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Sandbox Adventures Don't Work - Or Do They?

 
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Sandbox Adventures Don't Work - Or Do They?
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Terrainosaur
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Post Sandbox Adventures Don't Work - Or Do They? Reply with quote
In sandbox or free-form adventures, the PCs are free to travel about an overland map. The theory is that it offers more freedom for the players.

It doesn't work. One way to see that is there are few sandbox adventures published. Dungeons work.

The PCs need a world with things in it. If objects, people, and monsters exist in the world then they're in specific places in the world. If the DM moves things into the path of the PCs regardless of which way the PCs choose to move, then the players had no choice all along. For pure player freedom, the DM would have to create an incredibly large number of adventures and place them before the PCs enter the scene.

In a sandbox adventure, at first the PCs' choices are effectively random. Any hook or quest the DM provides is guiding the story in a certain direction and reduces choice. So quests are a restriction of freedom.

Roleplaying games are about stories. Assuming the DM isn't improvising, then the DM's story isn't just a framework for adventure. The story is the protagonist. The PCs are support characters. There wouldn't be a story to tell without the DM. Get five people together and try to improvise a story without any agreed-upon structure. No story will be told. The backgrounds and actions of the characters are subplots of a bigger story. The players get to explore the story and influence its outcome through their characters. The players are both actors and audience.

Players do a lot of things that ruin stories. Players can be antagonistic to the story. Cheating; powergaming; trying to find loopholes in the game system. These are ways of ignoring the story or actively trying to break it. The combat effectiveness of a character has no relationship to how valuable they are to the main purpose of the game, which is storytelling. Being very good at combat is as important as being a very good farmer.

Powergamers say things like "It's just fluff or flavor text." The same thing is true for how powerful your character is. It's not relevant to the game. Your DPS isn't a good story.

From a practical standpoint, sandbox adventures have real limitations. Sandbox adventures are really slow. Players have to make many decisions about which way to go. The DM does a lot of drawing and describing. And then there's measuring and marking on the map, rolling for wandering monsters, weather, etc. It's so boring and takes so much time. Sandbox is travel, not exploration.

Since the purpose of RPGs is story-telling, then sandbox is the opposite of that. If the PCs wander off into a forsaken desert and die of thirst, that doesn't tell a story. I can't imagine someone who would return week-after-week, year-after-year for random death of their character and call it fun.

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Last edited by Terrainosaur on Sat Jul 30, 2016 10:06 am; edited 2 times in total
Sun Aug 01, 2010 2:04 pm View user's profile Send private message
Terrainosaur
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Joined: 02 Dec 2007
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Post June 2015 Reply with quote
That being said, I'm starting an open world, sandbox adventure. Smile

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Sat Jun 27, 2015 9:41 am View user's profile Send private message
Terrainosaur
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Post Exploration Campaigns Reply with quote
As a Dungeon Master, here are some of my thoughts and experiences of an exploration roleplaying campaign. Examples come from my Pathfinder campaign, The Valley of Vapors.

Without a story, a roleplaying game is just a wargame. Exploration means allowing the Player Characters to pursue whatever they find interesting. You can litter their path with dangers, maps, quirky non-player characters, and mystic sites, then develop whichever they pursue.

The area of focus shifts. At first you show them everything within a short distance around them - 360 degrees. The PCs follow whichever thread interests them most. When the party travels one direction, you can stop developing anything behind them; the area of focus becomes 180 degrees. Then they choose threads you've placed around, and your focus narrows to just the direction in front of the PCs, a cone of about 45 degrees. Eventually, to end the campaign, you run a short, story-driven adventure.

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Last edited by Terrainosaur on Sat Jul 30, 2016 9:53 am; edited 1 time in total
Sat Jul 30, 2016 9:35 am View user's profile Send private message
Terrainosaur
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Post Now here are some things to consider. Reply with quote
  1. You need a reason to explore. These broad ideas need to point in specific directions where possible.
    Example: The river that runs through the village is flooding the farmland. Should the people migrate, or can the river be partially diverted?
    Example: Visitors no longer arrive from the empire over the mountains. What happened to the empire?
    Example: The Ward Wall has protected the village for many generations, but its magic seems to be fading. Can the Ward Wall be strengthened?

  2. Exploration doesn't work if the area is already explored and the PCs can get that information. If there are frequent visitors, established roads and nearby communities, there's no exploration.
    Example: The Riverside Road is falling into disrepair now that visitors from the old empire no longer used it.

  3. On the other hand, the PCs can't be blind.
    Example: I devised "wandering range" - about 20 miles out - where villagers knew of sites.
    Example: In-town lore helps advise the party. Old maps provide ideas. People sold maps to the PCs.

  4. You have to provide a variety of choices.
    Example: I put known adventure sites in a radius around the village - the Flooded Dungeon east; the Choking Dungeon and the Forbidden Tunnels west; and the Forgotten Manor southwest.

  5. The PCs will pull away from some of those choices over time, as they follow threads most interesting to them.
    Example: The PCs headed west, away from the Flooded Dungeon. Eventually, the top level of the Flooded Dungeon was cleared by the village militia and the entrance closed again. They verified it's no threat to the village. The PCs have no reason to go there now.
    Example: A PC left the campaign. I decided that PC kept his maps, including the one leading to the Forgotten Manor - a site away from the direction the party had chosen to explore.

  6. Adding PCs to an existing exploration campaign is difficult. I intended the party to be from the village. Soon, 3/4 of the party was from elsewhere. How do you explain the sudden appearance of a 6th-level paladin in shiny magical plate armor?
    Example? I don't have an example of a fix for this. If the PCs haven't reached another settlement yet, you end up shoe-horning new PCs in, trying to keep disruption to a minimum. One solution is to build the area as a frontier, with a known connection to a large city. The city-folk don't care about the frontier, but adventurers can arrive from there, after a long overland journey.

  7. There end up being a large number of NPCs. I counted over 30 people the PCs had spoken to. In a story campaign, the PCs only need to know their patron or quest-giver. In an exploration campaign, even a blacksmith might know something about what's out there.
    Example: The oldest creatures still left over from the original settlers of the valley are lumbering beasts of burden, the krungbeasts. Their handler, the gnome Kiranora, rents them out wherever they're needed most ... pulling out huge stumps, dragging heavy loads, or working in conditions too dangerous for horses. She travels around the village and farms so she's heard many rumors and legends.

  8. Exploration implies wilderness. Published exploration campaigns assume one encounter per game day. This makes the party extra-powerful, since they can use their best abilities. They can stop and rest at any time. Use surprise, ambushes and night to keep encounters challenging.
    Example: A burrowing beast like a bulette explodes from the ground.
    Example: An encounter with one monster attracts an opportunity predator, like a hungry roc flying around in the area, looking for a meal. Attracted by the sounds of battle or the smell of blood, the monster descends on the party, just as they finish slaying an orc warband.

  9. The wilderness must be populated with more than monsters.
    Example: Rudland the Stonecleaver ventured over the western mountains with a party, some of whom didn't make it. He's taking time to scout and recuperate in a makeshift hut, but will return home eventually. The PCs encounter him, and he tells them about dangers he encountered.

  10. The wilderness needs to be dense, but not too dense. The PCs can't go around finding nothing. If you present multiple encounters per game day though, they won't get much exploring done.
    Example: By level 6, the PCs had barely made it out to wandering range, 20 miles out. I began cutting back on encounters per map hex.

  11. Exploration campaigns are easy to put down and pick up. A summary is easy. You don't have to reiterate the plot points, main quest, side quests, freaky visions, or vague foreshadowing of a normal story campaign.
    Example: "You crossed the mighty Baluster Bridge atop the Fell Falls, right here on the map. You found the Riverside Road again. Then you turned back east. Now you look out over the Valley of Vapors. The road consists of switchbacks down the cliff." The PCs don't know that the Dread Barrow of the Lady Doldessa is carved into the cliff, and they will have to pass it. Whether they enter it or not is up to them.

  12. Roleplaying campaigns end, but usually for other reasons than because the story is finished. If you have an opportunity to end an exploration campaign properly, it must become a story. Otherwise what are you going to do? "You reached the edge of the map. Game over." Add one short adventure that everything else led up to. Make it short!
    Example: The village would eventually be flooded if nothing was done. The PCs explored up river and found its headwaters in the mountains. They discovered a dwarf-hold dominated by three dwarf vampire antipaladins. They slew the Ironlords, turned the locks, and diverted some of the water down another course, saving the village.

  13. When concluding the campaign, find out what happened from then on.
    Example: I asked each player to describe how their character retired, or what they did with their life. Then they began rolling up new characters for the next campaign!


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Last edited by Terrainosaur on Sat Jul 30, 2016 9:58 am; edited 13 times in total
Sat Jul 30, 2016 9:38 am View user's profile Send private message
Terrainosaur
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Joined: 02 Dec 2007
Posts: 896

Post My first post was wrong. Reply with quote
Improvisation prevents the need to build a complete environment. The process is to provide tantalizing hints of adventure, then develop only those the PCs pursue. Freed from connecting everything to an overriding plot, the DM can develop short, isolated adventures that are their own stories.

Exploration campaigns are liberating. They can be short. They can be free of pomposity.

You don't have to find all eighteen parts of the Staff of the Pious Fiend in order to prevent Demogoblac from breaching the dimension walls and bringing about the Second Blackness.

You can just go see what's out there. In the shadows of the forest, up the river, around the bend ... over the horizon.

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Sat Jul 30, 2016 9:43 am View user's profile Send private message
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