Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Organizing My Thoughts on Sandboxes

From issue to issue, I’m trying to improve my sandbox hexcrawl designs. I don’t know if I always succeed, but I’m definitely trying. The first one, the Wyvern Coast, was really just a matter of trying to be original and interesting and, honestly, just seeing if I could put together a product and put it in front of people. With Nabu, I tried to produce some little dungeons to explore – so, less a description of what a place could have, and more an inventory of what the place actually had in it. I see sandboxes as tool-boxes - the writer is supplying readers with ideas that they can use to build fun sessions with their friends. With the next one, I want to take things up a notch, which means spit-balling some ideas.

1. I’ve sketched connections between named NPCs before (X hates Y, Y loves Z), but I think I need to go a bit further on this count. Each named NPC (including the monsters) should have some connection to two or three other NPCs – a history, motivation, emotion, alliance/enmity, relationship, etc – something to drive explorers from one person to the next so that the hex crawl is not only a matter of “what direction do you want to go today” (but, of course, can be exactly “what direction do you want to go today” if that makes the players happy)

2. Some NPCs should hold “pieces to the puzzle” – important rumors, knowledge about a dungeon or another NPC or a lost secret (magic item, spell, way to kill a powerful monster)

3. I should sketch out one big dungeon for each ½ region (i.e. what I publish in a given issue of NOD) and detail the intro level. The big dungeon should probably be well hidden, thus necessitating exploration and interaction for the players to find it. The big dungeon should hold a powerful MacGuffin that ties the region together – maybe an artifact, or a secret, or the catalyst of an important event

4. Each ½ region should also have at least 5 smaller dungeons – a few basic dungeons (for levels 1 to 3), and a few expert dungeons (for levels 4 to 8). What gets turned into a dungeon?

a. A monster lair
b. A tomb or mystic place
c. A stronghold
d. A village
e. A city-state, etc.

One advantage to sticking to this formula is that players will eventually pick up on it, but they won't necessarily know which stronghold in the region has the dungeon underneath it. This gives them a reason to visit and interact and, hopefully, cause trouble.

5. The dungeons should have connections between them – clues, maps, portals, etc. and should have a connection to the big dungeon

6. I need to do more with the city-states – I’ll always try to detail at least one city-state in each ½ region like I did with Ophir in NOD #2 – Ibis, City of Sorcerers, will be the next. But for the others, I’d like to spread around some interesting, important NPCs that players will probably want to meet, or will want to avoid

a. A master artisan who can craft magical things (nothing too powerful, but useful and maybe vital to the big dungeon)
b. A demon cultist of terrible power
c. A mystic who can tell the future / heal wounds / etc for a price
d. A master rogue/bard/merchant who knows everything and can find anything – again for a price
e. A fierce fighting-man/woman who commands a company of unique mercenaries and can be a great friend or awful rival (or both)
f. A famous inn with important secrets
g. An awesome tavern – the nexus of all adventurers and no-good-niks in the region
h. A monster prince – vampire, ogre mage, etc – something powerful who can drive adventures more than be a simple target for killing and plunder
i. A sage with vital information and his own agenda
j. A valiant noble
k. A villainous noble
l. A monster who is more than it appears and holds a key that cannot easily be claimed with violence (or perhaps a “good” monster that can only provide the key if killed)
m. A demi-god in the flesh – perhaps Hercules is touring the region, or a massive, deified purple worm roosts below a city taking sacrifices from the “innocent” citizens
n. An animal trainer/beast master with wondrous mounts/pets [I'm shaky on this one, but I'm trying to think of the different hirelings that fit into the game and that players might want to visit]
o. A mysterious faction/brotherhood/sisterhood that can be a persistent thorn in the players' sides

I guess the main thing is that I want to create an environment in which (A) There is a reason to play a game in this region vs. any other region I might invent and (B) the adventurers will have reasons beyond simple wandering to travel hither and yon as they interact with the region. I don’t, however, want to create a narrative that people are bound to follow – rather, I want gentle, passive clues that people can pick up on or ignore, but that nevertheless exist beneath the surface of the sandbox for those who wish to dig into things and occupy the space rather than just visit.

So – any thoughts from the community?

Artwork by Damascus5


  1. Personally... I would say "Danger, Wil Robinson, Danger."

    NPCs were made to be whacked. That's a Rients Law. Number 6 or something like that.

    Of course, if the players want to make the sandbox into an NPC whack, there you go.

    Can I make suggestions?

    a. A magical place where rumor has it a special artist uses the power of water to craft magical things (rely on the place, not the person)

    b. A temple containing demon cultists. Man, I love religions assholes. My players just don't know it yet. Hehe.

    c. A simple urn that can tell the future/heal wounds, but only to one who bleeds into it. Rumors had it at XYZ...


    The problem with NPCs holding pieces and such is that they become MarySue foci. If the places themselves become the foci, then the sandbox starts to exist independent of NPCs, allowing the players to possibly gather those places, threads and do something with them.

  2. Those are good points. I definitely don't want to make the NPCs a focus of the setting or the main driving force - that has to remain the players - but I wouldn't mind giving players a reason to interact with NPCs beyond "hey priest-guy - how much for a cure spell?". I guess I've been watching too much Mannix lately. Besides, with a "speak with dead" spell they can still wahck the NPCs and then pump them for information afterwards.

  3. True. My NPCs have specific personalities, places in the sandbox and uses, but they aren't the main "keys" of the sandbox as much as they are actors that manipulate the "keys", but then can be removed.

  4. Yeah - I think that's what I'm going for. Thanks for the advice!


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