Sunday 6 November 2011

S is for Sandbox Part III: Initial Set Up For Sandbox Games (3): An interesting outdoors area to explore

In some cases, and in particular in modules like T1 Village of Hommlet and N1 Cult of the Reptile God, the outdoors area is sketchy at best, and non-existent at worst.   As only one adventure site is presented, it is imagined that travel from the base of operations to the adventure site is relatively inconsequential.  You can start a game this way – even a sandbox-style game (so long as the options then open out from those initial choices) but doing so is not preferable. 

If you contrast the above modules with B2 Keep on the Borderlands, The Lost City of Barakus, and Rappan Athuk Reloaded, or similar modules, the appeal of having a well-developed and interesting outdoors area to explore ought to be immediately apparent.  If nothing else, such areas offer players a choice beyond simply travelling to the nearby ruins.  And, as described in previous posts, the point of table top role-playing games is the ability to make choices that matter.  And that means that, the more player choices determine what the play experience actually is, the less the milieu will seem to be “videogamey”.

The key to making the outdoors area work is to make it interesting.  An interesting wilderness area offers challenges, yes….but it also offers landmarks to navigate by, clues that help supply context for choices, and descriptive elements akin to the “dungeon dressing” in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide.  A large part of wilderness adventuring is also dealing with random encounters.  In a way, these things are all part of the “challenge”, but they are also part of making the campaign milieu seem to “breath”.

Concentrate first on immediate needs first.

1A.  Draw a wilderness map.  Either place your initial base of operations near the centre, or ensure that there are strong obstacles (such as deserts, high mountains, etc.) that prevent easy travel  into unmapped regions.  Ensure that your map includes all the features you want in your initial area.  I.e., if you want an element of oceans and coastlines, make sure that you include these elements.

If you can obtain numbered hex paper, it will be easier to key the areas, and you can make changes related to the location of lairs, monsters, etc., without having to change your map.   For an initial play area, a small scale is desirable – an area comprising no more than a week’s travel in all directions, with whatever means the Player Characters are likely to have available.  Mapping the area the characters can reach in three game days is often sufficient.

I prefer to make these maps on a 1 hex = 5 miles scale.  This is a small enough scale to note interesting features, and large enough that the initial map need be no larger than a single sheet of hex paper.  You may wish to experiment with larger or smaller scales. 

For important regions, I will make “nested hex” paper, where the larger hexes match the initial map, and the smaller hexes within are scaled at 1 hex = 1 mile.  This can give a fairly comprehensive picture of an important location.

1B.  Decide the basic parameters of the objects on the map you drew.  It isn’t enough to show a stream; you want to individuate this stream from the others on your map.  If the party gets lost, and comes across the stream, they should be able to get some idea where they are from how the stream itself is described.  Likewise, decide if woods are heavy or light, if grasslands are rolling or not.  Are these hills craggy and full of small caves?  Are those hills forested, with gentle slopes?  The level of detail that JRRT gives in The Hobbit is about perfect for this.

1C.  Decide where your adventure locations will be, and roughly what sorts of adventure locations they are going to be.  If you will recall, we are considering at least three major and six minor adventure locations.  A major location may be a dungeon, a ruin, a lost city, an enchanted island, or whatever else you can imagine.  A minor location may be a ruined farmhouse, a minor cave system, etc.  In general, a major location may take several  sessions to explore, while a minor location will only take about 1 game session (or less!).

Consider how these sites will affect the areas around them.  Brainstorm a list of clues pointing to the location’s existence, placement, and nature, as well as to any creatures that might have a local impact on the environment.  You will want to liberally sprinkle these clues around the adventure site, as far abroad as you think believable, to aid the players in making choices.  Basically, you are providing context here.

If you imagine the story of Little Red Riding Hood, it is the foreknowledge of the wolf in Granny’s bed that gives the story its tension.  Likewise, in any movie or novel, it is our ability to anticipate what may happen that makes us pay attention.  Many first time Game Masters think it important to hide clues from their players.  The reality is actually quite the reverse – the more clues the players have, the better!  Making decisions while anticipating what may occur is far more engaging than making decisions in the dark and hoping for the best.

1D.  Place a few lairs of creatures that are not full adventure sites.  They are just places where a creature may be found, analogous to a single room in a dungeon.  Likewise, you can place a few tricks, traps, and treasures without any creatures at all, just as if you were stocking a dungeon.

Don’t assume that all of these will be hostile encounters.  Some may begin neutral; some may be potential friends and allies.  Here woodsmen have a small encampment from which they range during daylight hours.  There a single fortified farmhouse is found in relative isolation.

Don’t be afraid to have these areas “bleed into” one another. 

Consider:  Crossing the Misty Mountains, the party encounters stone giants, which are largely disconnected from everything else.  However, when the party takes shelter in a cave, they unknowingly enter the Goblin Lair adventure site.  Escaping this, they encounter a “potential landslide” natural trap, and stumble into a gathering place of wolves….which is also the destination of the goblins they escaped because the wolves and goblins are linked.  The disturbance caused by this encounter triggers a nearby lair – that of the Lord of Eagles.  And so on.

1E.  Place other settlements, if desired.  If you place nearby villages and settlements, give them the same sort of development that you did the initial base of operations….but, in each case, do about 1/4 of the detail you did previously.  You can always add detail if the players are interested; if not, you need do no more.

1F.  Create basic encounter tables for random encounters.  These should reflect your design work to this point, indicating the creatures and peoples living in your wilderness area.  Your encounter tables can and should include more than simply one fight after another.  Normal animals, for instance, should be included both in description of the wilderness, and in “encounters”.

You can also create a list of “specials” that can occur – random encounters that are either essentially dressing (a cart fallen over and half-buried in mud/vegetation, with a broken axle) or an analogue to a dungeon room (i.e., fully described creatures with or without treasure, possibly a mixed group, possibly not, maybe a trick or a trap, etc.).

There are many products with random tables that can help you with this work.  The random ruins tables in Wilderlands of High Fantasy are of much use, for example, and that product also includes a lot of examples of potential wilderness encounters and lairs.

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

As before, 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.

The wilderness area should be in constant motion.  Refine your encounter tables.  Create more specials.  Move new creatures into the area, and change the status of those you’ve already placed.  Consider how things interact, and how you can supply more context or more conflict.

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

As in the previous post, keep in mind Ray Winninger’s Rule, “Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.”

Individual lairs are not necessarily significant, unless the creatures therein are friendly enough, numerous enough, or powerful enough to last beyond a single encounter.  Instead, consider the secrets of particular forested regions, hills, lakes, ponds, and beaches.  Whatever is likely to stay in the campaign milieu and have replay value.

Remember, if you accept my rule that “Whenever you devise a major piece of the campaign world, always consider how that piece can be used for replay value” you should also accept the converse:  “Whatever has little or no replay value shouldn’t be developed more than necessary”.


Sometimes it may seem that the outdoors areas are analogous to the corridors in a dungeon – just something that separates the more interesting rooms/encounters.  This is, of course, somewhat true, just as it is often true of a dungeon corridor, and for much the same reason – the wilderness and the corridors are seldom well developed. 

But, of course, the condition of the dungeon corridors can give a major indication about the nature of what is to be found within the rooms.  Also, dungeon corridors can be encounter areas in their own right, with creatures living in them, or with tricks and/or traps of their own.  Likewise the wilderness.

No one suggests that every corridor in a 20-level megadungeon complex should be individually keyed.  Likewise, no one is suggesting that every tree and flower, every rill and sand dune, of the wilderness need be detailed.  Indeed, doing so would violate the “Whatever has little or no replay value shouldn’t be developed more than necessary” rule to no one’s benefit.

In the wilderness, as with corridors, a strong overview and an occasional reminder, together with a little development, can go a very long way.

Next:  An overview of the region.

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