History in the Sandbox

From Game Geek 5 by yours truly:

Nerdrage for sandbox campaigns seems to be at an all-time high. Pop around the Internet for a bit, and you’ll find blogs, forum threads, and products singing sandbox praises and offering advice ranging from sage to silly. I’m a pretty level-headed gamer, and even I’ve gone a bit ga-ga over this “new” trend in RPGing.

Of course, sandbox games aren’t a new thing. The revered Keep on the Borderlands from way back in 1979 was rather sandboxy. As is often the case, everything old becomes new again. In part, I think the resurgence of the sandbox owes at least a little to the dominance of adventure path style campaigns, where the heroes embark on some epic 20-level quest with a more-than-less linear plot structure. I’ve played my share of adventure paths, and they can be great fun.

But they often seem to lack a certain flexibility. The path might not be quite so rigid as A before B before C, but few of them permit the players to scramble up the alphabet in whatever order to their hearts’ content. What’s more, after a while, the path to adventure can turn into something more like a rut to the next sub-MacGuffin needed to reach the Ultimate Prize.

The Old School Revival (OSR) may also have something to do with the sandbox’s new popularity. I’ve not done anything approaching a scientific study, but I get the impression that the OSR has reached a fevered pitch in response to 4E’s presumptive hegemony over fantasy RPGs. Rather than new and shiny, many gamers voice a preference for old and shiny combined with fond memories of the supposed lack of railroad plot-tracks in modules from 20-30 years ago.

By positioning the sandbox against adventure paths, the sandbox’s advocates often emphasize the lack of linear plot, player freedom to set and achieve goals, and the more realism inherent in a world that doesn’t scale up in level with the PCs. Of course, this is a simplification, and adventure pathers can be quick to point out defects, such as that sandbox campaigns suffer from directionlessness leading to boredom by placing too much emphasis on player-directed action.

As is most often the case, the truth lies between the two extremes on the via media. Let’s put aside the pros and cons of sandboxing, and instead look at a concrete example of how to set up a beginning campaign using real-world history as a starting point.

Real-world history offers certain advantages. First, it establishes a geography and overarching timeline for things that happen regardless of PC actions. Second, the people within the historical narrative are a rich resource for NPCs, power groups, and adversaries. Finally, the historical event gives the players something they can sink their teeth into. The event presents familiar terrain for the imagination to get lost in.

Thus, we reach our first step: picking a historical incident to form our starting point. Fortunately, I’ve got an example ready to use. Click over to this blog post and read about how La Salle became one of the most famous Europeans murdered in the New World by other Europeans. I’ll wait for you to get back.

Hello again! Let’s break La Salle’s story down into something usable for a sandbox campaign by pulling out the elements we’ll need for our players and their PCs. La Salle’s departure from Europe in July 1684 looks like a good starting point.


La Salle’s voyage hit three points worth noting: the starting port-of-call, Petit Goave in Haiti, and Matagorda Bay in Texas. Any suitable fantasy port city serves for the starting point. This is where the PCs enter the story. Plot hooks lure them aboard one of La Salle’s ships. Google is your friend for the other two locations. Maps of Haiti and the Matagorda Bay area are easy to find. Select a couple that fit your needs, save them as graphics files, and do a little editing. For simple changes, no special programs or skills are needed. MS Paint and/or IrfanView work just fine.

Once you’ve got your maps, place specific encounter areas, sites of interest, and so forth. Don’t go overboard on the details (unless that’s your thing). All you really need at first is an overview and enough options to get your players to pick up the adventure ball and start running with it.

Even though it’s technically not geography, don’t forget to get your hands on some deckplans for ships. If you’ve got the gumption, draw them out on posterboard and cut them out to create ready-to-use floorplans for shipboard action.

Allies & Enemies

After reading the essay, I identified a few key figures to use as NPCs. Obviously, we need La Salle. The voyages needs a chaplain, so why not recruit La Salle’s brother Jean? Crevel de Moranget, La Salle’s hot-headed nephew, rounds out our list of allies.

The voyage starts with Etienne Liotot, ship’s surgeon, and the Duhaut brothers already present. These three need not begin the campaign as bad guys. They turn against La Salle after several weeks of enduring La Salle’s incompetence. More risible fellows include the pirate Hiems and the other rabble taken aboard in Petit Goave. Generic bad guys include hostile Karankawas and Spanish pirates. Generic good guys? The various crew members and travelers aboard the ships.

Avoid making good-guy NPCs more competent than the PCs, especially in La Salle’s case. NPC classes are most suitable for nearly all of them. Keep in mind that one need not pile on the levels to make an NPC capable in his job. In the fantasy d20 System, a 5th-level expert is likely near the top of his field.


La Salle’s voyage to the New World suffered several setbacks. Here’s the short list: damage to a ship requiring repairs before sailing could continue, gales and other bad weather, disease, pirates, deserters, lack of food and clean water, and hostile natives.

Each of these can be summarized in a paragraph or two, perhaps printed on handy index cards or some other organizational tool. Toss in a few “random” encounters, and you end up with several events to liven up the trip. Take care to customize these to highlight the PCs’ competencies, foibles, and interests. After all, the story is about them, not La Salle and the other NPCs.

For example, just because Spanish pirates captured the real Saint-Francois doesn’t mean your campaign must follow suit. If the PCs manage to defeat the pirates, so much the better.


Toss in two or three events that happen no matter what. For example, if you want the campaign to include getting shipwrecked, then ships have got to wreck. The PCs aren’t omni-competent. When the time is right, declare that bad weather has run a ship aground.

Remember that throughout you’re not prepping plots. You’re setting up situations into which the PCs can interject themselves in order to shape the course of events. How do the PCs react to La Salle’s incompetence? Do they take over the expedition, offer their services as advisors, or just ignore things and hope it all works out? Do they take part in a murder plot against La Salle? When Hiems and his disreputable cohorts come aboard in Petit Goave, what do the PCs do? When attacked by hostile natives, do the PCs wage war or act as diplomats? Et cetera, et cetera.

Dive into the sandbox with appropriate preparation, and the possibilities are nearly endless.

September 24th, 2010  in RPG No Comments »

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