Thursday, March 19, 2015

From Railroad to Sandbox

First on the agenda: the map. The campaign is set in the Fall from Heaven setting. There’s a computer game called Civ4 that simulates the rise and fall of civilizations on a world map. Then there’s a Fall from Heaven mod adapting that game for the setting. It seems like a no brainer to take a game of civ and use it as the campaign map. Even better, there’s a pre-mapped scenario using all 21 civs and is a pretty great set-up. No civ gets lost to an early barbarian rush, and this cuts a significant portion of building up the map.

It’s a really, really big map, 80 by 128 squares = 10,240 squares! The top down approach of filling every square with something is a ludicrous endeavor, and the bottom up approach much simpler. There’s an area of 5 coastal cities I’m calling the Southern Aegean Seas, where I’m running a Never Ending Story. The players each control a faction set in the same campaign world as the D&D game, and there will be opportunities for overlap. Each city belongs to a different nation. For the immediate future its where the campaign is going to focus.

You might be thinking, there he goes riding the railroad again. What I mean by campaign focus is that squares with quest hooks will all lead to other content and other squares within this area, which itself is not small. These interesting hooks will promise the PCs some character spotlight and development, in addition to hunting their nemeses, which I predict will keep player interest. Though there’s that saying: no quest survives contact with the players.

Another thing I have to consider is how the players will experience the transition. Some players who have only ever played railroads will see a big open world and be paralyzed by a seemingly infinite amount of choices. One even asked me, “So you’re really not going to give us a direction to follow the story?” Of course there will be direction. That’s what the hooks are for. My solution is to narrow down the seemingly infinite to a handful of possible directions. This establishes player agency and is the first step to letting the players take charge of their own stories.

The area is about 200 squares. Definitely more than enough room for plenty of content, but presents myself with an inordinate amount of choices. At this point I turn to Ray Winninger’s excellent Rules of Dungeoncraft. I keep these rules in a campaign document. It’s where all my notes on the big picture are so I don’t forget the central theme while creating content. More on the theme(s) in a future post. Each rule is in a large, bold and distinct font so I never miss them. The first Rule of Dungeoncraft: Never force yourself to create more than you must. With this and the goal of creating a square crawl in mind, instead of beginning with the aim of filling 200 squares of content I will only be filling the areas to which the players are likely to travel. This means I can skip squares with nothing but open ocean and other equally boring places, until I choose to make them interesting. Each square's content will have hooks that lead away from sea travel (the PCs are pirates) for the near future and lead further inland. This way the next few quests and squares will give me time to branch away from their current area and fill in content across the sea. When I’m able to get that done I’ll insert hooks promising meaningful adventure in that direction to grow the sandbox. If you’re thinking right now, “But you’re still limiting the players!” I’d like to point out that limitations are ok as long the players have meaningful choices within their limitations. Further, remember this is about transition. Rome - and this campaign - wasn’t built in a day. Let’s make a hex-map...uh...square-map.

Ray Winninger’s Second Rule of Dungeoncraft: Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece. There are two ways I can go about this. First I can think of each square as a major piece of the world and devise a secret for each. In the end that will be a couple of hundred secrets - a little daunting. Let’s make this more manageable and think of each area, not square, as a major piece of the world. With this approach each square will contribute to the unraveling of the secret in the form of clues. If you haven’t already, go check out this excellent article by the Alexandrian on the Three Clue Rule.

Where do I drop the clues? Should I split the three clues among the squares? Hell, no. In part 4 of the Alexandrian’s article on Hexcrawls, he makes the distinction between an encounter and a location for each hex. Most hexes have only one keyed location, some have more. For my campaign each location within a square will have three clues pointing towards a secret. Some locations will end up pointing to the same secret, but that's ok because it leaves the PCs with a greater chance of finding clues and solving the mysteries, which itself is rewarding. So a square with three locations will have a minimum of nine clues, three per a location. Let’s move now from theory to practice.

The city of Haven is a melting pot of people from many nations. It started out as a pirate cove and with the wealth of successful pirates grew into a lawless port (think Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean). The recent wars of the surrounding Southern Aegean have caused a mass influx of immigrants to Haven, mostly ordinary folks looking for somewhere to live unravaged by war. Naturally, these people don’t want to raise families and live in a hive of scum and villainy, creating much conflict between the original pirates and the massed immigrants. Throw in some opposing religions looking to spread their respective faiths and we have a city ripe with intrigue and adventure hooks.

On the map, Haven is only one square. There’s going to be a lot content that goes into that square, so first we’ll start with the simple and fill in the squares around the city. Here’s a picture:


The first thing you’ll notice is a gridded and labeled map. We have the city of Haven located in D4 and the barbarian city of Kalocly in C11 but for now we’ll focus just on the area within the blue border. Those are two squares we don’t need to worry about. Next to eliminate are all the sea squares with nothing on them, leaving two pirate coves, E2 and C6 respectively, Haven’s port in E4, and some fishermen in squares B5 and E6. A total of 5 squares on the to do list. Let’s add the rest of the squares on dry land within Haven’s borders and we have a total of 15 squares to key locations for. That’s not bad at all.

Here’s the last bit of meta-thinking for today. Play time is a major consideration. My group meets at our gaming club, Battle for Salvation (known for its annual Warhammer 40k Grand Tournament on Columbus Day weekend). The space our club rents is only open til 9:45, and the earliest my players get together is 6:30-6:45. So there is a three hour window of play, and with sessions being every other week I prefer not to end quests in the middle of the dungeon. A lot can happen in two weeks, and this span of time makes it hard for everyone to remember where we left off. With this in mind, each square is going to have a limit of three hours worth of content, or multiple locations each with 3hrs of content. That’s all for now. Next time we’re filling in the blanks!


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