Thursday, 9 February 2012

How I Run Sandboxes in the City, Part I: The Setup

Non-linear game play is not the preserve of fantasy gaming, and a sandbox does not require a hexmap. This sort of game can take place in any setting, in any genre. I'm running such a game at the moment: it's a totally non-linear, sandbox campaign of Cyberpunk 2020 set in Liverpool, or "Cyberpool" as it has come to be known.

It occurred to me recently to write a series of posts on how I've gone about running this, and here is the first: The Setup.

If you are a player in my game and would not like to see "behind the veil" and thus realise that I am in fact no Wizard of Oz but a mere conjuror, stop reading now.

In setting up Cyberpool, I sat down and created three things that I consider indispensable:
  • A big list of NPCs, each with a plot hook/motive attached.
  • A table for randomly generating missions/tasks/jobs, linked to the NPC list.
  • A list of "groups/institutions/gangs/organisations", similar to the NPC list.
Then, with the help of the players, I created the icing on the cake:
  • The relationship hexmap. 
Let's take a look at these in turn.

The Big List of NPCs

The Big List of NPCs exists in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. At the beginning it contained approximately 30 NPCs, each with a Name, a Profession, a Description, and a Motive. Every time the PCs encounter somebody in the game and have an interaction lasting longer than a few sentences, that NPC goes into the list. It's now 63 entries long. 

I think of this as being akin to the hexmap that you might draw when starting off a typical D&D-style sandbox campaign. Rather than having a number of hexes filled with adventuring locations, you have a web of NPCs who will, if you like, provide the stuff of adventure. 

The Random Mission Generator

This is a more complicated, bespoke version of the Mr Jones Mission Generator. It is 20 entries long. I can roll on it at any time, and instantly come up with a link between two NPCs (if, for instance, I come up with "A pimp" "needs to" "kill" "a local businessman" I can within 10 seconds find that pimp and businessman on the Big List of NPCs and create a link between them. It's then a matter of a few more minutes' thought to come up with a backstory for the pair and why the former wants to kill the latter, drawing on their different motives and descriptions). Sometimes, if the mood takes me, I create a new NPC for one of the results and add him/her to the Big List of NPCs.

This is what you draw on when the PCs go out looking for work. If they know some of these NPCs, then work might come looking for them.

The List of Organisations

This is similar to the Big List of NPCs. It's a collection of organisations present in the city, each with a Name, Type, and Description. Sometimes the Random Mission Generator generates results that necessitate referring to this list - other times I use the list when I need to elaborate on the backstory for NPCs.

The Relationship Hexmap

This is the final piece of the puzzle. In our first "chargen" session, I sat down with the players and we created a web of relationships for the PCs and the people they know. Cyberpunk 2020 has a character generation system which by necessity gives each starting PC a certain number of acquaintances (teachers, friends, enemies, family members, ex-lovers, etc.). We put the names of the PCs in the middle of a sheet of hexes, one name to a hex. We then started adding acquaintances in neighbouring hexes, again at one name to a hex. If two names came to neighbour each other, it meant the two people concerned know each other for some reason, which we noted down. 

We also write down the names of other NPCs who emerge during play on this hexmap who are in some way "allied to" or at least in cahoots with this core group of PCs and their acquaintances. These, of course, also go in the Big List of NPCs. The Relationship Hexmap now looks like this:

Which might be a bit confusing to you, but does the job.

These are the basic tools from which the game emerges. The next post will look at how I use them in play.


  1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain...

    Very interesting post! (particularly as I start my own thinking towards GMing)

  2. Excellent, excellent advice. Thanks for sharing your process in detail! I've done some basic relationship-mapping, but nothing on the scale of what you've got here. Looking forward to the next installment.

  3. Regarding the relationship hexmap: you don't seem to label the nature of the relationship. Do you just rely on your memory for that?

  4. That's a very interesting way of structuring relationship maps spatially that I've never thought about.

    It'll work well for my plans to use a relationship to describe the feudal order in Emern.

  5. Billy: Yes, and copious notes that I make on a little reporter's notebook. I've actually thought about playing around with that, though.

  6. Referee tools and practices like these are some of the least-discussed aspects of RPG play. Most books leave it as an exercise for the reader. How do you store NPC info? How do you track time? How do you store info about hexes and other encounter zones? What info is useful and what is not? Software or paper? What stats do you keep on PCs? Do you track loot or PC money or do you leave it to the players? What about torches and rations? How many tables to you keep within easy reach during play? How? Binder? How do you record things like NPC names that you come up with on the spur of the moment or areas that you improvise? Etc. I'm sure there are many more.

    I feel perennially disorganized as a referee, and that's sort of odd because in most other domains I'm more or less crazy organized.

    I guess what I'm saying is that it would be useful to have some discussion about ref best practices.

    By the way, nice idea on the spreadsheet.

  7. Good post; I am looking forward to more.

  8. And by using this method, you also create a Traveller subsector map. :)

  9. As a player in this game, whether noisms is a Wizard or a mere mortal, I can attest to the fact that his machinations work!

    (Word Verification: lociali, which sounds like some kind of strange ethereal creature, or perhaps some kind of spell)

  10. Relationship hexmap idea yoinked. The emergent relationships aspect is particularly choice.

    Cyberpunk 2020 set in Liverpool

    You mean Scouserpunk, surely? (A used future setting where conflict revolves around control of the fabled Lobscouse, or possibly car stereos.)

  11. Brendan: I agree. There's a world of implicit, experiential knowledge out there gathered by thousands of GMs down the ages, but because it's rare for any one GM to see another in action, it doesn't get disseminated.

  12. That relationship hexmap is brilliant! At first I couldn't see the point, (My npcs are categorised by a web of lines with notes on them on a blank sheet of paper) but the amazing thing you get from making a hexmap is that you create a social space that fills up. You cannot help but create relationships!

    This would be great for any situation in which everyone keeps bumping into each other, or where there are groups in which that is true.

    You could keep using this to generate connections for new characters, by having more than one hexmap, and placing a character on each map that effects them, like a local area, or drug dealing, or corporate political manoeuvring, or certain lines of R&D etc.

    It could work for players too; when they get involved in a new area, pop them randomly on to the hexmap for that area, which could mean that they start assisting someone in direct competition with a friend of theirs without realising it, etc. Or if there's no space left on the map, maybe you need to take someone out to get in there..

    That kind of cramped feeling could be great for putting Guy Ritchie-style chaos into play.

  13. Josh W: Some great ideas there. I haven't fully explored all the potential in the idea, and I really like the idea of different hexmaps to interact with.

  14. Love the hex-grid relationship map idea. Very nifty.

  15. I dig all three of your posts on this. How do you think your system would handle with something like Traveller, Firefly, Star Wars, etc? Where there is largely an urban setting but spread across several planets, sectors, etc?

  16. Here's another alternative for a Random Mission Generator

  17. Sorry to resurrect this. Do you still have the excel sheets with the NPCs and organizations? I want some inspiration for this kind of Cyberpunk/citycrawl game

    1. Shit, sorry, no. I don't think I do. They were on an old computer which died, as far as I can recall.