W is for Wandering Adventures. Not “adventurers;” ADVENTURES.
While I’m a fairly old hand at this D&D stuff, I certainly do NOT rank among first couple generations of gamers. I mean, I cut my teeth on B/X (duh) before moving to 1st edition AD&D…I never had the opportunity to play OD&D (supplemented or not)…and I never even saw a copy of Holmes Basic until last year or so. I’ve never played a Judges Guild adventure module, never used the Rolemaster books, have never seen/read a copy of EPT, and missed out on that whole Wilderlands thing.
So it might be surprising to some (or not…you be the judge) that when I first started bopping around the OSR blog-o-sphere there were more than few concepts I wasn’t grokking. For example, this thing called “sandbox play;” what the hell is that?
Here’s the thing about the whole world-creation-exploration combo…I can’t say I’m a huge fan.
And the REASON I’m not a huge fan is this: in practice I haven’t found that it works for me. Oh, I understand (now, somewhat) why folks would sit down and create a world and then let player characters traipse around the place “finding their own adventures.” It sure beats having every adventure start at the mouth of dungeon, or in a tavern meeting with some fantasy “fixer,” or being summoned for yet another audience with the local ruler. Give PCs a sandbox and let them go where the wind (or the tavern want ads) take ‘em.
Here’s what I find happens, in practice:
- Players often end up with a “huh, don’t know what to do” attitude (looking for clues or suggestions or direction from the DM)
- Some players DO have a strong idea of what they want to do, but it’s “off the grid” (i.e. something the DM hasn’t prepped), leading to them being forced to go for the direction offered by the DM
- PCs spend a lot of time combing through “tavern want ads” which is no more or less ridiculous than DQ’s “Adventurer’s Guild” (aped by many computer fatasy RPGs since).
- The players (and sometimes the DM!) get BORED with the world/setting long before they’ve exhausted all the adventure avenues the DM bothered to prep, thus leading to (what I see as) a waste of the DM’s time and energy.
- It requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM’s part to keep the campaign world living/breathing/evolving/resolving as the PCs podunk around the imaginary country-side.
THAT’s how I used to play D&D…call it the Banana Splits school of role-playing (perhaps even the “D&D Cartoon” school of role-playing). Players were expected to play their character/role in whatever scenario (I hesitate to even call them “adventures”) that the DM devised. The DM was expected to come up with adventures. Eventually, characters would amass enough wealth that they’d be building strongholds or “bases” or whatever and then they wouldn’t have to wander anymore…adventure would wander to them!
Is this terribly realistic for adventurers to be “weirdness/adventure magnets?” Of course not. Is D&D terribly realistic as a game? No, not really.
There was never any rhyme or reason to how PCs ended up in one place over another. This week we’re on the outskirts of some spooky castle (Ravenloft)…next week we’re somehow lost in the mountains looking for the caverns of Tsojcanth. Adventure modules were used in a “modular” fashion…slotting ‘em in as characters reached the appropriate levels of experience. Sessions, like many modules themselves (Desert of Desolation series, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Shrine of Tamoachan) simply picked up in media res. How did the characters end up in some Mayan jungle/temple? Who knows! It’s just “D&D.”
Yeah, so, not very “sand-boxy” at all…more of a fantasy RPG version of the ol’ “buddy flick.” And I’m sure that others play (or have played) in a similar style that doesn’t involve world crafting or drawing up a gazillion level mega-dungeon or trying to come up with a rich, historical background setting. That is to say, I’m sure my style of play is nothing new, and may in fact feel a little primitive to the more sophisticated grognards.
Heck, just reading over it myself it seems fairly crude…though not necessarily un-fun (now that I’m thinking about it, this is the kind of game I’d like to run with my current batch of players…that is, if they should they ever graduate from the Caves of Chaos and be ready for “wilderness adventures”). But does this way of running a campaign really “kick ass?” We ARE trying to stick to a theme here with the A-Z posts, right?
Here’s what this kind of campaign does FOR you:
- It takes pressure off the DM to do extensive world creation, allowing time and energy to be spent in designing cool and/or outrageous adventure scenarios.
- It takes pressure off PCs to figure out “what do we do next,” allowing them to spend time and energy in exploring their character, their character’s relationship to each other, and their character’s relationship to the evolving campaign setting.
- It allows one to plug in neat modules with little or no justification.
- It allows one to play D&D the way God and Gary intended.
Or not. Who knows…all I can say is my BEST campaigns evolved from this type of wandering “serial adventure” campaign. How else are you ever going to have a chance to use those “random castles” and random “castle inhabitants” in the Expert set (from Book 3 of the LBBs if I remember correctly)? If all your castles and towns are plotted out beforehand…heck, if all your adventures are “sited” before play begins, how can you truly build a weird and supernatural fantasy world? I don’t know…I’ve never managed to do a good job ahead “building worlds” in advance. Players always want to go off the grid, and frankly I WANT them to! Once they’ve built their own castles (which is a complete nightmare if all the territory has already been divided into the various countries of Mystarra or whatever), THEN you can worry about your stable locations and your “friends and neighbors.”
Until then…let the good times roll!