Tuesday 1 November 2011

S is for Sandbox Part III: Initial Set Up For Sandbox Games (2): Initial Base of Operations

I have noticed a number of threads on various RPG sites that seem to relate, at least tangentially, to this discussion.  In some, the idea of “story” (things happen for an understandable reason, from cause to effect, to form a narrative) and “story” (the GM determines what overarching choices the players will make) are conflated, so as to claim that if you don’t have the second type of “story”, you cannot have the first.  This is obviously poppycock, but there you have it.

The “I don’t know what you mean by X” (and X in this case by either a sandbox or a railroad) meme has also made its standard appearance, in its standard form of “Although I don’t understand what you mean by X, here is why you are wrong about what you mean.”  Again, poppycock, and the first part of the meme (“I don’t understand what is meant by X”) should serve to automatically discount any authority on the part of the speaker as to whether what is meant is correct or not.

Of course, if you are not interested in sandbox-style play, you should play what you want.  Likewise, if you are not interested in railroads/linear play, you should avoid them.  But let’s not pretend that they are the same thing, or that the difference is really all that hard to understand….hmm?

However, let us assume (again) that you are interested in setting up a sandbox.  Part of this is setting up the initial base of operations, which is what the remainder of this post is about.

The initial base of operations is most often a small settlement, near the borders of a dangerous area in which adventures can be had.  The base is mostly safe, and offers the PCs a haven to rest, as well as resources to adventure – sales of weapons, armour, and other gear; perhaps magical healing; perhaps an NPC or two who can help round out a party, or who can offer useful advice.  This is the model of the classic TSR modules, Keep on the Borderland and Village of Hommlet.

In his mostly excellent column, Dungeoncraft, Ray Winninger listed the “First Rule of Dungeoncraft:  Never force yourself to create more than you must” and suggests that failure to follow that rule has been the downfall of many campaigns. 

Now, Mr. Winninger offers a lot of excellent advice in his columns, but I’m going to caution you to not take this one at face value.  Or, at least, not to do so without first considering exactly what this rule is saying.  For example, it suggests that the prospective GM actually knows what is needed, and imagining that this is so takes one into the linear adventure path all too easily. 

Also, it is all too easy to read “Never force yourself to create more than you must” as “Never create more than you must” – I’ve had that argument several times on RPG boards, and it rises hydra-like every time you think it is truly slain – and it is that “force yourself” that is actually important in the rule.  Don’t burn yourself out creating material that you don’t think you’re going to need, if it is not fun for you.  Don’t force yourself.

I would rephrase Mr. Winniger’s rule to two rules:

1.  Concentrate on immediate needs first, and

2.  After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most.  Or, take a break if nothing is particularly interesting to you.

Obviously, if you fail to do (1), then you don’t have the necessary material to play the game, and if you don’t do (2), GMing will become more of a chore than a joy.  That way GM burnout and ruined campaigns doth lie.

In my own “Rules”, I would include this as a salient one:  Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.  Actually, my goal when prepping is closer to “at least five hours of game time”.  These three rules together inform how I prep an initial base of operations.

(As an aside, there is a lot of “back-and-forthing” involved in setting up a sandbox milieu.  When you begin to design wilderness areas and adventure sites, you are going to reference and modify your initial base of operations.  If you are writing notes longhand, leave space for this.  I find that the computer is idea for this, but I still prefer to make handwritten notes first, as writing something down tends to imprint on the memory better than typing it up.  Seriously.  There have been studies.

You may also find that you are coming up with cool wilderness or adventure site ideas while working on the base of operations.  Write them down!  Let the work you are doing now inspire the work you will do in the future, and vice versa.)

(As a second aside, I would say that the Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time rule applies even when a GM decides to write a treatise on the wildflowers of some particular reason.  The key is to find reasons to make that work relevant, rather than just boring your players with pseudo-scholarship. 

Likewise, if you spend a minute deciding that “Bree-Yark” is goblin for “Hey Rube!” make sure that you also get at least two minutes’ worth of fun out of it at the gaming table.  Re-using lore is a good way to do that.  The first time, the PCs might think that “Bree-Yark” means “We surrender!”  The second time, they might know what it really means, and it might seem to be simply colour.  Still later, they might use the phrase to trick some goblins into thinking an intruder is coming from another direction.)

Concentrate on immediate needs first.

The immediate needs of a base of operation are determining the resources available to the PCs, including any possible spellcasting or magical resources (such as healing, or identify and other divination spells); determining what NPCs there are who might aid or hinder the PCs, and determining what threats, if any, exist within the settlement itself.  What is the overt power structure of the settlement?  Who is in charge, and who is known to be influential?

These are the things that players are likely to be interested in during the first game session or so.  As a result, they are the things that you need to know first.  You can get away with not naming every guardsman; you cannot get away without knowing whether or not a suit of chainmail or a lantern can be purchased.

“Background” NPCs can, likewise, be developed as needed, but you need to know the characters in the area, now, which can be especially helpful or useful.  This includes NPC adventurers that might offer the PCs advice, aid, or their direct services.  Some of these last NPCs should be normal folk who seek a better life (and therefore have no real class levels), and a very few should be “ringers” that are really baneful.  As a rule of thumb, for every ringer you include, ten NPCs must be on the up-and-up, or the players will (rightly!) stop trusting NPCs altogether.

Difficult NPCs might be ones who overcharge for services, are rival adventurers, are secret thieves or spies, etc.  Again, these folks are most effective when sparsely encountered, so the “No more than 1 for every 10 non-problem NPCs” rule should be followed.  Failing to include these types, though, makes the game lose some of its charm.  For many players, ferretting out the weasels is one of the joys in the game, as is rivalling with, and finally besting, a long-term foe. 

Remember that a “problem NPC” need not be evil – a rival adventurer can be honourable, graceful and courteous, never try to kill the PC, and even help the PC from time to time.  So long as there is a serious chance that he will get the treasure first, he can be effective.  Especially if the PCs occasionally get the chance to return the favour – both by scooping the loot, and by saving him from some danger!

 If you have players with a keen interest in anything else in particular, make sure you include addressing their interests in the “immediate needs” phase.  This is why so many commercial modules (ex. B2, T1, and N1) develop inns and taverns more than, say, the local tanner’s establishment.

In some cases, the PCs are intended to be would-be adventurers who come to the area to seek their fortunes.  In others, they are intended to be natives of the location.  If the PCs are natives of the location, you need to ensure that the support structures are in place to make this possible – for example, a temple of the PC cleric’s god, a more powerful wizard to have trained a fledgling magic-user, etc.  It is completely okay to say that some PCs start as locals, and others as migrants, if it doesn’t make sense that some PCs come from the starting area.

Adventure sites within the base – sewers, a haunted house, an abandoned mill – are good ways to allow a group to sort itself out with a minimum of risk.  Assuming the risks are minimal, which need not always be the case.  If you have such an area, you need only place it at the moment.  When we discuss filling in initial adventure sites, we will come back to this topic.

After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most.

Once you’ve completed the most important work, do what interests you.  No level of detail is too great, if you are creating that detail because you want to.  But, if more detail doesn’t interest you at the moment, take a break.

Information about travellers at the inn, details of the local temple’s religion, quirky background NPCs, the hopes and dreams of the local blacksmith’s apprentice….all of this can make for interesting gaming, but only if you are actually interested enough to do the work with some flair.  Otherwise, you are better off “winging it” if the players inquire into these things…or, better yet, putting it off until you become interested in it.

Keep in mind, though, that the initial base of operations is the one “safe” place that the characters are likely to spend the most time in during the entire campaign.  Once the characters have outgrown it, they will also have outgrown the need to stop anywhere for as long a time.  Many things that can be glossed over in a town the PCs are likely to merely pass through – or even permanently live in – cannot as successfully be glossed in the initial base of operations.

This area is “home” to the PCs.  The more you work to make it feel like a real place, the more enjoyment your players will have.  Also, the more attached they will become to the game milieu, considering it “theirs” by proxy.   This is a good thing.  It is probably one of the most rewarding things a Game Master can experience.

Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.

Ray Winninger had another Rule, that I think is a good one:  “Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.”  To this I would add, “Whenever you devise a major piece of the campaign world, always consider how that piece can be used for replay value.”  Having secrets that the players can uncover can bring them back to a piece of the game milieu that you devised long ago, and that they thought they were done with.  It increases replay value.

Likewise, for each of the major NPCs and major resources in the base of operations, you want to create both at least one secret, and at least one connection to something else.  That something else can be inside the base of operations, but it can also be a connection to locations in the wilderness or in an adventure site.  For example, the local lord might desire some particular creature type for his menagerie, while another’s daughter went off with a band of adventurers to explore the Caverns of Deadly Doom, where her skeleton yet moulders. 

Remember, every time you get to reuse an element that you created previously – every time your hour’s work adds more at-table play time – you win.  If what happens in the wilderness sends the PCs back into a dungeon they’ve already visited, or back to see someone in town – you win.  If it makes the players even consider it, you win.  You are getting extra mileage out of your design work.

This is not to say that your goal is to frustrate players – it is not!  Rather, you wish to intrigue them, to offer them connections, and to reward them for paying attention to what is happening in the game milieu.


If it seems that these remarks apply only to a village in a wilderness, think again.  The base of operations could be a neighbourhood in a city, where the city becomes the “wilderness”.  Likewise, in a Stars Without Numbers campaign, the base of operations could be a spaceport, with the “wilderness” being the planetary body the characters begin play on.   The details change, but the basic ideas are still the same.

Next:  An interesting outdoors area to explore.


  1. Just to note (because good posts often get too few comments while random drama gets too many): thank you for writing these - I am enjoying them a lot!

  2. Thank you!

    I am glad to see non-drama page views finally starting to eclipse those related to EN World/Circvs Maximvs wankery.

    Of course, the wankery continues, both through CM and private emails. I actually had an EN World mod ask me not to contact moderators if the Rules were violated. I.e., if I leave, I shouldn't expect the Rules to apply to posts about me. Being expected to enforce the Rules apparently makes things "difficult" for the moderators!

    One good thing that did come out of this, though, is that the wankery on CM has disappeared from public view. I have to applaud Morris on this decision. Some levels of idiocy really shouldn't be displayed to the world at large!

  3. (As opposed to my own idiocy, of course, to which everyone is entitled.)


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.