Friday, April 19, 2019

Sandbox Campaigning and Here Be Dragons...

So you want to run this open world, sandbox campaign for your players.  You sit down and draw up your own map, flesh out the villages, create the NPC's, write thirty pages of notes and plot hooks that you want to run and maybe you even drop in a dungeon.

What happens when the player characters, or that ONE GUY in the player character group looks over your map and almost immediately starts taking the entire party in the direction of the border of the map.  Maybe its because he'd rather be doing pirate and island adventures and there is a coastal port in that direction.  Maybe its because he'd rather be tomb raiding in the desert empire of an ancient Stygia.  Maybe he's just that guy that can't be happy enjoying what you've bent over backwards creating for this thing we called "shared storytelling" which is core to the RPG hobby.

So what do you do?  How do you deal with this as the DM?

I read threads posing this question, especially from newer Dungeon Masters at least a half dozen times every year.  The usual answer is, "Hey, just make it up."

O.K.  That's fair, but if the Dungeon Master is the kind of guy that loves world building and he's sunk forty hours of work into starting up his new campaign I don't think he should have to put up with that kind of off the rails behavior.  Your DM probably sat down to create this sandbox because he or she DOESN'T want to make everything up willy nilly on the fly.  He wants a world to explore.  He wants there to be places which are not necessarily within the level grasp of the players to safely take on.  He wants some time to make something cool.

The bottom line here is that the DM wants to have fun too and for many of us, part of that fun is the whole campaign building exercise.

For every open sandbox campaign however there are going to be areas, probably vast areas, where all the DM has is a few very general ideas in their head about what is going to be there.  More like they have a county or a Kingdom or part of a Kingdom fairly fleshed out and would much more enjoy having the adventure happen in that area.

I would offer up two simple ways to solve this problem.

First.  Just talk to your players.  Have an open discussion with them about where you would like play to be limited to.  It can be, let's just limit play to within this area which is about the size of a modern county.  Its about 60 miles across West to East and 50 miles across North to South.  That is a 3,000 square mile area you can run around in to your heart's content.  Get some agreement from the players that this is plenty of area for adventuring for say, the next six months to a year of campaign time.

If you want to run this campaign as part of a larger world you can offer, hey in three or four months I can start breaking ground on the next area we want to explore.  How about when we reach game session six or eight we all sit down and decide what you'd rather be doing.  Want to go play pirates?  We can do that.  Want to explore desert tombs?  We can do that.  Want to recapture the lost Dwarven Kingdom?  Sure, we can do that.  Choose one of the new themes, maybe share where this might play out in the future campaign and then table it.

This will give you six months to crib up notes and draw some new maps and work out the ground work of the next part of your sandbox campaign.

Second.  Sometimes having an up front talk with your players is only going to go so far.  If you are the DM that has that friend, who you love having in your group, but they are problematic in that they always run the campaign off the rails, you are going to need a second solution.

For this second solution I offer up the ages old cartography concept of "Here Be Dragons."

"Here Be Dragons" means that if your players, after laying down the ground rules, decide to run their happy shenanigan loving asses right off the edge of your sandbox, that there will be consequences.

In my campaign I try to build in some large areas of wilderness between the disparate Kingdoms or settled areas.  Sure, there may be a border drawn on a map where the Kingdom ends at the Lazy River but the real Kingdom, the settled area of the Kingdom or at least the area of the sandbox comes to an end a good twenty miles short of the Lazy River.  If the characters head all the way to the Lazy River they are entering "the deep wilderness" where "Here Be Dragons" applies.

"Here Be Dragons" means that some of the big bads, like Dragons, hunt and dwell in the deep wilderness, way past the edge of where people typically travel.  Now its true that in the campaign world that well guarded caravans might make it down the road into the next kingdom in one piece but that is only reasonable to make the lore of the campaign world work.

When the DM has labored to produce a nice sandbox environment, "Here Be Dragons" means that if you take the party off the rails, the DM reserves the option of having you run smack into an adult or even an ancient dragon that is off hunting in the deep wilderness between inhabited areas.  The dragon can be a metaphor for anything you want.  They can get themselves attacked by an entire tribe of Orcs or run smack into whatever horrible monster you like out of the Monster Manual.

"Here Be Dragons" doesn't necessarily mean you are all going to automatically die if you take the party off the rails in your DM's carefully built sandbox area but it makes it a significant possibility, and I think this is fair.  There should be some real penalties for taking the party into a part of the world the DM hasn't had time to properly build.  Marching into the deep wilderness is like taking your party into the ruined tower where you know that Lich lives, you know, the one which is easily five levels out of your league.

So, talk to your players.  Try to set down some ground rules.  You don't have to pretend to have the whole world finished if you don't want to.  Be honest with your players.  You've got that one Kingdom or part of that Kingdom written up with adventures and a dungeon or two and some encounters and that should be good enough.  As the DM you've done your part.  You've fulfilled your end of the bargain.  Its up to the players to uphold their end of the bargain and at least cooperate with you.  After all, the DM gets to have fun too.

Run the party into the deep wilderness towards the edge of the known sandbox and as long as you've been up front about it, I think you are totally justified to start rolling on some of the more dangerous wilderness or dungeon wandering monster charts and just see what the party gets.  After all, they are the one's that wanted to go marching off into the deep wilderness at level four.

Happy Gaming!

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