Saturday, January 14, 2017

Running a Sandbox Campaign: Why a Random Event Isn't Random

By its very nature, a sandbox campaign has a lot of randomness. For me, this is one of its charms. Not only do I get to be surprised as a Referee by what happens in the world, but I am challenged every time I allow a random table to determine what happens next. One of the key principles that I adhere to when running a sandbox campaign is that nothing is random despite my wide and varied use of random tables and events.

This may sound like a contradiction (or a statement of faith) but it actually isn’t. Though the origin of an event or an encounter or a treasure might be a random result, its actual existence in the world must have a rational explanation. In other words, I am always asking the question ‘Why?’ Why are there lizardmen in this part of the jungle? Why is there a dragon here when before there wasn’t? Why are neanderthals exploring a lost temple that never belonged to them?

By continuously asking the question ‘Why?’ I am forcing myself to accept the un-randomness of random events and seeing these things not as something that a die-roll told me, but as part of the larger story and framework of my campaign world.

This is why, in my prepping for a sandbox campaign, I use broad strokes and various nebulous factions and background noise: they all give me a framework in which to fill in details with my questions of ‘Why?’

For example: as I mentioned in my last post, a die roll led to the adventure seed of a portal suddenly showing up in Akhmed’s house when he rolled a ‘6’ on a d6. After such a long time, why wasn’t his house done? Something catastrophic must have happened. What event in the campaign world could have caused this? The players had just recently travelled to a major Illithid city where they managed to wreck havoc and shatter a giant machine which let them dial in various portals to various worlds. This, then, could result in various rips in time and space around my Lost Colonies map. Why not in Akhmed’s house?

This places what was a silly random event into a much larger story arc that affects the entire campaign world. Should players start exploring this rip in time and space, various hints and clues could then allow them to figure out that the origin of this rip was, in fact, there own doing. Unfortunately, that never happened with the players in question, but I do have a solid background for why this portal exists in the first place.

It also opens up a framework from which I can start explaining the un-randmoness of other random events in my campaign. Various factions in my Lost Colonies campaign are aware of these rips in time and space. Each has had a different reaction to them. As a consequence, I can start explaining the existence of certain random encounters as consequences of these factions interacting with portals. Again, this ties everything together and leads players to gain more information about this major event in the campaign world and all of its consequences.

Thus, random events actually make my sandbox campaigns better, because I am forced to ask a series of questions which seek to understand exactly why a random event isn’t random.