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Stormhound

Making a desert out of a sandbox

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Someone once asked me why it was that I preferred running homebrew sandbox campaigns to modules in official settings, which is a pretty popular way of doing things, especially for harried GMs who don't have a lot of time on their hands. I thought about it for a bit, and then came up with an answer that I'm pretty sure wasn't expected. The resulting conversation went something like this:

Me: Well, partly it's because I get to exercise more creativity, but mainly it's because it's a lot less work.
Him: (with a flummoxed expression) Are you kidding? Modules and setting books give you tons of stuff that you can embellish as needed. With your way, you have to make everything up! That's a ton more work!
Me: Ah, see, that's my point. My way, I hardly have to make anything up, and there's not nearly as much work as you think.
Him: (looks at me like I've just suggested that the earth is flat and our politicians are all lizard aliens)

So, okay. I understood his point. Modules give you lots of direct-to-table material. And setting books provide lots of juicy detail. There's only one problem to all that for me, though...I feel obligated to learn all that material in order to use (and abuse) it properly, and for me, that's a lot of work. My way is a lot simpler. Take, for instance, my current campaign. There is one basic concept from which the entire background hangs. It's such a simple concept that, if I were willing to give away the secret to my players, I could describe it to you quite neatly in a brief paragraph (that is, brief by normal people standards, not by my rather lengthier ones). You could call it, if you were in a plagiaristic mood, the One Hook to Rule them All. And while it took some time to come up with the One Hook, once I did a lot of the work was done. Instead, I could get down to the really fun part: exploration.

Exploration, at least for me, isn't work. It's letting my natural curiosity, and my penchant for finding ideas and explanations in strange places, do the heavy lifting for me. And why that can operate as well as it does for me is because the One Hook is kind of like the Ultimate Answer in Hitchhiker's Guide. It's an answer all right, but all it leads to is questions, and it's in finding those questions and figuring out why the One Hook is the answer that an entire campaign can be built. It's a very top-down kind of process, which for me has three big advantages:

  1. I can say "Here's another question", and then instead of poring over it for hours simply let it float in the back of my mind until inspiration strikes and an answer appears.
  2. I don't have to make up a bunch of individual items and then figure out how to kludge them all together to make sense, because each new item or situation springs from what's already been created.
  3. Because I'm creating things based on my own logic, I don't have to memorize someone else's logic and apply that instead, so I can rapidly spool out additional related bits as needed based on my own deep understanding of my creation.


And that, to me, is a lot less like work and more like fun. Granted, I have to do things like create my own maps, come up with my own NPCs and encounters and such...but I can do that as needed (especially with my current game...the joy of an exploration based game is that there's always room to slip little things into "explored" territory, because there's no real way that the explorers can note every single detail of a patch of land unless it's a really small patch). I don't have to build the whole desert from scratch, or even the whole sandbox. I start with a few grains of sand, and just add more as I find them.

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  1. GavinRuneblade's Avatar
    I have the same issue. Reading and learning a published module takes way more time and energy than making things up on the fly for a setting I know inside and out because I created it. I am running a campaign that uses a lot of published material related to the Tiamat books for 5e. But even there, whenever I can I just make things up because it is faster. What I do use modules for is their maps, NPC stat blocks, monsters/encounters, and occasionally a plot point that fits really well. My world maps I have to create, but I totally steal village/town maps, buildings, battle maps, dungeons etc wherever I can find a good one.
  2. ithix's Avatar
    I wholeheartedly agree & run my games the way both of your game styles. In my view, a Module is a good template but limits the randomness, (Sandbox), factor. Knowing what I want my Players to accomplish & steering them there, despite their attempts to derail me & the challenge to get them back on track, is more fun than concerning myself with the flow on the turn of the page.

    I've been a GM for decades & have multiple systems, images, & ideas that I pull from while using a Grided Dry Erase Board to draw the maps my players see/use. My current group has been playing a weekly game face to face for going on 9 years. My Campaign runs 12-18 months "On" with 6-12 months of Player run games to spell me "Off". For the last 6 months I've been living out of State, & that looks to continue, hence the reason I've started looking at F.G. Currently we Skype as it is still the Players' turn to run things & I can follow along via a PDF of the module's maps, but that is coming to an end in July. I'm perfectly fine in a "Wing-it" or "Freefall" situation but now that I have to construct something the fun is diminished, it has become less an exciting chaotic state to one of work, add to that I'm considering an attempt at making this a Campaign to be shared (making me think along stricter Module lines). Any suggestions on how to enjoy or push through the minutia? I know one answer is to skip the Module idea & just throw down my maps, tokens, & use my own DC checks, but that seems to trivialize F.G.
  3. GavinRuneblade's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ithix
    I wholeheartedly agree & run my games the way both of your game styles. In my view, a Module is a good template but limits the randomness, (Sandbox), factor. Knowing what I want my Players to accomplish & steering them there, despite their attempts to derail me & the challenge to get them back on track, is more fun than concerning myself with the flow on the turn of the page.
    You reminded me of a friend from college who once told me that in his view D&D is two games. The players are playing kindergarten playground make believe with rules and dice and DMs are playing "sim racetrack" but all the sims are drunk-driving bumper cars and if even one car fails to make it to the finish line the DM loses.
  4. ithix's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by GavinRuneblade
    You reminded me of a friend from college who once told me that in his view D&D is two games. The players are playing kindergarten playground make believe with rules and dice and DMs are playing "sim racetrack" but all the sims are drunk-driving bumper cars and if even one car fails to make it to the finish line the DM loses.
    Nice Gavin. No, it isn't a mad race to the end. I focus on story. I want my players to make it to the end. When I've thrown out doing Sci-Fi or other genres, they want to keep coming back to my Campaign. Even now with them in So Cal & me in Montana they are really hoping I can figure this out.

    I've got enough to limp through at this point & I still have a month or so before it is game on. Your analogy does have some truth in that any RPG is 2 games. I do agree with that. The game the players have is more like go karts. The game I have as GM is finding out the best, most interesting, and challenging track for them to race on. I have about 50 books I'll regularly pull for reference, check DrivethruRPG.com on a weekly basis for ideas, & 500 GB of Pdfs to comb through if I'm really off my mark. They are playing in my World. One module may have some of what I want, say the map, others have the creatures I need, still another has the setting, (Mountainous, Desert, City, Jungle).


    From the limping stage, I plan to figure out how to make this huge Sandbox into something other DM's can use. I like the Frog God approach https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse....=&pto=&x=0&y=0 they seem to be doing the Sandbox well. If you know of some others, I'd appreciate some suggestions.

    Thanks
  5. GavinRuneblade's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ithix
    Nice Gavin. No, it isn't a mad race to the end. I focus on story. I want my players to make it to the end. When I've thrown out doing Sci-Fi or other genres, they want to keep coming back to my Campaign. Even now with them in So Cal & me in Montana they are really hoping I can figure this out.

    I've got enough to limp through at this point & I still have a month or so before it is game on. Your analogy does have some truth in that any RPG is 2 games. I do agree with that. The game the players have is more like go karts. The game I have as GM is finding out the best, most interesting, and challenging track for them to race on. I have about 50 books I'll regularly pull for reference, check DrivethruRPG.com on a weekly basis for ideas, & 500 GB of Pdfs to comb through if I'm really off my mark. They are playing in my World. One module may have some of what I want, say the map, others have the creatures I need, still another has the setting, (Mountainous, Desert, City, Jungle).


    From the limping stage, I plan to figure out how to make this huge Sandbox into something other DM's can use. I like the Frog God approach https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse....=&pto=&x=0&y=0 they seem to be doing the Sandbox well. If you know of some others, I'd appreciate some suggestions.

    Thanks
    His point wasn't about a race to the end, more that players will always do crazy unexpected stuff and can push each other into areas you were never planning to develop or explore. So you have to be prepared for anything and still somehow have a coherent story happening even though no one is moving in straight lines.

    I'm not particularly familiar with Frog God. What I use a lot is pinterest. There are maps, characters, costumes, scenery, etc. Story I can handle easily enough. NPCs and encounters and treasure I snag from different adventures here and there.

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