sandbox lifecycle

Jesus's face is, like, 6 hexes in itself

I wanna run a couple of D&D adventures to highlight parts of the rules that the New York Red Box gang hasn’t gotten around to yet: wilderness hex crawling, naval battles, high-level delving, dominion type stuff.

And what’s killing me is that in D&D there aren’t very good tools for limited runs–say, 18 hours or less.

The classic sandbox style campaign, being open-ended and plotless, is no good for my purposes: the pleasures of sandboxin’ comes from watching structure emerge over time.  If you cut things short, the game simply ends without any satisfactory resolution.

(By the way, this occasional frustration with the long-term investment necessary for a payoff in sandboxy stuff was a pretty frequent concern of mine six months ago.  I think sandbox play has a lot to recommend it, but it’s built for – or at least really favors – massive time commitment, which in general I personally can’t sustain as it gets in the way of not just my regular life, but other gaming as well.)

You can slam stuff together in a railroady way – you have this encounter, and then THIS encounter – but that robs the players of agency.

Alternately you can handle this the indie way with relationship maps and keys and player flags.  But this involves grafting a lot of new stuff onto D&D which (a) sounds like work and (b) would, at least in my mind, distract me from figuring out how well the various under-used sub-systems work.

(As an example of new-fangled sub-systems I refer you to Clinton Nixon’s Sweet20 XP system, which was originally designed for later editions of D&D but could probably be tweaked for older games.  If you like it, you might like his game Shadow of Yesterday which is available free on his site if you poke around a bit.)

Has anyone had any great success with mini-campaigns?  If so, what worked and what didn’t?


8 Responses to “sandbox lifecycle”

  1. May 4, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I think that you’ve hit on a good division line of old-school vs. new-school play, James. Part of the new-school approach seems to specifically be aimed at making the game better suited to the available time of adults with a plethora of other leisure activities, while old-school play emerged from adults in the Midwest with no computers, not a lot of money, and maybe five channels of live TV and flourished among kids with tons of leisure time. (This is why I chuckle every time older gamers talk about D&D 4E being aimed at the younger audience; uh, no, sorry, it’s “dumbed down” for us!)

    See, for example, bankuei’s analysis of why old-school legacy issues cause social dysfunction; the recommendations for fixing it involve playing a ruleset that does only one thing (no naval combat subsystems for you!) and that has an explicitly limited and pre-arranged length (campaign is a bad word!)

    Some of Delta’s recent HelgaCon threads have talked about players getting through about 30% of what they had prepped, and I think that’s a good ratio – although if there’s supposed to be 100 hours of dominion play, cutting that down to only 30 might not fit your remit!

  2. May 4, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I haven’t run “mini-campaigns”, but I have run higher level delves (6-12 hours total play). It’s worked pretty well and wasn’t especially complicated. I didn’t even use any “new school” techniques – just restricted the players to making PCs who were already a party. Do you really need explicit tools for this, though? Isn’t it enough to say – “We’re going to play through this high level dungeon – let’s start by rolling up some level 10 characters”?

    With regard to trying out naval battles, the trick seems to be in the set-up: I was in an AD&D 2nd ed. campaign in the 1990s where we made use of a lot of the naval stuff because the setting was a chain of islands and pirates were some of the main “bad guys”.

  3. 3 1d30
    May 4, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    The Sweet20 system you linked to is interesting, but it breaks too easily. A player could easily lose his first-level Key and gain the 7 XP, forever unable to gain a new Key or gain any XP because he doesn’t have a Key anymore.

    Giving someone a new Key if they don’t have one might work, but eventually the character could run through all the available Keys.

    Some of the Keys have Counters that occur too easily.

    About half of them tie the character down too strongly to someone else or to a course of action, turning the character one-dimensional. And it’s not like you can diversify by sometimes not acting according to your Key, because you’ll probably lose it and your character goes into XP Limbo.

    I think this works better as an alternative alignment system.

  4. 4 James
    May 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    @Jon, when you played, when was the game over? Was there any sense of pacing at all, or investment in the situation?

    @1d30, the Key system is native to Shadow of Yesterday where it’s integrated more strongly into the game mechanics; here it’s a kinda-casual add-on to D&D 3e. Still, I think it’s slightly more robust than you may think. For example, whether the player chooses to get rid of the key is entirely up to the player – it can’t be forced on him. I suppose a character could get rid of all his or her keys, but there would still be the option of Key Scenes to gain XP that way. In the Shadow of Yesterday players typically have 2-3 keys firing at all times, so rather than become one-dimensional, they’re constantly torn between different priorities creating a lot of internal conflict.

  5. May 4, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    The most recent time I did this, I riffed off one of the levels of The Darkness Beneath from Fight On! and set up a situation where a mad wizard had been experimenting on other dungeon denizens, who were on the verge of banding together to go to war against him. The PCs wandered into the middle of it and the end of the game tied into the situation working itself out. (Maybe that’s a kind of “new school” technique – it’s a variation on the way you’d GM Trollbabe, for instance – but it also seems to be pretty common in older modules and some flavors of tournament play). The pacing was definitely: (1) early exploration/finding out about the situation, (2) figuring out puzzles/gaining mastery over certain areas of the dungeon, (3) regrouping to plan, and (4) executing final plan. (Not too far off the pacing of a given segment of sandbox-y play.)

    There was definitely investment in the situation, which followed, IMO, the desire of the group to play that specific game (i.e. high-level delving with a chance to play with funky magic items and spells that we had never gotten to in our “regular” play). I’m tempted to ask: why wouldn’t there be (assuming that the game didn’t suck for other reasons, of course)? Some of my highest investment games have been one-shots, etc.

  6. 6 James
    May 4, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    @Jon – “I’m tempted to ask: why wouldn’t there be?”

    It’s a good question, which deserves some development.

    My observation in D&D play is that it really starts revving up after 4-5 sessions, across a couple of dimensions. Within the fiction, that’s enough time to figure some stuff out about the setting and to begin leveraging that knowledge. Between players, that’s enough time to develop running jokes and learn each others’ foibles. Intra-player (?) that’s enough time to learn who your character really is and what they’re about. (D&D’s lack of flags means that even players have to learn who they’re playing.)

    I’m obviously not saying D&D can’t be played in less than 20 hours, but I think something really satisfying begins to happen around that threshold. What I’m hoping for is a way to generate that level of camaraderie and mastery from the jump, and have it boil up to a satisfying yet unforced conclusion in about half the time.

    If such a thing doesn’t exist, then I guess the sensible thing to do is soldier along without it.

    Jon, did you use pre-gens for characters? If not, how’d you handle ability scores and magical items?

  7. May 11, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Ah – okay – interesting stuff here.

    First, when I last did this, it was in the context of playing with people who had played lots of D&D together previously (me, my brothers, friends from our old D&D group, and two other people who had gamed with us more recently). Though we weren’t continuing on in terms of the fiction, there was some continuity in terms of playstyle. So, I think this wouldn’t be a problem if you’re talking about running something in the context of the Red Box group.

    Second, I agree that D&D does develop “something special” after a few sessions. What I did to kick start this was to try to make the dungeon itself grabby and situation-ful (to a much greater extent than if I were DMing a longer term sandbox) and I did use semi-pregenerated characters (basic backstory was set and everyone had to provide a gameable motivation for their starting PC). Granted, this leads to a less “diverse” game than you’d get from the best, longer term D&D play, but the focus helps to give the game a running start which is the most necessary piece, IMO. For stats I used a method where they could choose one of the “special classes” (ranger, Assasin, etc.) and get the minimums OR roll 4d6-drop-the-lowest and arrange as they saw fit. For magic items I had them roll randomly on a table I put together (I used a lot of random rolls on OTHER tables to do so): since I knew what the challenges would be in the dungeon, I didn’t want “throw” things by providing too appropriate items.

  8. 8 John
    October 14, 2010 at 8:21 am

    You should do the one shots you want to do as breaks from your regular campaign but still in the sandbox world you have created. So you say “This week we are pirates from the south” and run them through an adventure. At the end you have had a break from your regular campaign, added to the world you are using with the players so they know it as well, gotten to use the rules you wanted, all while still in a sandbox world. It is win, win!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2010

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