Monday, October 13, 2014

Sandboxing is harrowing...and rewarding!

In the spirit of full disclosure, since I alluded to it in the last episode:

I did it! I stepped outside of my comfort zone and happy self-contained module boundaries and friggin' sandboxed a game. First. Time. Ever.

I've been enjoying creating little tidbits here and there to tie things together. I mean, let's face it; for campaign play, even when strictly running modules, you still have to connect them somehow. Whether it's taking the party straight from Sailors to an ocean-faring adventure, or stringing together a bunch of land-locked escapades, the storyline needs to contain a cohesive part or three that give the players a sense of continuity -- and a desire to build upon it.

But it almost becomes a new game – with new rules for the Judge – when you take away the tried-and-tested module and replace the meat of the session with something that comes from your own brain. Even drawing inspiration from other sources, you’re not using a script or plot that’s been penned by noteworthy authors and fully playtested. There is no telling where the story will go, because you’re also giving the players a chance to fully participate in the “cooperative storytelling” I so love to tout at my table.

I’m not saying any of these things are bad. I’m just illustrating that, as far as my self-confidence went? All bets were off.

It’s no secret that the weeks leading up to this was full of nail-biting and nerves. (C’mon, you can’t tell me none of you got nervous the first time you started your own game, whether you were 12 or 40!) +DougKovacs kindly nudged me toward using an idea I’d come across that really strikes a chord with me: “You can draw from anything, but it should mainly be of interest to you.” Well, of course. I need it to be something I’m passionate about, rather than a blasé, “Sure, you can explore that. Why not?” I’d much rather smile and respond, “I’d love it if you’d check that out.” Not only will it ring true, it’ll unnerve the table – and if you’re not trying to elicit a response from players, why bother Judging? While I won’t reveal the root of my inspiration here or on Spellburn (I don’t want to spoil anything for my current or potential players), I’ve already touched on in the past. Why not make it the official underlying plotline?

I started by making a list of the recurring characters and recalling the histories and goals that they’ve been playing up, then the events they’ve already set into motion and current party issues (e.g., a petrified pseudodragon familiar). I then sat down to come up with some intertwined quests that will solve some of the PC’s current and projected problems, fleshed out some NPCs who will be recurring, cobbled together a combination of critters for encounters, and devised a couple potential adventure directions. The prep time for this game session was comparable with the last, and to be perfectly honest, I’m still working on the path(s) they’ll take. But the Muse is thriving on it.

A wise bit of Kovacs advice: “When your imagination embraces a concept your players will follow and eat up anything you present to them.” Boy, did they – especially the ones who’ve been with me since the early days. The morsels of campaign history that were disseminated (“You find [this item], and it looks oddly familiar”) were pounced upon (“I make sure my gloves are on and wrap up [the item]”). The only constructive criticism I would give my table is this: When given the chance to choose a direction, you gotta tell me which way you want to go. They’ve gotten very used to me having a set game plan, and the offer of something that didn’t involve a railroaded plot stymied them at first.

For the encounters, I pulled a monster out of the core book that I’ve wanted to use for over a year. Based on the sheer number of PCs, I doubled the recommended HD – and then a handful of the PCs declared they were going to try to circumvent the combat altogether, which earned the players dirty looks from the ones involved in the fighting. {Phew, dodged that one.} The combat took over an hour, but the players were still enthusiastic and involved. There were a couple of other one-on-one encounters that others could jump in on, and I’d been on the fence about the third big group of monsters. At the very last minute, I turned them into captives that needed rescued, and it was amazing to watch the expressions around the table – I surprised everyone with that decision, including myself, and it made for some great role-play and solidified the group’s mission for the next game. Interestingly, their new focus takes them completely away from one of the adventures I’d prepped. So be it.

However, there are still a number of choices they could make during the course of the next session, so I will be prepping at least two directions/paths, as I loathe the idea of being caught flat-footed. I’ll improv as multiple NPCs for as long as it takes, but I’m simply not comfortable with the idea of coming up with encounters & stats on the fly. I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with scrawling “maps” either, but the group has been very patient and forgiving.

The Acolyte is taking baby-steps…be gentle.

{…2014 Worlds Tour/Road Crew session #14 report to follow.}


  1. Congrats

    You've entered a whole new world!

  2. Congrats on successfully walking the sandbox tightrope!

  3. I'm looking forward to reading the session write-up and reliving the day's adventure in print (plus it might remind me of some of those plot details that the ol' noggin isn't retaining). We had a great time. There were brushes with death, old foes remembered, and a real feeling of victory and accomplishment at the end.

    Great stuff!

  4. Awesome job, young lady. I'm sure you did great and I'm certain your players had a good time.

  5. Congrats! I am awfully curious what monster you used......Did you make a dragon?

    1. Heh. While I DID roll up a dragon, it was mostly for educational purposes. It'd just be mean to throw that at a mix of lvls 0-4 -- especially doubling the recommended HD. =)

      Working on the write-up...