View Full Version : DM Help Structuring a Magic Island/Magic Valley sandbox adventure

2019-05-17, 08:27 AM
I am always on the search for the perfect adventure format that combines maximum player agency with narrative focus and bounded structure. Open sandbox play with players coming up with their own goals and motivations always sounds amazing on paper, but as a moderately capable GM I just don't see myself coming up with content that I find satisfying on short or no notice or spontaneously creating exciting when the players are floundering around with no clear purpose.

So this idea that I got is to give the players a task inside a specified area, but with no instructions how to do it. And as they enter the area, they encounter various factions and notable NPCs who are tied up in their own ongoing conflicts that are not directly tied to the players' task. The players then have to find information to help them with their task by exploring the local environment and interacting with the local inhabitants. Many of which would be open to cooperating with the players, as long as there is something in it for them as well. And what they are interested in is anything that would help them with their own goals and conflicts.

How all of that plays out would be entirely up to the players. The players can choose who to approach for help, what to offer in return, and how they want to do the things that are asked of them. They can choose if they do just what is needed to get the thing they came for, or to get personally invested in the goals of the people they cooperate with. They can choose how much they want to focus on their main goal, or how long to stick around after they got what they came for.

But I think when limiting the whole thing to a relatively compact size, you can get a more tighter narrative focus than in an open sandbox. On the one hand, a smaller size means fewer sites and fewer NPCs, so you can work them out in greater detail and create more and stronger connections between them. Which I think is beneficial to get players more deeply invested in what's going on and what their characters are doing.
And the other thing is that with a smaller scope, players will more frequently come back to their initial task. Otherwise you'd quickly run into the Bethesda-Story problem of the players getting completely side tracked with various things while supposedly they are racing against time in a life and death struggle. Player's not caring about their initial task or completely dropping it is not generally a bad thing, but I think having such an element in the game could serve to add significant dramatic tension. If the party is in the area with an important goal, there is a bigger incentive to cooperate with unpleasant people and to decline assisting with just causes because there are other things that require their attention and should not be put off for too long. It removes, or at least reduces the lure of trying to complete all the optional content, and I think the sense of choosing one thing meaning you'll be loosing out on another is quite valuable for maintaining tension.
And finally, having the area be smaller in size also means that there is a real prospect of reaching an end and finishing the thing. At some point the party's task will be completed, and if they stuck around long enough, the various major conflicts will have been solved one way or another. Eventually, there will be the time to move on. That's an opportunity to either wrap up the campaign with a proper resolution, or continue on to another adventure with a new environment, new factions, and new threats and obstacles. Even in a relatively small scale setting, there are so many interesting environments and people for players to encounter, but you can't put them all into a campaign that is centered around a home base town.

As a plan, I think this is looking like a really solid concept. But that still leaves the question open of how to put such an adventure into practice? What do you think would be a sensible scale for the island, valley, or whatever type of environment it is? How many settlements would seem sensible and how many factions? What would be a good approach to the number and size of dungeons and castles?
There are surely and infinite number of ways how this could be done, but based on your own experiences with RPGs, what do you feel would be making sense? What other considerations should go into creating such an adventure?