Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Resources for Making a Sandbox from Scratch

So, with school officially ending and with no summer programs in sight, I decided to challenge my middle child with the task of creating a sandbox campaign. Although well-versed in the video gaming scene, he has only played in a few D&D campaigns, all run by yours truly. As a consequence, he really had no idea where to start. This got me to deal with the practical reality of how to make a sandbox campaign from scratch: what resources did I actually recommend and what actually worked?

1. An Atlas

Rather than trying to explain the realities of geography, weather, etc in order to make a plausible world, I just turned an atlas upside down and said, pick a page that looks cool. Not only did this make the mapmaking step of the process easy, it follows in the footsteps of giants:

The basic campaign area reproduced on a large mapsheet outside this book, was originally drawn from some old Dutch maps. — Dave Arneson, "The First Fantasy Campaign" (1977).

2. Kilgore’s Sub-Hex Quad and Master Sheet for Hex Quads Maps

Having chosen the upside-down Aegean Sea as a starting point, I had him transfer the map as best he could to Kilgor’s Master Sheet for Hex Quads. Having done that, I asked him where Civilization was and where the Wilderness was. Once that was determined, I had him pick one Quad in the Wilderness to focus on for the campaign. This was then transferred to one of Kilgor’s Sub Hex Quad sheets.

3. The Wilderness Encounter Tables in Swords & Wizardry

These are simple, organized by terrain type and produce some pretty bog-standard results that won’t challenge a new Referee too much. I had him roll a d10 for every hex on his map. Every ‘1’ resulted in a creature from the encounter table living there. Frost Giants, Lycanthropes and Berserkers dominated the landscape. Oh, and a Purple Worm right next to some old ruins.

4. My own Interpretation of Holmes on Cultures

Based on the monsters that lived in the Wilderness, he decided that the Ancient Culture were the Giants that “dug too deep” and were destroyed by Purple Worms, the Old Culture was a human culture roughly based on Russia that succumbed to madness and Lycanthropy. Then he decided that there were two competing Present Cultures. One is based roughly on the Incan Empire (with virtually no magical tradition) and the other roughly on the Republic of Texas (which is heavily magical). My eldest was thrilled at the idea of playing a magic-wielding cowboy (which eventually morphed into a society where the rite of passage to adulthood involves getting a tattoo that allows the recipient the ability to cast one first level spell a day).

5. Dave’s Mapper

This quickly produced a tent-pole megadungeon sideview and first level that “looked cool” and was thus inspiring. What more can you ask from a map?

6. The Tome of Adventure Design

I have said it before, and I will say it again: this may be the best RPG product I have ever purchased. It is chuck full of inspiration and ideas. I first had him roll up names for each of the level of the megadungeon. Then, it was used to create the various “Traps” and “Specials” that resulted from using the next resource.

7. Moldvay’s Basic D&D “Stock the Dungeon Table”

Found on page B52, this has been my go-to stocking tool for decades. While it doesn’t produce perfect results, it gets you in the ballpark as long as you understand that the results are there to inspire and not be set in stone. As long as you understand why things exist in your dungeon and it makes sense to you, it will make sense to the players.

8. Monstrosities and Swords & Wizardry

Despite voicing a desire to play 1e AD&D, I decided on Monstrosities and Swords & Wizardry for a resource on monsters to stock a dungeon because of the guidelines S&W gives for the Challenge Level of dungeon encounters. I have been quite satisfied with how well this works in game play. As a consequence, it provides a great starting point on understanding how difficult a particular dungeon area/encounter is going to be. Monstrosities also provides an example encounter for every monster in the book. So, it is also instructive about what those encounter and dungeon areas can look like.

Finally, generating treasure using S&W is dead simple and flexible. Whatever gets rolled indicates total value, not a specific coin count. So, a treasure could very well be in barrels of whisky, rolls of silk, or whatever tickles your fancy.

9. The Question “Why?”

Why do think the goblins are there? Why are they on the same level as those spiders? Why are they risking their lives to be there?

Again, if your dungeon makes sense to you, that confidence and knowledge will be communicated to the players and it will make for a better game.

10. Dyson’s Maps

Once the first level of the megadungeon was squared away, I had him choose three maps from Dyson’s collection to represent various lairs in the vicinity of the starting village. I had him repeat the various steps he used to do the first level of the megadungeon.

In the end, I had to cut him short when he told me he had an idea for his various dungeons. “Just write it down” became a mantra. It goes to show, however, how useful all of these resources are: they inspired a newbie to create a world where things make sense to him and enough choices for his players that he won’t be having to improvise that much any time time soon.

In other words, he’s confident he can do this.