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View Full Version : DM Help Running a small sandbox with a central conflict



Yora
2016-11-06, 08:20 AM
I am planning on starting a new campaign this winter for 4 to 8 players, aimed at roughly 15-25 sessions of 4 to 5 hours. If it goes well I'd like to relocate the party to a different region of the setting and start there all over again, perhaps with some changes to the group.

I want to keep it very open ended with great player agency, so I want to make it a small sandbox in which all the action will take place. I tried this only once and we didn't get very far with that campaign to really see the sandbox elements come to bear, so my direct experience with it is minimal so far.

The main question for me is how much things to put into the sandbox for players to find and get involved with. Having multiple local things going on makes things more flexible and gives the players more options and choice, but the few times I managed to get myself trying out open world videogames I always got bored with them because the many small local stories felt like errands irrelevant to the larger scale of things. I really don't want that. I want the game to feel like the players are working on one main thing and going on all those side adventures to make progress by getting information, resources, and allies and weakening their opponents.

My plans for the concept so far are to make this a wilderness campaign with lots of wild beasts and spirits and various barbarian clans. So the sandbox will have multiple small villages with major NPCs being widely dispersed throughout the region instead of having everything clustered around one big city.
But I really don't know how many villages I should make and how many NPCs to put into them. My intuition is that it's better to aim small and risk the players wrapping things up earlier than expected rather than going too big and everything becoming too complex and confusing and the players having no sense of progress.

But does anyone have thoughts or experiences on how much stuff a sandbox should have at the least?
I think there should be a minimum of at least three factions for the central conflict so it doesn't look like a simple good and evil plot with the choice who to support being obvious. And at least four main settlements (not including custers of outlying farms).
I am also thinking of maybe not having just one main conflict but two, which are about completely different issues but things done to gain progress in one will also affect the other. (For example a land dispute between three clans and a succession struggle in one of the clans.) Or do you think that would already get overly complex for a new GM and players?
What about minor conflicts that are scattered around? Have 4, 8, or 12 prepared in advance? Should all, most, some, or none be amount the main factions of the primary conflict?

I have the book Red Tide, which really seems a great resource for setting up conflicts within a castle or great hall and to make dungeons with interesting inhabitants connected to other settlements, but it's rather silent on the scale of things in a sandbox campaign.

2D8HP
2016-11-06, 10:57 PM
I have the book Red Tide, which really seems a great resource for setting up conflicts within a castle or great hall and to make dungeons with interesting inhabitants connected to other settlements, but it's rather silent on the scale of things in a sandbox campaign.Is the "Red Tide" book by Marc Turner?

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51J2G-1NDbL._SY200_.jpg

(I hadn't heard of the series before your post).

The "sandbox setting" you've sketched out sounds AWESOME! The only real advice I have is check out the old Gygax penned modules "Keep on the Borderlands", and "Vault of the Drow" for inspirations, otherwise just please don't have any scenes in which the PC's are forced into gladiatoral combats for no purpose beyond some big wigs amusement, especially when the PC's are made to battle each other, as that set up is lame!
For a good set up?
Go see "The Seven Samurai", down on there luck warriors hired to defend a village against bandits. That's a set-up!

hamlet
2016-11-07, 09:31 AM
If I'm right, Yora is thinking the Red Tide RPG book that came out a couple years ago with a campaign setting sorta like Oriental Adventures crossed with a bit of Lovecraft and old school D&D for fun. It's quite good, though I'd hesitate to call it a small sandbox. IME, it tends to aim at broader scales.

Yora, if you're looking to build small scale sandboxes, I recommend what an old buddy of mine termed the "bottoms up" approach. Start with a blank sheet of hex paper and, in the center hex or thereabouts, plop a village/hamlet/town/settlement and then populate it. Put in a few interesting folks and an interesting thing or two to do nearby. Then, draw in some roads that lead off . . . somewhere. And start drawing in terrain features and towns as you need them and are inspired. The first adventure or two would take place in the first village. Then, they'd find a connecting thread to your overarching theme for the area that would lead them out into the broader region to explore a bit.

Only build as much as you feel you'll need for, say, the next two or so sessions. The rest of your plan should be vague and sparse notes. "Here there be dragons" sort of thing.

And, really, there's nothing at all wrong with stealing a town from a published adventure that you like. Homlet is a great town. I've used it at least five times with some minor renaming and obfuscation at least 3 times in my DM times. Nobody - especially not the folks who had played in Homlet back in the old days - ever really noticed, or they were polite enough to not mention it if they did.

Geddy2112
2016-11-07, 11:42 AM
I am currently running a similar style sandbox, so I will give you the skeleton of mine.

Basically you have a giant continent, divided up into geopolitical regions. Some are empires, kingdoms, democracies, confederacies, and some places that are unclaimed/disputed/wastes. The geopolitical regions are in on again off again war, some are allies, some enemies, and several indifferent to most of the others, depending. There is a main conflict that each country is in a power struggle, but the overall conflict in the campaign is the weakening of the barriers between planes-elemental and outer planes are leaking into the material, as well as rifts in the fabric of spacetime. This should take the campaign to resolve.

Within each geopolitical region, there are 2 or 3 lesser conflicts specific to the region. For example, the northernmost republic has built up their shoreline and navy to prevent the elves from the northern islands from invading again. The home nation of the PC's is gearing up for war against their less than friendly northern neighbors, but also just had their royal family assassinated. Within each nation there should be some minor arcs that at least somewhat tie into the grander themes. These should last 3-5 sessions to resolve.

In the no man's lands, or disputed areas, or within specific cities, there might be 3-4 minor adventures. These can be wrapped up in a session or two, and they might be a breakdown of a lesser conflict, so doing all 3 in an area might resolve the lesser conflict of the region.

Instead of a sandbox, think about it more like a giant pond. Wherever the PC's splash, the effects will ripple. There are 1 or 2 overarching themes, but the side quests, no matter how small, will impact the overall world and lead to different outcomes.

Yora
2016-11-07, 12:33 PM
Yora, if you're looking to build small scale sandboxes, I recommend what an old buddy of mine termed the "bottoms up" approach. Start with a blank sheet of hex paper and, in the center hex or thereabouts, plop a village/hamlet/town/settlement and then populate it. Put in a few interesting folks and an interesting thing or two to do nearby. Then, draw in some roads that lead off . . . somewhere. And start drawing in terrain features and towns as you need them and are inspired. The first adventure or two would take place in the first village. Then, they'd find a connecting thread to your overarching theme for the area that would lead them out into the broader region to explore a bit.

Only build as much as you feel you'll need for, say, the next two or so sessions. The rest of your plan should be vague and sparse notes. "Here there be dragons" sort of thing.

That would be a standard hexcrawl without a primary conflict that is central to the campaign (arc). The kind of campaign I don't want to do.

I decided to keep developing my Hag Swamp (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?498220-Three-Hags-and-a-Banshee-OSR-super-adventure-mini-campaign) module that I worked on this summer, but adding the old module Against the Cult of the Reptile God to get an additional village and a villainous faction.

Currently I have four villages (village of the cruel elderman, village of the conspirators to overthrow him, village threatened by th cult, village attacked by monsters from the swamp), five camps (cult lair, druid home, mining camp, hunter camp, troll camp), seven dungeons (three hag lairs, ghost lair, ruined castle, mine, cult temple), nine factions (elderman, conspirators, hags, ghost sister of the hags, druids, cult, miners, hunters, trolls) and about 30 NPCs who want something.
Even in just a single 30-mile-square that seems like a lot of content. Not enough to last through to 20th level, but 4th seems very much within reach.

There is already a lot going on: Golem created by the witches attacks villagers, one hag wants to betray the other, the ghost wants to kill all three, the cult kidnaps and charms people, the druids hunt the cult and the golem, the conspirators want to overthrow the elderman, the hunters want to kill the elderman's henchmen, and the miners want to pay less tolls to the elderman.
Should I even bother to give small side quests to normal villagers?

Mark Hall
2016-11-07, 03:40 PM
Consider a web... that's your campaign world. Now, pressure on different parts of the web can cause changes at other parts... push hard enough, and the entire structure may fall down, even if you don't rip right where you're pressing.

So, when you come up with the local events, look at how they will affect things later, and what will be the effect of not doing them.

By way of example, I had a sandbox game where a hobgoblin empire took over Neverwinter Woods. This caused some orcs to flee the empire, and have them take over a nearby farm. Attacking the orcs at the farm didn't cause a big ripple, but it did bring the problems in Neverwinter Woods to light. The party did some investigating into that but, eventually, decided to move on (The "**** it, let's go to Waterdeep" syndrome). Sandboxy decisions.

But, ignoring the Hobgoblins meant that things proceded more or less according to the Hobgoblins plans. Going away meant that the Imperium started trade negotiations with Neverwinter, worked more to expel the elves, etc. Their trade negotiations changed the economy, and when I destroyed Waterdeep, it put the hobgoblins in a position to move into the city and pacify it.

Some "side quests" will be bull**** nothings. But others may have impact later, as the world develops and they have allies or resources available.

Yora
2016-11-08, 11:21 AM
I think it's probably best to at least tie most side adventures to NPCs who are in some way connected to the big events. Even if the task doesn't have a direct impact in the greater scheme of things, the players still get some contact with potentially important people.

Kol Korran
2016-11-10, 04:34 AM
Do you have enough content? Too much? Too little?
It's hard to say by the parameters you've noted: There's a huge difference between 4 o 8 players, and we don't know your own play style, or that of the group, these can affect things A LOT.

Yet, from the list you've given, my general feel that for 15-25 session of 4-5 hours each, there is plenty to deal with. The time/ session limit is inherently problematic for sandboxes, since by their own nature, you never know what paths the game will go on, what will consume a lot of time, what won't, and so on. My only advice on this matter is to give the group about 3-5 sessions to get a feel for their characters, the setting and their group dynamics, and then every 3 sessions or so try to gauge the progress. If the PCs are too timid/ careful/ slow, throw things at them, to make them move faster, or have the consequences of their inaction affect the world. Sandboxes (Especially ones who have active forces) often create a tense balance of "action vs. caution", which can make or halt the game. It's hard to maintain it.

From the sound of it you seem to have sufficient content, by my (very) rough estimation. Yet I'll reiterate- there is really no way to know. Be prepared for them to utterly not engage some stuff, and overly engage/ complicate/ even create more stuff. Though you are making a sandbox with prepared content, any game, even sandboxes, often require some level of creating things as the game progresses.

Good luck to you! Due to my new child and work I've stalled on my own "campaign planning project", but I'd love to hear of your experiences once the campaign is underway. :smallamused:

Trask
2016-11-10, 03:21 PM
I'm by no means an expert but from my experience running my own game that is sort of a semi sandbox (its open but theres sort of a "goal", just no set way for the players to achieve that goal they will come up with it) but I think that its probably better to start smaller than larger. As you mentioned you dont want to overburden them with tasks that seem unimportant and create an MMO syndrome.

What I would do is create your campaign area, insert 3 or 4 adventures into it with hooks and then just let it go. And as the sessions go on if you find that you need more stuff in the world to flesh it out then you can add the hooks. But its probably better for the players to arrive in your world looking for adventure and finding some hints of mystery/treasure than to walk into a town and be hit in the face with too many hooks.

Stealth Marmot
2016-11-11, 02:23 PM
First thing's first, who are your player characters?

As a DM you have to understand something, this is not your story. Not really. It is the players' story. Your job is to set the stage, create the backgrounds, and present the obstacles. What happens should involve them, not just on a superficial level, and to make it worthwhile, more than on a "insert your character name here for Madlibs" level.

Have your friends make their characters first so you can understand what matters most to them. The hook can be generic, allowing the stage to be set, but soon the players should start getting an idea about how and why they are involved beyond happenstance, greed, and the begrudging obligation of their potentially good alignments.

This will help IMMENSELY since you can get ideas from their characters. What do they hate, or love, or fear?

If, for example, you have a character who used to be a slave and hates slavery, you can include an underground slave trade in order to hook their particular interest. Other tie ins help.

The side issues should, at least tangentially, be involved with the main plot, if nothing else it should be an opportunity to weaken the bad guys or get help for their side.

The main conflict definitely as to have some ties to the players. If the main conflict is a prince usurping a king, why should the players care outside of the taxes on bridge tolls and the price of mead? What's stopping them from saying "Not my problem" and leaving?

Do they live there? Does the prince have ties to one of the players backstories? Does the king have information for them on something in their background? Are their friends involved? Did the prince's forces kill their family? Did they SAVE their family so they actually support the prince? Does the prince plan on outlawing adventurers? What are the stakes and why do they matter to the player's characters?

Make it personal.

Tying everything around the central conflict is also a good idea. A perfect example of this is Dragon Age: Origins. The main conflict: Holy crap an ocean of evil darkspawn is on the way and we need to destroy the Archdemon to make it go away.

BUT the land of Ferelden is not ready for a war, there is a usurper who arranged the king to be killed and is using nefarious forces to consolidate his power instead of fighting the darkspawn, and he is paranoid that a nearby rival nation presents a larger threat.

The Grey Wardens have to first get troops using contracts from 3 places: The Mages, the Elves, and the Dwarves and have to get Redcliffe safe and the town's leader healed. After that they have to figure out a replacement for the Usurper and implement a plan to get them in power. Once done, THEN they have to face the final conflict and take care of the Darkspawn and the Archdemon.

There are tons of side missions and intrigues, but their purposes all aim towards the singular goal: Reconsolidate the power of the nation and destroy the Archdemon.

The order in which they do so, the decisions they make when given options, and the methods they use are all up in the air.

This is how classic sandbox is done. You have a goal, and a bunch of things strung around to help with it, or are requirements to get it done. But they shouldn't have to be in any order.

You can pout a time limit on it to give a sense of urgency, but that's optional in the end.