Wednesday, August 29, 2018

How I Make a Fantasy Sandbox

I use a lot of algorithm-style stocking processes in order to quiet the ghosts in my brain, and I'd thought I'd take the time to set out the basic process I've been using for making fantasy sandboxes.  The sandbox described below hypothetically should provide 6+ months of play and take 5e characters* from levels 1-10.

Some caveats:

1) This represents a synthesis of methods I've used previously.  I have not used this precise method as I am about to lay it out, but the version present here represents the previous methods with the changes I would make based on how I felt about those results.

2) For 5e it assumes that you are stocking things using the level bands in Xanathar's Guide's random monster tables (1-4, 5-10, etc.),

3) It also assumes encounters per level based on this guy's post taken with the comments there and my own experiences with 5e.  I cannot replicate The exact numbers for that here because it is a belly-feel sort of thing.

4) I am going to assume that you have a kind of genre of fantasy you already want to emulate and so don't necessarily need help coming up with the material culture for the area or the threats the adventurers will face.  This is about the kinds of things you'll need not the specific things you'll pick.

5) Sometimes the most important answer a player can give in a sandbox is "no" or "not that one."  You should have more content than you expect the players to see because it is important that they be able to turn hooks down. 

6) Since OSD&D leveling rates are primarily due to treasure, if you want to use the same rates just make sure the dungeons I talk about contain enough treasure to do that.

This is kind of a cheat because Huth made it for me

The first thing you will need is a map.  I use hex maps that are roughly 25x15 hexes at 6 miles a hex.  For most campaigns this size is probably fine, but if you want a higher degree of wilderness exploration in your game then 4 of these laid out in a 50x30 grid should be used.  If you're using a section of a pre-made setting then simply cut out a section of geography that would fit inside those grids.  If not, you can use something like the Welsh Piper's system or just draw it freehand if you feel like you're good at that sort of stuff.

For each 25x15 grid you have, place between 4 and 8 settlements - including villages, forts, castles, towns, and cities.  Note that these are only the settlements where the PCs are expected to interact with mostly peacefully or civilized factions that the PCs may be "at war" with.  It does not include large groups of monsters or bandits.  If you're worried that this is too few settlements, then just use the Judges Guild-style hamlet system.  Personally, I worry less about this sort of thing now in part because I want places the PCs will remember.

Place cities, towns, and castles in areas that would seem to be of strategic import - bays/harbors, mountain passes, hills overlooking large areas of flatland, where rivers meet, etc.  Forts and villages should be placed so that each is about a day away from another settlement and that the major cities and castles could be traveled to without having to go a day resting in the wilderness.  The main exception to this type of placement is if you assume the settlements are at war, in which case there should be some days worth of no man's land between them.

For each of these settlements, write a short paragraph about it including who rules it and any other NPCs the players could interact with, and any weird things about it.  I usually also include the population, the permanent garrison (if any), and the potential muster.  If you don't plan on having a lot of warfare you don't necessarily need that.

This is about the right size

Next you'll need dungeons.  I am assuming each dungeon has ~20-30 rooms and about 1/3 of those contain combat encounters.  I have a whole notebook full of maps like the one above that I've copied or made over the past few years.   Some of them have a lot more rooms than that, some have a lot fewer, but on the whole if I use ones from that notebook it'll average out.   If you don't have that you can find a bunch online or just draw them yourself.  If my belly-feel is right, you need about two of these to level from 1-4 in 5e.  In-keeping with the idea that you want more material than you'll use, have three dungeons near the starting town for the PCs that are stocked to be low level (1-4).  You'll want to make sure these have backgrounds that go with your setting, but that's beyond the scope of this post.  You'll want to have these stocked for the first session. 

For the midlevel dungeons (i.e. the rest of the campaign as outlined here).  You'll want 12-15 dungeons of similar size but with more variables in terms of encounter difficulty.  You don't need to stock these yet.  For right now right a short paragraph saying what they're the ruins of and maybe something else that makes them a neat dungeon so you know what they'll be when you need them later.  These dungeons should be scattered about the rest of the map you have as you see fit.  Note that it's 12-15 dungeons regardless of whether you're using a 25x15 grid or a 50x30 grid.

Something about like this

Next you'll need some hex contents.  I'm not a 1 hex = 1 encounter sort of guy, having come to hex-crawling through the 3e Wilderlands products.  I've arrived at about 40 per 25x15 grid to start off with as a good number.  That should be one encounter for every column and one for every row on average (though you don't have to place them that strictly).  If you're using a 50x30 grid you'll need 160, but you can probably get by by just populating the 40 that go in the quadrant where your players will start in and stock the rest as they explore what you've already made.

To stock hexes I use the Ruins & Relics tables in the Ready Ref sheets or the 3e Wilderlands book (they're the same tables).  If you don't have access to those, there may be others online, but I'm too lazy to find them now.  The Ruins & Relics tables generate a type of thing you found, its state of decay, and the creatures guarding it.  It's possible to monkey with these tables to better fit your setting, but that can be kind of an undertaking so I recommend just editing the guardians section to reflect what you want in the setting and then disregarding rolls that seem weird (like flying machine wrecks if you don't want that sort of thing).

Before you place them on the map, make sure you've named your geography if you haven't already.  If you notice you have a lot of a certain type of encounter (say things with snakes) you can place them semi-near each other in the same region and name it after that sort of encounter.  In Yavana this led to the Serpentine Jungle which I more often than not ended up calling the Jungle of Serpents.

Next I do random encounter tables for each geographical region.  The ones containing the starter dungeons I set to levels 1-4, everything else is 5-10.  I use a 1d6+1d4 table that produces numbers 2-10 and a flat curve.  This allows me enough range to have a variety of encounters but a limited enough range for the regions to feel different AND that I don't feel like I have to add things that don't fit just because I have some missing spaces.

Below is an example from yavan; however, it should be noted that this was not designed with a specific level range in mind.

Mangrove Swamp
2 - Plesiosaur
3 - Raptors
4 - Camarasaurus
5 - Iguana-People
6 - Trachodons
7 - Tiger
8 - Bucaneers
9 - Giant Spider
10 - Giant Crocodile

If you want to bake how many monsters show up into the tables (or determine them for a Ruins & Relics result), use the dice ranges for a similarly CRed creature from the Xanathar's tables.

Finally, before you can run you'll need some hooks, otherwise the PCs won't know what to do or where to go.  I use the Tome of Adventure Design to generate hooks.  There are other methods available online, or you can just make them up as you go.  Tie any hooks you generate to content you've already created if possible, and add elements not already created when necessary.

For the first session you'll want to make sure that you have three hooks, so there are some choices, and that at least two of them lead to low level dungeons you've made.  All three can if you like, but it's also perhaps useful to have one that ties to some overland adventure for variety's sake.

It used to be that I would then add two-three hooks a week each week thereafter, tying them either to wilderness locations I'd already placed or dungeons I'd just stocked; however, I found that with my home group this quickly meant there were too many hooks floating around to keep straight.  It may be a better idea to only introduce new hooks when you think they're about to finish something up and even then only if they don't have a big to do list waiting thereafter.

Once you've done all of that you might consider some of the extra steps Rob Conley uses, but I tend to let "plots" develop organically using the hooks and maybe the Oriental Adventures event tables rather than coming up with them ahead of time.  Regardless, you should have enough material for a long period of gaming.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Whoopin' With Orlanth Session 2: About a Bat

It was the 25th of Fire Season, and members of the Swan Song clan had been missing for several days.  They had left with men of the Red Cows to go to Jonstown to trade some goods they had picked up while raiding.  Of the Swan Song clan, only the impious man known as Danmag returned, declaring that the others had stayed in Jonstown of their own volition.  Elgane Fairhair, an initiate of Issaries and member of the clan ring, felt this sounded fishy and she decided to gather some of the daring young warriors to investigate.  She selected...

Amsi - Vingan daughter of the clan chief

Armind - huge warrior dedicated to the Stormbull

Henkel - a trickster in training

and Eirick the Chartreuse - hunter and initiate of Odyala

Rather than question Dangmag, the party decided to head to Jonstown directly and see what was up in the town.  En route, they encountered a group of horsemen from some distant part of the empire going through a narrow defile.  Amsi, who spoke their language, noted that they were arguing about something.  It seems one, who was either currently drunk or had a massive hangover, was angry he did not get the more interesting duty of going to see "the Bat."  The other members of the patrol cautioned him against such desires, noting that those who go to "the temple" return horror-stricken or mad.

Being no fan of the Lunars, and wanting to interrogate one of them, the party ambushed the patrol before they could make it out of the defile.  An initial volley of spells and missile weapons did little, but the sight of Armind appearing over the ridge and going berserk spooked the patrol's horses.  Only one of the men was able to keep his horse in check.  Armind slew the man nearest him and Henkel forced the one who seemed to have control of his horse to start vomiting uncontrollably.  One of the members of the patrol fell from his panicking horse uninjured, only to have his femur split by Armind's huge maul.  The remaining horseman managed to regain control of his animal and charged Armind and Eirick. Erick set his armor ablaze and Amsi struck at him with a lightning bolt but the man kept coming.  After missing Armind with his sword, Eirick was able to place himself in his way and gut the man, his intestines spilling out as he fell from his horse.

After slaying the others, the party decided to interrogate the man with the broken femur.  Amsi was able to coax out of him that a temple was being constructed to the Crimson Bat, a Lunar god and war weapon of tremendous power, less than a day's ride south of their tula.  Worried that he would report their apperances to the Lunar garrison at Jonstown, Amsil slew the man after receiving this information.

The party debated for some time whether to go to this temple or press on to Jonstown, ultimately deciding to head to Jonstown because they could reach it before nightfall.  Arriving at the external gate, they noticed members of the Culbrea tribe arguing with the Lunar guards.   Apparently they weren't being let in because the 30 head of cattle they had would flood today's market and interfere with prices.  After Amsi and Armind spent some time petting the cows, they headed in, declaring to the guards they had come to buy supplies.

Even the modest size of Jonstown seemed overwhelming to these hillfolk, and they had some difficulty getting around.  However, they spotted a sign for a branch of Geo's Inns, which they knew from seeing in other villages, and they decided that was as good a place as any to ask around.  Inside they found a few members of the Red Cow clan who live in Jonstown and run supplies to Red Cow Fort when necessary.  These men told a terrible tale: apparently Dangmag and members of the Red Cow clan decided to lead other Red Cow and Swan Song warriors who had gone against the clan to fight in Starbow's Rebellion into the town so they could be sold to the Lunars.

The Red Cow carls didn't know the fate of these men, but Amsi guessed that they would be taken to the Crimson Bat Temple to be sacrificed at its dedication.  Armind agreed that that was the sort of thing the Lunars did, and the party began debating how next to proceed.  They debated between buying horses and setting out that night to intercept the escort and prisoners before they got to the temple by road or to wait in the morning and beat them their by traveling through the hills.  After some discussion about funds for horses, they decided the latter option was best and purchased rooms in Geo's.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Whoopin' With Orlanth Session 1

I've been planning an OpenQuest game set in Glorantha for a couple of weeks because of a confluence of events getting me interested in d% gaming again, including managing to get a copy of the new RuneQuest.*  I had a couple of ideas for what I'd want to run and had the players do a vote and this is what came out as the winner.

The premise is that the PCs are the young-adult children of members of a Sartarite clan ring.  Due to their family prominence, the ring uses the PCs as troubleshooters in hopes of grooming them to take over the clan one day.  They generated their clan a week ago using the system from HeroQuest Kingdom of Sartar (given to me by Jeremy Duncan, who should blog more).  That was probably a mistake because it was much longer than I expected and they seemed to get lost in a way that a shorter one I could've worked up of the questions from Dragon Pass + some stuff about the Lunars wouldn't have caused.  Live and learn.

Their clan is the Swan Song.  They have an affinity for all water foul (including the Durulz), a deep hatred of dragons, a less deep but still pretty deep hatred of the Telmori, and they think the Lunars should go home.  They are members of the Cinsina tribe.

The PCs are...

Amsi - A Vingan and daughter of the chief of the clan

Armind - A Stormbull known for his great strength and respected despite not having relatives on the ring

Henkel - A Trickster with the god-given power to make people vomit

Eirick the Chartreuse - An Odyalan hunter who desperately wants to impress his aloof "papa"

Sometime during Harmony Week of the Fire Season, a shaman named Ordag the Earless snuck into their clan's great hall, befuddled the ring members, and absconded with a sacred stone depicting the family history of one of the prominent families in the clan.  The ring kept this a secret from the rest of the clan, though people knew something was up because the chief and his family had been sleeping in the warriors hall.

Derek the Green, father of Eirick and member of the ring, had the party pretend to be assigned to the outer patrol and then meet him in the great hall.  It was Windsday of Deathweek, and on the previous day the ring sacrificed to Humakt using help from priests of the Malani clan to both keep at bay the angry ghosts of their ancestors and to divine the whereabouts of the sinister shaman.  Harvar the Striker, the chief of the clan, now informed the party that they must head about a days journey into the Telmori wilds to find where the shaman had taken the stone and then return it without alerting the village.

The party set off and after traveling through rocky hills they came to a belt of forest that lay between them and the open country before the Creek.  Heading into the forest, for it was there Ordag supposedly dwelt, they encountered a patrol of elves.  The elves initially acted with hostility, demanding the party "return their brothers," but after noticing the tattoos of an Odyalan hunter, they hesitantly asked for aid.  Unfortunately for the elves, the trickster had a different idea.  He forced the only one who could speak Heortling to vomit uncontrollably.  Seeing no other option, the rest of the party set on the elves and quickly slew them.  Henkel explained that "we already have our own problems, and it is best to not become involved in the problems of others."  However, he did not know how intertwined their problems were.

Thanks to the skillful navigation of Eirick, the party found the clearing in which the hovel of the shaman reportedly lay.  Around the clearing was a strangely "mechanical" patrol of four elves, who moved with strange symmetry and rotated sunwise around the center point of the clearing.  That center point was a large, dying tree with a hovel set at its base.  Henkel and Amsi were able to sneak by the elf patrol, and tried to investigate the hovel.  Unfortunately the dying light made it difficult to see.  Amsi, with few other choices, decided to make her way towards it, but her stumbling in the darkness caused Ordag to become aware of her present, and he quickly cast a spell that summoned one of the ancestor spirits whose deeds were described on the stone.

Seeing the apparition and realizing the jig was up, Armind set himself into a rage and set upon the nearest elf guard, breaking him into splinters in one blow.  Eirick supported Armind with bow shots, and Amsi was forced to rely on thunder-magic to face off against the ghost.  Amsi called on Orlanth's Lightning and blasted the spirit, who seemed affected by the battle magic.  While this use of magic aided the spirit in his attempt to possess her, the power of it dissipated the specter after a few short blasts.  Henkel now joined the fight against the elves, this time forcing one to vomit and causing it enough physical damage that it broke its spine (or rather its spine became crusted with cedar apple rust such that he could no longer move).  Eirick and Armind slew the remaining elves and then rushed upon Ordag and crushed his skull with a deadly blow.

Armind, still feeling the rage, then set about the trees with his maul, smashing them and screaming.  The rest of the party investigated the hovel, finding that the spirit-talker had somehow burnt a handprint into a part of the tree where he had removed the bark.  He also had the stone surrounded by rudimentary rushlights.  Armind had been wounded by the elves, so the party decided to rest at the hovel for the night and return with the stone the next day.

The next morning, Armind gave Ordag funeral rights - burning the body and placing the remaining... remains under a cairn.  While he was doing this a group of Red Cow warriors - better equipped and clearly of high station - came into the clearing and expressed shock at what they saw.  Apparently they had been attracted to the location by the magical thunder from the night before, and had also been hired by the elves to rescue their brethren from Ordag.  Henkel "explained" that all the damage had been done by the shaman, and that they could have the paralyzed elf to return to his kin.  They didn't seem to trust the word of a trickster, but it allowed them a socially convenient "out."  They left carrying the elf.

The party then struck camp and head back home.  They returned without further incident but before reaching the tula had to decide how to sneak in such a large stone without it being recognized and causing alarm.  Henkel cast mischief on it, turning it into rubber and causing it to make silly farting noises.  This new, frankly bizarre object was totally unrecognizable to the carls and cottars they passed.  It greatly disturbed the ring, but after seeking out Henkel's mentor and... father? Randan the Reckless, they were assured the measure was temporary.  Randan then utilized the farting aspect of the rubber stone to be a weirdo.

At that point we stopped.  The players said they enjoyed it and found the setting "weird, but in an interesting way."  They liked the OQ rules and advancement system so we'll keep using that for now.

However, later one of the players confided in me that the antics of the trickster bothered them a bit because it made it too hard to getting anything done.  They compared it to the problem of having the asshole who plays the overly lawful good paladin that makes it where you can't actually play D&D.  This made a certain sense to me so I plan on talking to the trickster's player and asking him to tone it down a bit or perhaps come up with another solution.

*I decided to stick with OQ because I vastly prefer its skill list and simplicity, though there are lots of things about the new RQ I like.  I may do a review of it in the near future.