Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New School Sandbox

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition's default feel of over-the-top magical superbadasses hitting monsters in the face with big glowing things isn't necessarily my preferred style of fantasy - I tend to go for the mucky stuff like Warhammer Fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire or Dragon Warriors - but lately I have been finding myself getting into it again. And by "getting into it" I mean doing something more than playing it every week, which is what I have been doing for about a year now.

I find myself thinking about running 4e again a lot lately. I mean, I actually took a test to see if I could qualify as a RPGA "Herald" Dungeon Master yesterday afternoon. Now, I didn't pass (yet), and I was mostly doing it in the hopes of being able to grab the RPGA-exclusive revamp of The Village of Hommlet, but the effort is there.

One thing I was thinking about was that the encounter-design structure of 4e makes it hard to do a traditional, Wilderlands-style "sandbox" (or "hexcrawl") campaign. You know, one where the characters are plunked into a detailed area with lots of site-based adventures from which they can pick and choose. On the surface, it seems like D&D 4e makes that difficult, since encounters are constructed specifically for your characters, based on experience level. But it's always been possible in sandbox play for players to wander into things way above (or below) their characters' ability to handle. I mean, yes, you're going to get your butts kicked if you decide to take on an Exarch of Orcus at 5th level. How is that any different from the way D&D worked in the past? You take your risks.

Now, another stumbling block is the absence of any sandbox-style setting supplements or adventures for 4e. (There are rumors that Wizards' upcoming Revenge of the Giants super-module is going to be site-based, but that was supposed to be a boxed set, too, and that's looking less and less likely as time goes by.) But if you take a look at the Dungeon Delve hardcover, you've got tons of mini-adventure sites for a variety of different levels. Just lay a hex grid over a map of the Nentir Vale and place the delves where you want them. Combine your new sandbox Vale map with the published modules, the DMG, and Dungeon PDF magazines, and there's a whole mess of trouble waiting for your wandering PCs.

Yeah, I want to give this a try.


  1. I think it's very do-able. I think the encounter design system makes it very easy for you as a DM to know when dropping an encounter into a location how difficult it will be relative to the party, but of course in sandbox, you just let the chips fall.

    I think DMG2 will have a bit more on this as well.

  2. Don't get me wrong - I do like the way encounter design works in 4e. I just like the idea of sandbox play (probably because I've never done it).

    I hope you're right about DMG2 having some more about it. I wouldn't be surprised, since Mike Mearls was talking about sandbox play on his LiveJournal not too long ago.

  3. Colour me very interested in how this turns out. Very cool to see someone else trying hexmap sandbox games outside of classic D&D.

  4. Sooga: Unfortunately, me saying that I want to try something out is not a promise of actually getting around to doing it...

  5. One thing I was thinking about was that the encounter-design structure of 4e makes it hard to do a traditional, Wilderlands-style "sandbox" (or "hexcrawl") campaign.No. Why? Ignore the fact that nearly all modules published are in encounter format. If you read the DMG it give the encounter format as a means of exposing the math behind 4e.

    On one hand you can use it to make your game like the published module with everything tailored to the level of the characters.

    On the other hand you can use it like I did. Just to get a sense of the relative power of the various entities I populate my setting. If the player run into Orcus, so be it.

    There more to running a sandbox game than I can put in this post. But I ran a couple of games in my Majestic Wilderlands using 4e. The characters felt more "Over the top" but other than that it ran like any other Wilderlands session using D&D 3.X, AD&D, Fantasy Hero, or GURPS

    One thing I found that I liked about using 4e and sandbox play is that I would run off all the cards for the deizens of a region. Say Dearthwood east of City-State.

    When I wanted the stats for something on the map. I just shuffled through the cards and pulled out the ones I needed. The 4e Stat Block format meant I didn't have to go into the rulebook like the other systems.

    Ultimately what does 4e in for me is the "feel" of the powers. Not the mechanics. If somebody came out with a gritty 4e (warriors instead fighters, priests instead of clerics, etc) then I would be interested. Despite the feel 4e is fun and works for sandbox as well as encounter style.

  6. You know, I shouldn't have said that 4e "makes it hard" to do a sandbox campaign. If you just don't worry about encounter format, it should work fine, like you said.

    I'm with you on not being a huge fan of the feel of the 4e powers. Sometimes I'd like them to feel a bit more grounded and less over-the-top, too. Some classes are worse than others in this regard. The bard, in particular, has plenty of opportunity for goofy stuff (like insulting a gelatinous cube to death) but that's not a complete dealbreaker for me.

    Thanks for a substantive and thoughtful post, Rob. (I especially like the idea of the "denizen cards"!)

  7. In some ways 4e might actually support sandbox style of play. I'm not super familiar with it or 3e so feel free to correct me.

    - I've heard that parties are more able to deal with encounters above their level. My understanding is that an average level 5 group should still have a chance of fighting off a Level 10 encounter, provided it lets loose with dailies and so on. If not, fleeing is still an option and the party is generally less likely to get wiped by a tough encounter with this edition.

    - More monster variety within one monster type. If you're in Goblin Territory it's easy to throw together a random encounter table of Goblin encounters spanning Early Heroic Tier. With earlier editions going out of the box you'd have Goblins, Orcs, Bugbears, perhaps Wolves or Giant Rats in service of the Goblins, but if you wanted to have an all-goblin region you'd have to make a few variations yourself. Not that this is a huge task, but with 4e at least it's there on the page.

    Not to say 4e is perfect for sandbox play, but it's easy to overlook some of these advantages.

    If you haven't read the West Marches series of posts over on Ars Ludi I highly reccomend heading there now. One of the finest pieces of writing on the topic of sandboxes.

  8. Oh, I'm quite familiar with those Ars Ludi posts. They're very inspiring indeed.

    These are all good points. Thanks.

  9. I figure there must be a lone person out there who hasn't read those posts and I'm determined to enlighten them!

  10. Oooh! *raises hand* I've been running a 4e sandbox campaign for 5 sessions so far. Here's a couple of links on my experiences so far.



    Due to real life stuff (college, work, 2nd baby one the way) gaming in general is on hiatus but overall the players have been enjoying a campaign with no story and an open road.

  11. You mean I'm not the only one who thought of this?! Thanks for the links, kaeosdad.

  12. We've been playing in a sandbox style 4E game for several months now. It does work, but as was mentioned, the feel of it just isn't the same. That's not to say it isn't worth doing... you will still have fun... but I don't know if 4E really can seem like traditional D&D. One thing you may want to keep in mind when you do it: make sure the treasures (magic items) are appropriate to the challenges, whatever level those challenges may be. It's harder to take on something way above your level in 4E, but if the PCs do it and survive, they deserve the appropriate rewards. The treasure parcel system just doesn't cut it in a sandbox campaign...

  13. I've been running a 4e game for 6 months - the focus is more on story than combat & tactics, but I definitely wanted it to have that sandbox feel. I did NOT want the players to feel like they could do anything they want (at least not at 1st level!), because the encounters would always be tailored to their level. Instead, I have encounters placed and monsters/NPCs leveled according to what I thought made sense, and the rest is up to the PCs' judgment. I wanted them to have a fear of death!

    Already, a few times, the PC's have left a site, saying "Let's mark this on our map and come back later..." and they've very nearly died at least twice from sticking their noses where they didn't belong. Once, they were saved just by dumb luck (and I don't mean fudging die rolls). I think they're learning that discretion can be the better part of valor. :)

    I think the 4e system doesn't encourage OR discourage sandbox style - all it does is make it easier for the DM to know just how tough the encounter is, and what kind of party might be needed to take it on. This makes it easier to design encs for the party's level if you want, but makes it no more difficult to play sandbox style. This, I think, is the biggest strength of 4e.

    Not without my gripes, of course. I agree with @blizack and @Rob Conley about the feel of 4e powers, for sure.

    I think for me I feel like all the abilities (powers, feats, skills) are so much more focused on combat - makes it harder to run an intrigue or RP campaign. Still doable, of course - you can always rely on your DM instinct. But I do feel like 2e and 3e made it easier for me to DM non-combat situations...