Sunday, 2 October 2011

Wide Area Sandboxes

For a while now, Beedo has been posting about what he calls plot hooks in the sandbox (see also here), the idea being that in a sandbox it's sometimes best to start the players off with some sort of information - rumours, maps, what-have-you - to give them something to go on, rather than just telling them "okay, you're in a tavern, get on with it". There's a lot more to it than that, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Anyway, his new idea for how to implement this is just great, and has to be shared:

It's the mid 17th century.  The infamous witch hunter Luis Diaz de la Torre is dead, but his notes describe the existence of secret cults, blasphemous books, evil artifacts, and crazed wizards, working dire magic in remote places.  What will you do with the information contained in the dead priest's library?

The idea here is that at the beginning of the campaign, one of the characters, or perhaps a patron, inherits the library of this priest who was once part of the Inquisition.  In an alternate version of earth, those investigators carrying out the Inquisition do indeed come across evidence of sorcery and dark practices.  The characters inheriting the dead priest's library would come into possession of dozens of potential plot hooks right at the beginning of the campaign, and many of them could be local, allowing the group to plan their own expeditions and test the veracity of the priest's scrawls right away:

I fear the Bishop of Zaragoza is secretly a vampire - why does he shun the daylight?
Must investigate the coastal village of Braga - rumors of sea devils and gold trinkets from Atlantis.
They live beneath the streets of Cordoba, and they eat the corpses of the dead.  I will not go back down there.

Cool or what? It got me thinking about another potential "wide area sandbox" scenario that I've been entertaining for a while: The Magician's Nephew, shorn of its other elements. The idea is that one of the characters inherits his/her uncle's study; and contained therein is a gateway to a multiverse, together with the uncle's notes on what is contained therein.

What I really like about this sort of thing is the thought that you can also introduce some other standard elements of D&D in an organic way. Why does the magic-user in the party have a spell-book? He found it on a shelf. You can also do something I've always wanted to do in a D&D game, which is to give the players their own bestiary - an encyclopedia of weird and wonderful beings - with brief scrawled descriptions, unstatted; the conceit would be that this was the uncle's notes on the beings he had encountered in the "other place". This would, I'm sure, build tension, as the players read through the descriptions and wonder what "a grey, mottled, bony thing with horrid moth wings and dead staring eyes" was and how dangerous.


  1. Good stuff.

    In some ways it's like a very developed version of the venerable rumor table.

  2. i love the idea about giving the players a bestiary.

  3. A bestiary is a really good type of book for the library - I end up reading a lot kid's fantasy to my 9 year old, and that technique kicked off adventures in The Spiderwick Chronicles and Dragonology - it's tried and true.

    Although truthfully, the idea of inheriting a bunch of documents cataloging the previous owner's investigations hails back to The Call of Cthulhu, and that's probably more my happy place. Because there are inimical forces also seeking the library (and ensuring such knowledge stays lost) the very act of inheriting the library thrusts the characters into danger.

  4. BTW - I meant the story, The Call of Cthulhu, not the game.

  5. ah I gotta do a bestiary! That would be combining my love of completely overblown text with my love of barely identifiable drawings! And the mayhem!
    "So we need to travel through the bloodsick swamp? Berkos guide to tetrafauna says it's full of whimpering festerers, but it says here they are like the size of dogs, and cowardly, yeah lets go." Except on full moons, where whimpering festerers form great stacks of their own bodys and lurch about towering above the trees, a lumpering hell things formed of a 1000! Vomited corrosive fungus from its endless mouths!
    Berkos guide to tetrafauna would get so much wrong, sizes (the stunk meat boar is tiny! and adorable! berko just thought it was very far away!), diet (fruits, nuts, roots .... and bone marrow!), weaknesses (fuck you berko! Fire makes it grow! Fire makes it grow!) etc.
    You could drop hints of the last known location of Berko , to see if the players wanna track him down for some "corrections".

    I guess it would have to be right half the time though. Maybe.

  6. "You inherit X from your uncle."
    Man, that has got an absolutely venerable literary lineage. As an uncle always foisting awesome stuff on his nephews, I heartily endorse it.