Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Simple Sandbox

I've stumbled upon another exciting and elegant solution to a DMing problem. I found it via The Welsh Piper but a lot of crunch is added there that I'm not sure I'd use. You can certainly check it out. The original idea is from Greywulf. He calls it Six sided gaming: hex magic. I'll call it Simple Sandboxing.

I had a session early on where I asked my players what they planned to do for our next session so I could prepare. One player said something to the effect of "Were obviously going to follow the treasure map, cause there's really nothing else to do." I felt horrible when I heard that. What I wanted to provide was a world where players had options, could go wherever they pleased. But, beacuse of all the work and the many decisions of world building I only provided enough info for that particular session. I don't think I even provided the town they started with a name.

Greywulfs idea might seem obvious at first, to help you as DM prepare for a campaign with as little work as possible. Here's Greywulf's instructions:
"... use a simple blank hex grid. Set the scale small - say, one hex = 3 miles - and put one adventure inside the centre hex. Populate it according to the needs of that adventure, then move on. Work around that one hex adding other adventures, all around roughly the same power level. Think about the kind of adventures you (as GM) enjoy playing, and the feel you want to impart.

By the end of this, you've got seven adventure settings and a solid core for the game world."
Very nice preparation aid. Efficient. Practical. But the exciting thing for me is the reason Greywulf gives for doing this:

"... evolve the world as the game progresses."

Of course! The most elegant ideas seem obvious once you encounter them. And this isn't too different from the idea of random world building, where you let the dice determine ahead of play what is in the world. But it is different enough to really deserve notice.

I am absolutely comfortable now letting story emerge from play. In fact, in the session we will be playing today the object the players seek might be in one of four roughly equivalent places in a tomb complex (I'll roll as when they search each to determine if it was in that room). I did this so I wouldn't subconsciously try to channel the characters a certain way with my dungeon design. Or have expectations of what they should do. I also thought it might force me to think more about what might happen if players went any of the possible four paths, were some more perilous than others etc.

I'm confident that their explorations will feel natural to them and a sense of story will emerge from the adventure. But with my gameworld I feel a paralyzing desire to know everything in advance of play: what was the ancient world history that might result in tombs and treasures, what are all the world religions, what is the current political setup, what does this whole continent look like, etc. etc. Why can't I let these details emerge in exactly the same way? In actuality, because I was unable to make the hard decisions and perform the labor intensive worldbuilding I wanted to I, in effect, am following Greywulf's philosophy: I added an ancient culture (Similar to the Mauryan Empire) to account for the latest tomb, a treasure map found in said tomb indicates there are apparently more of said tombs along this coast, oh yes, I made it a coast so I might use my previous one-page dungeon the Coastal caves, etc. So by necessity my world is already emerging.

The difference between my haphazard emerging and Greywulf's idea is one of elegance and purpose. If I can come up with ~6 adventure hooks/hints that surround the starting adventure area than I can plan a little more how those things affect each other/work together, but, more importantly, I can offer players a variety of options they can choose from, to follow their own interest and let them drive the emergence of the world around them.

For example, I have them on a coast, if I make sea travel an option with an island hook, they may take to that route with zest and have an entirely nautical campaign and that would be cool.

So, thanks to Greywulf for this. I'd really like to think and write a little more about the implications of this idea, but have to go now to finish preparation for today's session.


  1. Very nice. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this approach, as well as how it works out for you in practical application.

    With Regards,

  2. Thanks, for the comment. The funny thing is I'm already feeling resistant to this method. Old habits are hard to change. I'll post more on it soon.