Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Sandbox D&D gaming (with Pathfinder): some reflections

I have been running a Pathfinder ‘sandbox’ campaign for about a year now (I think – have lost track of time – I believe we started it late June 2010)….. and until last week I had been running it virtually every week…… Looking back on the game, I threw out some ideas to the guys on the email group we have for our gang…. Having gibbered on and off all day between three of us, I thought maybe our collective musings would be worth sticking on this here blog, if only as a warning to y’all about what not to do if running a sandbox. ;) Here is the transcript (with a few typos/ changes to make sure it makes sense!)

Me (BenTheFerg)
I think running the Kingmaker path has told me a lot about how to run - and not run - a D&D game.... Here are a few reflections.....for the next one we ever do (as in playing a sandbox game in which you clear out an area to create your own kingdom)....

1) You would have no backer/ patron. You'd be on your own, as your own mercenary band/ reclaiming your ancestral lands/ seeking your fortune in the 'wild west'

2) SLOW progression tracker - to make those low levels last a little longer... to keep up the sense of challenge

3) PC death. I wouldn't wish it, but I sure think it should happen. To keep the game with a level of realism, there would be need to be a supply of npcs who were affiliated to the pcs, eg a base camp of folks in your group (as in more npcs in your team - who remained at base camp whilst the pcs investigated. When a pc dies, you take an npc and they are seamlessly involved in the adventure. That's one solution anyway!)

4) a little more attention to rules on manufacturing of magic items...... I guess this would necessitate a discussion of Iron Heroes for the next such sandbox, or Pathfinder, but with class variants of spell casters which boosts them in other respects but tones down magic item creation.... (Kingmaker had massive time spans, allowing for the mage to create customised gear at half price – magic items lost their uniqueness, and the team are buffed to the hilt! Moreover, the rules on magic item creation are overly generous we now realise, and can be game breaking, like the permanent strongjaw gloves the monk uses)

5) more attention to smaller details, eg to your stronghold, npc guards, etc (for small skirmish warfare scenarios, assassination attempts, creating a feeling of threat and the need to counter that threat)

6) likewise more attention to various rival npc groups, local politics, local environments, hazards.........

7) level cap at 5th or at 10th? (when the pc has to retire and their kids take over?) or is that too arbitrary? :)

8) more small dungeons. More pot-holing and under-dark exploration. More difficult terrain situations, more environmentally hazardous battles. Diseases. Midges. Slavers. Traitors. Revenge. Mistrust.

9) disfigurement rules for massive blows/ physical traumas. A discussion on the limits of healing for damage from one blow above a certain value...... to make it more gritty. :) I think there are some in the GRR Martin d20 Game of Thrones rpg I still own. :) (and maybe in Black Company d20 rpg too.)

Just some thoughts……… I am thinking of running it as a homage to all things old school D&D (Keep on the Borderlands, etc etc)......

Kelvin (KelvinGreen), from now on called K:
The only problem with Kingmaker was that it had a very clear plot, and for all the hexmaps in the world, if you have a plot, it's not a proper sandbox.

Yes. This is something I would want to change – as in having rival groups all with their own agendas, who pursue their agendas, and try and find ways (through diplomacy, war, assassination etc) to get the pcs to do their dirty work (without you guessing of course – not that that would work!!)

Stuart (from the Great Game) – now called Stu.
Greg's old SLA Industries campaign was a bit like that. You could choose from a variety of missions (BPNs), but in addition, the team became increasingly embroiled with a number of competing factions, including Dark Knight and the Mob. At one point we even carried out a hit on another Slop (SLA Operative) for the Mob, believing we were on a legitimate mission!

We were constantly navigating the murky waters between what SLA wanted us to do, and what we could get away with in the interests of lining our own pockets and promoting the interests of our team.

But the key thing was there was not pre-scripted plot: after each session Greg would go away and decide what the various shadowy players would do in response to our own actions. We seemed to be constantly under investigation by internal affairs, always looking over our shoulders, characters took to sleeping with weapons under their pillows...all great stuff!

Thinking back, it WAS a sandbox campaign. Some missions were pushed at us, but we were not obliged to take them, and we had a number of sub plots (for instance the hunt for the serial killer Exsanguinator) running throughout the campaign.

Yes, it's one thing to have a plot develop through play, but what Paizo did was release something with all the trappings of a sandbox -- the hexmap, the wandering monsters, etc -- but then overlaid a standard adventure path plot on it, as I feared they would. There's nothing wrong with a plot, of course, but it's not a sandbox.

The question is, how does the sandbox evolve to keep pace with the increasing power of the PCs, particularly in Pathfinder, where the leap in power from 1st to 4th is pretty substantial. You want to avoid the "Oh yes, well, there is indeed a dragon in your basement, only he's been keeping very quiet up until"

Kingmaker does this by adding new territory to the campaign, with bigger challenges, like the more serious encounters to the south of the main map, and the undead cyclops empire on the second map. BUT, if the PCs by-pass something - like the derro lair - with the intention of returning to it later, the GM will need to do some buffing of the original encounter while keeping it credible.
(me: sadly every front cover had an image of what the Big Bad would be - as in the lich-cyclops opposite)

A sandbox dungeon is probably easier to manage in this respect, with some areas hidden, or only accessible once a boss is defeated, etc.

Well, the simple answer is that the players know from the start that the dragon is there, but they avoid it until later. If they leave it until they're much more powerful, then they'll probably squash it, but one could argue that this is just sensible -- if a bit dull -- play.

I don't know if we can make a proper judgement on the power levels of Pathfinder at this point. Our current characters are rather overpowered, as we know, but that may not be the case for the game as a whole. Similarly, Kingmaker was a pretty poor sandbox setup, so I don't think we've had enough useful sample data, as it were, to decide if a Pathfinder sandbox can work.

Thing is, I want there to be various plots (npc goals which they try to achieve) and for pcs to find ways around these…. And Kingmaker has done a great job I think in trying to do these. I have enjoyed running the game, where you have a good idea of possible threats and have used your resources wisely to circumnavigate the threats. As a player, this is what I prefer as well. It is not much fun to be stumbling around in the dark for long. Yes – pc strategies may fail (may have poor intel) but pcs can have a go.

I think there is a balance to be struck between narrative (which gives plot dynamic, motives, time pressures, cinematic material, great locations) and sandbox…..

I let us down by not understanding the delicate nature of Pathfinder, and thus the point buy has skewed the game (FYI I allowed a dice pool mechanic at pc generation which led to pcs having, by pure chance, awesome attribute scores, which made them tougher, I’d say potentially – by 2 levels) – and add that to a lack of prudence on the magic item creation front (mentioned earlier the issue of allowing for unique one-shot items to be made, which really made the pcs buffed up nicely, esp when the kitted out their cohorts gained from the leadership feat) (all newbie Pathfinder DM errors) and it made the sandbox too easy and not threatening enough. I have learned from my errors (I hope).

Paizo in publishing the setting have managed to create a scaled level of threat to higher level pcs, with the expanding map, and with events happening to trigger the exploration of those areas….. given space constraints, this was the best way forward given the market demand for a certain kind of look to a module.

Having teleportation, pegasi, and a Roc have made the hex map irrelevant in so many respects. Higher level play makes sandbox in such a limited setting pointless. Wilderness exploration is fine for lower levels. At your levels it should be more pc driven – we want to explore X, travel to the plane of Y to speak to Z to find where B is. Etc Planar adventuring is well suited to high level sandbox play.

Hopefully we have all learned a lot more about how to make Pathfinder work – and whenever we finally run Carrion Crown (or something else), I think we will all be keen from the outset to avoid errors we made with Kingmaker. Kingmaker is not over yet though- you have the tournament, and shadowfell left. I will abandon most of the sandbox from here on it- the tournament will be the last sanboxy part – in that who knows what you will do!! - let’s enjoy the ride of the story I think and hit that cinematic ending.

For your homebrew sandbox, one wants to use the approach of Vornheim – but for Wilderness exploration – to generate settings/ ideas on the fly, to complement other stuff.

Other things Kingmaker could have done better:
- rivalry between npc adventurers and yours
- more persistent npc foes
- foes who become allies against a bigger bad…
- more locations in a smaller area.
- A more claustrophobic feel

Will work on a setting starting this half term. Don’t know what sandbox wilderness ideas appeal….
1. Mythic wood (sentient) – emphasising the fey
2. a northern wilderness adventure (giants, northmen, dragons, and other mythic Viking/ norse creatures), with viking boat exploration, castle building etc – or of adventurers carving out a kingdom in the wilds in the north…..(beyond the wall/ somesuch)
3. an Al Qadim style game, of jungles, deserts, island hopping…

The smaller the setting the easier the task – so for 2) the idea of playing a bunch of pcs questing into the wilderness from a fort on the edge of civilisation (ala Keep on the Borderlands), to tame it, take it, would be easiest. BUT this is similar in premise initially to Kingmaker…..

Old school sandbox was a simple explore and purge mission, particularly in the first 10 levels or so. After that, the class descriptions seemed to assume players would start using the conquered lands as the basis for their domain - e.g. building castles, temples and thieves' guilds. But AD&D tended to skip over much of this - it could tell you how much an iron grill over a window would cost you, but not how to work out the tax base for a rural hex with eight farms and a human population of 150.

Plus, how did you run a dwarf domain? An elf one? The D&D Companion rules did address some of this, and the launch of Battlesystem did provide scope for bringing miniatures gaming into AD&D.

But once PCs get past 10th level, the scope for a sandbox wilderness and/or dungeon adventure becomes somewhat reduced, particularly if people start taking the Leadership feat. Then they begin plotting the downfall of other kingdoms, empire building or possibly planar adventuring. Is it still D&D in the classic sense of the word?

Much of the daily work of running a domain can be outsourced to NPC allies, of course, and the PCs can still expose themselves to danger in the form of high level adventures to meet threats to their own realms - e.g. a barbarian invasion like the one we had in Kingmaker.

"A pox upon the business of kinging it! It drained every last drop of a man's tissues, leaving him a querulous old hairsplitter without enough red blood in his veins to swing a broadsword. Surely, after twenty weary years of wearing the crown, a man was entitled to throw over honours and titles and set out toward dim horizons for one last gore-splattered adventure before Time's all-felling, implacable scythe cut him down..."

CONAN OF THE ISLES, L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, Sphere Books, 1974

Ah, the wisdom of King Conan!

Well that's another case of plot developing through play, which is absolutely in keeping with the sandbox ideal. The key is to have lots of this going on at once, so there's a meaningful player choice; where Kingmaker went wrong was in a lack of alternatives, so our choice was a binary one of choosing between following the plot or not following the plot, when it should have been between following Plot A, following Plot B, following Plot C, and so on.

The other issue it had was that its plots were more interesting than the alternative, so the campaign presented us with a barbarian invasion, but then said "or you can go and explore some hexes instead", and of course that's not really a choice at all.

As such, it became a scripted campaign with a hexmap, which is not the same thing as a sandbox.

Keep on the Borderlands was great for levels 1-3, and Isle of Dread for 4-6, but the key is what happens when you have a 12th level party....? I'm really enjoying higher level play to be honest. It's been fun taking characters from lowly 1st level novices and ramping them up into Schwarzenegger-like uber-heroes. The key is devising a sandbox that can challenge at 1st and at 12th, when people may indeed have flying mounts, the ability to teleport, etc. This is less an issue of points buy, and more what players are able to acquire through innovative thinking, class features, etc.

PCs will still be able to manufacture magic items; it may take them longer, but they'll still be able to come up with a magic carpet or find some way of winning the loyalty of a flying monster like a pegasus. Plus, you can't really ban spells like Invisibility, Haste, Fly, Enlarge, Summon Monster, Entangle, etc. all of which play a key role in our strategy.

I guess the solution may be a bigger sandbox, something the size of North Africa rather than East Anglia.

Well, as Ben suggested, you can also expand beyond the mortal realms into the other planes. You're still running around in a sandbox, but it's not about clearing forests any more.

That is definitely one way forward, because ultimately the planes can really be whatever the referee wants them to me. The PCs can do a bit of library research on them, but at the end of the day, it is another great unknown for the level 15+ character.

There you have it. I have really enjoyed Kingmaker. I would concur with K’s gripe: not enough positive options. Not enough dynamic forces jostling for the same area – with possibly different reasons to be there…… Moreover as a ref I found the Kingmaker Path badly designed in combat terms for the team. Yes the pcs were more powerful than most – but generally speaking the fights were not designed well – this meant I had to work very hard to try and make them more challenging. The fight with the trolls in the troll lair was the most challenging, and only because I gave them all 2x their hps, and had them all converge on the pcs after they were discovered in the troll lair – so they were taking on quite a few at once…. The barbarian was nearly downed during that combat.

‘Owlzilla’ (a giant owlbear) was another dangerous one (I gave her 4x the hps) – she managed to pick up the rogue and use him as a club. Fun. 4e (which I know the boys don’t like) has a better encounter design philosophy. In future I will stick more to the 4e design philosophy, and make sure I have a buffer and controller type, as well as brute and artillery for every major encounter. Without a spell caster, my critters were doomed from the outset! However, these gripes are of another nature –not sandbox issues in themselves – although the very nature of wilderness encounters means that one encounter in the wilderness will often not stretch the party’s resources like 4 encounters in a dungeon will – making designing wilderness encounters that bit more challenging.




  1. As I have started a sandbox with Pathfinder just now, this was a most interesting and informative read. Thank you!
    But on the design of wilderness encounters:
    I'll prefer a random table with the slight possibility of a angry dragon as well as frightened orcs to any beforehand planned encounter. So no designing: Rolling! 12th Level characters should enjoy slaying a band of marauding goblins now and then! Let the critters be doomed! The pcs have earned it. As long as there is always the chance for danger even for them. Say: Drrrrragon!Yay! ;)

  2. Ben's been the GM on this one, so while I know that we have been using random encounter tables, I don't know what they look like, what kind of monsters are on them, and so on.

    I do know that encounters have been infrequent, and that there haven't been many difficult ones; we haven't had to flee from anything yet!

  3. Yup - do use them - you had 2 in the last session. They are pretty extensive - but now, at 12th level, there is not much existing in the normal environment that can hurt you!!!! The planes beckon!!

  4. 4e (which I know the boys don’t like) has a better encounter design philosophy.

    I think it's a bit more complicated than that. I can't speak for the others, but there are things I think The Unmentionable does right, and the theory of encounter design is one of them, with dynamic environments, complementary monster roles, and so on.

    The problem is that every good idea in the game is undermined by a really stupid one, so the encounters are fine, but the monsters within them all have far too many hit points, so it all ends up in boring battles of attrition.

    Of course, you're talking about exporting the good ideas and leaving the stupid ones behind, and that solves the problem.