Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Beginner Sandbox

Where is it?  By beginner sandbox I mean a small setting set up to help a DM run 1st level adventurers through a wilderness.  A place to locate various lower level dungeons and let players make choices about where they want to go.

It seems the closest we've ever had to this was B2 the Keep on the Borderlands.  This gives a pretty clear run down on a home base where players can buy supplies and rest and heal safely.  It provides one major pocket of adventure and several small encounters scattered through the wilderness.

I know people have said they used T1 The Village of Hommlet as a home base.  That does a good job of fleshing out some npcs and buildings in the town but doesn't even have an overland map to get to the local adventure area.

There are Sample Dungeons
It may be that this was never provided because the assumption is that every DM would create their own and it wasn't needed.  But this isn't the assumption made for dungeons, which I consider the much easier problem to crack. 

Starting with the original D&D you get examples of what a dungeon looks like.  You get an even more fleshed out one in Holmes and a smaller but still helpful one in Moldvay basic.  Module B1 is actually set up to help a DM learn to stock a dungeon.

It seems that the place to look for a similar helpful approach to wilderness adventuring would be the Marsh and Cook Expert book.  And we are given a map with 6 mile hexes and an example gnome lair.  But that's it.  I'm not even sure where the map maker is assuming characters would start, Specularum?  The information given seems more appropriate to a geography text book than an adventure setting.

Wilderness as Gazeteer
I've never owned the Forgotten Realms (I've seen its map and have played in the Realms under other DMs) but I did own the World of Greyhawk boxed set.  I remember reading that set so closely and puzzling about what I was supposed to do with the information on how many thousands of demi-humans lived in different areas.  Was it about army formation?  Was this necessary if players get into the endgame and have to raise an army of gnomes?

This is the same approach the Expert sample world takes; some of the most prominent information is how many thousands of troops the Duke can raise.

What these products seem to want to do is give you a whole fantasy continent complete with history and the current political situation.  These seem to be trying to fashion their own Middle Earth, more than setting up a place you can run your players through.  Because you are being given a whole world, the information is presented as a gazeteer. 

As I said, I don't own Forgotten Realms so maybe I'm mistaken about it.  Does it give a starting area?  Does it give any guidance on where you might start play?  Another product that might be relevant is the Wilderness of High Fantasy.  It's one of the few roleplaying standards I'd never heard of until joining the OSR.  But the way it is talked about it sounds to be set up in a similar way.   Does it give a starting area?  Does it give any guidance on where you might start play?

I suppose one thing these products might be trying to do is allow DMs to set up a starting point for a campaign in many different areas.  Allowing choice and possibilities.  But I kind of doubt that's what's going on.  It's like these kinds of setting products are based on the assumption that by the time you need a setting map the players will be high enough level that they'll be interacting with armies and whole populations-- that up until that point various dungeons are enough.

Wilderness as Infinite Hexes
Another way of dealing with wilderness, possibly the result of how little use you get from the gazeteer-style continent overview, is to treat each hex as a dungeon room.  Each hex has one thing in it and I assume the idea is the party will encounter that thing no matter how many square miles the hex is.  What is in the hexes seems to be just a more detailed encounter.

Coming up with encounters is not difficult for me.

I remember early on in my blogging career someone on the Swords & Wizardry forums saying that they treated the wilderness like a big-ceilinged dungeon.  Which is the clearest surrender on trying to make wilderness play work I've ever heard.

What Would a Beginner Sandbox Look Like?
You might be thinking, well, what is it you actually want Telecanter?  I've done a few posts about this.  How about a sandbox:
Have I missed something?  Does a product exist that does some of these things? Were you also puzzled by the gazeteer type set up that was the default for TSR settings?  How do you solve this problem?  Do you create a new sandbox every time, or do you have a got to product like B2 that you always use when starting new parties?


  1. Yes, products like the gazeteers become overload for me and ultimately useless. Maybe I can steal a tidbit here and there from them at the most. I like a focal point for my sandboxes that's expandable. Maybe a map with a few key points and brief descriptions. Anything more actually seems to interfere with the flow of the game for me.

    I believe products like the gazeteers exhist because people long to understand the whole story behind the world that it's seeking to replicate, instead of letting the surroundings unfold. But frankly, If I want that much detail, I'll read a novel.

    Practically, I start my sandboxes in a setting that will become 1-6 hexes on a larger map. As the party travels, I end up expanding the map. I may have a rough idea of some things I want to include and some story hooks, but I don't detail a continent right off the back.

  2. Reading this reminded me that the group I first played with used the original 'City State Of The Invincible Overlord' as home-base. It seemed to be set up to be the starting point for PCs exploring the Wilderlands setting... but AFAIK our referee had us on his homebrew turf once we stepped outside those walls.

  3. Personally, I'd love to see a product aimed at beginner DMs that walks them through the creative process of setting up their own campaign world. Rather than giving DMs an already fleshed out world, it would show them step-by-step how to create their own dungeons and flesh out the surrounding world. Not only would it walk them through this process but it it would also be full of advice for the fledgling DM on running the game.

    1. I'm actually pitching a book like this for the newly released RuneQuest 6th Edition, if I can ever get Real Life to settle down long enough to write up the proposal.

      It's a little bit checklist (here are the things you must decide before you even start play) and a little bit guidebook to how to make reasonable, interesting choices in that process.


    1. in case you dont believe me...


  5. doesn't raggi's 'weird new world' aim at this a little? if memory serves it's literally presented as a sample sandbox for beginner dms.

  6. Thanks for the comments everybody. I think I muddled up in my post and my mind whether I was talking about a sandbox good for low level parties starting out and DMs learning to use a sandbox. I think I mean both and just that I don't understand what the gazetteer style products are for. They seem to be solving some problem I'm unaware of. Maybe that's my inexperience though.

    @shlominus: Thanks a bunch, I'll check it out. I'd read that post and then forgotten about it.

    @anon: I'll take a look at X1, but I thought the point of that was more "we're mid-level now and have enough treasure to buy a boat so let's go somewhere exotic."

    @Wally: I haven't seen that one.

    On a positive note, I saw part of Points of Light and was impressed. It goes farther than anything I've seen towards what I'm looking for. Well, the Southland bit I saw was more aimed at higher level play but Rob Conley was at least aware of the distinctions involved. There is supposed to be a Wildlands for low level play. I'll probably buy it and check that out.

    1. You may being thinking of Rob Conley's Blackmarsh. It just might be what you're looking for and there's a free pdf on RPGnow. It's a nice resource.

  7. The first Forgotten Realms boxed set (grey box) did suggest areas for low-level play/starting campaigns, specifically the Dalelands and Waterdeep.

    I've not had the chance to put it into use, but I do think of the wilderness as a series of "rooms". I don't think this "surrender" either. It's a concept, not a straitjacket. The Webbed Forest obviously prioritizes arachnids. There are lower-level encounters at the forest fringes, and tougher encounters further in. You can mix it up, if you like, but it helps give some logic and organization, at least to start from.

  8. That could help to conceptualize certain outdoor locations. And that's cool. I'm looking for something to help me make the imagined plains, and rolling hills feel different, though. It's hard I know. I guess showing pictures is probably the best we can do.

    1. It seems to me that making the kinds of things you find in plains different from the kinds of things you find in rolling hills is probably the best approach.

      Showing pictures does not seem like a good solution to me because it limits your imagination. It's like only having minis of wizards with red capes.

    2. Also, the thing that makes wilderness "rooms" inherently different from dungeon rooms is the much greater degree of choice regarding exits and movement. In a simple hex-room wilderness, every room has six exits. Wilderness rooms also probably have more "hidden" objects (abstract searching in the wilderness can work just like in the dungeon, adjusted for time scale; 1 in 6 chance of finding something "hidden" per day, with the standard random encounter tax for time spent).