Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Anti-Sandbox Sandbox Pt. 1

Well, I noticed I haven't posted in a week, but I have an excuse: income tax time. Ok, well, not really since I let my wife handle all that ("Did I make any money this year, honey? No? Am I getting a refund check? If I am you're spending it at JoAnns? Ok thanks!"). No, I got the sandbox bug and decided to go after it, so every non-working moment has been filled with the joy of filling blank sheets of graph paper and finding various sources to help me do it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum....

I first thought I would give it a try because it's really hard to get my core group of five grown men (including myself) together more than once a month (if that) to game. And sometimes (the last three times, specifically) one has been missing due to obligations outside the game table. So, I thought, let's have a "backup" campaign that is easy and quick to run in case only two show up, or in the case I have unexpected guests want to join in at the table (my present 2E campaign is very plot and character oriented, and it's hard to shoehorn a "one week only" character into the ongoing plotline). Just roll a few dice, arm your character, and it's off to the local megadungeon to kill wandering monsters. It would be great, I could use an existing simulacrum rules set like Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry to keep the simplicity, and roll up a bunch of random stuff and link it all together. Everyone would have fun for a few hours getting their characters killed by orcs.

Except, there weren't enough fiddly bits. I love the fiddly bits, the crunchy bits, what have you. Heck, I wanted to play AD&D before I was even through with my first game of Holmes D&D. The tiny spell lists given in basic D&D and the simulacrums weren't enough. 8 spells? How about I add a few....and then why are all the priests the same? I'll have a priesthood of Healing,one of Battle, one of Knowledge. Whoops, they all have to have unique powers, right? Ditto with the mage spell lists. Have to beef it up a bit there too. Of coures, gotta have the fighter and thief. Oh, yeh, and the bard, love bards. Oh, and Rangers and Paladins. What the heck , a Barbarian.

Then I started making the "random" dungeon. Cool, there is a priests stronghold in the first big room? What are they doing there? They are there to heal up and support delvers. Before I knew it, I had a five paragraph writeup of who the priests were, their motives, what they were doing there, their spells, their belongings, their treasure, arghhh!!! Ok, onto the next room down the hall . Goblins? How come they are not that faraway from the priests? Ok, they recently arrived and are engaged in a war of attrition with the priests. Pretty soon....another few paragraphs about the goblins, their leader, their goals, motivations, treasure, why the have bugbear with them...arghhh! This is taking far too long for a random dungeon. Let's skip a few rooms....a fountain? Cool! What does it do? Another few paragraphs...erk.

Ok, this is getting too complicated. Let's concentrate on the city/town nearby. Keep it simple, right? Just need a pre-fab like the city in L1, or...hey, what about Carse? I always wanted to use that. Dang, it's huge! Well, that would make sense, my dungeon backstory would support a large city nearby. But look at all the work involved, I just wanted a small village where the characters could buy equipment...but wouldn't it be more logical to have this city? All the gold coming out of the megadungeon, it would lead to this, right? So much for the easily dropped in Village of Hommlet-type setting....

And thus it came to pass, I realized I am the anti-sandbox DM.

I will say, I did give it a shot, in good faith. I used for my megadungeon the levels of the classic TSR Dungeon Geomorphs (fitted together to make one giant level), I figured that would be a fun inside joke for players if they happened to recognize it, and made my participation minimal (only having to roll for room contents). All the rest of it...not so much. I just couldn't jettison the homebrew rules I've lovingly crafted the last 25 years or so for someone elses system, no matter how brilliant. And as I said, I really love the fiddly bits. So, instead of a simple return to Holmes basic or Labyrinth Lord, I'm back to using my version of 2E. So much for simplicity.

Now, I will say, I am proud of myself for some of my innovations here. I did manage a few easy workabouts, and the rules system actually came together really quickly once I realized I am far too wedded to my own campaign worlds and house rules to jettison them for anything else. I can cut the rules down to but a few pages of essential bits, basically throwing out all the options and sticking to the basics (you swing, you hit or you miss, nothing fancy. Mages throw spells. Thieves do thiefly things. Clerics heal. That).

But I streamlined it down to an odd hybrid I'm going to call "2E/OD&D". Basically, the characters, spells, monsters, etc are all a stripped down form of the 2E game we play and loved for the last 15 years, completely btb. I halved the spells available, kept the class abilities to a bare minimum, and did a few other time saving features that will have character generation down to five minutes, tops. However, except for that, the DM figures everything else out and tells the players what happens. So, keep track of your character abilities, thief skills, spells, etc. Stuff like movement rates, initiative, surprise, encumbrance...not so much. The DM will let you know all that stuff, it won't need to be looked up, and when in doubt I'll just roll the dice to keep the game moving. My goal is to have completely rulebook-less sessions here, and I think it can be done if I pass out spellcards (how many sets of the Wizard and Priest spell card sets do I have floating around, half a dozen?) and print out short "cheat sheets" of character abilities. If a character wants to do something, I'll make a ruling, and we'll roll the dice, no page flipping required. I've been gaming for 30 years now, I trust myself to make on the fly decisions that won't break the game. We very seldom look at the books at this point in my regular game, anyway. As for the rest of it, well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve...I hope


  1. Your game sounds pretty cool. And fooey on anybody who thinks you're doing anything wrong. The sandbox is a useful tool but no tool is universally applicable.

  2. I like what other people are doing with their own sandboxes, and I wish I could throw everything I know aside and do it that way. It would be fun to "start from scratch". But apparantly I am genetically unable to jettison the crunchy bits and fiddly bits to do this, so I'll do the best I can. I still have a bit to go and then I'll playtest it and see if it works!

  3. Aw, crap. I forgot I had logged in to check my work email before I commented up above.