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Sandbox gaming is currently my favorite style of Old School gaming. See RPG for a more general collection.

2014-04-17 Crazy Campaign

Recently I was responding to a Google+ post by Gavin. He was putting together a list of potential goals for the wizards in his campaign because he felt that players tend to shy away from doing cool stuff.

I started thinking about the cool things that have happened in my campaign, and the cool things I wanted to happen in my campaign but which didn’t.

First, the failures. These were goals I had hoped players would set themselves but they did not.

In my games, I’ve been trying to let players find books on particular topics. I never went all out and maintained a page on the campaign wiki with the actual books they own. My idea was that the books would allow them to research spells related to these topics (one of my house rules says you can only learn spells from other casters, so this sort of research would be the only alternative). I’d say that “building a library” didn’t happen.

Another thing I had hoped for was that players would actively seek out wizards with particular spells but as it turns out, I have not been placing a lot of rumors about particular spells. All the casters they befriended they befriended because of an adventure they were having and they happened to meet and connect on some level. I’d say that “meeting and befriending other casters” went well, but “actively seeking out other casters and befriending them” didn’t happen.

There have been successes as well, though.

One character is sponsoring four sages (and plans to hire more, each costing about 2000 gold pieces per month; usually one week passes in-game for every session). For one, money spent generates XP (one of my house rules). At the same time, every sage writes a little something about the setting. It’s great for me to provide rumors and adventure hooks. It also allows me to add new spells to the campaign. I’d say “hiring sages” has been a success. I think this worked because one of my players is interested in learning new things about the setting, and because of the rules that requires players to think of ways to spend their goal.

The need to spend money has resulted in a lot of public buildings in the domain of my players. We use An Echo Resounding for the domain game, so the gold spent doesn’t actually grant mechanical benefits. But it generates a bit of setting: temples are built (and I can have pirates rob them and kidnap the priests), an ivory tower has been built for the sages, a hospital was built (and taken over by demon worshippers), a bath house has been built (and more are being planned as the backbone of a spy network), a unicorn station has been sponsored, a tavern has been built… “building infrastructure” and contributing to the setting has been a success powered by the rule requiring the expenditure of gold, a price list with various buildings on it, me listing the buildings on the campaign wiki for all to see (seeing the changes to the environment and “leaving your mark”), and events sometimes referring back to things built by players add to a sense of ownership.

Another thing I had was a “master of anatomy” who could graft extra stuff on to characters. One of my players got a replacement arm and a replacement leg (he had lost limbs due to the Death and Dismemberment table I have been using), but the new limbs were gray and shriveled. I just don’t feel like punishing players for missing limbs. If pirates can have a wooden leg, if captain Hook can have a missing arm, why can’t player characters? If you’re missing both legs or both arms, it’s time to quit. I guess “body modification” has been a success.

The same player also got two dragon wings, which required an auxiliary brain to control them (so now he’s a cone head) and the extra brain can act independently in an emergency (although I never remember to roll for it). The Frankenstein look sometimes provokes an explanation for negative results on the reaction rolls, but there is no Charisma penalty. I guess this worked because it was perceived as useful, it was cool and it felt special even if it didn’t provide any real benefit (except for flight, which hasn’t been an issue). I think I’ve managed to balance benefits and drawbacks on this issue. Great!

Another thing that happened was that the players befriended a devil worshiper who proceeded to invite them to a succubus party (a ritual, not a spell). I think this happened organically. I rolled up a random encounter with some hobgoblins carrying 5000 gold pieces. I decided that this was tax. The players defeated the hobgoblins and took the gold. They arrived at a castle and gifted the gold to the wizard, saying that they want to throw a huge party, not knowing that he is a devil worshipper. Excited, he agrees… This was unplanned, but “have fun with devil worshippers” definitely worked. I think the key was to have some lame idea and not being afraid to turn it up to eleventy one.

The key to pushing my campaign to eleven is to use every idea as soon as possible. Do not save good ideas for later! Use them now. You will have more good ideas in the future.

Another thing is that you need to take something the players are doing and amplify it. They want to throw a party? Think of something crazy and let it happen. They want to build something? Think of something crazy to happen to the building, a crazy person to visit the building, something, anything. Let there be cool consequences.

Being generous with cool stuff works even if you fear for game balance. Avoid mechanical consequences for characters, if you want to. That doesn’t mean it cannot be crazy, something for your players to talk about in the future, something the non-players characters talk about in-game!

Always keep adding new plot lines. Minor things. Provide your players with three to five options at the end of the session and ask them what they want to do next. Prepare that. Having players choose allows them to influence where the story is going. My campaign is still about reviving a dead god because a long time ago, one of the players decided that his character was interested in all things elven. When I let it be known that they had a dead god, the player wanted to learn more. This is great. I keep adding stuff where ever the players start looking. To them, the campaign is infinitely deep. It keeps growing where they are most interested because it grows where ever their characters actually do something. Sure, they don’t always follow the main plot and that’s OK.

Some of the best moments happen when the older players are trying to explain past events to new players. They sound like kids. It’s convoluted and confusing and oral history at its best.

I’m not sure these notes will make it easy for you to turn your campaign to eleven. If I had to list things to avoid, I’d say this: Don’t be too cautious. You will be able to fix things later. Don’t prepare too much, don’t have too much seting detail or you’ll be afraid to change it. You’ll be afraid of rulers getting killed, shops getting burnt, characters having to leave towns, the campaign taking surprising directions.


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2014-02-17 No More Pendragon

We stopped play midway through year 510 of The Great Pendragon Campaign after a devastating battle in May and ended the campaign. Too much railroading, too many sudden death moments, too many fiddly rules that slow us down but don’t further our enjoyment, too much leafing back and forth in the book… I’m both sad and relieved, in  a way.

The discussion was kicked off by one player who felt like quitting the campaign and explaining all the things he didn’t like. I agreed with a lot of it. I had written about it myself. Another player said he’d like to play on weekdays instead of weekends. Another player was missing. My wife wanted to continue playing but was suffering because of a recent string of character deaths. The last player was new and said he had been unable “to get into it” in the three sessions he had played with us.

An astonishing thing happened during the discussion. My wife and the player who had started the discussion are both players in my mashup game—the old school sandbox game using Labyrinth Lord, the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Spelljammer, Planescape, and An Echo Resounding. They started comparing the Pendragon campaign to this other game. The other game is crazy (“I’d describe the atmosphere as killer clowns”) but it has more player agency. Pendragon is more about how you deal with the events around you. My mashup game is about the things you do. I rarely need to pick up a rulebook and search for a rule. The NPCs are all strange and memorable. No king Leodegrance, Sir Cador, Centurion King and other faceless dudes that you haven’t interacted with. Pendragon not only suffers from an inflation of NPC names that players haven’t interacted with, it also encourages me to add names, exacerbating the problem. What are the names of the sons of Duke Ulfius? Who cares? I still feel compelled to look it up instead of making it up.

In a way, the big campaign provides a railroad that affects me as well. I am inspired by the campaign, I steer the players towards the rails, I entice them to stay on the rails, they are always present. Like those pesky Paizo Adventure Paths, they shackle my imagination and stiffle my improvisation.

So, where as I am sad to see it go, I am also happy to see how my players love the classic D&D sandbox and validate the choices I made for that mashup game.


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2014-01-01 Not Planning Ahead

I’ve been enjoying a few days off and I’m having the hardest time not planning ahead like crazy. Plans change, the players decide where they will go next… and I prefer reading a book to preparing stuff that will never get used. Sometimes it’s hard to adhere to my own advice. The next adventure is good enough! :)


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2013-11-26 Wilderness Encounters

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.

Good stuff.

My own take on wilderness encounters can be found in my Swiss Referee Style Manual.


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2013-10-23 Settlements in Sandboxes

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”.


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2013-09-05 Treasure

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!


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2013-08-22 Qelong vs. Points of Light

When I heard people say online that Quelong by Kenneth Hite was a great module, I was interested. 48 pages of A5 is my kind of size.

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.

Last year I posted an example from my Caverns of Slime module (free PDF) which used the same format. Here are some examples of varying size from Qelong:

  • A sampan with its bottom staved in. A Tinkering roll could repair it.
  • A carnivorous fish lives underneath the lotus field. Armor 13, 2 Hit Dice, bite 1d6. Or a school (2d8) of them.
  • The characters’ boat approaches a sunken tree. Anyone actively searching for dangers in the  water will notice it in time to take evasive action; otherwise it tears out the bottom of the characters’ boat, doing 1d10 shp [sic]. If the Referee wants to be a jerk, there is an ambush party of 1d6 naga-kin at the bottom of the river under the tree, waiting  for their dinner.

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. ok

star star star star star

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.

Addendum: A review by Save vs. Total Party Kill; a review by Dungeon of Signs. Qelong in Play.


Comments on 2013-08-22 Qelong vs. Points of Light

Same problem here - I have no idea, how to set Qelong into my campaign without giving up too much of it’s feel and spirit :)

Tarin 2013-08-23 14:56 UTC

I think I will need to use planar travel.

AlexSchroeder 2013-08-23 20:52 UTC

You can always put it into a dormant volcano, where it has been isolated from the rest of the world for centuries.

Belchion 2013-09-29 12:29 UTC

Starting coming Tuesday, my players will be looking for a passage to Qelong… :)

AlexSchroeder 2013-09-30 06:40 UTC

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2013-01-19 Spears of the Dawn

Spears of the Dawn
African-flavored fantasy adventure gaming
The PDF for backers of Kevin Crawford’s Spears of the Dawn is done! It was on Kickstarter: “Spears of the Dawn, an African-inspired old-school RPG from the maker of Stars Without Number.”

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.

star star star star star

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).


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2012-12-11 Player Engagement


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:

  1. Recurring villains and big bosses are ideal. They get mentioned at least once every session. Their goons can be defeated, their lieutenants keep showing up, they keep looming in the distance. The lich queen of grey elves. I think that an invisible enemy doesn’t do the same job. We want players to engage with their nemesis. How can they hate unknown forces? There can be betrayal at the very end, there can be reveals further down the line, but in the end, the players must feel like there is a constant, personal threat by a limited number of known enemies that they can focus on.
  2. Achievable goals are the positive counterpart to villains. I present these as opportunities for players. There’s a dead god and some people still pray to him. Maybe a player takes it upon himself to revive the dead god. There are temples to a god of justice and rumors of her paladins. Maybe a player want to pursue this? Maybe a dead character can be offered this choice in order to get revived? I think the key part here is that these are options presented to the players as part of the setting. These are not part of character creation. I also think it’s important to keep introducing more of these goals such that players have a real choice. Don’t invest a lot of work into these options before a player has picked it. Start developing it once players are hooked.

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.


Comments on 2012-12-11 Player Engagement

Nice write-up. Have ever thought about what keeps you at the table as player?

– Stefan 2012-12-14 18:39 UTC

Yes! :)

I suspect it can all be found somewhere on this blog, hidden here and there… Perhaps How I Roll might be a good starting point, although it collects a lot of stuff from a referee perspective.

Thinking back, this is what I would say based on the last few years.

  1. there must be regular sessions (if we only play once every four weeks, that strains my enthusiasm)
  2. there must be solid planning (if I can’t plan ahead, I will start giving it lower priority and end up cancelling sessions)
  3. the rules must be simple (I don’t feel like reading a lot)
  4. character generation must be fast (I enjoy playing, not the making of characters)
  5. no intro sessions, long backstories to write (I enjoy spending time at the table with friends, none of the other things)
  6. gaining levels must be earned (no regular gains just for showing up)
  7. gaining power must be slow (no levelling up every session or two)
  8. there must be actual risk involved (otherwise I don’t feel like having earned success)
  9. there must be choice (to get out of bad situations, to influence the future of the campaign)
  10. there must not be homework (I like to write a short session report, but interaction on a forum or campaign wiki are not my thing: I’d rather we play more often)
  11. I also like to find the occasional huge treasure instead of regular small stuff
  12. I dislike formalized session structure (meet, plan, go, fight, loot, return—it turns out to be repetitive)
  13. I don’t like players wining and complaining (whether it is about their character, the referee’s decisions, the loot or whatever else)
  14. I don’t like hopeless situations (let it be a short and violent TPK and let’s make new characters as soon as possible)
  15. I like a lot of information and choice (I find this empowering, also known as player agency)
  16. I think players having to work hard to learn something about the setting is not fun because it is information that enables informed choice
  17. I dislike long fights
  18. I dislike long planning
  19. I guess I like experimenting with the environment every now and then
  20. But mostly I like short fights and strategic decision making (should we stay or leave, fight or run, take it or leave it, …)
  21. I don’t like homophobic or racist jokes

Given this list, I think previous “tests” telling me I was mostly a storyteller were plain wrong and didn’t account for the kind of game I like.

AlexSchroeder 2012-12-14 19:42 UTC

What about ambience? Do you care for stuff like flickering candles and matching music or not at all? The fact that you didn’t mention this point and that I haven’t seen any of this in one of your games might give a hint, though ;-)

Do you think these things can help create an intense gaming experience and keep the players focused on the things happening on the table?

– Stefan 2012-12-14 20:44 UTC

I do not think that candles and the like would improve my game experience. It would be fun if somebody else organized it and it would be fun, but it would be unrelated fun. As for music, I have music playing in our appartment practically nonstop. That’s why I like to play movie or game soundtracks in the background. I don’t think that preparing particular tracks for particular scenes is worth the effort, however. Whenever I tried it, I was distracted and felt stressed out. What I like to do as a player, however, is to keep the iPod nearby and switch tracks to something appropriate every now and then. As a player, I have enough down time to be able to focus on the music. The only scene where this visibly helps, however, is when I switch to some droning Lustmord just as the party is confronted with ancient evil… I did that to good effect a handful of times.

AlexSchroeder 2012-12-15 00:20 UTC

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2012-10-11 Kevin Crawford

Spears of the Dawn
African-flavored fantasy adventure gaming
Why is Kevin Crawford (Sine Nomine Publishing on RPG Now) so awesome? After reading An Echo Resounding I get the itch to return to my Wilderlands of High Fantasy map (pretty big) and give it the Sine Nomine treatment. I also liked what he said on the Jennisodes as he was talking about running a sandbox and publishing supplements that help others run sandboxes.

I backed his Spears of the Dawn with $8 on Kickstarter. I really like this part:

To encourage this, all art used in Spears of the Dawn will be released into the public domain upon its publication. You are encouraged to use it for your own commercial or noncommercial products. – Kevin Crawford

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. ok

Update: My review of Spears of the Dawn.


Comments on 2012-10-11 Kevin Crawford

Completionist urge hitting hard again?

Harald 2012-10-11 13:35 UTC

I read his Kickstarter write-up and in it he says there is a market for African based settings/adventures and this Kickstarter will prove it. I hate to tell Kevin Crawford this but if I do pledge some money it will be because this is a Kevin Crawford product, not because of the setting.

I love his work and nothing he has produced thus far has been bad, in fact, his products are above the norm.

callin 2012-10-11 13:55 UTC

@Harald – indeed! :)

@Callin – I’m not sure. After all, Nyambe for d20 was mentioned a lot back when it was new. Then again, I bought it and never played it. So perhaps that’s true for many of the others who bought it.

AlexSchroeder 2012-10-11 14:54 UTC

I have Nyambe as well along with one of its sourcebooks. While I never ran it as written I did include parts of it in my 3E campaign. I am indeed a completionist. However, with this particular offering I am more drawn by the author than the actual setting.

callin 2012-10-11 15:43 UTC

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