Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Managing Sandbox Scope

The ongoing campaign is a product, governed by the same rules that constrain any kind of product development - time, scope, and resources.  And these constraints translate into sandbox terms through the freedom, size, and level of detail you're putting into the sandbox.  We know this subconsciously; the dungeon is a popular adventure locale precisely because it constrains freedom and size, making it easy to develop.

My wife and kids are even familiar with the term sandbox; they both have characters in the Skyrim game, which they tell me is an "epic sized sandbox", and are frequently encouraging me to give it a try and pick up some ideas from it.  (I'm usually too busy for video games, but it sure looks impressive).  The wise Google tells me that Skyrim was developed by a team of 100 developers over a couple of years of development.  How does a home DM compete with a project with those kinds of resources behind it?

You can't break the law of physics.  If it takes 10 minutes for you to write an encounter, and you want to make 6 of them, it's going to take an hour of game prep.  But there are some simple techniques we can use to make sure you're focusing your energy on the right 6 encounters for the next game session.  Sandbox gaming doesn't have to overwhelm the DM; here are three simple techniques to get the game started right and keep it going once launched.

Kick it Off with an Adventure
Choice requires options, which in return requires information.  Nothing drags on a game session like a gigantic information dump, and you don't want to start your new campaign putting the players to sleep.  Introduce the campaign with a simple adventure and let them learn about the larger campaign world later, through play.  They'll thank you later.

I have no problem starting off a new campaign with the player characters outside the gates of the ruined manor outside of town, possessing their starting gear and some rumors about a lost treasure.  There will be plenty of time for them to learn about all the other places and things to do later on.

Why it works:  "Show don't tell" and starting with some early action are tried and true narrative techniques from other media that work fine in the RPG context, too.  Restricting the first game to a single plot hook or adventure site puts a cap on how much prep you need to do up front and launches the game right into an adventure.

What's Next Week
A good sandbox practice is to reserve time at the end of each game session to ask the players what they'll do next week.  Based on the current night's activities, the players already have an idea what they want to do next… continue exploring the dungeon, go to the city and find a Remove Curse, follow the treasure map into the mountains.

Why it works:  The sandbox structure gives the players a ton of freedom to make their own plans; this can be daunting to prepare in a vacuum.  By giving you some advance notice on next week's plans, you can focus your weekly efforts, and keep preparation to a reasonable window.  (IT geek side note:  For all you project managers and Scrum folks out there - this is basically weekly sprint planning for your campaign.  Your players are the product owners reprioritizing the backlog as input to your sprint.)

Leverage the Tools
Plans change, and while the players indicated last week they were going to explore the dungeon, running into that petrification monster early on in tonight's session changed their priorities; now they're off to the city, mid-session, to seek a cure.  EEK!

Smarter folks than me have written primers on building fantasy sandboxes with just enough of a skeleton structure to support improvisation if things go in an unexpected direction.  I like the simple "tagging" approach used in the Sine Nomine books, Red Tide or Stars Without Number, coupled with a hex map and lay of the land.  ACKS has a whole chapter on campaign creation as well.  The approaches are not mutually exclusive.

However, that sandbox skeleton needs to be supplemented with some tables - wandering encounters, for instance, to help create game content on the fly.

Why it works:  Tables are a direct, experiential way to define your setting - you're building the details of your setting while creating your own tools at the same time.  Tables can cover wide geographic areas and maximize setting scope with the least effort.  They're the ultimate tool.


  1. Beedo-- interesting points. Regarding the 'What's Next Week' session, I have found that doing this through email in the following days is preferable to give the players a bit of time to reflect and recharge. My group is a fickle bunch as far as long-term plans go, so they often change their minds at the last minute, which presents a whole other set of issues.

    I have been following your Black City game for quite some time. Do you have pretty consistent attendance for each session? My game has more players than we have seats at each game so only 1/2 to 1/3 are there at any given time, which makes planning problematic.

  2. There are plenty of times where we run late, and have the "What's Next Week?" conversation through email, too. I usually get them to spin a few options, so even they flip their minds at the start of the session, I can roll with it. If it gets out of hand, you need to call 'time out' and have a heart-to-heart; you don't have 100 designers working on your campaign.

    I have a very consistent group of 7 players, with only 1 player with sketchy attendance (due to a newborn). With a highly volatile roster, I'd require starting and ending each session back in town (assuming a megadungeon structure with a nearby town), maybe even use a wiki or something for last week's group to post some notes for this week's group. That's an unusual circumstance for an ongoing campaign, a weekly rotation.

    I don't do any online G+ flailsnails games, I wonder if the DM's usually kick off each session with a strong narrative push - ie, welcome back to another week of delving into my Dungeon X..., so they're always prepared regardless of the participants.

    1. Based on what I've seen, drop-in FLAILSNAILS games either have a short rumor list or an explicitly stated objective ("this is a rescue mission for X" or something like that). Occasionally there is no pretence at narrative at all, and everyone is just there for the dungeon by communal consensus (this is also pretty common).

  3. I have a pretty volatile crew. 17 players, actually, with 5 to 10 showing up to each session. We adapted the 'you MUST end up back in town at the end of each session' pretty much from the get-go.

    I posted my thoughts on whether or not the DM should maintain a wiki or adventure notes on my blog, but in short, I have found that relying on 'oral tradition' from the players is a preferred method for communicating what happens at each session to those who don't attend. You can check that out if it interests you.

    I haven't yet been bitten by the FLAILSNAILS bug, and I also wonder how some of those DM's manage it. But then again, when you sign up for a partilcuar DM's game, I imagine you already kind of know what you are getting into.

  4. Skyrim is apparently sixteen square miles in area, and I think it's fair to say that it's not particularly varied in terms of "physical" content, so I wouldn't worry about trying to compete with it; I imagine most GMs with a little bit of experience have already created a larger and more detailed world. How big is the average D&D hex?

  5. I agree there's an easing-in process, but I don't think you need something so heavy-handed as 'you start in front of a dungeon'.

    The game I'm currently running started out with villages/rumors and after some debating went chasing after the rumors that most interested them:

    Admittedly, the previous sandbox I ran started the players off in the first village to be infected with Zombies, so there was immediate action. But from there it was up to them what to do.

  6. Another technique that works well for me is to pre-generate some encounters from likely encounter tables (not to be used in a quantum ogre fashion, but just to decrease the chance that you will need to improv interesting encounters from whole cloth... obviously, in a truly open setting, occasionally you will have no prep to fall back on).

    All else being equal, I much prefer to have more to work with than "8 orcs, reaction roll 5, distance 70 feet" to work with.

    1. This is where I'm going too - the next evolution of wandering encounter tools needs to include options around the encounter so it's a little more developed than the traditional wandering monster listing.

      If you put orcs on a table, create 1-4 sub encounters with orcs that are pregenerated, or maybe define your table as a 3-column format of X doing Y to Z to provide some stronger improv tools.

    2. A while back I started trying to come up with a list of reasons a monster might be wandering, and how it might affect the encounter. I never got around to turning it into a table, because I wasn't satisfied that I had listed out enough reasons yet. But, in case others might find it useful, or in case they have ideas to add to the list or the best way to spread the probabilities on a table, here's the notes I came up with thus far:

      --- Reasons a monster wanders (so a table can be made showing why a monster showed up)
      -Hunting/gathering food (30% chance has fresh food, 40% hasn't found any yet, 10% hunting/gathering has failed and is on way home, hungry)
      -Traveling to/from water (50% chance of carrying water)
      -Traveling to/from meeting with others
      -Traveling to/from latrine (Perhaps a morale check- more likely to run away if they were on their way as opposed to done?)
      -Traveling to/from settlement (Might be carrying things to sell/trade, or things that were bought, or things that failed to sell)
      -Fetching something/someone (50% of having the something/someone with them)
      -Migrating (Moving to a new lair, carrying their valuables with them)
      -Patrolling (Less likely to be surprised? More likely to have better morale?)
      -Seeking the PCs (investigating noisy party, or needing help, or whatever)
      -Has set up a lair here

    3. Roger has a good series of encounter tables on his blog that bring some more info to a random encounter. Here is one example:


      Seems like a reasonable way to do things, though I haven't gotten around to trying it out myself yet.

      General tag seems to be:


  7. It helps if the game you're using has NPC compendiums that you can just flick through and select as well. That way if they go off on a tangent you've still got something.