Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Making a Medieval Sandbox Campaign Part I: The Importance of a Party Concept

This is a topic I've been thinking about a lot recently, since I'm working on Feudal Anarchy.  I've run a surprisingly high number of sessions in my fictionalized version of the Languedoc and its accompanying island of Cocanha, and I think I've started to get a handle on what works and what doesn't.  For the purposes of this post, I'm going to focus on what Chris calls a local sandbox, since that's the kind of game that I've been running and the one I'm most likely to run with this system.

One thing that I think is very important is making sure that the group has a sort of "party concept."  This needs to be something that can tie the player characters together and that allows them to either move within feudal society or sets them outside of it.  Examples include a group of closely allied nobles, a company of mercenaries, a family of nobles and the mesnie, a group of roving outlaws, or even the inhabitants of a particular village.

The party in the Cocanha game is primarily composed of a group of knights and mercenaries who operate a keep and a number of small manors in the eastern part of the island.  I've found this to be a remarkably broad concept, since characters that don't otherwise seem to fit are usually explained as members of the mesnie of one of the knightly characters.  I could see other group concepts being similarly broad.  Even something as apparently narrow as the inhabitants of a Cistercian abbey might be broadened by including characters who did any number of things before becoming tonsured, characters who are wards of the abbey, or even inhabitants of a nearby village or manor belonging to the abbot.

The reason that party concept is important - more important than it is in other types of adventure games - is that the medieval world is a great deal more rigid than most fantasy settings.  While there was probably a larger degree of social mobility than one might expect, there was a far stricter sense of hierarchy, and if the players and referee want to maintain a "hardcore medievalist" tone, it is useful to explain why their characters are associating with each other.

More importantly, the party concept can help motivate the PCs to seek adventure and make it easier for the referee to construct scenarios.  For example, knights and nobles are likely to want to improve their station and win more territory, and this may motivate the group to be more belligerent and the referee can then focus on either presenting opportunities to gain land or status or on presenting threats to the PCs' holdings.  Outlaws will, obviously, be interested in precious lucre, and so the group will constantly be looking for tax collectors to rob and other such sources of coin, and the referee knows those are the sorts of thing he or she should be presenting to the players.

In the next installments of this series, I hope to talk more about constructing the campaign region, creating and running the political struggles of that region, and the other sorts of adventures one can have in a heavily medieval setting.


  1. Nice - looking forward to part 2. I love to run historical or pseudo-historical campaigns, but don't like running afoul of the caste restrictions that impinge on the default freedom players expect - the whole "Wild West with swords".

    I'm also interested in how feel these party concepts tend to work with the drop-in style of G+ games, and high lethality/frequent replacement characters (or retainers).

    1. I'm also interested in how feel these party concepts tend to work with the drop-in style of G+ games, and high lethality/frequent replacement characters (or retainers).

      I think they're almost essential. They can provide a way to explain where missing party members are (off on another raid with Sir Whatshisface, helping Robin of Sherwood do something, etc.) and can provide an explanation for where new PCs come from.

      How that interacts with FLAILSNAILS is a bigger issue, but honestly I don't think this sort of game works well with FLAILSNAILS.

  2. Good stuff...looking forward to further entries.

    My next campaign will likely be a Saxons vs. Vikings sort of thing - I suspect I'll get some good ideas from this series!