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.