I have been prepping and running a sandbox open table of Whitehack 3e. (I will write my thoughts on Whitehack one day in a post.) The characters usually begin the session in a base camp, and they choose where to venture. A classic experience, nothing special. But I have chosen a small map of 3×4 hexes of 12 miles. Why? Nowadays, I do not have so much time to prep an extensive hex crawl experience due to my new schedule. So, I wanted to maximise the result of my time of preparation. I do not have the willingness and time to prepare a 12×12 — or even bigger map — and populate it with interesting things. I would like to spend my spare time playing rather than designing stuff. Indeed, the question was: “How can I make an interesting sandbox campaign given a hectic schedule outside gaming?” The answer to this question led me to think that perhaps is not the size that makes things better or more interesting, but the density.
The stereotype of a sandbox is a huge hexcrawl map filled with dozens of hexes waiting to be discovered. But every time I tried to do so — like my longest campaign of OSE —, the result was not satisfactory. A lot of choices were not meaningful or interesting, and they looked the same. I had the same experience while running with White Box FMAG with Rob Conley’s module’s Blackmarsh. What was the problem? Indeed, I have defined the “The Elder Scrolls Daggerfall feeling”.
Daggerfall has the most extensive and large world map of The Elder Scrolls franchise: 09,331 square kilometres, 15.00 towns, and 750.000 NPCs — according to Wikipedia. However, many criticised the fact that all the towns look the same, and nothing happens on the journey between them. Plenty of nothing. Does nothing give interesting choices to the players? No. After a while, the players use fast travel and skip the wilderness. Players go only where their interests lie. It was a waste of time and energy building a so extensive and realistic empty box.
Consider instead one of my all-time favourites, Dark Souls: The whole game takes place in Lordran: a city with its surroundings and its subterranean areas; e.g Blight Town, the Catacombs, Anor Londo, and so on. Dark Souls’ Lordran is not big, but detailed and dense: there are a lot of secrets, NPCs, monsters, strange architectures, and places linked to each other. It is a pleasure to explore, and there is no area put there just to fill something: every piece goes in the place they need to be. There are no areas of the game that give you the feeling of “Ok, this is here just to fill something”. The same goes for Ultima Underworld: Stygian Abyss: the Abyss is a dense place full of creatures with their distinctive culture and ecologies. There are plenty of things and factions to interact with, although the map is not that huge. I was aiming to apply the principles of Dark Souls and Ultima Underworld when designing a sandbox: small areas but full of events, creatures, and ancient places.
I have gotten the idea of tight-packed sandboxes when I gave my availability to bring an open table to a monthly event. I knew that I wouldn’t have had the time during my week to make extensive prepping. So, I began to search “low-prep sandbox campaign” in the OSR blogosphere. I have found Just Three Hexes by Chicagowiza’s Games. The procedure is simple but effective: describe the setting in three sentences; prepare three hexes, one of which must include a camp base/fortress/town for rumours, hirelings, and shops; describe the three hexes with no more than three sentences as well. Three is the magic number. Whenever you need more stuff, expand and add hexes and places, that’s it. You have a bottom-up procedure where you build a core of adventure adding things only when (and where) you need them. From that moment, I became a huge fan of tight-packed sandboxes. And I have developed my recipe for mini-sandboxes on the foundation of that article. The only difference is that I prefer point crawls over hex crawl maps in the style of Electric Bastionland.
The point is that it is better a tiny map full of events and characters. In my case, I have chosen a more abstract approach as a point crawl. It is more than enough for months of campaigning. I would dare to say even years but maybe is too much. You need only the following checklist:
- The Setting’s Description. Describe in 3-5 sentences the history of the adventuring area. What happened? Any particular feature, like the settlers hate magic? Are there woods haunted by monsters? Why?
- A Base Camp or Town Describe in 3-5 sentences a camp base or a town in which the adventurers trade, rest, and collect rumours.
- A Main Dungeon The key area that the adventurers will explore. A dungeon of 2-3 levels of depth. Develop it in detail.
- Minor Dungeons 2-3 smaller dungeons scattered around the map. The recommended size is between 5 and 10 rooms. It should be completed around a couple of sessions.
- Three Factions Describe three factions with three sentences each.
- A Hostile Settlement A settlement of hostile humanoids or creatures. E.g. A tribe of giants, an expedition of religious fanatics. The band of adventurers should have issues while dealing with them in their own territory.
- Ecounter Tables with a “Lore” An encounter table containing both creatures and events telling something about the world.
- Points of Interest Points of interest that are not a location. For each intersection of lines in the pointcrawl, insert a point of interest. Describe each one with no more than a 1-2 sentences.
An Example for Cairn: Forest of the Frost Elves
I will show you how I have used this method to create an open table of Cairn.
I have drawn 4-5 geometric shapes intersecting each other. Each intersection is a location or point of interest. Use draw.io o whatever software you prefer or even pen and paper.
I needed something to justify the fact that there are ancient ruins in a dangerous forest. As well, I have to justify why the previous owners have either disappeared or fallen asleep. I want to try the monsters in the Cairn booklet, for examples frost elves and root goblins, but I like the idea of intelligent spiders as well. So, I need a background to make sense of the different treasures and items scattered around the map. And I have thought about a war between the frost elves lords and the giant spiders which have left only ruins after the conflict.
The Setting’s Description
The Frost Elves lords once ruled this small land. But a war against the giant intelligent spiders has wiped them out. What remains are a few ghosts, ruins, and the shadow of the princess deep in the forest.
A Base Camp or Town
As a base camp, I aim for the same feeling as Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine: a decadent place inhabited by weird people. That is why I have decided to use as a central hub a shrine of some sort.
“The Shrine of the Goddess of Hunting Rahvann“ The Frost Elves used to worship the lady of hunting Rahvann; they built the shrine in her honour at the centre of the forest. The shrine has become the base camp for adventurers, traders looking for relics, and bands of scavengers. The last maiden of Rahvann lives in the chapel at the top of the tower.
As I said, Frost Elves once were the lords of these woods. So, let the main dungeon be inspired by them! I like the idea of woods, cold, and some fairy tale horror. I require a place that transmits such mood. A palace made of frozen roots with evil and a naive monstrous princess will do the job.
Root Castle of the Frost Elves A series of frozen roots entwine to shape a castle. It is very cold here, and the monstrous daughter of the king still roams these rooms bringing a candle. In her madness, she is still looking for her lost father, trying to bring him back to the throne of ice and black wood.
- Caves of the Spider King: The intelligent giant spiders have been living inside these caves, protecting the legacy and the treasure of their king, generation after generation. The giant spiders worship the rotten corpse of their king in the temple below.
- Infested Wizard Tower An archaeologist wizard used to live here to carry on his research on the frost elves. After a failed experiment, some slimes were born and killed the wizard, spreading through the building. The relics and the knowledge collected by the man are still in the tower.
- Gardens of the Elven Lords The frost elves’ nobles used to contribute with their wealth to a pleasant magical garden full of statues, fountains, and mausoleums. The gardens contain flora with miraculous properties of long-forgotten ages now extinct. Of course, the ancient lords have left some guardians to protect the gardens.
If you like, you can leave one node so that you can place a pre-made dungeon or adventure. In my case, I would place Barrow of the Elf King by Nate Treme’s High Paranormal Society.
- The Solitude Lancers An order of knights devoted to push back the winter from any land. They have arranged an expedition in these woods to purge any trace of the frost elves’ sorceries. They are well trained in the use of spears, and their banner is a silver lance entwined with a dragon on a black background.
- The Frozen Wind Monks Worshippers of the frost elves and prophets of doom. They hunt down travellers and sacrifice them to the ghosts of the frost elves. Their goal is bringing back the frost elves to cast an eternal winter on these lands, seeking eternal peace.
- Wacnall’s Svirneblins Wacnall the Amethyst Watcher is an old svirneblin warlord; his body is rottening due to an illness. He is leading a small company of greedy deep gnomes to pillage the gems of the frost elves. He hopes to afford a cure for the rot from a witch living in the woods.
I was imagining three factions in the area that would interact with the players. I like the idea to tie a couple of them to the theme of frost elves and winter. While regarding the third faction, I try to build it around the goals and needs of a single influential NPC; in this case, the needs of a dying deep gnome warlord. From these three factions with divergent aims, many interesting situations and choices could arise for the players.
A Hostile Settlement
One can imagine that Wacnall’s army has built some sort of basecamp for their operations. I imagine a fort built within a cave below a huge oak.
Svirneblins’ Fortress below the Oak Wacnall and his band of deep gnomes have established a small fort below a giant oak. The Svirneblins have taken the crystals from the Decrepit Crystal Fort to build a reinforced entrance. The ill warlord collects here all the treasure that will pay for the cures of the witch, and he will imprison and torture anyone to obtain information.
A 2d6 table is enough. I try to give examples of how to relate encounters and the history of the area. They must tell something about the world in an implicit way. I put even animals or creatures that make sense to be here, but they are independent of the factions or dungeons.
|2||The Severed Dragon||1-2 Vomiting white leaves and black bile while laid on a side.|
3-4 Howling and cursing the Frost Elf King for the pain.
5-6 Shaping frozen crystals in the forest using its breath.
|3||1d4 Frost Elves||1-2 Freezing water and flowers with their magic and seeing them die.|
3-4 Carving wood or painting en plein air.
5-6 Singing a song to celebrate their fallen comrades.
|4||1d3 Elven Draugrs||1-2 Raising from a crystal tomb.|
3-4 Guarding an ancient frost elven relic.
5-6 Hunting down some giant spiders.
|5||1d4 Ghosts of the Frost Elves||1-2 Sculpting the stone to remember their past lives.|
3-4 Freezing the surroundings and draining life from the plants.
5-6 Fighting some giant spiders.
|6||1d10 Insectoid Pixies||1-2 They are coming out from their cocoons.|
3-4 They are building a nest.
5-6 Torturing or lying to a traveller.
|7||2d6 Wolves||1-2 Fighting one each other.|
3-4 Hunting a prey.
5-6 Howling to a statue of Rahvann.
|8||1d12+1 Svirneblins||1-2 Pillaging a ruin in search for gold.|
3-4 Mining the place/Cutting the woods.
5-6 Escorting an armoured cart full of treasure.
|9||1d8+1 Giant Spiders||1-2 Wrapping unlucky travellers and stealing their goods.|
3-4 Trasporting their eggs.
5-6 Sticking the banner of their king among the trees.
|10||1d8 Frozen Wind Monks||1-2 Sacrificing someone to the Frost Elves.|
3-4 Hunting down new victims for their rites.
5-6 Chanting around a fire about the winter and the eternal peace.
|11||1d6+2 Solitude Lancers||1-2 Fighting creatures of the forest.|
3-4 Burning down something related to the frost elves.
5-6 Camping and resting.
|12||The Witch of the Forest||1-2 Performing a sacrifice.|
3-4 Teaching to one of her apprentices.
5-6 Accepting offers from the travellers for a blessing.
Points of Interest
Here we need only a couple of sentences for each entry:
- Lake of the Wyrm Down deep below the frozen lake lives a wyrm warden. An elven dolmen explains the story of the creature and treasure it protects.
- The Toads’ Bog Here lives more or less peaceful tribe of goblins. The tribe breeds in the bog giant toads to employ them as mounts.
- Dolmen of the Treaty A huge carved dolmen of twenty metres tells the story of the war between frost elves and giant spiders.
- The Silk Wood A road covered by spider webs in which merchants and adventurers alike end trapped and eaten.
- The Decrepit Crystal Fort The ruins of an ancient frost elven fort made of crystal shards and stone. Most of the structure has been crumbling for centuries.
- Shrine of the Winter Witch A small shrine dedicated to a witch practicing rituals for the arrival of winter. Blue flowers surround a ruined statue encircled by a a stone ring.
- Gallows of the Deserters The frost elves who deserter the army have been transmuted into ghouls and hanged for the eternity on hundred of trees.
- The Haunted Walls The ruins of the wall that protected the Root Castle. Nowadays, the ghosts of frost elves and giant spiders alike haunt these grounds, living again and again one the last battles of the war.
- The White Tree A giant tree sprouting leaves with a shade between white and gold. Skulls emerge from the trunk of the tree and a well springs from its roots.
- The Iron Watchguard’s Throne A strange woman wearing an iron armor sits on a throne made of wood and silver birches on the top of the hill. The armor is full of spikes, and the helm depicts an elven face with multiple blades rising from the top.
At this point, you should have something like this:
Develop just the key dungeons maps and help yourself out using random tables. Perhaps, develop a few relics and trinkets to convey more chunks of implicit setting, but it is not a priority. Focus on developing what you need, when you need, according to the player’s interests and choices in a reactive way.