Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sandbox Happening Escalation

On the Year of the Dungeon a small dungeon was posted with a rumor/encounter escalation chart for a curse, depending on whether the player characters get involved with stopping that curse or not. I thought it was a brilliant idea. And I thought you might abstract out a more general escalation pattern for use with any sandbox happenings. (I use the word "happenings" because "event" sounds like discreet and limited things but these are on-going in the background as pcs merrily explore caverns and tombs).

So here is an abstract way to think about and maybe keep track of these happenings in 5 stages:
  1. Rumors
  2. First-hand Tale
  3. Personal Experience
  4. Witness a Mass Event
  5. Unavoidable Consequences / Civilization Interrupted

Rumors are clear. Stage 2 has pcs encounter a person who has witnessed the happening themselves and can give an eye-witness account. A stage 3 things are becoming so common that the pcs are the ones to witness something. Stage for the pcs witness something again, but now it is bigger and more dire. By stage 5 even if the players have avoided interacting with this event for session after session they can't now, merchant, towns, trade, lodgings, even camping safely in the woods will be affected.

When do stages escalate? I say that's up to you as DM. The simplest of course would be to kick it up a notch each session of play. But you could make some happenings build slowly to a boil over the course of a year of real gameplay too.

I don't think every happening would have to end at stage 5; if every happening has unavoidable consequences, eventually the players will realize this and say “Ah, screw it, we've got to go deal with this war.” Happenings could resolve themselves, or be resolved by other parties. Or in an evil campaign a happening may never escalate past a certain level unless players push it gleefully along.

Now, I don't have any experience running a sandbox, so if this is all old hat forgive me. Here are some ideas off the top of my head of things that might happen in the background:

Possible Dire Happenings

Seems pretty straightforward even if players never get involved in actual fighting they'll experience raids, looting, and the wreckage of places armies have been..

Check out the Vaults of Nagoh's memestorms and ideocults for great ideas regarding this category. I think the idea of the Dance of Death is really archetypal of the dark ages too.

While many disasters are eye-blink fast, I think a few would work well with escalation: the earth has been rumbling for weeks, faults have been opening up underneath people, before the big quake hits. Or, the mountain has been smoking, someone saw some lava streaming down the opposite face, before the huge eruption. Or maybe, for some reason, it . . . just . . . won't . . . stop . . . raining.

I sort of like the idea of deciding ahead of time that the player characters will be immune to whatever pestilence is spreading, and having them deal with the envious npcs and any guilty feelings they might have that they are unscathed.

Great Beast
My first thought was dragon, but this could work for a Giant or a Vampire and his followers, anything that can progressively become more of a problem.

Not-So-Dire World Events

Not everything that happens in the world is potentially world-ending, maybe there is just a fad of people wearing Red-checked hose. So, what might happen that would be interesting/important enough to notice but not so dire?
  • Memestorms/Ideocults could fit here too
  • Religion on the Rise (the cult of the Red-Checked Hose)
  • Cultures Mixing (An Influx of Dwarves)
  • Guild Strife
  • Newly Chartered City
  • Trade Shortage
  • Noble Intrigues
Of course you could have multiple happenings . . . um, happening at once but with staggered start times. Players may have just seen a group of plague-ridden peasants when they hear the first rumors of war.

What background happenings have you had going on in your sandbox?


  1. Recently a player summoned a demon to do something for them--the demon did it and disappeared.

    I'm interpreting the appearance of the demon in the game as an in-game "happening". It's not just a bundle of stats--it's a demon "of" something--it has a philosophy.

    So now one of the ongoing events is this demon running around sowing discord in various ways.

  2. Thanks.

    @Zak: That's great, a whole new category opens up-- happenings triggered by player actions. All the ways their choices may change the world in ways they don't expect.

  3. Make the players immune to plague, but don't hint that they are. Have them roll CON checks every now and then and pick up minor symptoms that could be average illness or plague and watch the paranoia blossom.