still waiting for Pulp Cthulhu) it need not be. Fate's concept of consequences fits in well with the insanity that befalls Cthulhu characters all too often. Just add a Sanity Track with the option to take sanity-based consequences and you've ported a classic aspect of the genre.

In the event of a total party kill in the future I can see our next game...

Copyright Note:

Joseph MoralesLovecraft's fictional town Arkham, Massachusetts 2006.

Copyleft: This is a free work, you can copy, distribute, and modify it under the terms of the Free Art License


  1. i was running sandbox cthulhu in arkham county with other keepers - players move in area get jobs, discover odd things, go hiking in dunwich or holiday at kingsport

  2. One can also draw sandbox inspiration from modern MMOs or computer games such as City of He.., er, Champions Online or Godfather/Scarface/Mafia II. All of these are really sandboxes. Sure, there's a storyline in the "ganster" games, but I've never finished the Godfather one, for instance. There so much to ""play around with": setting up rackets, stealiong cars... :)

  3. There's a kickstarter going on for something like this right now.


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