Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Building the Sandbox

After thinking about running a campaign to the roots of gaming and considering the various possibilities offered to me for a while, I finally settled for the World of Greyhawk as our backdrop. Just as I wanted to use the Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) rules and let the game system shape itself organically, from actual play, I knew I wanted to make the game world our own, through and through.

This meant I wouldn’t try to run an official, “canon” version of the World of Greyhawk, but instead would create my own setting by picking and choosing among the many offerings of the 1983 boxed set. Along with other game elements from outside sources I would want to use in such a campaign, I would rearrange all these bits and pieces into a coherent, workable whole that would entertain us by providing a large, open-ended background for the game.

What applies to rules, I thought, must apply to the setting as well.

One of the characteristic aspects of vintage gaming to me is what many aficionados of the game call “the sandbox campaign”. The idea stems from the realization that the game isn’t about telling stories, or narratives, or anything of that sort. The game is about actual, if fictional, events as they occur, experienced by the players as they immerse themselves into their characters’ roles. The “story” here is a consequence of game play, the stuff you can talk about to your buddies once the game has been played.

The idea of the Jade Lantern here is just a component of a much larger environment which may be explored by the players’ characters (PCs), or not at all. It’s not up to me, the Dungeon Master (DM), to force the players to investigate this or that mystery of the game world, but rather to react to their decisions, whatever they may be.

This is why so many adventure modules were based on locations, and their keyed descriptions thereof, rather than laundry lists of events which could, would, or should occur if the PCs decided to do this or that during the game.

The direct application of this principle on the scale of the entire game world itself is the notion of a sandbox, a large area centered around the PCs that they can explore to their hearts’ content, whenever they please, however they please. In practice, this means the PCs start somewhere, at a point X on a map. From there, they can go North, South, East or West, and explore the setting. It’s an open world, a completely free, unscripted game experience, which I believe brings about the best out of role-playing game sessions.

With all this in mind, I picked up some hex graph paper and, using the original Greyhawk maps, started to craft the campaign setting.

First, I took the East Mark as depicted in Castle Zagyg, vol. 1 – Yggsburgh and blended it with the Greyhawk area of the 1983 boxed set. It was like fitting two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together, rounding out edges where they didn’t exactly fit, in some areas, and just letting my imagination run wild and draw whatever came to mind, in some others. I ended up with a fair idea of what the resulting geographical landmarks would look like: rivers, lakes, forests, swamps, hills and mountain ranges. A few surprising elements came up from this process, like for instance the presence of a gulf very similar to the Morbihan I always wanted to use in a medieval setting.

I then placed adventure locations on the map, the goal being to provide possibilities of delves and exploration wherever the PCs decided to go. Some came from other game resources, like Rappan Athuk and Bard’s Gate from Necromancer Games, Clydwell Keep from Paizo, Castle Whiterock from Goodman Games, Brindenford from Monte Cook’s DungeonADay website, and more. Other locations were of my own design, like the Oerthwound (though the name is obviously inspired by Golarion’s Worldwound), the Black Abbey (my own megadungeon project), the Sunken City or the village of Aradon (which is a direct translation of my father’s childhood town in Bretagne, France, along the shore of the Morbihan Gulf I talked about earlier).

Progressively, the Greyhawk area became “my” Dunfalcon area, a region ripe for adventure and exploration.

Once I was done with the map’s hand-drawn design and shaded the various areas with pencils, I scanned it and coloured it all using Photoshop, placed standardized icons for the various locations and landmarks I depicted, and finally added all the names, designations, scale and other components the map required to be complete.

This is the final result:

I now had a complete sandbox. All I needed at this point was a starting point, a base situation for the game to begin. This would be my next step.

Post Scriptum (October 08, 2009): While discussing this setting at the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, the scale of the original East Mark and its adaptation to my Dunfalcon map brought up some interesting facts and comparisons.

The original East Mark fold-up map included Castle Zagyg, vol. 1 Yggsburgh had no scale included, whereas the Players' maps, later released as an electronic document on the Troll Lord Games website, did indicate one hex equals 1.5 miles. This is in direct contradiction with the landmark references in the original text of the book, which basically imply that one hex equals 1 mile. The corresponding area on the Dunfalcon map I drew is much larger, with about 1 hex of the original Yggsburgh map equating to about 2 miles of the Dunfalcon setting.

In other words, according to the text of the Yggsbugh volume, Darlene's East Mark is about 33 x 50 miles, while the scale included on the Players' electronic version results in the same area being about 50 x 70 miles. The corresponding area on my Dunfalcon map is about 70 x 100 miles.

It's also worth noting that, while trying to retrofit the East Mark within the Greyhawk area, I contemplated the possibility of greatly increasing the scale of the overall map. I was thinking of one hex = 10 miles, originally, but was unsure about the results. I actually had to superimpose a map of Eastern France on the original Greyhawk map to realize the full scale of it all, and finally decided against any further modification of its scale, thus keeping one hex = 6 miles for the final map you can see here.