Friday, October 9, 2015

Building Dynamic RPG Sandboxes Part 1

[Part Two can be found here.]

Tabletop rpgs lord over other gaming forms in several key areas. One major area is in the ability to provide robustly reactive campaign worlds that can take players and GM alike into totally unexpected places.

I have my shortcomings as a GM (pacing in online sessions for one) but over the years that the Hill Cantons has been active I've worked like hell to make the campaign feel alive and ever changing—to make all the whirly bits whirl. I've tried to extend that dynamic feel to the published mini-sandboxes of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. (The upcoming Misty Isles of the Eld has several, some that radically transform the region through player's actions.)

Often providing dynamism is just a matter of thinking through after a session ends how the various pieces of your sandbox (the machinations/reactions of NPCs high and low, what an in-game activity like a massive treasure haul did to change a base settlement, etc) are organically pushed and pulled by players (and other actors), but it helps immensely to develop a range of tools and habits to give it depth and consistent motion. Here are a few of my own tricks of the trade (cut into two parts for length).
Campaign News Cycle. I've written about this before in depth, but an important glue in the Hill Cantons campaign is the weekly news.

Regular news updates serve a triple function: 1. they force you as a GM to have think about the moving parts of your world on a regular basis, 2. it provides players frequent active choices in interacting with these moving parts, and 3. they create the illusion (and to some degree the reality) that your campaign world is a real, living place.

Dynamic Encounter Tables. This is a new piece for me. While I am generally pretty good at developing unique encounter tables (it's an easy and eminently practical shortcut in providing an interesting feel to an area) they have been mostly static.

I've started making them more dynamic in two ways:
1. Adding a variable New Developments slot that is basically a place holder for a special encounter tied to either a recent news event or an action that the party takes. A concrete example is that there has been a recent invasion by horse-nomads (kozaks) just to the north. If that slot is hit on the chart the party will hit something that has to do with event, maybe it's a patrol by the local militia, foraging stragglers from the horde, deserters etc.

2. I have been using encounter pools for total numbers of certain creatures (especially important in the colony-building Feral Shore campaign phase). Kill 30 Grotmen total over the next month? Well their local population is exhausted and something else will fill that niche. It's a pain to track so I do limit this to certain factions or types of monsters. It plays out at the table well, often giving me ideas for what's happening when new creatures step in.

Sample chart:
Upper North Mythic Woods Encounters
1-2  Personality
3-4  Creature
5  Mishaps and Magic
6  New Development

  1. 1d6 War Bears pilgrims
  2. 1d3 Revocan Honeyback Bears
  3. 1d4 Infested Boars
  4. 1d10 Reverse Centaurs (20 total)
  5. 2d4 Dirt-Gnome Mushroom Hunters (30 total)
  6. 1d4 Lost Village Children
In the next part I will chatter on about using a Chaos Index (or other overarching dynamic model), Encounter/Event Notebooks, Faction Dynamics and more. (Quite a bit more is written about sandbox mechanics here.)

Undoubtedly many of you sandbox vet GMs out there have a host of your own, feel free to lay them on in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Sandbox Media.

    I have a script that sandboxes the storyline...comedy. Been working on a sandbox media theory since 1994.