Friday, May 21, 2010

Sandbox Pinch Points

Heh, pretty jargony title. I'm not sure who came up with the idea of pinch points, was it Mythmere? But the idea is that a dungeon design can have places that must be passed through to reach other regions of the dungeon. The simplest example would be exploring a whole dungeon level and finally finding a set of stairs going down. A pinch point is interesting to me not so much because it can help break a large underworld into navigable chunks as it emphasizes that exciting feeling among explorers: "Aha, we've found something new!"

I think the same thing might be applied to the wilderness. Not in the video gamey sense of every valley is like a box canyon with one narrow access to the next, but in the way real world geography often constrains travel.

For example, in a recent post I mentioned liking the idea of starting a campaign in a coastal port city allowing access to distant lands. But after further reflection I think that might be nice to encounter after starting in some backwater valley. Reaching the port city would be a pinch point; a whole new world awaits on the other side.

Here are some ideas for other pinch points:
  • the classic mountain pass, really one of the few features that gets used this way
  • a cliffside road- I'm thinking of California's Pacific Coast Highway, but more sheer and dangerous to traverse
  • magical gates- stone circles, pools, and doorways
  • bridges, especially rotting rope bridges across deep ravines
  • river fords
  • ice bridges
  • desert oasis that must be found in order to make it across a large desert
  • mountain tunnel
  • rivers themselves; making it to one could be like finding an expressway to the unknown
  • trade routes and city that are trade hubs
  • valleys
  • island chains- close enough to travel one to another to another
In writing this I'm thinking some of these are less pinch points than travel paths. Maybe that's worth thinking about; how the way you lay out rivers, valleys, and trade roads may very well let you predict which direction a party will tend to take as the begin exploring a sandbox.


  1. I'm not too confortable with the thought of an entire region being accessed only if passing through a pinch point... Yes, some natural "choke points" do exist--and they are valuable to the armies defending the area--but I wouldn't include too many of them.

    Anyway, the rope bridge over a chasm and the high pass are two good options that I usually include on my maps. In fact, the rope bridge was crossed last game session.

  2. I imagine if players notice it you've done too much, the wilderness should feel wide open. But I think it could be neat to have some spots where the players crest a mountain pass and the vista let's them know they have a lot of new options open. Thanks.

  3. I like the use of "pinch" point here.

    I've been worrying about being hated when/if I have some kobolds entrap the players in a large cavern by causing a ceiling collapse. The only egress is across a lake and into a megadungeon. I keep seeing that part of my map (which is a definite choke point) and thinking of how my players are going to literally choke me for it. It doesn't have to be that way, but it will require them to be very diligent in their dealings with the little buggers.

    These things definitely have other uses though. I've been visualizing my little Dordogne valley as shut off from the larger world with pinch points of entrance/exit in order to help justify a great many things - the absence of more trade, other races, and the reason for its low population and density for example.

  4. Not all pinch points need be geographic.

    Magic portals/teleports/ancient's mass transit system are all pinch points.

    Dragons' lair, hostile kingdom, and other threats well beyond players levels will be avoided. And could be arranged to be pinch points. With the bonus of someday players may manage to eliminate the threat and thus open up the pinch.

    Sea travel is another pinch point in that ports of call are limited and fixed unless players have means to buy and operate your own ship.

    The key with pinch points is that they're optional.
    And there is a risk/reward decision to be made over them. (otherwise they're just a railroad tool) Players can choose a longer, more dangerous, whatever route to reach destination. Or players can decide the danger is too great to risk the pinch point and the rewards on it's far side.