Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for Wandering Adventures

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

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.
Now back when I was doing a LOT of gaming (i.e. back when I was a kid), this ain’t what we did. Oh, sometimes the more clever of us would sketch a quick map of the continent with a few forests and mountain ranges…perhaps even a town or city or four with actual NAMES (though we never included history/demographics/rulers, etc. unless they were pertinent to a particular adventure). Characters were simply supposed to be wandering rogues seeking adventure…and in the fashion of serial adventure cartoons, every new session would find them getting into some new scrape or other.

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?

Well, maybe.

Here’s what this kind of campaign does FOR you:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. It allows one to plug in neat modules with little or no justification.
  4. It allows one to play D&D the way God and Gary intended.
Well, maybe not that last one…though I would imagine the “World of Greyhawk” evolved at least in part from evolution of actual play rather than the heady imagination and penchant for fiction of Mr. Gygax.

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!
: )


  1. That's pretty much like we used to play, but with a bit of player-directed adventures as well (which I think of as Sandbox play). For my next campaign I'm trying for a bit of both.

  2. I'd like to respectfully disagree with the myths about sandbox adventures. The problem was my rant/disagreement was too big for comments, so I blogged it (and linked back to you). Sorry, man. Just can't agree at all.

  3. So, do you know how to get Frogger across the road? Gaming seems to have shown me my limitations... but, I can cook up a storm and you guys have to eat! Just stopping by.

    Hello, fellow A-Z Challenger! Here's my latest entry. Come visit either of my blogs when you can and leave some comment love:

    W is for Wash Day, a Three-Wring Circus (A-Z)
    Twitter: @SolarChief

  4. I'm not a fan of highly detailed campaign settings. History, culture, religion...all that stuff bores the hell out of me. I wouldn't want to spend tens of hours making that stuff up, and then trying to make it all make sense and tie it into a comprehensive history going back centuries or millenia.

    However, I can see doing a 'seat-of-your-pants' sandbox campaign. Basically, start with a map, fill in the starting area and a few key locations, then use random charts and prepared 'plug-in' dungeons and lairs to use as the PCs wander about exploring. Maybe prepare a handful of rumors to give the players a little direction, if they need it. Naturally, you'd have to be comfortable with improvising doing it this way, but that's largely how we played back in the day...just making stuff up as we went along, and it was fun.

    Ed Green

  5. First let me preface this with, 'I am hammered on Oxy and reading blogs on bed rest.'

    I feel you and get it. Nothing wrong with your style of play, IMHO. I played the 'game' that way when I was younger too. I have just seemed to notice that many, now older players, either continue to play it as a game or take it to another level, or down a different path. I see them approaching it as a game, as I think you do (which, again is fine), and others approaching it as a ... well 'novel', or novella. They want a larger integrated story, there own LotR experience not brought to you by Tolkien, but by a game called D&D. Nothing wrong with that either. Whether you want to play a game, or tell a story, is cool by me. I can't seem to do either anymore myself. But I can pull off a great session of Rumor-box style play, which to me, kind of floats in the middle of both... ok, sorry, this is my brain on drugs. I had hoped to elaborate but...

  6. While I agree that, at times, the "episodic" method of playing does have its advantages, I think that episodic vs sandbox is best defined as the difference between directing a movie vs writing a movie. There's nothing wrong with being given a story, and breathing life into that limited tableau, but sometimes, you want to WRITE the story, if you know what I mean. I used to use episodic play as my way of running a game, but now, I want to try my hand at something bigger.

  7. @ Simon: The bit of both is probably the way to go.
    ; )

    @ Charlene: I am an EXPERT Frogger player and can easily get the dude home to his lilly pads! Welcome to the blog!

    @ Chgo: I guess I'll have to respond on your blog...see you there!

    @ Ed: That's about the shape of what I'm talking about.

    @ Bane: I'm not hammered on Oxy, but I HAVE consumed a half bottle o' wine...and I'm not sure what you mean by "Rumor-box." Um...maybe I'll need one more glass of vino...
    : )

    @ Badger: Trying my hand at something "bigger" led me to some of the frustrations listed above. Either I'm over-prepping things (quite possible) or under-prepping them (equally possible). Perhaps this post didn't come out quite as cool as I'd hoped...I was pressed for time while writing it. I may need to revisit the subject in the future (in a non-A-Z month).

  8. Your website just ate a much longer post I had written about this, so I'm afraid I'm going for the short version:

    U R doing it wrong.

    Players don't know what to do? Sandboxes should be overflowing with hooks and points of interest. But even if they don't, the hexcrawl sandbox specifically gives you a default condition: Pick a direction and ride.

    Don't like "tavern want ads"? Don't put them in your campaign world.

    Players are going off the grid? LET THEM. That's the whole fucking point of a sandbox. If you're forcing them back onto some preconceived content, then you're not actually running a sandbox.

    Trying to prep every single detail of the sandbox setting? Don't. That's impossible. Create a framework. Arm yourself with generators. Let ideas grow and feed on themselves. Focus your attention in the areas where your players become most interested.

  9. I know it´s been years since you published this, but I do see your points.

    I want you to answer me this... Why supporters of the sanbox get so worked up when others don´t like sanbox games? Because I agree with you.

    In fact, one could argue that the number 1 thing that matters the most is if the players are having fun. As a GM this is a priority.

    Could it be possible to think about railroading and sanbox as techniques a GM can employ to get the game moving and for the players to enjoy said game? because I am guessing this is real flexibility.