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.


  1. Looks great! If you are using Yggsburgh you might be interested in a couple of threads I started over at Dragonsfoot. They deal with some of the logistical problems that seem to have arisen during the editing process:

    Yggsburgh Manorial Holdings

    Yggsburgh Orders of Battle

    Might be useful to you, might not be, depending on your interest.

  2. Damn that is a nice map. Do you have a version without the cities noted?

  3. Thanks to you both!

    @ Josh: I don't have an unnamed version but still have the Photoshop file. You would like a version without the cities, dungeon, landmarks names, but still with the main geographic areas (Gnarley forest, Mistmarsh, Duchy of Urnst, Furyondy, Nyr Dyv etc), correct?

    @ Matthew: your DF threads are fantastic resources. I would highly recommend them to any Yggsburgh user, for sure! What I love about this setting is the believability of it all, on a pseudo-medieval level. When I read through Yggsburgh, I feel a similar vibe to what the one I got from Hommlet, a vague feeling that this is own the Ardennes of my childhood would look like as a D&D setting, and with a more English bent to it. That's how I get that feeling of "home" and personal familiarity out of it. Your resources certainly will help me emphasize that romantic medievalism through the game. My thanks!

  4. You have it correct. Or if nothing else a file that could be altered to fit the needs of a DM.

    I think you hit on what I have been looking for. A version of Greyhawk that includes Yggsburg and the surrounding area but not particularly beholden to the original. It could be placed anywhere, used as a seed for a region or even placed as part of the legendary North America Greyhawk.

    Basically I would like to alter some city names to fit my own ideas. All personal use, btw.

  5. Alright. I created a version of the map with icons, but no names, and one without icons.

    Hope that helps! -BP

  6. Glad to be of service. I plan to deal with one other big issue in the near(ish) future, which is the coinage conversion and various price lists. As I understand it, Gygax was concurrently writing Yggsburgh with his various Living Fantasy books, which makes it an interesting practical implementation of the advice contained in those works, and does indeed lend it an authentic "old worldly" feel. The book I most frequently find myself comparing it with is Middenheim: City of the White Wolf, which was a much briefer and city confined, but similar sort of work.

  7. Never read Middenheim and would, if given the occasion. The issue of coinage in Yggsburgh is an interesting one. Wasn't there a discrepency between the currency values included in the book and the lists of goods that were aligned with C&C's base values, or some other issue to that effect?

  8. Yeah, basically Gygax wrote all the prices in dollar ($) values and assumed a 500:10:1 value ratio of gold to silver to copper, erroneously believing this to be a historical relationship during the high Middle Ages (basically, he failed to take coinage debasement into account, and I am told that when this was pointed out to him he brushed it aside as unimportant).

    And perhaps it was unimportant, but unfortunately all of this was rather lost on the editor (or whoever did the currency conversion) and everything ended up at a vastly inflated price as a result. All GP values are 25 times their intended value [e.g. a 4,200 GP long sword is really 168 GP], all SP values are 5 times their intended value [e.g. a 5 SP leather pouch is actually 1 SP], and all CP prices as well.

    So, all values need to be corrected throughout the work, but it is typically best to convert all prices to silver so that you can use your own conversion rates for silver to gold. I started on a couple of conversion files a while back:

    Airhde to Yggsburgh Prices

    True Yggsburgh Prices

    The plan is to complete those and also produce an Greyhawk to Yggsburgh version.

  9. Thanks for sharing these documents, Matthew. Let us know how that goes, alright? I for one am quite obviously very interested in seeing what you come up with in regards to the Greyhawk to Yggsburgh version.

  10. No worries; those files have been available for a while, but I will certainly notify you when I have completed my Greyhawk to Yggsburgh conversion document.

  11. Heeeeyyyy, that's my custom-made clip art over there, at the bottom of the post. Cool!

  12. Is it? LOL I don't remember where I found it.

  13. Most definitely. I made it in AutoREALM of all things!

  14. Pretty cool! I remember I had to change the shade using Photoshop, but that's about it. Thanks for the clipart, in any case! :)


  16. 1) I see no place where he copyrighted the map redraw. The blog is copyrighted but that is standard procedure. I does not mean the map is copyrighted.

    2) Tact, spelling, grammer and punctuation are not bad things. I suggest learning them before posting again.

    3) Drugs are bad.

  17. @joesky

    You will notice that the map specifically indicates "Cartography (C) Benoist Poire, 2009, All Rights Reserved", which means that the Cartography itself, the map and its particular use, not its features, are my exclusive property.

    There is an important legal nuance. I'm not claiming ownership of names or features included on the map. I am, however, claiming ownership of the map, its artistic rendition, itself.

    Thanks for your concern.

  18. Benoist, just an update to let you know I eventually did get round to dealing with part of the Yggsburgh Coinage issue, if you were not aware already.

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