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This question is inspired by this WBL question. The consensus seems to be that WBL is important. But in a sandbox game , where the course of action is determined by the players, what should be DM's reaction to party actively pursuing one or the other?

Let's say the party is going to hunt dire boars etc. and does just that, gaining XP, but no wealth. OR, perhaps, the same party goes to rob humanoids well below appropriate CR (trade caravans included), gaining little XP, but some wealth. Would you just let them? Or would you try to actively counter-balance their way?

Our game is going to be similar to Ben Robbin's West Marches experiment. We will be getting an environment but no victory condition. Since I'm not the DM I was looking for something to suggest "what can I expect?" rather than "what should I do?".

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Related: What is Sandbox play? Also note that the linked West Marches was a sandbox in this sense. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 8 '13 at 17:45
    
Question for clarification, is there a direct need that 3.5e needs to be specified? If so, maybe this could be clarified in an edit. If not, maybe a more inclusive tag will help others find this answer that use other versions/systems. Thanks for any help! –  James Broyles Mar 9 '13 at 11:32
    
@James I think the 3.5 tag is justified. The concept of the GM carefully managing PC wealth on a prescribed chart doesn't exist in other systems, so this particular problem doesn't happen outside 3.5 and its derivatives. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 9 '13 at 17:11
    
@SevenSidedDie I can see that based on the WBL question this question was inspired by, however this question doesn't seem to deal with WBL so critically and half the answers don't even address WBL. It seems logical that many of the answers could be ported to other versions where unbalanced wealth occurs in sandbox games. Most of the answers primarily address sandbox gm'ing techniques in general that could apply to other versions. Am I still missing something? Thanks for any helping learning how we tag things here. –  James Broyles Mar 9 '13 at 17:32
    
@James Unbalanced wealth in a non-concept in most games, and it was only 3.x that taught people (erroneously) that it is a fundamental thing to worry about. The premise of this question is that it's normal to worry about wealth balance, so how to adjust that for a sandbox. Outside of 3.x GMing culture though, this worry is bizarre and unusual. It's just not relevant to sandboxes in other games. The advice below is all just reasserting how a sandbox is supposed to work, contrary to 3.x GMs' assumptions. Translating it to other games would be redundant and unnecessary. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 9 '13 at 17:39
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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Let them, so long as it makes coherent sense in the world.

In a sandbox game, the players are just one group in a larger world. Your job is to run the world, which means you're going to be fairly reactive to what the players are doing. If they want to hunt dire boars, let them. Stopping them would require a good reason here. Maybe at some point you throw a quest hook at them for something that gives wealth, but if they don't take it and are content farming animals you really shouldn't do a lot about it. (Now the local Druids may not take too kindly to it...)

If they're just farming lower level stuff, it depends. If they're taking out Goblins that are attacking some local town, then fine. They won't get much XP or much wealth, but they're happy, right? If it's trade caravans, most likely the authorities would be displeased with that sort of brigand activity. Trade is the lifeblood of commerce, and people with significant resources are going to react unkindly.

Yes, this means that sometimes the party may be way off on the wealth chart. In a sandbox game, that's one of the things that can happen. You may need to adjust encounters to deal with it at times, or if you're really serious about the sandbox thing, the party may just one day encounter something they have no realistic way to defeat due to their time wasting.

Running away is a valid encounter result.

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Probably

If the party is just getting XP rewards without picking up their normal wealth by level treasure, then you're shifting class balance as the party levels up. I'd say a low wealth game disproportionately favors divine casters (since they gain access to everything just by leveling up) and really hurts the gear-based characters (a fighter or rogue without the coin for swords with more pluses or things to Use Magic Device on are sad representatives of classes that are already weak in comparison). A poor wizard is a weaker wizard, so if your party had one that was running away with the game, being poor might bring him more in line with the rest of the party.

Really your whole decision process should be asking yourself, "If they had more money, what would they do?" and then act to bring them up to their WBL or not based on whether that sounds like more fun.

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No, you should not.

Fixing party wealth means the players don't need to strive or explore in order to find good stuff, because Fate (you) will engineer events so that they're taken care of. That's the opposite of the essential nature of a sandbox campaign.

But what happens if they have pitiful gear for their level? Or conversely, have gear that's too good for their level? Well, nothing special happens. It's a sandbox, so you're not matching encounter CR to the party anyway, so having the "right" gear for their level is irrelevant. They will go places they think they can handle with the gear and abilities they have, and run away from situations that are too tough (if they're at all looking out for their necks) – that is how a sandbox handles encounter balance.

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+1 with no CR matching, WBL matching is pointless –  mxyzplk Feb 8 '13 at 1:49
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The idea of a sandbox campaign is to let the players set the course of the campaign. If they decide to go after Smaug the terrible at first level then so be it.

The referee's creativity comes into play not in prepared content but in deciding and developing the consequences of the player's actions. Because mostly likely a group is playing a game for entertainment and not a true simulation. The referee doesn't have to always pick the most probable consequence but rather look at the list of likely consequences and pick the most interesting that leads to more opportunities for adventure.

For example you gave two situations.

Dire Boars We know from reading the Monster Manual that Dire Boars are ill-tempered animals that are dangerous. Players that had considerable success in killing large numbers of Dire Boars will likely earn the gratitude and respect of the surrounding villages. So when the elders of Eastwick ran into trouble with humaniods operating out of a ruined castle near their village, they sent a messenger to the party asking them for help and offering a sizable reward as well as some land.

Or

Despite being an important party of the region's background the players ignored the fact they were hunting in a Royal Forest protected the King's Rangers. Now several months the Rangers discovered who was responsible but luckily due to some friends the party was tipped off and fled. Now wanted fugitives they will have to be careful for the next couple of session until they are able to reach and cross over the kingdom's borders.

Bandits Robbing Humaniods

The Sheriff of Eastmarch has had enough of the increase number of successful robberies on the Royal highways. He has authorized Sir Fenwick of Appledore, a Knight of Renown, to hunt down and bring the brigands to justice. The entire march is abuzz about it and Badger, the party's fence, warns them at their next meeting.

ShadowCat the leader of the Company of Honorable Men, the thieves guild of Castle Blackmarsh, has heard of the success of a new group of brigands. He sends Luven Lightfingers out to fine them and to extend an offer for them to join the Honorable Men. In return for a small tithe, he will guaranteeing their territory as well as put them in contact with those of Blackmarsh's merchant willing to invest their money with no questions asked. However if refused he will bring the full weight of the Honorable Men down on the party.

All of these possible consequences stem naturally from the prior actions of the characters. Developed in a way that gives them further opportunities for adventure. While being hunted doesn't sound like a reward it is an adventure and if the challenge is overcome then it will lead to other types of opportunities.

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So... Your answer is a no, then? –  GMJoe Feb 8 '13 at 2:52
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You should certainly let them do what they like

After all, that is the point of a sandbox game. Railroading is bad in general but particularly for a sandbox.

Besides, the most lucrative business in Dungeons & Dragons is adventuring. If you look at the Craft, Perform, and Profession skills, even astronomical DCs still result in paltry income compared to adventuring.

Players usually want both money and XP, and usually they won’t go too far for one if it means losing too much of the other, especially if it’s slow even for the one. Sure, after a while goblins are worth zero XP but nonzero wealth, but the wealth will still be extremely small for that level. Few players are going to want to keep doing that over and over just for the small amount of money available. As a result, you rarely need to fix much, and it’s definitely ok to have moderate, or even significant deviations from WBL, so long as it’s temporary.

The problem with WBL is when deviations accumulate across several levels and significant differences become the new normal. That can take a lot of work to judge. But being a level ahead or behind for now just means taking a little more care and looking for opportunities to rebalance things.

But if you’re clever, you can fix wealth

Maybe dire boar pelts are really valuable, or there's a bounty on a particularly dangerous one that’s been causing problems. Perhaps their predation on caravans in the area prompts them to get better guards, making the players work for that wealth. Or maybe their activities get noticed and they have trouble selling the stolen goods, so they have to find a fence and this winds up embroiling them in mob politics (ripe for roleplayong XP). Or they walk away from the money if they don’t want to get involved.

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I was going to upvote after just the first line, but then the rest of it advises sneakily rebalancing wealth to maintain WBL. Being low on wealth, wanting magic items, or maintaining good cash flow are important motivations in a sandbox—guaranteeing WBL, even secretly, you might as well not play a sandbox. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 7 '13 at 23:27
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