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

2015-05-07 Domain Game Procedures

OK, so we talked about setting up a game of Hexcrawling and how the game will eventually reach its limit if the known region keeps growing and more and more factions are being introduced, more lairs, more assets, more domain turns; the game starts to collapse under its own weight. We also talked about my Domain Game Goals. The things I like. The things my players like. We have come to the point where we need to talk about the kind of procedures that will offer us an interesting domain game without growing as the domain expands.

I think this is key: The procedure must always take the same amount of time. Think about random encounters. No matter how big your party, you always roll once for random encounters. The monsters might be stronger. The trek might be longer. But the number of rolls is constant. But think also about its failure modes. If the party travels for eight weeks, do you roll for over 100 random encounters? I don’t. That’s why random encounters only work at a certain scale. Our domain game procedure will also work at a certain scale. We’ll postpone thinking about attaining immortality and godhood, for now.

The simplest solution would be a random domain roll. The results on the table are all either adventure hooks or role-playing opportunities where we get to see what kind of people the player characters are.

  1. Invasion! A tribe of humanoids show up. Will you allow them to settle? Will you go to war? Will you investigate who pushed them out of their homeland? This needs a short list of likely humanoid tribes. Pick races, name their tribes. Give their leaders names. Determine the cause of their migration.
  2. Disaster! An earthquake or flood destroyed several buildings in one of your towns. Will you help rebuild it using your own funds? Determine the location randomly. In a village, a temple and a few houses need to be rebilt, costing 10,000 gold pieces. In a town, the keep itself and several large temples need to be rebuilt, costing 100,000 gold pieces. In a town, even more money is required to rebuild the city walls, the cathedral, the harbor, the granaries… 500,000 gold are needed. Make a list of buildings and have a price list ready in case your players will only partially fund the restauration. Make a note of up to five powerful locals and the grudges they’ll bear if the player characters did not pay for it all.
  3. Unrest! The peasants are revolting because one of your vassals is being inept or corrupt. How will you find out? How will you deal with your vassal? Will the vassal be written in to the dead book? Or join the rebellion? This needs a list of named vassals. The traitor had a reason. Write it down.
  4. Rebellion! All your former vassals and their greedy allies have decided to come and take what they feel is rightfully theirs. This requires a list of former vassals and henchmen. Make it personal. Make sure you remember some sour deals they had to suffer.
  5. Madness! A charismatic leader has started a religious movement. Their numbers are growing every day. They are instituting land reform. Killing the reach and distributing their wealth. They are calling on their brothers and sisters everywhere to come and join them. How will you deal with this sect? This needs a list of two or three leaders and a handful of other influental people that have fallen under their influence. Name them.
  6. A cult has taken hold! One of the towns in your domain has fallen prey to a cult. Its institutions are no longer trustworth. Your vassal in charge either blind or enthralled by the cult. How will root out the problem without a massacre? This needs a cult location, a monstrosity sent by a demon lord to aid the cult, a few charmed officials, the inner ring of cultist. Name them.
  7. Enormous monster incoming! A dragon or some other giant lizard has destroyed one of the border towns. It is wreaking a path of destruction. The peasants are fleeing. Mercenaries will no longer take the job. Will you defend the realm?
  8. Disease! Nobody knows whether it was due to widespread substance abuse, a punishment sent by the gods, or some other cause but now your people are reeling under the hammer blow of an epidemic. People don’t leave their houses. The sick are burnt in their houses. The dead are piling up and still no cure has been found. Have the name of a great rival cleric available that is trying to turn the tide. If the party does not succeed in stemming the tide, this rival will and the settlement will be ready to secede from the domain when he is done.
  9. Dispute! Your merchants seem to have fallen on hard times. Your trade income is decreasing. Who will you send as ambassadors to your neighbors? You need some disputes ready. Taxes. Territory. Fishing rights. Lumber rights. Mining rights. You’ll need the names of powerful people at your neighbor’s court. Determine what will sway them: bribes, threats, the use of force, sweet talking, back room deals.
  10. War! One of your neigbors has decided to follow up on that trade war. If there is no previous history, assume a demonic cult or some other madness has taken over. This is an opportunity for a little war game. Find allies. Make plans.

Several things are still missing. In order to track the “mood” of the current campaign arc, you could run with Chris Kutalik’s idea of a chaos index as explained in his blog post The Weird is Rising, Thanks World Engine.

I think I’d like more of a multi-dimensional framework that takes the gods into account. You could use something like the fronts on the MC sheet for Sagas of the Icelanders. Have a list of gods or other influences, list some keywords (“Hel: breathe disease, consume, hoard with greed”) that will color current events. This forces you to vary the description of the results depending on what front is in ascendancy. Use the result of the random domain roll to build a little four step countdown. If the party does not engage, step one happens. If they leave it to fester, step two happens. If they are busy elsewhere, step three happens. If they don’t take care of it now, step four happens. As time keeps passing and more rolls are made, issues are piling up. This is good.

If your players have “traits” that influence the domain game such as Sticky Fingers which I mentioned in previous post on the same topic, some of the results on the domain roll table should reflect that. In a Dispute situation, for example, Sticky Fingers might allow you to ignore the first two steps of the countdown as your thieves infiltrate your neighbor’s domain. You will have to handle the issue eventually or just move to War.

The important thing is this: I’m looking for a solution that limits the number of dice rolls and that doesn’t require any sort of computation before rolling. I don’t want to roll for every unconquered monster lair. I don’t want to add a bunch of numbers on the wiki for every roll I make. I don’t even want to look at what the last roll four sessions ago was before making a roll.


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2015-05-03 Domain Game Goals

I recently wrote about my current setup for a campaign wilderness map and the associated hexcrawling that goes along with it. The greater context is the promise of ever changing gameplay. This is true for characters with saving throws replacing armor class as your most important defense, this is true for spells that change how the game is run, and I want it to be true for the campaign itself where dungeon looting yields to wilderness exploration, and eventually to kingdom building.

Kingdom building is what the domain game is all about. Wilderness exploration is about travelling from here to there and the creatures you encounter. It’s about learning who your allies and enemies are, new towns with new leaders and their own economic goals, monster lairs, humanoid tribes, instigating war, brokering peace. Eventually, the players are going to lay claim on a lair or a town. Now what?

Let us consider existing options for the domain game. The simplest rules I know are the ones in the Expert set by Cook and Marsh. Fighters get a land grant, build a castle, clear the surrounding area of monsters, organize patrols, attract settlers, raise taxes. Any mercenaries hired cost money. Clerics do the same thing, but their castle is only half as expensive and they get fanatically loyal troops for free (5d6×10). A magic-user gets to build a tower and attracts apprentices (1d6). A thief gets to build a hideout and attracts more thieves (2d6). Demihumans are like fighters. They build a stronghold and attract settlers of their own kind. Elves are automatically friends with the local animals. As for the attraction of settlers, all it says is that spending money on improvements (“inns, mills, boatyards, etc.”) or advising will do it. The details are up to the referee.

If you want a bit more detail you can use An Echo Resounding. It’s what I have been using for a while. A while back, I wrote a summary of the rules. Apparently you can add a lot more details by using Adventure Conqueror King System. There is an interesting comparison of An Echo Resounding and Adventure Conqueror King a forum I read a few years ago.

Unfortunately it’s turning out to be too much work for me. When I look at the monthly campaign summaries—something I write every four sessions—I notice that there is some free form stuff in the Sages and Spies inspired by recent events, my players’ interests and adventure hooks, and there is some stuff generated by the rules of An Echo Resounding. For every lair I need to find out whether it spawns units. If it does, these units need to attack a nearby location. I need to resolve these fights and if the units win, they plunder the location they attacked. For every non-player domain I need to figure out what sort of move they make during their domain turn. This involves looking at the numbers and rolling a d20, but often it has been so long that I feel I need to double check those numbers or I find little mistakes. In the end, a lot of time gets spend for very little gain. Or, to look at it from another perspective, I spend some time looking at numbers and rolling dice to produce text that is boring compared to the free form stuff I write up for the Sages and Spies section.

The stuff players like about the system don’t involve that much maintenance. They like knowing about their units and they like going to war every now and then. They like to build things in their domain. In my game, gold spent yields experience points. Since I have a list suggested prices for buildings, this encourages them to build temples, hospitals, towers, bath houses, and so on.

Building Price
a small statue for a well or a garden 50gp
a small, public altar made of stone with spirit gate und a small well (5ft.×5ft.)250gp
a small shop made of wood with a place to sleep in the back room (15ft.×15ft.)300gp
a simple wooden building with one floor such as a tavern, a gallery or a gambling den (50ft.×50ft.)700gp
a wooden building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.)1500gp
a stone building with two floors in a village (50ft.×50ft.)3000gp
a manor house with two floors, marble columns and statues in a city (50ft.×50ft.)10,000gp
a provincial castle with six floors (60ft.×60ft.) and an inner courtyard (30ft.×60ft.) surrounded by a wall75,000gp

This leads to a strange effect: Build a large wooden Freya temple for 1500 gold and you’ve got a temple and 1500 experience points (gold spent = xp gained). Spend a few domain turns building a temple, however, and you will have a temple, it will give you Wealth -1 and Social +4, and a powerful 9th level cleric will come and settle here (using An Echo Resounding).

Having two very different ways of building a temple complicates things. It seems to me that paying for the temple using their own gold is a more visceral experience for players. They built it. This is what it cost. It’s easy to embellish it. It’s easy to list it on the campaign wiki. It doesn’t require anything on my part except determining a suitable price when they ask for a quote.

I also think they don’t mind getting a 9th level cleric, but there are still questions: why haven’t we met them before? Why aren’t they coming on adventures? In fact, why isn’t this a player character?

My game allows players to run multiple characters. In a particular session, players can bring up to three characters. The character with the highest level is the main character, the others act as secondary characters. Experience point gained for killing monsters is split on a per head basis. Treasure—and therefore experience points for gold—is split by shares. Every main character gets a full share, every secondary character gets half a share.

Sometimes, players will grow tired of characters. Sometimes, characters will break bones or loose limbs. These characters are perfect fits for these roles. Majordomos of castles, priests in temples, heads of guilds, captains of ships, regents of towns.

This is how I hope to achieve a greater identification with the setting. Over time, more and more important folks will be former player characters. It’s also ideal for a new campaign. At first, no high level priests exist. As soon as the first player character cleric reaches 9th level, however, raise dead is an option for all the player characters in the region—even if they’re playing in a different group! And raise dead will remain an option even if the player running the character abandons them or if the player leaves my table. The character has been established, backstory included.

My players also love their units. This is not a problem. We can keep the champion levels introduced by An Echo Resounding. The chapter introducing champion levels is Open Game Content. I’d go further than that, though. We could get rid of all the resource points and simply say that all other need to be equipped and hired.

The party could build an armory, buy equipment for four hundred heavy infantry (swords, chain and shield is 60 gold per person based on prices in Moldvay’s Basic D&D or 24000 gold total + 3000 gold for the armory itself based on my list of buildings above). Then, if the town is big enough to supply enough able bodied fighters, four units of heavy infantry militia will automatically be available whenever the town is attacked.

Hiring mercenaries will require less money. Human heavy foot guards in peace time will cost three gold per month (1200 gold per month for four units), twice as much in war time (2400 gold per month for four units).

I don’t think I need to use the War Machine rules introduced in the Rules Cyclopedia. I can keep using the unit combat rules in An Echo Resounding, the B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker, or the M20 Mass Combat Rules by Greywulf. I’m not sure what my favorite mass combat rules are, for the moment. I’m tending towards keeping the rules from An Echo Resounding because rolling for attack and damage is easy to remember. There is no scale factor and there is no /Unit Attack Matrix/. That makes it easier to understand.

What about the abilities your champion gets that aren’t tied to units? Sticky Fingers gives you +4 Wealth value. I don’t want to think about domain income, upkeep, taxes or tolls. When Chris Kutalik started rethinking domain-level play in his campaign, he suggested the use of domain skills and a skill check to go along with it. I don’t want to introduce skill checks and I don’t want minor and major skills in my game, however. Sticky Fingers does sound like a skill, though.

So, that’s where I’m at right now. What about abilities, or aspects?

Based on a recommendation on Google+ I took a look at Houses of the Blooded. There, you have domains consisting of provinces and each province consisting of ten regions. Each region produces something, and based on that you can have armies, goods, trade, and so on. I think it interesting, but I don’t think I’d want my D&D to be about it. Too much detail, it’s not really part of player characters, we wouldn’t want to spend time on it at the table, and so on.

I was also looking at the King Arthur’s Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign. My campaign fell apart because of many reasons, but the lousy winter season where you’re supposed to look after your family, your manor house, your lands, build fortifications and all that—this part of the game just was not exciting enough at the table. And that is a problem. As Chris says in one of his blog posts, there’s always the danger of these systems turning “boardgamey” or “beancounterly.” Or that all the decisions have no consequence after all.

I’m still chewing on this.


Comments on 2015-05-03 Domain Game Goals

Alex Schroeder
On Google+, Andy wondered about moving some of the ‘beancountery’ aspects of domain play from the table to the downtime between session, to email, to G+ or to the referee playing ‘solitaire’. This is a good question. How much indeed? What I can say is that there is very little interaction between me and my players between sessions. Everything needs to happen at the table. Between sessions, people focus on work, family life, other hobbies, etc. In our Pendragon campaign, that meant running the winter phase at the table. This lead to some frustration. The winter phase was not seen as part of the game. It was something that happened before or after the game. It took away from the game itself. In our An Echoes Resounding campaign, that meant me rolling all the dice and writing up all the results between sessions and players making two domain turns every four sessions, and most of them wanting to do the right thing but having no idea of the options open to them and a winter phase effect if we talked about it for too long. In the end I feel it means a lot of work for me for very little gain at the table and for the players. I can only speak for myself, of course. As far as I am concerned, I don’t enjoy playing a solitaire domain game. That’s why I need a different solution.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-05-04 07:47 UTC

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2014-08-27 Treasure

Johnn Four asked on Google+: “I haven’t run a treasure-based XP game in a long, long time. I have also never designed one. What’s the general process for planning out a treasure-based adventure?”

I said that I find the key to be the following:

  1. distribute treasure and threats such that they correlate roughly; an occasional outlier is great, though: a dragon and no treasure, some lizard men with an incredible fortune, it’s the stuff players talk about; also variable ratio schedule for reinforcement makes players want to come back!
  2. have enough threats for the players to go on and on at their chosen risk level
  3. have enough pointers to more risky and more rewarding stuff (temptation!)

Thus, if players are level 5 and want to keep fighting goblins, they will practically not gain a level anymore. If they want to level up, it’s time to face those trolls or rob that castle…

It’s harder to design the minimum number of rooms per levels for a megadungeon and the mean treasure parcels you want per level. You can do that, sure. I hate this kind of work. That’s why I just design open ended dungeon (if at all): if you explore further, I’ll add further! (Between sessions)


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2014-08-21 No Dice

8Weighing the odds
9Take no risks
10Work together

My attempt at adding words to the venerable
reaction roll table.

I’ve been noticing of late that my campaign has moved into fewer dice territory and I don’t know whether I should be happy about it. Today we had another session full of investigating and talking to humanoids, with maybe three or four reaction rolls. The party has main characters in the 5–9 level range, the party size somewhere between 15 and 20 characters. We used to avoid fights due to scouting, asking around, sneaking. These days we split the opposition, win some over, craft deals, build alliances and fight the rest when there is no more talking left to do. Also, my players have avoided megadungeons. Dungeon adventures are rare.

One player said at the beginning of the session that he wanted to go look for treasure. Then they all started talking about the closest crisis and how to resolve it peacefully and I interjected: “Well, one thing’s for sure – there isn’t any obvious ways to find treasure, here! Specially not by making peace.” They all nodded and continued their plotting. And at the end of the day, no treasure, no experience points. I don’t think anybody minded and next session it will all be about stone giants…

So, what now? Is it all good? Once players reach the mid levels of seven or eight, gaining levels is hard, and therefore it doesn’t really matter if you gain experience points—leveling up will take forever no matter what?

I’m leery of giving experience points for other things because it gets closer to “get experience points for sitting at the table”. I like the game aspect: If you want experience points, you need to do this. You (the players) need to find ways to do this, even though I (the referee) will distract you with other problems.

On top of it all I like the quandary of doing good and working for peace not increasing your power and influence. How good is the doing of good deeds if there’s great reward that comes with it? Straying into philosophy and ethics, I know. Having no immediate rewards gives meaning to sacrifice and pain. If in-game altruism is out-of-game selfishness, then it won’t work for me.

I think I’ll uphold the rule that gold pieces spent result in experience points gained. Let there be temptation for evil deeds: At this level, attacking neighboring domains and loot palaces is the surest way to power. This might require the defeating of armies but it can also be achieved by sneaky means. There’s also a heroic variant, picking fights with beholders and giants, looting their lairs. This is fraught with more danger on a personal level. Let there be save or die situations, level drain and other catastrophic consequences.

Also note Courtney Campbell’s post, On Advancement Mechanics, Experience. There, he notes: “Basically this results in role-playing and planning heavy sessions with a large player buy-in and strong reinforcement for creative and intelligent play.” (in Driving Player Behavior – Old School)

Even though I provide experience points for gold, Courtney later writes: “[…] but without an objective metric, it has moved too far away from ‘game’ for me and too close to ‘unstructured play’.” (in But what about my Character exploration role-playing feel-goodery?!) Strangely, my game still seems to be heading in this direction. All I have at the moment is the reaction roll. Courtney, on the other hand, has a $13 PDF, On the Non Player Character (also lots of posts on his blog). Back when it was released, I read a longer review by Brendan S. and decided that I was probably not going to need it and so I didn’t buy the book. Now I’m no longer sure.

After all, the reaction roll is Why B/X Is My Favorite #10, says P. Armstrong. More in Reaction Rolls - My favorite sub-system.

Back in March, I wrote on Google+:

The last session of my campaign was all about preparing for a party of high elves and trying to identify one dude and getting him to join the cause of the party, or kill him, or make a third party take care of him using some blackmailing (which is how it turned out). Three hours and all we rolled was reaction rolls! Everybody cheered when we discovered that the new player who had brought a 1st level cleric to the table had also rolled an 18 for Charisma. 😊

I guess that unless I start thinking about the kind of adventure hooks I provide in my sandbox, this kind of player diplomacy—sessions dominated by talking and the occasional reaction roll—will become more prevalent. Do I want to add Courtney’s minigame or do I want to engineer adventures that lead back to fighting?

Just recently, I looked over my reaction roll table and started thinking about adding some more words to help me improvise better. Add more words. More suggestive words. I also wondered whether I could turn it into a series of Moves, much like my thoughts on research and chases. Hm.

Feel free to comment here or on Google+.

A commenter pointed me to this blog post: The relative roles of conflict and violence (Fictive Fantasies).


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2014-07-28 Best of Sandbox Posts

Recently, Yora asked for Sandbox logs. Those are tricky to provide. After all, if you’re looking for advice on how to run a game, the session report is filled with useless in-game stuff that nobody but the players will read (if at all).

What I’ve done instead is collect blog posts where I think I have some advice backed up by anecdotes from my game.


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2014-04-28 The Village

OK, time to give my entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest 2014 a spin!

The entry grew out of my Recovering from a lame session blog post. You can get the SVG sources from my GitHub account. I’ve used the Noticia Text font by JM Solé (downloaded it from Google Fonts – click Add "Noticia Text" to your collection, then click the ⬇ down arrow, and choose to download the zip file). I’ve used Jez Gordon’s DungeonFu to create the three little maps.

Right, got my 3d6 and I’m ready to roll.

Inn: Delikatessen. Remember the movie? Clearly something fishy is going on in this red-orange inn. Rumors of cannibalism, I say!

Name: Gorknok. Sounds like an orc to me. Too obvious? A redcap disguised as a gnome. He calls himself “Gorki”, of course.

The faction leaders, traits, goals:

  1. Spider Ali, a magic user, careful, has escape planned, defend HQ
  2. Silent Sereina, a cleric, funny, friendly (join her faction?), return my book
  3. Patra the Good, a fighter, well educated (might help us later?), defend HQ

Looks like an all female cast to me, and all the positive traits. Androgynous Ali in her spider webs, white Sereine, lost in thought, and Patra the Good, the good … fighter? I’m thinking a strong, bulky woman. No nonsense. Thinking of the magic item with the Set connection, I’m going to say Sereina is a protegé of Set, maybe the campaign can find inspiration from the Legend of the White Snake? I guess Sereina is in love with a man that is currently imprisoned somewhere. A potential lead for where the campaign might go: “My husband has left to study a the Seven Harmonies monastery and not returned…”

The goals are weird. I guess Silent Sereina is the active one. She really wants back her book. I guess the two others are on the defensive. The first scene should be agents of Set attacking minions of Spider Ali, at Delikatessen, where the party is meeting up.

Who else is there? Rolling for a conspicuous person… Ælvig, a singing huldra looking for a man (HD 3). Another woman! She has a fox tail, but hides it. Of course the party members will spot it. Mentioning it, however, is a grave insult. Remember that a huldra is somehow hollow inside and lined with bark, open at the back. It’s weird, and terrible. If any of the players is interested in the weirdness of faerie love and faerie courtship, this would be an opportunity.

Let’s look at the magic items. I get:

  1. elven sword
  2. bane cards
  3. ring of djinn mastery

Clearly, the book is not amongst the magic items! How about the The Investigation into the True Names and Habits of the Lords of Air. The person with the ring of djinn mastery – Ali — borrowed the book because it was necessary to learn more about the ring. A close encounter with a djinn resulted in great damage to the book. Spider Ali thinks its disgraceful to return this book and sent ample gold instead. Sereina feels there is more to this and decides to up the ante. So, Spider Ali has the ring.

Patra the fighter owns the elven sword and realizes that it might grant access to elven lands. But this would require some elves. Make a not for later. If one of the players is interested in elves, the campaign could go there. We need some elves nearby! The elves of Red Acorn forest are at war with pig men. Will you join them, hoping to win their favor?

That leaves the bane cards. They are in the hands of the redcap Gorki. Should the players spend too much time at the inn, the redcap will use the cards on one of the characters when they’re alone and kill them, and prepare a cannibal feast for any who would join him. Uncovering these shape shifting recap is going to be a side quest.

I guess we’re done? Get a monster book and write down some stats? As for maps, I’m not going to use the tower twice.

Spider Ali keeps tamed war spiders instead of animated objects in her tower. Let’s say he has has the spell charm spider instead of charm object. The spiders’ poison is not lethal. It paralyzes victims for an hour. Oh, and give Ali a web spell instead of read thoughts.

Silent Sereina is running a little temple and has ten followers and two acolytes (C1) with light spells they’ll use to blind foes. Patra the Good has taken up residence in an old bakery and running a little protection racket in order to finance her visit to the Red Acorn forest. You’ll have to bring gifts for the elven lords, right?

The thing took me a bit less than an hour. What do you think? A useful tool? Not efficient enough? It’s probably faster if you don’t spend time googling for images and writing it up as a blog post. 😏


Comments on 2014-04-28 The Village

Paul Gorman
I’m getting a 404 on the Download PDF link.

Paul Gorman 2014-12-14 16:47 UTC

Whoops! Fixed. Thanks for the heads up.

AlexSchroeder 2014-12-14 19:40 UTC

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2014-04-27 Recovering from a lame session

I recently read a Google+ post by Dallas M where he says that his game didn’t go well. He suspects too many beers and considers nuking the game. Here’s what I said:

It happens. I’m not sure what the exact fail moment was, so I’m just going to assume “players didn’t know where to go and had no ideas so they got drunk and picked on each other and nothing interesting happened”. I’m also assuming low level characters in a typical starting village in a frontier region. My basic advice is “send ninjas” except I’m going to be more specific than that. 😃

In order to get the campaign back on track, I’d prepare three mini-adventures consisting each of an interesting NPC boss, something they want (an item, a service, protection), and their minions. Basically one of these groups is going to attack the players, another group will seek the help of players, the other is there as you backup if one or the other needs help, or an additional complication. Trying to put the pressure on players, force them to pick allies and enemies, run it, and after the session you can build on that: add allies in need of help, enemy organizations grow, NPCs hide in strongholds (small dungeons).

Three sections for your notebook or for an index card each:


Make sure you use a reaction roll to determine how these NPCs react to players and surprise yourself as well as your players with unexpected results.

Random list of wants:

  1. his or her son’s engagement ring, which he lost in a rigged bet
  2. a overdue book borrowed from her personal library
  3. an apology by another NPC for what they said yesterday at the Roaring Boar
  4. proof of cooperation of another NPC with a newly arrived monster tribe in the region
  5. protection from the minions of another NPC looking to steal a supposed treasure map
  6. the return of a son or daughter that has run off with the thieving gang run by another NPC

Minions need to be prepared. Start with one or two dozen minions. Thieves, kobolds, lobster men, hooligans (fighters without armor), mercenaries (fighters with armor). Split these up into groups of random size. Some will be easy to overpower, some the party will have to avoid, outsmart, split up, and so on. Being able to recognize bad odds and being able to do something about it allows players to use strategy, to decide when to pick fights. When in a fight, make sure you use morale checks in order to provide your players with surrenders, traitors, opportunities to show mercy or cruelty.

Locations need to be prepared. Start with very small maps. This is where you should have treasure, tricks, traps, and the NPC. Make sure you use reaction rolls if the party decides to parley in order to surprise yourself and your players!

At first, the sandbox elements happens between sessions. Players only get to choose between three groups that are actively engaging with the players. Player reactions determine where the sandbox will grow between sessions. We just need to make sure is that players always have a handful of things to do, always a choice to make.

Time passes and I decided to try and make it into an entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest 2014! You can get the SVG sources from my GitHub account or download the PDF. I’ve used the Noticia Text font by JM Solé (downloaded it from Google Fonts – click Add "Noticia Text" to your collection, then click the ⬇ down arrow, and choose to download the zip file). I’ve used Jez Gordon’s DungeonFu to create the three little maps.


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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.

Update: On Normalizing the Fantastic is similar.


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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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