Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sand in the Box

My son just turned 9, and has been wanting to play D&D with people other than just me. There is a local group with three spots open (playing 5E), but when I asked the DM if he would mind playing with a 9-year-old, he reluctantly said he'd ask his players. I told him don't bother. I figure if he's uncomfortable with the idea, it really doesn't matter what the other players say. So, I'm falling back on my plan to start a new face-to-face group where my son can play.

A while back, I made several posts about running Dragonlance as a sandbox campaign in 5E, thinking I'd run that for my son and whoever else. Dragonlance because the world does have a lot of neat elements to it, and I read tons of the novels when I was a kid, so I know it pretty well. 5E because that will make it easier to attract other players. Sandbox, because I'd rather not introduce my son to playing group games by making him ride the DL module railroad.

But then I thought, why not save myself a lot of time, and just run it with 1E AD&D? It may be harder to get players, but easier to run the game. It would be even easier if I ran it using my BECMI houserules but with race and class separate. But again, getting players might be a problem.

Then, last week, I found a game on with an old school DM running a West Marches game using 5E, and I joined it. And I've decided to copy that rather than set my game on Krynn. Part of the decision was a bed-time discussion with my son, before I got the answer from the local DM, about what sort of character he'd like to play. I gave him a run-down of the 5E races and classes, and he thought a Dragonborn Monk would be fun to play. Not very DL, at least not pre-War of the Lance. So something more open, less defined, and with plenty of options might be in order.

So, I'm thinking how I'd run my own West Marches style sandbox game. There's a bit of a desire on my part to try my saltbox Maritime Campaign from a few years ago, but that's more work for me. With a more standard West Marches type set-up, I can plop down TSR modules, old dungeons I've made, free downloads from WotC/Dragonsfoot/the OSR community, and the like throughout the wilderness, and let the players explore to find them.

I say "West Marches style" because I'm planning to only run it with this one group, meeting regularly. It will be pretty open ended, but since there's only the one group, I'll probably need to lay down lots of rumors and the occasional mission/request for the townsfolk to get them motivated to explore, at least in the beginning.

So now we get to the nitty-gritty of this post. What do I need to run a West Marches style hexcrawl sandbox?

1. A Map: Of course, I need a wilderness hex map. The home town is on the far eastern edge, in the middle, and players have free reign to explore to the west, northwest, or southwest of the town. But if you go east, you're entering into retirement in the civilized settled lands of the Empire.

I'll probably start with a small scale map at 6 miles per hex, with various Basic level dungeons scattered here and there, and a few tougher dungeons and monster lairs. Later, if the campaign lasts long enough, I can create a larger scale map (24 miles per hex).

2. Wilderness Encounter Tables: These are most important, since from the beginning the players will be exploring the wilds trying to find dungeons or monster lairs with treasure. I don't have the 5E DMG yet, just the PHB and MM, and I don't remember if there are wilderness encounter tables in the free Basic Rules DM download, so I may have to just use the Expert Set ones, or make my own custom ones. Custom ones would be a better West Marches fit, so that each area of the wilds can have its own flavor, so I'll probably work up some custom jobbo.

3. A Home Base: In the RPOL game, the home base town is really more of a hamlet, with about 30 residents, not including adventurers. That's easy enough - the town just has the basics needed by adventurers and nothing else. But I may use the "home town" I've been developing for years now, Silverwood, just because I know it and the NPCs there well. I'll likely scale it down in size from around 5,000 residents to merely 500 residents for this game, but the various inns and shops, the mayor and town officials, the temples and thieves' guild, will all remain the same. Like I said, I want this game to be easy for me to run.

4. A Few House Rules: Just exploring for the sake of exploring may not really interest the players. Like I said above, unlike the original West Marches campaign, I'll need to bait the hooks with rumors and missions to get the players out of town and where the action is. Old school games do this well by giving XP for gold. 5E, however, has a very very fast progression rate compared to BECMI or AD&D, so I'll need to tinker either with the amount of treasure worth 1 XP or else with the advancement table.

I think 5E works well getting PCs to level 3 quickly, so that everyone can choose their specialization early on. I'd like to keep that. So I'm thinking I'll give out 1 XP for every 1pp (10gp) in treasure, plus use monster XP from BECMI. That might actually give more XP for higher level monsters, I'd better check on that. Also, the old school "no more than one level per adventure" rule must be implemented.

5. A Jeff's Gameblog style Triple Secret Random Wilderness Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom: Even though I'm only going to be running this game with one party, I'd rather not leave them out in the wilderness between sessions. There will be "safe haven" locations on the map, which can be used to rest and recuperate, resupply and maybe get a bit of information, and of course the players may set up more of their own if they attempt such. If they don't get back to town or to one of these safe havens by the end of the game session, I'll roll and see what happens to them.

6. Dungeons (and dragons, too!): I've still got the Caves of Chaos 5E conversion from the Play Test, and the Isle of Dread, and maybe there was another adventure in there? So I have some stuff already with 5E stats and the like to use. I've got plenty of old TSR era and 3E WotC era modules/adventures on the computer that can be easily converted to 5E, I think. And it's not hard to whip up a few 5 to 10 room ruins, caves, and the like. So I can scatter those around the map, plus leave clues/rumors to other locations in each. I'll also need to decide on a few "pockets of danger" like dragons, undead, or other tough beasties who have a known (or easy to recognize as a more dangerous place) lair in some of the easier areas closer to the home base.

Goodman Games is apparently releasing classic modules with 5E conversions soon, but I'll likely just do the work myself instead of waiting for them to get around to it. The good thing is that I can put a few things I already have near the town (like the Caves of fact, maybe I should use Castellan Keep instead of Silverwood as the home base...), and work up or convert other stuff, as the players get closer to them in their explorations. I could even use those Dragonlance dungeons I was planning to convert to 5E anyway!

That should do it!


  1. Hey Dennis,

    I just finished a five month West Marches run using BECMI rules and we had a blast. My goals were to get back into DnD (which I hadn't played for decades), give the old red box a try for nostalgia reasons (was it as good as I remembered from 1989?), try out some of this old school stuff I'd been reading about, and introduce as many people as possible to role playing in my local area.

    It was successful on all fronts (especially the last: I think something like 20-30 people gave it a try during that time; also cool was that more than half of them were women, which was not how it was when I played DnD in middle school).

    However, there are a couple of things I would do differently, and while most of them are specific to running a BECMI game, there is one thing that cuts across rules sets.

    Namely, trying to combine wilderness exploration and large dungeons in the same game. In our experience, this just provided too many directions to go at once, and probably detracted from each of them a little.

    In other words, wilderness exploration is about going wide, and mega dungeons are about going deep, and it's hard to do both at the same time. This is especially true if you embrace one of the hallmarks of West Marching which is an irregular group with loose standards for participation.

    In our group, even the most dedicated players only were attending 2/3 of the sessions at most, and this greatly slowed down the rate of both wilderness and dungeon exploration for any given individual.

    If I were to do it again I would pick one or the other. Meaning, either have the game be about one large dungeon (we used Caverns of Thracia and it was great), or use an interesting wilderness spotted with a bunch of tiny dungeons (meaning, you basically explore a dungeon in one session or less:Prison of the Hated Pretender was a good example of this for us).

    This means they get to the good stuff of the dungeon, some of the real weirdness and story and interesting monsters and treasure, without having to go back again and again, which in our experience did not happen in this style of game.

    Actually, as I'm writing this, I think I realize what I would have done if I went back: I would have had the town, and Thracia, and nothing else.

    What I didn't realize going in was that a big, well-developed dungeon like Thracia rewards and really requires repeated forays and deep delving, and with the massive smorgasbord of exploration options available in a wilderness oriented West March, players won't make this effort.



  2. Hey Tor, thanks for letting me know how it went with your group. That's definitely something to think about. I'd been considering how to set up the map, and I did plan to place mostly small dungeons around, but have one larger dungeon per significant region. Some modules, though, like the Caves of Chaos or sections of The Forbidden City, could easily be divided up into smaller dungeons in different areas.

    I'm likely going to have a more stable group, as I know at least my son will be able to attend every session, but I've already had a few friends express interest in showing up every now and then when they're available. If I have a stable core group of 2 or 3, plus a few players who show up when they can, they might be able to get more mileage out of larger dungeons. I doubt I'll throw in anything as massive as Undermountain or Thracia. I've done the megadungeon campaign, and it was fun, but I'm itching for something different this time.

    So again, thanks for the advice. I'll be sure to keep the dungeons small, or else run the game in a way that lets the players get in and out of them as necessary.

  3. Right on. Sounds like a fun game. Look forward to hearing how it goes!