Ian Borchardt recently wrote a lengthy comment in reply to Andy Standfield’s Google+ post about determining CR/EL for monsters. He allowed me to repost it and all he asked for was me mentioning “that it was a G+ comment and therefore not a literary masterpiece – more a stream of thought.” Slightly edited.
When creating a wilderness encounter table for a sandbox game don’t bother with the details. Work out the likelihood of an encounter with creatures that feels right to you and use common sense in the application of the results. Encounters shouldn’t be in “balance” with the party.
Remember that in a sandbox game, an encounter does not actually mean that the characters have an immediate direct combat encounter with the creature. For example, a party of 1st level characters are travelling through the wilderness and you roll up an ancient blue dragon. Instant party death. right?
No. Have them encounter the dragon on the wing, hunting food. The party won’t have enough meat, magic or gold to be worth the dragon’s bother so it will probably keep on the wing. Meanwhile the characters have definitely encountered a blue dragon and can relish the magnificence of the fantasy encounter (or more likely the terror as they huddle under a tree hoping the dragon hasn’t seen them [“Ha!”] and won’t eat them).
But what’s the benefit of this encounter that wasn’t, you may ask? I’m glad you did! The party now know that there might be a lair of ancient blue dragon somewhere in the vicinity (and by that I mean easy flight range) if you are in the wilderness. They might remember this for later, once they are powerful enough to feel they have a good chance of adding dragon slayer to their resume. But in the meantime the presence of the dragon is going to colour the region through which they are travelling. For example any herds in settlements are going to be small to avoid being a tempting target. Towns might even have an arrangement with the dragon were suitable “princesses” are offered up for sacrifice – and they might actually prefer visitors to one of their own daughters. The dragon might even need a set of human hands and be looking for a set of adventurers to do a task for them. Whilst a threat works everyone knows adventurers are mercenaries and will do anything (even kill) for filthy coin.
Ed Simbalist (one of the authors of Chivalry & Sorcery) wrote an excellent essay back in the day (1978): Monsters are people too which really is recommended reading [C&S Companion – hard to get though now]. Monsters aren’t there as adventurer bait, but usually doing their own thing. Role-playing should be important for the monsters as well. For example, the party is at camp roasting a deer they shot earlier in the day, when they “encounter” a goblin patrol. Certainly this could devolve into a fight but what if the reaction roll is friendly? Perhaps the goblin patrol is actually lost and their leader doesn’t want to admit it (but pretty soon his troops, tired and hungry, are going to revolt). And that roasting leg of deer smells sooooo good. Perhaps they can bluff a tax for travelling through “their” lands. Except the people around the fire seem to be rather hard-bitten warriors rather than peasants and are not likely to be particularly surprised or overawed by a mosquito-bitten goblin troop? You now have a role-playing opportunity – never underestimate the benefit of intelligence (in the scouting rather than goblin’s lack of sense) and making friends. Even with goblins.
That’s all up to how you apply the encounters you generate. But there is still the important part of the players reaction to encounters. And that is to use reason. The sandbox game, unlike the heroic story-path game, isn’t there in the world for them. It’s a living breathing world without them, and the encounter table should realise that. At times they are going to encounter stuff that is too tough for them to beat, in which case running away is an important alternative that often seems to be forgotten by a lot of modern players that think the world must be all about them.
Special small regional encounter tables are a good thing too, although they often develop in play – for example one region I kept on rolling dwarves, which lead to the fact that there was a big mining boom going on here, so the regional chart got created with a lot of dwarvish and mining aspects. Including an encounter of gold nuggets in a creek bed. As our different encounter tables for civilised, frontier, and wilderness areas. And don’t forget all the non-monster encounters. For example, encountering an army off to war leads to “you have been recruited” or even “your horses have been recruited – here’s a chit for them (accompanied by the soldiers laughter as they lead your food and horses away)”. And affect the surrounding game. Good sets of encounter tables drive a sandbox game by presenting stuff. Also a good idea is to have a set of unique encounters on file cards. This could be stuff like villages, big monsters in lairs, and the like. When a “unique” encounter is rolled, shuffle and pull a card. That encounter is now there. Replace and top up these file cards occasionally, and remember to keep track of where the used ones were used.
My own take on wilderness encounters can be found in my Swiss Referee Style Manual.
Recently, Gregor Vuga talked about the West Marches campaign model on Google+. He summarized the model as “one safe home base + lots of very dangerous wilderness” and wondered about adding cities that are “interesting places where there might be a lot to do”.
Here’s what I wrote, slightly edited.
I run a similar campaign. There are some small differences in how the thing is organized, but in terms of using many cities and other safe havens, I have had no problems. I treat settlements either as safe places and thus as not very interesting with the exception of one, two or three important non-player characters. Or settlements are treated as a simple adventure locale with a handful of “rooms” (one, two or three buildings) with a particular enemy and their minions need to be fought (were rats, cultists, evil tax collectors). The key is that once the adventure is over, the settlement returns to safe place status. There’s never an invitation to spend more time in a settlement. Most adventure and all the treasure is found outside.
I think this is still compatible with the West Marches campaign model because it depends on what you want from it. I want to encourage players to choose a goal or a destination, and go there, and do something. The original West Marches did this by saying the starting village was boring and safe. If the city is teeming with intrigue, then adventure comes to the players. They did not “choose” this adventure. So that’s what I want to avoid. If I treat other cities either like the starting village (boring, safe) or like a dungeon (remote, dangerous), then I am still achieving my goal. Whether you still want to call this “West Marches style” I don’t know.
If I wanted to add cities as interesting places to my campaign, I’d make sure that cities are generally boring and safe but they contain adventuring locales. In my game, for example, the players visited Sigil. It’s a big city, it has factions, it has adventuring locales, and so on. Not a problem, as far as I am concerned. Sigil wasn’t their home base. Players came to Sigil in order to achieve something. They did that, navigated the dangers, visited interesting locales, got involved in intrigue, and left again. Had the players decided to stay in Sigil, perhaps that would have made things more problematic. Will the faction war catch up with them? Will they still get to choose their adventures, session after session? I tried to mitigate this by declaring their guest house to be safe and boring, for example.
I guess what happens is that I just redefine the sandbox. It’s like a fractal. Once you get to Sigil, the thing is self similar: a safe place, adventuring locales, more dangerous when farther away, and so on. Basically “one safe home base + lots of very dangerous wilderness”.
Courtney recently talked about treasure design on his blog. I use treasure for advancement and I agree with his assessment: random generation is makes players come back for more.
Random treasure is also an opportunity to develop your world. How do you explain a dozen hobgoblins carrying 5000 gold pieces? When I rolled it up, I decided that a bunch of hobgoblins were on their way to pay taxes to their overlord. The party then stole the treasure, inadvertedly visited the hobgoblin overlord (an evil wizard) and gifted him the gold by throwing a huge party (in order to gain XP), saw the same hobgoblins arrive at court (!) and had to think about a way of preventing the hoboblins from telling their master what had happened. Luckily, they had a cursed potion of conflict and quickly poured it into the wine used to welcome the hobgoblins. They started squabbling immediately and the party made a getaway. I loved it.
Courtney also says that one should “avoid blurring the line between treasure and junk lying around”. I agree completely! It’s boring. That’s why I don’t allow selling used armor and weapons for half price. It’s junk. Get me some new treasure if you want XP.
In a sandbox, there’s some tension between player goals that involve treasure and player goals that involve plot advancement. What happened to the elves? If there are no dangerous monsters with a lot of treasure, discovering the truth about the elves can be boring. My solution is to make sure that wherever there is plot, there is also danger and treasure. Thus, if the missing elves are all petriefied in a hall (as in my Wilderlands game), there must be gorgons, medusas or basilisks nearby with appropriate treasure. If there are armies of hobgoblins on the march (as in my Red Hand of Doom game), then the dragons accompanying them will have their usual treasure along on the march, carried by the footmen or by slaves.
It’s weird, I know. My sandbox has monsters and treasures wherever the interesting plot elements are. That’s simply how D&D World is. Every peaceful mission goes into dangerous territory, every army carries loot, every museum houses monsters. If there are no monsters and no treasure, I'll try and handle it in two sentences. “You sail down the coast to Tlan and talk to the sage. Two weeks later, you’re standing at the harbor. <insert what the party learns>. Now what do you do?”
If you find that you have a lot of players with a lot of hirelings—on a typical session of mine there will be between ten and twenty characters in the party even though we have only four or five actual players at the table—you’ll find that they can easily defeat “level appropriate monsters” in a dungeon and yet they are easily defeated themselves by higher level monsters such as gorgons, medusas, basilisks and dragons. I find that using a lot of weak enemies works best for me. When they recently investigated a forest hut, I rolled up a random encounter with 6d10 goblins. These attacked in waves of around 15 each, spaced a few rounds appart. It worked very well and there was a decent chance for treasure. It ended up being 11000 copper pieces… Oh well!
Until now I kept saying that Rob Conley’s Points of Light (4 settings, 42 letter-sized pages, reviewed on Dragonsfoot) and Points of Light 2 (4 settings, 59 letter-sized pages, also reviewed on Dragonsfoot) were the perfect hexcrawl products. The size was right. That’s about 25 A5 pages per setting. Thus, Qelong is about twice the size of a Rob Conley setting. If you want to get a feel for the Rob Conley settings, take a look at the Southland PDF. It’s available for free.
How does Qelong compare to the top hexcrawl? Here’s what I think.
Both provide a handful of pages of background, history, the major factions, how to integrate it into your campaign. The usual stuff, but short. I like short. I also like to know what the author intended to convey with the setting so that I can read the rest with the right mind set. I like to know whether it’s “hellish southeast Asia” (Qelong) or “embattled forces struggling to establish a home” (The Golden Shore, in Points of Light 2).
One thing I noticed was that the Qelong introduction referred to more faction details: “Myrmidons deranged and misdirected chew through the land, laying eggs in the river dwellers to hatch out more warriors. (See p.28 or [sic] details on the myrmidons.)” The effect was that while I was reading the introduction, I already eagerly leafed through the book, looking up details. It introduced me to the factions and made curious for more. Well done.
The Qelong introduction also has a table of 50 rumors and lets each character start with a random rumor; spending a handful of coins will let players roll again. I like it.
The Qelong introduction also features elaborate disease and magic poisoning rules that require purify food and drink, cure disease and remove curse spells. I think it’s very atmospheric but I’m not sure how well these poisoning rules work in play. We don’t keep track of rations, how will we keep track of poison levels?
Both Points of Light and Qelong describe geographic features. These are entire areas instead of single hexes with a specific description. In Points of Light most of these areas have one paragraph each, which is short. Qelong has more. It starts with a bold paragraph that could be read aloud or just provide the “in game” view. This is followed by another paragraph of background information that you don’t need at the table but which helps the referee understand what’s going on. And then there’s what I love: each geographic feature comes with a bullet list of suggested encounters.
In addition to that, Qelong has a different random encounter table for each hex type. This is excellent.
Qelong also comes with its own monster section to describe the various new creatures. This is also excellent.
Qelong comes with a table of names (family names, female and male first names). Very useful if you’re providing us with a new culture.
Quelong also comes with a small list of new ships and including required crew, sailing miles/day, rowing miles/day, cargo (tons) and ship hit points—these must be the shp mentioned in the encounter with the sunken tree in the list above. I like it.
Is there anything Qelong doesn’t come with?
Both Points of Light and Qelong come with a list of locations. In Points of Light, these are sorted by hex coordinates: “1604 Unicorn Pool”. There are a fair number of them. Southland, for example, comes with 38 hex descriptions. Each one consists of one to five paragraphs, many settlements come with a little overview map (to be copied and handed out to your players, perhaps?). Characters only have class and level indicated: “Lord Mayor Thomes White (Ftr3)”, monsters just have their hit dice noted: “Clak and Frull, hill giant (9HD) brothers”, and in Points of Light 2 they have some D&D 4E descriptors as well: “rust monsters (level 5 controller)”.
In Qelong, which is about twice the size of a single Points of Light setting, there are only ten encounter areas. Each has two to five paragraphs, some come with extra information about important non-player characters or unique monsters. If characters or monsters are described in more detail, any treasure they have is also listed. I like the detailed Qelong encounter areas and even if there are only ten of them, I think it works out because Qelong, unlike the Points of Light settings, has an optional end to it.
Wow! I really must recommend Qelong. I agree with Zak’s review: “So yeah, Qelong is fucking good and stuff.”
The only thing I would have liked is no watermark on each page. Points of Light also has it, but it’s lighter. The Qelong watermark is dense in the bottom quarter of the page and slows me down when reading it. That’s the sum total of all non-badass points I have.
I have yet to add it to my running campaigns and I have no idea of how to do it. It would seem like a major break from current events.
I just leafed through it and I liked what I saw! It makes me want to add an African-inspired section to my campaign right now.
I liked the art. The pieces fit together, had a unified style, made me want to play or meet those characters.
Remember, I didn’t read those 180 pages. But some of my impressions regarding the rules: standard six attributes but smaller modifiers: 3 → -2; 4–7 → -1; 14–17 → +1; 18 → +2. There are four cultures with half a page of background followed by a large number of interesting one-paragraph character backgrounds that grant you a number of skills. Skills go from 0–4. I’m not a big friend of skill systems, but it doesn’t bother me too much.
There are four classes: warriors (fighters) and three classes with magical abilities—griots (bards), marabouts (clerics) and ngangas (magic users).
The “fighters” have access to a very simple feat system. I’m no friend of the feats in D&D 3.5 or Adventure Conqueror King, but this system here only takes a single page and doesn’t constitute a feat tree and only concerns fighters. I think this works for me.
There are three kinds of “bard” songs (minor, great, ancient) and characters get access to the more powerful variants at 4th and at 7th level. I like the simplicity of the system. The effects of these songs persists for as long as they are being sung.
The “clerics” can invoke miracles (spells) from a variety of spheres. They are spontaneous casters with a certain number of miracles/day limit. Each sphere comes with a list of spells. Thus, by gaining access to more spheres they get more choice in spells. Their favorite sphere gets them a minor magical ability.
The power of “magic users” comes in the form of rituals and spells. Known rituals can be performed as long as the characters have the necessary time and resources (many cost money). Spells are “memorized” by creating little fetishes and “cast” by triggering them.
The various classes are an excellent demonstration of how to rewrite the standard descriptions to conjure up a different atmosphere and invoke the new setting.
There is a one-page quick reference after the rules section. Excellent idea.
There is a lot of material explaining how to run a sandbox campaign without just copying what he said in Red Tide and An Echo Resounding. Excellent!
Three pages on how to play—responsibility of players, responsibility of the referee, how to start the first session, this kind of stuff, short and succinct. Another three pages on typical pitfalls: how to use combat in your game, how to handle character death, how to handle investigative games, how to handle magic items, how to handle unfamiliarity with the setting. All of these are a great introduction to people unfamiliar with sandbox play, I think. Thinking back to my recent game mastering career and remembering the D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master Guide, I’d say that these pages here come with all the relevant advice that you need.
The domain game uses Might, Trouble and Treasure as the kingdom stats. In An Echo Resounding the three stats were Military, Social and Wealth. If you’re interested in a short overview of An Echo Resounding, check out my summary. The concepts are similar. These stats are used to resolve the kingdom turns. The game does not come with units, resources to build, mass combat and all the other things An Echo Resounding introduced.
As for creating adventures: the book comes with an empty map for a dungeon, a building, an estate, a shrine, a cave; it comes with tables for cults, magic user spells, non-player characters, cultures, names, adventure elements; domain game rules incl. building costs, henchmen, hirelings, magic items, treasures, monsters—all suitably themed! I think this is awesome. The book also comes with a lot of advice on how to go about creating adventures, how to think about the set (the place), the actors (denizens, non-player characters) and props (treasure, items), and how to put the three together. Skimming through this section, I found myself nodding along.
There is an index, which is something I appreciate. There’s also an annotated bibliography for fiction, history, mythology, religion and pictures. This should be useful for people like me with practically no experience with Africa.
All in all, I think this book would be an excellent book. With its 180 pages it looks much like a slightly expanded B/X D&D with an African theme. It has plenty of good advice and ideas for beginners and sandbox newbies. Personally, I think many games lack the succinct guidance a new referee needs. The D&D 3.5 DM’s guide didn’t have it. I don’t think my favorite variant of the game has it, either: Labyrinth Lord is quite bare bones. At the same time, Spears of Dawn is not simply a collection of house rules tacked onto B/X D&D. The infusion of the African setting into every paragraph and its strong focus on teaching the reader how to run a sandbox campaign sets it appart.
I highly recommend it. Then again, remember I haven’t read it in depth (and I probably won’t unless the campaign moves into an African direction).
What motivates a referee? I think positive feedback is a key element. I’m not just thinking of players thanking you for running the game or players saying that they like your style. What I really enjoy is players who get excited when they’re thinking of the next session, players who’re sad if they have to miss a session, players who tell other people about the funny things they did, the terrible things that happened. Player engagement is intoxicating, infectious.
DM Peter recently ended one of the campaigns I’m playing in, citing lack of player engagement. It’s a tricky subject: who is responsible for it, how do you measure it, how do you foster it? Here’s what has worked for me.
Alpha players are always at the forefront of everything. They edit the campaign wiki. They write a log. They never loose track of their character’s experience, wealth, equipment and encumbrance. Their characters have plans. Their characters have issues. If you get one or two of them, that’s great. I found that my games can take a lot of casual gamers, however. Not everybody needs to be an alpha players. Quiet people, hard working people, parents, people with little time between sessions are just as entertaining at the table. Realizing this has made it possible for me to enjoy more games. If I need more games to fill the time between sessions, I run more games or join more campaigns.
Session reports are a measurable by-product of our games. Long session reports that cast the events in a mythical light, provide more intimate glimpses of the characters, provide extra details and entertaining complications are great. There will always be players that don’t have the time to write such session reports and there will always be players that don’t have the time read such session reports. Preposterous, you might think. And yet, this thought will set you up for disappointment. If one person keeps a few notes on the back of their character sheet and can bring everybody back up to speed at the beginning of the next session, that works just as well. Realizing this, I have cut down on my session report writing. These days, I don’t write to entertain, I write to remember. A short list of events is all that is required. Now I no longer feel close to session writer burnout, I’m no longer disappointed by the disinterest of my fellow players.
Player contributions are an inspiration: I try to encourage players to contribute little elements to our fairly traditional game. Sometimes the personality traits of a player character turn out to be the personality traits of an entire culture. Sometimes the ambitions of a player can shape an arc of the campaign. Sometimes, however, none of the players seem to be willing to contribute anything other than playing their character. In this case, a referee might feel cornered into the role of the untiring entertainer, a thankless job of crafting adventures for unappreciative players. This can be deadly for a sandbox campaign. I have found two solutions to this problem in my campaign:
Addictive elements to game play. Yes, it’s mean. It’s called the variable ratio reinforcement schedule: a reinforcement schedule in which the number of responses necessary to produce reinforcement varies from trial to trial, according to Wikipedia. I feel that’s why unbalanced encounters are fun. There can be two or three sessions where practically no treasure is found and characters gain less than a hundred experience points each and other sessions where the major hoard is found and each character gets a thousand experience points or more. Knowing this puts some of them on edge. They want to make sure not to miss the one gold session that will pay off big time.
I hope these points help you adjust your expectations and help you increase player engagement in your campaigns.
I started looking around the Sine Nomine website and noticed Other Dust. A post-apocalyptic old school game? I’m thinking Mutant Future and Gamma World. Have you tried it? I just read the review on Grognardia. I guess I could justify the $19.90 price tag for the PDF as a sort of donation for the free Stars Without Number.
Then again, when will I ever have the time to play all of it? And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that I’d love to have all his products as hardcovers in my bookshelf.
Update: My review of Spears of the Dawn.
Recently, the question Whither the West Marches was asked over on the Hill Cantons blog. Interesting question!
To recap, a campaign using the West Marches model described on Ars Ludi had several interesting characteristics, as summarized on the Hill Cantons blog:
My Alder King campaign had started using D&D 3.5 using this model. Player characters advanced up to 9th level, some of them ending up with important positions in towns of the region. We played with a second generation of characters for a while and I still liked it. I no longer liked D&D 3.5, however, and so the campaign switched to the Solar System RPG. When that campaign ended, I started a campaign of Pendragon.
While it lasted, however, the Alder King campaign differed from the West Marches model mainly in that I had fewer players and that we had regular, scheduled sessions. These dates were set by me, not by the players. We had up to seven players at some points in time, but having all of them at the table was rare. In all that time, I felt that there was no regular plot, but I had inserted various modules I had bought here and there, so often the players might have felt that there was a regular plot.
Later, I started my campaign of the Five Winds. This time I have a group of eight players and there are almost always a few of them missing. Thus we’re doing fine with regular biweekly sessions and three to eight players each. The players are not scheduling sessions. In GM Florian’s campaign, same thing: players don’t schedule sessions. Instead, we have regular biweekly sessions. In DM Peter’s campaign, he announces his availability via mail and people sign up using Doodle. Again, that doesn’t feel like players actually scheduling sessions.
Thus, I think the key element I used from the West Marches model was sandbox play: exploring the wilderness, dungeon delving, no regular plot, players defined goals in game.
The Hill Cantons blog posts then goes on to say that the campaign also developed urban adventures. None of the four campaigns I mentioned did that. In my Five Winds campaign, for examples, the towns my players meet continue to be defined by three or four non-player characters and very little else. These characters provide quests, some evil doers or incompetents must be replaced every now and then. Town adventures make up at most a tenth of my campaign.
Similarly, sessions soon started to end outside of town—since I wasn’t running competing parties or at irregular schedules, this never was a problem. We just found lousy in-game excuses for missing or new characters in the party from session to session.
For a short while I was running two parties in the same starting town. It turned out that not ending every session in town wasn’t much of a problem. Flexible time keeping turned out to be the answer: whenever characters return to town, advance the time up to the point where the other party is.
In fact, the current Five Winds campaign soon moved to a travel based campaign: the party moved east, looking for one of the big cities of the campaign world, the city housing the school of chromatic wizards. They keep getting sidetracked by pirates, barrow mazes and the like…
I was reading Jim’s Threat Level and Masturbatory Dice Rolling which reminded me of something I once said to my players: “It’s called Dungeons and Dragons, not wanking with Alex.”
Back then I didn’t quite understand that we were having a systemic problem. I was running a D&D 3.5 game and these two players didn’t enjoy the threat level I usually enjoy. I’d rather die at the hands of a tough referee than live under the benevolent smile of a merciful game master.
This is the comment I left on Jim’s post, slightly edited:
I think the attitude that the game master is responsible for the players having fun at the table arose out of the fact that with newer editions of the game, the mechanical aspects of prep started to build up, and at the same time modules ended up very linear, and even if they were not obviously linear (like Red Hand of Doom) then the significant power increase from level to level and thus the increased difficulty of swerving off the planned track all led dungeon masters like me to believe that we were responsible for providing the right threat level.
It took some exposure to dungeon design, sandbox design, a return to threat levels chosen by players based on conventions (dungeon level) or information provided by the referee (rumors for the wilderness) before I understood that I could leave the decision about the threat level of the session up to the players. What a relief it was! Looking back, the technique is simple: increase player agency!
The games I like to run these days are easier to prepare for, they are easier to run, and thus all I need to remember is to provide adequate information the the players regarding the threat levels of locations or events. This will allow my players to pick the threat level they feel comfortable with – and I hope that these days I no longer feel tempted to insult my players.
When I read procedures like the ones Justin Alexander recently posted on his blog, I realize that my own procedures are super simple in comparison.
Here are the basics:
With this in place, players will usually learn about a new location from NPCs, decide to travel there, have one or two random encounters on the way providing side-quests, other plot-hooks and adding to the wilderness. After exploring the dungeon or doing whatever needs doing, the party will travel back, sometimes picking a different path for their way back in order to learn something about the area they’re in.
Thus the actual procedure at the gaming table is simple:
If your procedure is more complicated, I’d love to know what you do and why you do it. Maybe it’s something I could add to my own procedure!