Tuesday, December 11, 2012

D&D Pirates and the Sandbox Engine

A number of posters have recommended Savage Worlds, and a Savage Worlds licensed setting, Pirates of the Spanish Main (POTSM), for the nautical weird fantasy campaign I've been discussing here lately.  After many such recommendations, I picked up the POTSM book last week - it does a really great job of laying out a Caribbean setting, using the ships and characters from the old POTSM miniatures game of ship combat.  I'm really enjoying it a lot (thanks for all the good suggestions, fellows!)

Old School D&D isn't the best game for a nautical setting, since its early editions omit the kind of skill systems and professions that would help adjudicating action on the high seas.  However, it's the ideal system for running a plotless sandbox game.  The key game conceits for the sandbox are Class Level = Power Level, and XP for Gold.

Class Level = Power Level means that much of the gratification for playing comes about when your character goes up in level, gaining survivability or the option to do new and cooler things.  In other words, regardless of which fiction you drape over the game world, no small part of why players enjoy playing the game is because their characters get to level up.

XP = Gold means that gaining money through adventuring is the best way to gain those levels.  These two factors(Levels and the need to acquire Treasure) create an underlying engine that drives the sandbox game forward without requiring any plot or emotional attachment to a story.  As long as sandbox preparation involves seeding the world with lucrative and interesting opportunities, the player's ambition and the game engine does the rest.  Players choose their own adventures to ensure they'll get money and make their characters cooler.

To keep the sandbox engine moving forward, many DMs also add things that drain party gold - taxes on player wealth like upkeep rules, carousing requirements, things like that.  Seems to me the old Sci Fi game Traveller always did a good job of making sure the players were eager for the next employment, because Traveller characters had an expensive starship to maintain.  Provisioning supplies for a sailing ship, sharing out wealth with the crew, and keeping it maintained ought to do the trick in the pirate sandbox.

These days, I'm (obviously) really enjoying the sandbox approach to running a campaign and focusing on tools and techniques to help in the running - the Black City has been a really successful experiment.  After trying a horror sandbox earlier this year using Trail of Cthulhu - which was more work than the payoff - I stepped back and came to appreciate that campaign structures are a matter of finding the right tool for the right job.  In other words, there are good reasons to use game systems that use plotted adventures.  But for a player-driven sandbox game, D&D has a powerful reward and incentive system that is unmatched in other games - as long as the players buy into playing rogues, treasure hunters, and scoundrels.  In other words, PIRATES.


  1. Of Traveller doesn't have much of an advancement system - the characters are already 40 year old veterans. It's not power(within the game mechanics)=levels=xp=gold, but that power(within the game fiction)=credits.

    1. I tend to think that was a weakness with Traveller; it makes a lot of genre sense that characters are fully-baked and highly skilled, but it lacks the emotional cachet of games with more noticeable advancement. In retrospect, we'd compensate coming up with really engaging fiction and campaign concepts.

      I don't know that I've seen any analysis that ties the underlying psychological satisfaction of playing particular table-top RPGs with their popularity; I seem to remember old World of Darkness characters had steep power curves, thus there was a lot of satisfaction with character advancement, and it seemed to be a popular system.

    2. Advancement in Traveller was similar to that in D&D, actually. By the acquisition of money, the characters gained proficiency, albeit in Traveller that proficiency was tied to the equipment that the characters could acquire. Since improvement was through better equipment rather than through innate abilities (though as time went on and the game expanded, various direct improvements to the character became available, in the form of bionics, implants, and such), the characters also had to expend resources (money) directly for those improvements, and had more control over the specific character's power-acquisition arc. Furthermore, the group as a whole could be improved, by acquiring better equipment for the party starship, or other vehicles, and such.

    3. Back in the day when we played traveller, we just played because we loved playing in a sci fi setting. The characters stole a starship right away and then found a good place to make a killing doing trade. In short order they had like 200 million credits. Being rich and not advancing was weird at first, but once you get used to it, it was cool; you only do things you want to do, not to advance in levels, and you don’t have the strange experience of the monsters getting tougher all the time (hey how come we never run into orcs anymore). The only down side was some plots are no longer available, and most adventures written in magazines can’t be used, it seems like most of them start with the group stranded somewhere needing passage or money, 2 things that could not happen anymore.

    4. All this talk is making me want to break out Traveller...

  2. Well, in theory you could pick up skills in Traveller. But in practice my characters tended to pick up things that went BOOM in their hands.

  3. The Traveller approach to campaign play is a very different paradigm from D&D, it's more about economics and maintaining the ability to travel; a (star)ship is a good focus for that.

    Traveller is built on the foundation of "communication at the speed of travel", which can easily be turned back to the age of sail. The campaign play is sandboxy and player-driven. Using some of the elements of Traveller make a lot of sense for a game about trading/piracy/travelling long distances.

    It's usually pretty easy to get people to buy into being rogues and scoundrels. Especially if they have a ship.

  4. I use Savage Worlds, but did anyone recommend "Skull and Bones" from Green Ronin? It's a D20 Spanish Main supplement with some neat new character classes and a heavy emphasis on voodoo (it was explicitly inspired by Tim Powers' book). It covers a lot of the same material as PotSM, but I know I've benefitted from having both books available. There's also a set of supplemental magazines from Admant called "Buccaneers and Bokor" and the blog d20 Pirates (d20pirates.blogspot.com).

  5. 50 Fathoms is worth a look as well it's a Savage Worlds fantasy pirates plot point campaign. Though you can also ignore the plot and just sandbox it.

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  7. I agree about DnD not being the best system for a nautical setting. For what it's worth, I'm working on a DnD pirates sandbox myself. It has abstract naval combat, so as to keep the emphasis on individual combatants. That said, it's only meant for small numbers of relatively small ships.


    And the complexity I've added with naval combat will be somewhat counteracted by the lack of character classes