In order to develop Adventure Material for a sandbox setting, most people assume that we need to detail the contents of note for a variety of hexes on the map. Others, however, propose that all you have to do is prepare a small "slush pile" of lairs and dungeons, and then assign them locations as the player-characters travel about the map. As it is my personal opinion that a true sandbox assigns such details to locations before the setting even encounters player-characters, I fall in the first crowd. However, I do feel that the "slush pile" approach has its place in a sandbox setting, and I will discuss that point at the end of this post.
The elements that commonly appear in a sandbox setting fall into a few distinct categories. There are exceptions, I'm sure, but for the sake of minimal sandbox preparation, we think we can easily restrict our efforts to the following:
- Sites: Sites are the bread-and-butter of most sandbox settings. These are the large locales calling for adventure: the dungeons, the towers and the ruins that potential provide many nights of gaming fun, and also require the most preparation.
- Lairs: Lairs are best described as expanded encounters. Generally intended to last for one evening or less, lairs rarely contain more than three individual encounter locations, and often only describe elements that lend themselves to a single combat. The bulk of the entries found in most sandbox settings tend to be lairs, and often only require a few sentences to detail (assuming you have the monster stats elsewhere, or you play an RPG system where the stats are fairly minimal.) Only the most detailed of these examples require significant development beyond a minor paragraph.
- Settlements: Settlements represent civilization and a degree of protection from wilderness-inspired adventuring, while opening urban and political gaming opportunities, if you are so inclined. For most sandbox settings, these notable townships, villages, shires and camps simply represent places to refill your expendable equipment, and possibly a lair-like encounter in addition. The level of detail you would want to put into your settlements depends on the importance of these elements to your overall campaign concept and the feel you want your game to have. However, I wouldn't think you'd need to do more for a minimum preparation than you've already done with your "Home Base."
- Terrain Effects: Terrain effects cover those strange and unusual elements that don't rate as an encounter per se, but cause some impact on the characters as they pass through the hex. These could include dangerous flora, radiation, null magic zones (or wild magic zones), rifts to other dimensions or planes of existence, holy or unholy Sites, perpetual winter storms or monsoon weather, and so on. These are simply gateways to further adventure, if the PCs decide to investigate these effects, their source and potentially even their correction. For the most part, a simple paragraph should add enough definition of the situation to meet our needs of minimal preparation.
- Color: These hex results simply exist to provide color for the campaign setting. Like terrain effects, color elements can serve as gateways to further adventure, but color elements rarely impact the characters in any way, save to promote the flavor of the setting. A simple place name, or at most, a sentence or two should cover any prep work you'd need to address the contents of such a hex.
In regards to the five categories listed above, Sites obviously require a lot of work to fully prepare, while Settlements, Lairs and Terrain Effects require very little in the way of stats to be ready for play. Hexes of the Color category require a sentence or two, and that's all. Since we're not looking at publishing this, but simply looking at making something we can use in the middle of a game, we definitely want to keep our work to a minimum and easily usable. The easiest way to do this, in terms of getting work done so we can get to gaming, is to define only the first level of any Site, and leave the rest of the work for later, should the PCs decide to come explore that Site. Anything more than that is going to waste your time and delay your ability to start gaming. You can always go back and flesh out the rest of a Site after the game has begun, as you have both time and desire. However, for the purposes of developing a sandbox setting with minimal effort and maximum benefits, you should never feel compelled to prepare more than the first level of a Site before the campaign has begun.
With the above in mind, how do we decide what goes into each hex of your sandbox, if anything? Ideally, if you have a concept that you want to fully develop, you'd hand-place all of the elements you want to see, relying on your vision of the campaign to help you in these regards. Most of us aren't that in tune with our settings in the beginning, so we often fall back on one of my favorite Old School tactics: the random chart.
In order to create a random table for filling in the contents of the hexes of your sandbox setting, you need to give some thought as to the frequency and category of the various encounters and scenes you want to see as part of your exploration. What follows is an exploration of my thought process on developing a random chart or table to determine hex content.
First, we need a standard to determine frequency. Looking at ChicagoWiz's criteria for the minimal development of his sandbox settings, he developed the first level of a dungeon and three lairs. That's a total of four encounters withing a day's travel of the PCs' home. If each hex is half a day's travel (which is the scale I now like to use, after exploring other options), then there are four planned encounters within two hexes of home (which constitutes a fifth hex with content, for purposes of this discussion.) If I count the number of hexes within that range, we're looking at a total of 19 hexes (the hex that Home is sitting in, plus six for the first ring, plus twelve for the second ring of hexes.) Five hexes with content, divided by 19 hexes total, gives us a rough percentage of 26.3%. This is very close to 1 in 4, 2 in 8, 3 in 12 and 5 in 20, which opens us up to random tables based on any of these basic dice. Since we have one Site (the dungeon) in 19 hexes, we get a rough percentage of appearance equal to 5.26%. That seems to settle the matter for me, indicating that we should use a d20 for this particular random table, as there's a 1 in 20 chance of a Site appearing per hex. (Alternately, we could use the d66 table format from Traveller, which I've utilized before in this blog, but let's use the d20 this time around.)
Players are fickle beasts, as you may well know. Whenever a Referee describes an area, they immediate begin to think that an encounter is about to occur. After all, if an area is important enough to describe, then there must be something there to fight. Given that tendency among players, and the desire to reduce their frustration as a Referee (the game is supposed to be fun for everyone, after all), I don't want to have a random table that has a higher percentage of Settlements, Terrain Effects and Color combined than we have Lairs and Sites combined. We've already determined that Sites occur 1 in 20 times, and Lairs are three times more prolific, based on our use of ChicagoWiz's values, which gives us a 3 in 20 chance for Lairs. Our final piece of information from our initial frequency analysis relates to the fact that our Home base, being a Settlement, takes up one hex out of the 19, so Settlements have a 1 in 20 chance (the same as a Site). Since Lairs plus Dungeons equals 4 out of 20, then Settlements plus Terrain Effects plus Color should also equal 4 out of 20, and by the process of elimination, empty hexes occur 12 out of 20 times. 4 in 20, minus the 1 in 20 for Settlements, leaves us with 3 in 20, to be divided between Terrain Effects and Color. Let's say that we want to have more Color elements than Terrain Effects, simply because we want to minimize the amount of prep work that needs to be done, and Color elements are easier to create (and usually require less typing) than Terrain Effects. With that in mind, we now know that Color hexes have a 2 in 20 chance of showing up, while Terrain Effects have a 1 in 20 chance of showing up.
After all that long-winded discussion, we now have the basis for a random chart for filling our hexes. The results of this table are below:
Table: Hex Contents
d20 Contents 1-12 Empty 13-14 Color 15 Terrain Effect 16 Settlement 17-19 Lair 20 Site
You could easily develop additional tables to provide further detail for each category (aside from Empty, of course, and perhaps Color). I wouldn't do that unless you are concerned about possible writer's block or temporary paralysis of the imagination. Well, now that I mention it, seeing as how I am occasionally so inflicted (and because I like random tables), I think I'll offer the following simple set of subtables as a potential source of inspiration when needed.
Subtable: Terrain Effect Type
d6 Type 1 Man-made 2 Natural 3 Arcane 4 Divine 5 Extraplanar/Alien 6 Roll twice and combine results (ignoring additional 6 results
Subtable: Settlement Type
d6 Type 1 Homestead or Plantation 2 Permanent Camp or Shire 3 Village 4 Town or Small City 5 Monastery or Shrine or Temple 6 Wizard's Tower
Subtable: Lair Type
d6 Type 1 Common Animal 2 Common Animal 3 Humanoid 4 Humanoid 5 Supernatural Creature 6 Supernatural Creature
Subtable: Site Type
d6 Type 1 Dungeon (5 Room Dungeon) 2 Dungeon (1 level) 3 Dungeon (2d4 levels) 4 Tower (2d4 levels) 5 Ruins (1d6 buildings) 6 Ruins (2d6 buildings)
Now that I have some tables to roll on, I feel ready to prepare some adventure material for my minimal sandbox campaign setting. In my next post, I'll continue with some specific examples, and then it's on to the Map.
As always, if you have any comments or suggestions on the content of this post, please feel free to post them here.