Sunday, 11 July 2010

Living in a Box

Back in my youthful gaming days, I remember a collaborative game of Dungeoneer in which we'd take turns to GM the thing as the rest of the group wandered about a world map. Dungeoneer is a very broken game, but we had fun with the aimless format, perhaps because everything else we were playing at the time was quite plot-focused.

With the rise in interest in such sandbox gaming sweeping the gaming blogs over the past couple of years (which has even led to both Paizo and Wizards of the Coast releasing sandbox scenarios), I've been itching to have a go at such a freeform game again. I made an attempt to run something of the sort in Call of Cthulhu, but the players resisted it, with good reason I think, and so it didn't work out. Later, I had another go with Rogue Trader, and this was much more successful, as the game is much more suited to exploration and poking around at the corners of the map to see what's there.

That campaign's taking a break (oh, and such plans I have!), but I obviously did something right, as we moved straight into another sandbox game, this time using Paizo's Pathfinder rules. I think the plan may have been to use D&D4 at first, but we've had a good go with that ruleset, and I'm not sure it's to our tastes as a group; this suits me, as I was out of gaming for the entirety of D&D3's lifespan, so Pathfinder gives me a chance to see what the game is like.

I was a bit concerned, as I've seen and heard many horror stories about the pernicious crunchiness of D&D3, but we're about four sessions in, and it seems no more fiddly than D&D2 was, and is much less of a hassle to play than the overly tactical (to my mind) D&D4. It does strike me that something like Swords and Wizardry would be a more appropriate to a hex crawl game, but we've invested too much money and effort to switch now!

We're playing through the Kingmaker series of books (how Paizo's Adventure Path format translates to a freeform game, I don't know, so I'm keen to have a look at the books once we're done), and so far it's been great fun; we've got a proper old-school hex map, and we're wandering around the wilderness, investigating points of interest, fighting wandering monsters, and all that great retro goodness.


  1. (Try again!)

    This was basically what I was trying to do with my Bloodstone/Pathfinder game at the club last year. It seemed the best way to allow for new players turning up at random while keeping some king of continuity. Unfortunately, we lost those players faster than we gained them, which is why it died...

    Will you be keeping us informed on this one? I'd be interested to know how you keep the interest up with an exploration model. My biggest worry would be having to prepare multiple options for each week - if you just prep one and throw it at the players regardless of their choices, you're treading a very fine line!

    I don't agree about the 3.5 crunchiness - in my experience, it's as crunchy as you let it get - just ignore the complex bits. The really big complaints always seem to be levelled at preparation time, mostly in terms of monster stats, but you can either stick to basic monsters, or there are a number of tools that will do most of the work for you. (Hmm, which other game does that apply to? Oh, yes "minimal preparation" 4e...)

    The Pathfinder Adventure Paths look to provide a good compromise between sandbox and plotted campaign to me. They organise fully-detailed setpiece scenarios but there's plenty of room to fit other (player-inspired) events around them. Alternatively, the Savage Worlds Plot Points campaigns approach it from the other direction: the players barge around doing whatever they want, but run into preset situations when the circumstances merit. Clues found at these then direct them towards an epic campaign climax should they choose to follow them.

  2. Well, I'm not running this one, so there won't be as many updates, and those not as detailed, as the Rogue Trader summaries, but I'll post when something interesting happens!

    Pathfinder works quite well for me as a player, so I'd guess you're right about the complexity being on the GM's side. D&D4 seemed the opposite; it was a chore to play, but it was easy to run.

    Kingmaker is specifically designed as a sandbox setting, so our GM (Ben) doesn't have to worry about preparation work, aside from any home grown extras he might want to throw in.

    Since it is an Adventure Path, I am intrigued to know how the staggered monthly release schedule ties up with a go-anywhere-do-anything setting, but that's one of the things I hope to discover as we go on. We started Rise of the Runelords under D&D4, and that seemed much more linear in nature, but thus far in Kingmaker, there's no hint of that.

    A sandbox does seem like the best fit for a situation in which player turnout can be irregular, like the Club, which is also why I tried that disastrous Cthulhu experiment. As such, it's a bit ironic that we're doing it with a fairly stable sub-group away from the Club!

  3. Hi - its me - the GM!

    It's been a relative breeze jumping back onto the 3e D&D hot-seat.... after my last attempt (which didn't go too well - too crunchy - in 3.5), I wondered how 3.75 would go. Quick answer - much easier. Only one rulebook (so far), and we are not using any other 3.0/ 3.5 supplements either. No house rules. Just plain, vanilla Pathfinder.

    The campaign, as Kelvin has pointed out, is designed to be played sandbox.

    my job has been to brig it alive - and the Paizo boards are chock-full of ideas from other loons like me, and I have taken the best bits and developed others..... as well as not stsrted the campaign until Paizo had brought out 3 books out of 6, so I had a firm grasp of where this baby was travelling to.

    The party are pretty tough - with high stats, so I have come to the conclusion they fight and defend as a level higher than they are (although their HPs are not so high!).... and as they have now leveled, I am going to have to tweek the ECLs of the next critters or there will be plain, dull genocide.

    I am not finding it too much like hard work, and neither have I fudged a thing! All very exciting. Random critters tables which reflect the environment.

    Have created a weather table, name tables for the hunters, ambient critter table (what are they saying/ who are they with/ wounded?/ what are they doing etc - all random rolls to help me create spontaneous and crazy situations I could not cook up on the fly.

    In 3 sessions they should be creating their kingdom - and then a new meta-game will kick in which should be really interesting and totally 100% new territory for me and the others!

    Bring it on!

  4. My two pints worth - and I'm playing in this campaign too...

    Swords & Wizardry - I'm playing this at home at the moment with my son, and it's great fun. With a stripped down rules system there is strangely more focus on pure roleplaying. Weird. But S&W is even more basic than the old Basic D&D. But great fun.

    OGL/3.0 - I ran Conan with this and actually found it was easier to just dump a lot of the rules and crunch. For example, with stat blocks, a lot of the data is irrelevant and will probably never be used. When writing your own scenarios, it is the stat blocks that seem to take most of the time, when really you just need the hit points, attack bonus, saves, damage, AC. Who needs to know if the orc has +2 Swim? And you can always assign a skill on the fly. In retrospect, however, I'd probably use True20 or Savage Worlds for Conan games.

    Finally, Pathfinder: don't assume it is 3.5. They have changed an awful lot. On the surface, you might think - "oh, it's just the next version of D&D 3e." Uh-uh - check everything, even feats. Much has been tinkered with. BUT yes, the characters feel more high powered, even at 2nd level. Human barbarian at 31hps with +6 BAB and 2d6+12 damage with a great sword at 2nd level (when raging). Starting to feel like Iron Heroes already.