Tag Archives: Sandbox

Cheating at Politics

I wrote something earlier about finding the personality of place and some bullet points on things to think about and I kind of hide a link to the wikipedia page about the outline of culture which if you go there and are interested in the topic I swear to the gods above that you could spend an entire day that and melt your brain.

Towards the end of that post though I started to talk about regional things and how does region one interact with region two?  How does region three throw into the mix and things just escalate from there.  Dare I say, like the real world?  And that is what I think about.

There are two points here though on this coin(like that analogy?)

One side being that this shit has happened the entire history of the world.  Politics.  Humans interacting with humans.  To a lesser degree and still interesting enough, animals interacting with animals if you want to get to the base of it.  What kind of world are you trying to build?  What time frame are you in?  I read(listened to the audiobook) of The Earth is Weeping which is a (good btw) book about the American Indian wars and what transpired.  I think about that more now than I used to.  I also correlate it to how it could apply to setting up a world and to that matter, any chunk of history.  Roman era, mid evil France, Vikings, Russians, China, Japan.  Those seem to my white ass some of the big bold cultures but you take googler maps and you zoom into a 200 mile section of anywhere on this planet and you have something that has happened there in the past.  Want to be a smart ass about it and zoom into the ocean?  Shits happened there to man, we just don’t know it and it may be harder to apply with our dry land brains but fish interact with each other on their own level, which leads into the next bit.

The flip side of using this kind of “cheating” to help build yourself a political system in your world is that its being based off of real world systems.  Our worlds systems.  Boring ass old one sun, one moon, no magic, working for the man, day to day grind of this world.  There is no fantasy here.  Nothin’.  We don’t even get two moons.  I wouldn’t want two suns, that is ridiculous, it would get to hot.  Two moons would be cool.  Give me something man, come on!!!  We have nothing though.  In my opinion the closest things we have to magic is science.  Not technology, that is science applied.  Science.  Its like a magic we can’t harness.  No one can make an element appear from their hands.  We can’t summon earth, water or fire.  We can do alchemy though.  We can mix things together which is where we started.

Thing is though we don’t have fantasy in this real world and that is the part of you that you need to develop.  You can get ideas from places(like I have, movies, games, books, etc) and you can steal those ideas(like I have) or you can use the term borrow if you’d like.  People like to use inspired by.  Potato patatoe.  Whatever.  Its up to you to stretch that muscle, to think outside of reality, to escape this realm and go there.  Thats the best part to me about this whole thing man.  Floating castles?  Fuck yeah, I’m down.  Mechanics?  Fuck that, no.  I don’t roll dice in real life to see if my car starts or how my day at work was.  Thats not how it works(rant over, I really don’t like heavy mechanical systems).

I mean you have the tropes;

Its up to you to use your imagination though because you can build a political system in your world.  You can goto reference things like that in world but it really is up to you to build a fantasy castle that exists only in your mind and you want others to explore.

I’d love to see it and I’d love to hear about it.

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Personality of Place

When someone says the woods, what do you picture?

I think we can all agree on what “the woods” looks like, what it sounds like and what kind of smells can come from it.  I would hope that most of us can do that at least.  I pity anyone that hasn’t spent at least some time in the woods.  You really should, its pretty great.  I digress on my tangent.

Think about it though are the wood in northern Minnesota the same as they are in Louisiana?  Florida?  California? India? Brazil? Africa?

Each and every place has a personality of place, just like everyone in the world has their own personality.  No two things in this are truly alike.  They may appear the same, they may share certain aspects but each person, place and thing in this world is different and different for its own reasons.  That is what is meant by personality of place.  What makes this town different than the others?  What makes this forest or even on a much broader grander scope, region, different from others?

The below is lifted from a PDF here about the Five Themes of Geography and its just some bullet points to think about when thinking about cultures and what makes places unique.


  • Pick an adjective, any adjective
  • Technology level


  • Feuds
  • A Town Divided
  • Sporting Rivals
  • Other battles

Points of interest

  • Buildings
  • Natural features
  • Historical
  • Collections
  • Oddities


  • The Character
  • He used to live here

Legal Limits

  • Ridiculous rules
  • Bureaucracy
  • Guilds
  • Other organizations

The thing I did not mention above was the regional aspects of this and to myself, that is the hard part of world building.  I believe this kind of world building and on a smaller scale, sand boxing, brings in another level of complexity to your world and this kind of building might not be for everyone.

I do believe this might be the kind of level that you want to put your chess pieces out and get them arranged with the faintest idea of whats going on in the region.  Does this region hate that region?  Why?  Ok, you have two regions.  What about the third and the fourth?  What about the island off the coast, what are they doing?  Usurping the second region because they are looking to expand their lands?

I have not built my world yet.  I am just spit balling things here and kind of seeing what sticks to the black board that “the kids these days” don’t have anyone.  When I do think about this though it brings politics into play which is itself its own topic(==============).  This post was about the personality of place.


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Sandbox in a Dungeon

Yet one more sandbox discussion from my pile of notes I have compiled.  This one is a bit more on the contemplative side than a straight forward “heres what you need to do.”

I think what the author below is getting at and what I posted earlier about the sandboxing template and sandboxing is old school is that you can build a sandbox inside a dungeon.  Namely if you use the same ideas as the ones in those articles(name, ambience, history, encounters) and if you have the right kind of dungeon then you can just build those places inside of a dungeon.  Take the drow city of Menzoberranzan, its just a city inside of a cave inside an outer layer of danger.  You have the place, you have the encounters and basically its just all under ground or in a place that doesn’t have open air.  I think some of the biggest thing that people may struggle with here is building it and the transition from in to out.  That’d be going from sandboxing a plot inside the dungeon to outside the dungeon.

Is there a story going on inside the dungeon itself?  Does Menzoberranzan have its own personality of place(==============)?  Do the mobs there interact with each other?  Is there a hierarchy of the mobs there?  Is there an over lord or are they just mindless?

First thing, maybe you just want to have your game as a dungeon crawl?  Sure they can go back to town to sell their loot but the focus is the crawl.  Your dudes are straight forward looters/crawlers be it for the adventure and thrill of feeling alive or be it cleansing the world of a blight, your down in the depths for a reason and it doesn’t have much to do with regional politics.

Secondly, so your party some how becomes aware of a dungeon in the locality.  They can go check it out if they want.  Is there a reason for them to go check it out?  Well you just struck gold because if theres a reason, a hook(==============), then you have what you need because then whatever reason they would have to go check it out(taint needs cleansing… (ED; Think I’ve seen that video?), overlord using it as a base, plain old treasure hord, or good old just lair of a beast) thats the thing you build into the dungeon.  Its like a town but with its own subplot, which is another article altogether.  You have the reason they go there and you have the reason why they would go there.  Its their choice if they do but you’ve already built the system of the why, now you just have to build the system of how do they get there and thats entirely up to you.

The below is the actual posting I had in my notes.  The above is what I personally wrote.

The last session of the Forgotten Realms campaign I play in reminded that, while I love my twice a week, lunch time Greyhawk campaign, there’s a lot to be said for a nice, juicy four hour game session. In particular, long sessions are great for what I think of as Borderlands style adventures, adventures that give the PCs a long list of shallow options.

Melan’s excellent post on megadungeon mapping has been kicking around in my head since I first read it. In particular, his analysis of Keep on the Borderlands stuck in my head for a while. I really like the idea of an adventure that gives you a lot of places to go, even if those specific places are simple and even linear. In particular, I think such a design shines if those simple, straightforward spots have some level of interconnectivity, again, even if the connections are simple. Those could range from the physical (the ogre’s den has a secret door leading to the orc lord’s throne room) to the social (the orcs hate the gnolls and are looking for allies against them).

The appeal, IMO, lies in the raw possibilities of bouncing around the map, delving here, allying there, looting here. I think there’s some element of sandbox gaming at play, but on a smaller, more focused level. Rather than the world as a sandbox, this style of design focuses instead on a single city or adventure site, with the connections I mentioned above a critical part of the design. The adventure is like a pool table cluttered with balls, with the PCs a cue ball careening across the field, knocking some balls into pockets, slamming others into each other. The key is that with every action by the PCs, the “board” changes.

By keeping the individual components simple, it’s much easier to manage the scope of changes and reactions across the entire adventure set up. It’s easy to manage changes within the individual caves in KotB because each one is so simple, basic layouts of rooms wedded to rosters of (mostly) homogenous tribes.

The complexity of this design rests in the relationships and interactions between the individual, simple nodes. In addition, particularly in 4e, you need the flexibility to keep each node at least somewhat challenging for the PCs. Given that the characters gain about 1 level for every 10 encounters, you have to balance the number of nodes in the adventure with the PCs’ level progression. It’d be great to offer the PCs 5 or 6 places to investigate, but you need to limit each node to 3 or 4 encounters to keep those nodes in a 3 level band.

While the Keep on the Borderlands is the best known example of this design style, I think the approach would shine for urban adventures. The connections between locations can cover a broad range of social, political, and military alliances, both including and forming against the PCs.

It’s interesting to me that KotB-style design is relatively rare. Most published adventures rely on a plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, or individual dungeons. A borderlands-style design has the cosmetic flaw of appearing simple, since the individual pieces are simple. The value of the design rests in its emergent properties. It plays, rather than reads, well.

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Sandboxing Template

These would be the things neededed for helping setup a good sandbox to play in.  Whats in your world?

Location Name: This is a few words that are memorable and convey the feeling of the location. These names are for your own personal use and reference. The “official” name of the location as used by NPCs in the game and the PCs may be different, but a quick evocative name will help remind you what you want the location to be.

Ambiance: This section should briefly convey the look and feel of the location. It is meant to be a spark for your descriptions of the area during play.  Even though they’re all forests, “Ancient growth forest peppered with Elven ruins”, “Marshy willow forest” and “Bramble-dense sapling grove” are all distinct.

History: Especially avoid writing a no

vel here. This should just be a few notes on the history of the location to make sparking adventure and sub-location ideas easier. Something like “Once held by elves, fell into ruin. Now a haven for several nasty goblin clans” will work fine.

Encounters: This is not a defined encounter list or wandering monster list. Instead this is just a short list or few sentences about what kinds of encounters the players will find in this location for use when you DO create encounter lists, adventures, and wandering monster tables. “Standard creatures for this environment” is fair game, although most locations should have a little more to go on than that. “Lots of inter-goblin skirmishes”, “Dark Fey dominate this area”, or even “Ol’ One-eye the unique griffin inhabits these woods” are perfect.

Treasures: Most locations are assumed to have standard treasure, but any special treasure considerations should be noted here. Check out previous articles “Seven Ways to Spice up your treasure” and it’s follow up “Seven more ways to spice up your treasure” for examples and inspiration.

Hooks and Hotspots: An optional part of the template, this section is for adventure hooks and “Hotspots” (unique, important or special sub-locations) that aren’t implied by virtue of earlier sections.  If we mentioned that our woods are inhabited by goblins and full of elven ruins, it’s assumed that there are goblin lairs and elven ruins around and that “exterminate the goblins”

or “Explore the ruins” are available hooks, but a good non-implied hook might be finding the goblin hedge mage who can teach the PCs the local goblin dialect and a good hotspot might be the hidden crypt of the elven royal line.

 Here’s a pair of examples:

Name: Fenwood
 A thick forest full of twisted drooping trees, Fenwood’s soil is marshy and fallen leaves conceal many pockets of stagnant water and quicksand.
 Largely avoided for it’s long held reputation for being haunted and dangerous, Fenwood has little in the way of a history.
 Fenwood is home to normal forest and swamp creatures. In addition a tribe of primitive cannibalistic gnomes spy and prey upon visitors. A number of dark fey lovingly tend the sickened trees and rotten bogs and eagerly capture slaves.
 In addition to treasure captured from adventurers, the swamp gnomes craft powerful woven totems and the Dark Fey have many pieces of living sculpture and jewelry with it’s own disturbing beauty.
Hooks and Hotspots:
 The swamp gnomes’ cannibalism and dark fey’s slavery make rescue missions common Fenwood hooks. In the center of the forest, the dark fey hold a Stonehenge-like altar to a Shub-Niggurath-esque deity.

 Name: Ash Flats
 A dreary desert of ash studded with fist-sized irregularly shaped igneous rock and the occasional bit of metal or stoneware debris, the monotony of the ash flats is broken only by the occasional drifting fire mote (small slowly drifting permanent portals to the elemental plane of fire) or dust storm. At night, the ash flats look like a massive swarm of fireflies as motes and elemental vermin criss-cross the landscape.
 The site of a one-grand Elven forest city, a magical accident created dozens of fire motes and burned the city and surrounding forest to the ground.
 No natural creatures can survive in the bleak wasteland of the ash flats, and the drifting motes prevent regrowth of plants. However, vermin from the plane of fire routinely cross through the fire motes and slowly and painfully burn out unless they can return or find fuel. Below the insulating ash, colonies of fire rats burrow retaining heat and returning to the plane of fire through fire motes that drift below ground level.
 Elemental vermin carry no treasure although their burnt out bodies may contain small crude gemstones. The flats themselves however are studded with debris that survived the incineration of the city, weathered items made of metal, stone, or ceramics are common. Large burrows of elemental vermin often horde these.
Hooks and Hotspots: Somewhere beneath the ash lies the ritual circle that sustains the fire motes. Finding and ending this effect will allow the ash flats to recover although dangerous creatures from the plane of fire may notice and interfere.

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