Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sandbox Preparation: An Introduction...

Good Morning, All:

Today, I'd like to talk about one of Old School blogdom's favorite topics: sandbox preparation. Essentially, for those who are just now joining us, a sandbox is simply a campaign setting. The elements that define a sandbox is more a matter of the matrix-style layout of encounters based on locale, and the relative freedom of player choice that comes from this matrix of encounters, locales and adventure locations. I personally am a fan of the sandbox, and I am always on the lookout for more on the subject. Toward that end, here's some basic information I've gathered, reflecting four different opinions on what you need to start playing in a sandbox, gathered together for your enjoyment.

Rob Conley, author of the outstanding Points of Light series by Goodman Games, offers some fantastic advice on how to create a fantasy sandbox setting. You can find the details of Rob's process in his post, How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox. His blog, Bat in the Attic, even contains extended examples of his process, and I believe Rob is also working on a book that explores the process of building a sandbox in exquisite detail. (I personally can't wait to see it, myself.)

It's interesting to note that Rob's method generates a lot of detail. If you follow his process throughout, you end up with the following:

  1. World or Continent map
  2. One page of World Background
  3. Regional map with named geography, settlements, lairs and ruins
  4. Half page of regional background/history
  5. Paragraph on each named geography, settlement, lair and ruin
  6. A page on 2-4 on-going plots
  7. 3-5 encounters per settlement (a small random encounter chart, if you will)
  8. 6-12 regional encounters (another small random encounter chart)
  9. A page to one-and-a-half pages of quarter-page settlement maps
  10. For each settlement, details on 6-12 important locations
  11. Roster of NPCs and notable monsters
  12. Twelve paragraphs and stats on the most important NPCs and monsters
  13. Six paragraphs and stats on the most common encounter types
  14. Several paragraphs on regional organizations, with stats on common encounters associated with them
  15. Rumor chart of 10-20 rumors to serve as hooks into the setting
  16. Random encounter charts for major areas within region

Wow, now that's a lot. I have to admit that I tried to follow this advice in creating Hammersong's Legacy, but I was not successful in completing it all, and I still came up with a sizable document. It took me a lot longer than the twenty hours Rob posted that it would take to do all that, but I was also making it publishable. It would still take me at least forty hours to do the above, but I have to admit that when you are done, you will have a fantastic and well-detailed setting for your next campaign(s).

Now, on the other hand, we have Zac S.'s version of an extremely minimalist sandbox, in which all you need for a sandbox setting is:

  1. Regional map with interesting names
  2. Interesting random encounter charts for major areas within region

He actually goes into a bit more detail in another post, but as far as sheer minimalism goes, the above pretty much sums it up. You will need to be ready to improv, of course, but that's the nature of the beast.

I actually find that, as a Referee, I tend to work best in an approach described over at The Yaqqothl Grimoire, in the post How Much Time/Work a Sandbox Requires . As a result of following his process, you basically end up with:

  1. Regional map, randomly stocked
  2. Notes on house rules, to lend focus to the setting
  3. Some great wilderness encounter tables
  4. Notes on each hot spot, fleshed out to the point of empowered improv

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention ChicagoWiz's thoughts on the matter, as he actually teaches workshops on the subject. ChicagoWiz talks about sandbox prep on his blog, offering advice similar to that mentioned above in The Yaqqothl Grimoire. ChicagoWiz's more hands-on, develop-as-you-go approach works for the Referee that has time and focus to devote even minimal time on a routine basis to ongoing setting development as the campaign progresses, and really seems to create a great gaming experience for his players. Distilling his advice down, you basically start your first game with the following ready, and then develop more based on player decisions:

  1. Regional map (up to 5 days travel out)
  2. Three dungeons (only level 1 of each done)
  3. One town (no map, just a few NPCs and the town's name)
  4. One set piece (detailed encounter to be placed as needed)

What does all this mean, in the short term? I'm essentially looking at developing a process that works for me, and putting the result in the MyD20 Lite Referee's Guide. The examples I create along the way may even find themselves in the guide, as well, if I think it will help new Refs (and possibly old Refs, too) get a feel for a minimalist approach to good campaign setting development. Of course, I'll chat through my thoughts and exercises here, in hopes that I may gain input that will help make that section easier to understand and use.

With Regards,


Rob Conley said...

Good post. For your Hammersong's Legacy how big of a region did you pick. I think I erred by not making it clear that 20 hours was for a region the size of my Points of Light maps. 8.5 by 11 with 5 mile hexes 3/8" making a 27 hex column by 19 hex row grid.

Wild North in Fight On #3 which was a full Wilderland Size map of 57 columns by 38 rows took considerably longer. It gets geometrically worse the bigger the map.

ChicagoWiz said...

Awesome! Looking forward to this, I love learning how other people do it so I could tweak my own approach. BTW, it was kinda weird to see my approach distilled down - do you mind if I steal it word-for-word for future use in my workshops? I'll give you credit of course.

Robert Fisher said...

Nice overview. This is something I’ve been struggling with for years. “What do you need prepped before you’re ready to run?” Unfortunately, it looks—unsurprisingly—like one answer doesn’t fit all.

Rob’s method, while filled with lots of good stuff, has always seemed overkill to me. Most of the others, however, often seem too minimalist for me. ChicagoWiz’s actually seems close to right for me.

Flynn said...

First, thank you all for your responses. Feedback is always appreciated.

@Rob: Hammersong's Legacy was built on a 32x40 hex grid, given my Traveller upbringing. I was also fleshing it out for publication, so that made things a bit meatier, too.

@ChicagoWiz: I would be honored if you wanted to use my distillation. If you come up with any handouts you can share, I'd love to see them.

@Robert Fisher: I hope that this series of posts provides some help, or at least offers more insight for you to pick and choose from.

With Regards,

Rob Conley said...

32 by 40, yeah I would peg that at more 30 to 40 hours rather than the 20 hours for 27 by 19. Probably to the lower end based on my experience with Wild North which was 57 by 34.

Making publishable adds considerable time as well probably another 10 hours.