Saturday, September 24, 2011

Adventure versus Setting

I'm going to give this whole "Wide Area Sandbox" thing some thought and plot out how I'd build one.  By way of recap - the problem behind a Wide Area Sandbox concerns how to run a free-form campaign in a world where the players have a lot of mobility, and the traditional sandbox approaches don't cover enough real estate.  I'm going to look for ideas from games like Traveler, or Stars Without Number, and see what techniques in the Sci Fi RPG genre can be ported back into a game using sailing ships.

But a preliminary problem is that of setting.  Is the game mostly about exploring the setting, or exploring the adventures within the setting?  For instance, a Swords & Planet game is as much about discovering the new world in all its strangeness, as it is about any adventures there.

I have a specific tone I mean to establish, between the mundane civilized areas (which don't need the hex-by-hex sandbox treatment), and the distant areas where hex-by-hex exploration is warranted.  It's an evolution of an idea from last March, where I mused how wild frontier settings could be distinct from points of light - Wild Frontiers Part 1 and Wild Frontiers Part 2.  It's funny how older ideas don't die, they just wait for the right time to be expressed.

I find myself firmly in the camp of using a real-world model for the Wide Area Sandbox; I want the "Known World" to be familiar and mundane; adventures with monsters mostly happen in wild, out of place areas, and the frontiers.

And that brings me to the point where I'm having some questions:  For those of you that use the real earth as the model for your fantasy campaign, do you use actual earth places and names, or do you create that stuff whole cloth, only using the earth for inspiration?  I'm leaning towards using the real world, with a touch of magic and fantasy woven into history, and using real places, events and names.

If the characters find a magic sword in a tomb, and they learn it once belonged to the grandfather of the current king, it seems more sensible to be able to flip open a history book and see that it was made for Blah Blah Blah, the King of France, instead of making up false histories.  Time would be better spent on crafting excellent adventures.

The two candidate time periods for the wide area sandbox are the mid-17th century, and the Roman period.

The 17th century provides a backdrop of war and chaos in Europe, as well as frontiers across the ocean in the New World and early explorations of Africa.  The dark heart of Europe can still serve as a setting for classic monsters in the Gothic horror tradition; Dracula is timeless.

The Roman world is very cosmopolitan across the Mediterranean, but offers wild frontiers on all sides, just beyond the camps of the Legions.  It's ideal for a D&D game with a bit more armor and traditional weaponry because of the lower technology, but I'm not ignoring the fact that the Roman mindset is more removed; the past is a foreign country, after all.


  1. Off the top of my head, I think you're going to want to draw a distinction between the cultural geography of your game world and the physical geography. Dramatic terrain such as Egyptian deserts, high Alps, or trackless Teutonic forests give a place flavor, but most of what you're going to be relying upon to make Place A different from Place B is the people who live there and the things they've built or fashioned.

    With that in mind, I'd take your game map and break it down into cultural spheres. In most cases there will be interpenetration and travelers and merchants and so forth, but you'll want to get the basic culture-groups mapped to the terrain to start with.

    For each cultural sphere, I'd then prep a name list, notes on dress, language, and cuisine, and the kind of laws and customs that adventurers are most likely to run afoul of. The goal here is to be able to run the PCs in a standard X-ish village/city dealing with ordinary X-ish people without straining my wits.

    Then I'd steal a page from SWN and flesh out particular friends, enemies, characteristic places, unique cultural complications, and specific precious goods characteristic of that culture.

    Finally, I'd build a few sites exampling types of places that the PCs are likely to care about- borderland villages, tombs, lost temples, bandit camps, or whatever else springs to mind. I'd work out the mechanical stats and raw maps for these places, and put in notes on relationships between inhabitants. I'd leave specific NPC and dressing details blank, however, and just fill those in off the relevant cultural resources when I needed to throw down the site in play.

  2. Yep, this is great advice - for instance, a bandit is a bandit is a bandit, across cultural geographies, but those culture-group details would allow the quick re-skinning of a generic encounter. Really good, scale-able advice.

  3. " seems more sensible to be able to flip open a history book ... instead of making up false histories. Time would be better spent on crafting excellent adventures."

    This seems like a false opposition. Creating histories is creating plot hooks, otherwise why are you bothering?

    For instance, if I'm writing a history, and I invent an old war with a famous siege, then I know there's a potentially haunted ruined castle for the players to explore.

    On the other hand, if I write an adventure where the big piece of loot is The Green Grimiore of Honorius, I've just added a famous mage to the world's history.

    Two paths to the same end.

  4. Ack, really good point. A refinement to my thinking should be something like this - "Time would be better spent on crafting excellent adventures, then making up details about the world that don't directly influence play..."

    But if there's a request for that kind of detail, you know it's in a book, maybe even just a mouse click away.