Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Sandbox of Modules

I see this argument from time to time; you can either run a free form, sandbox game, or you can run modules.  The implication is that to get your players into the module, there has to be a degree of railroading going on.

There is an approach that splits the middle. I think most of us do it already, I just don't know that it has a name.  I'm calling it, The Sandbox of Modules.

Here's what you do - take your favorite map, take your stack of modules, and liberally sprinkle the site locations for the modules all over the map.  Rename the locations as necessary; White Plume Mountain becomes Bright Doom Mountain, and so on.  File off the plot hooks; chances are it's a tournament (railroad) module and the plot hooks sucked anyway.  Generate new plot hooks, plant them in the setting, and wait for them to be discovered.

After 35 years of publishing, there is a metric crap load of modules out there, and lots of them are pretty good.  OSR modules are available economically as PDFs.  There is no reason you can't overwhelm your players with choice whenever they decide to do something else and go looking for adventure.  Never railroad again!

Site-based locations are obviously best for this approach, so I'm always looking for new OSR site-based locations to go along with some of the best from the TSR and JG eras.  You can put all the devilish and difficult modules in there right from the start; "No one goes into them there hills, seeing as the Hill Giant Chief has a well-known Steading out there.  It's a bit too remote and barren for the Duke to send an army to clear them out, long as they stay on their side of the river..."

By keeping some notes in a binder, some on the computer, some behind the screen, my (adult) players never really know if it's homebrew or a module; once the train tracks that lead to the adventure site are planted in the world, part of the craftsmanship is camouflaging the train so it looks like a party-on-wheels, covering the tracks with dirt, and letting your players blow the whistle and stick their head out the window when they hit the open road.  No one ever knows the difference.

Isn't this one of your guilty pleasures as a DM, to take your campaign map and slide your favorite modules in there, like easter eggs?   (Ooh, I bet this remote place could be The Keep on the Borderlands).

You've already seen the Sterich map for Gothic Greyhawk; here's the Geoff map from the kid's game as a smaller scale example.  The kids have spent most of their time exploring Stonehell up in West Town, but I've got B5 Horror on the Hill ready to go (Guido's Fort, of course!), Fort New Rock just west of Tika Town is The Keep on the Borderlands, and I planned on placing B3 The Palace of the Silver Princess down in the Hornwood (it is a kid's game, after all).


  1. This is exactly how I am running my current campaign and the players are really enjoying it. In between adventures I just ask that they give me a couple of days notice as to what they want to do next, to allow me to brush up on the particular module, adventure, encounter, or whatever.

  2. Heh. It's how I'm planning to do my upcoming game as well. I've bought and downloaded so many OSR modules over the past year, that I can populate a sandbox quite nicely!

  3. I think this is the way most people played back in the day, back then we just called it 'the campaign', and didn't have fancy words like sandbox.

    @Austrodavicus: yeah, if I end a session with some dangling plots, I may email the group during the week and get them to discuss pro's and cons (giving me some info on how to prep); in between adventures, I try to be ready to initiate 2-3 separate adventures until the group commits to their next course.

    James - now you know why I love those reviews!

  4. Oh man, I need to get a Greyhawk Classics Campaign in, with me as a player! First, though Moldvay Masterwork Mash-up must be played.(DMing probably. *sigh*) Totally agree on there being no need for railroading in D&D nowadays; though I have to admit I never utilized it(which may have caused problems, but I've had no complaints...[which could mean they properly fear and reverence me, but....:-D]), for one reason: it would've bored the Hells(plus, I love improvisation) outta me!(The fact I never used pre-packaged modules/settings/etc... may have had something to do with it as well.) I mean, players run amok is SOP for my fantasy games; nothing's sacred.(Especially them! Consequences. Oh, yeah! ;-))

  5. I've been thinking on exactly the same lines as well recently - mentally naming it a 'modular sandbox' campaign :)

    I was thinking about having a DM's law of placing at least 15 adventure locales on each campaign map - from the very large countries scale map to the local scale starting map. The locales placed at the top level would be legendary, greatly feared places of adventure, while those on the small scale would mostly be less dangerous possibilities suitable for low-level parties (unless the starting location happened to be right next to one of the fabled "dungeons of doom"). Show the players the maps and, before the first session, ask them where they want to go.

  6. Modular Sandbox - I like it.

    I went through my modules, both TSR and new old school, as well as stuff found on blogs and forums, stuff that I thought suited the campaign. I loosely grouped them into levels. The characters started the campaign at level one and I selected an appropriate adventure to introduce them to the setting. Once that was finished I gave them a list of adventure seeds and rumours - about 12 of them - suitable for their current level.

    The adventure seeds were from published modules and I made it clear these were fairly reliable bits of news. Whereas the less-detailed rumours were more uncertain, just as likely to be true or false. Many of the rumours were simply based on bare as bones adventure ideas, things that I would have to wing and make-up on the fly.

    So far the players have been kind and have gone with the adventure seeds, but one day they'll throw me in the deep end and pick a rumour instead.

  7. Speaking from the perspective of one of the players that John so cleverly "keeps in the dark", he does a great job of "covering his tracks". There have been many times that we didn't even realize we were playing a module. John does an excellent job of weaving the "Sandbox of Modules" into one cohesive world. Just the other night, some of us were commenting on how this is some of the best D&D we've ever played. Most of use are in our early 40's, so hearing people with 30+ years of D&D experience make those claims is no small feat. Looking forward to further adventures...

  8. I personally love the idea myself. Modules lend themselves to severe railroading which is why I have not really used them a lot in the past. I have read many however and have even taken elements and used them as inspiration for my own adventures. For anyone who uses modules this would be a great idea and incorporating them in with adventure plot hooks is a brilliant idea.