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I've spent my vacations planning my very first sandbox, however, I noticed that, being a hexcrawl, most of the time my players will be exploring the world and sometimes, they might spend a lot of time wandering into empty spaces. I know this can be solved with random encounters, however I don't want to make the random feel like bad filler on a TV series.

We're playing in a post apocalyptic fantasy Tokyo, which has pretty much became a continent. The game should take them from low heroic to low epic tiers of play, so I must take advantage of that region, giving each hex about 5 miles and placing myself a limit of "one important place/adventure per hex".

I want to avoid sessions where the only thing we do is exploring hexes and swinging blades or chattering with whatever comes, I want to make dungeon crawling, even when found randomly, serve a purpose beyond giving them experience and loot; I don't want, also, to make adventures feel forced. My players have long term goals that go beyond "I want this item!", so giving them a sense of "plot advancement" is important.

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Much more clear now! –  GMNoob Jul 23 at 6:19
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This might be something to try before assuming it will be a problem during prep and play. What have you tried during prep? How did it fail to provide tie-ins to the PCs' backgrounds? –  SevenSidedDie Jul 23 at 6:31
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Because the player backgrounds are all long term, and they've explicitly told me they don't plan to achieve them before reaching epic levels of play. And knowing myself as a GM, I suck at making "important" stuff on the fly, as I said, I want to give them the feeling that they're always making an important discovery, this in a world with very few establishments and NPCs. –  Aldath Le'Carde Jul 23 at 6:43
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@SevenSidedDie this can also be a preemptive question - the OP foresees a possible problem and he's asking how to overcome/avoid it. To me, this question makes more sense if asked while planning the campaign rather than after already starting it... –  G0BLiN Jul 23 at 16:12
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@SevenSidedDie I did go down that route. I can tell, the problem is there and is real. Its sufficiently described and even though the world description in my case would differ, the elemental problem stays the same. If I had been on RPG.SE five years ago, I could have asked this. –  Angelo Fuchs Jul 23 at 19:28

6 Answers 6

When I read this I thought: Just don't.

In "the real world" there is so much more random stuff that happens than meaningful stuff towards some goal that its the decision of the people on place to decide which dungeon to crawl and which to ignore.

If one wants to explore every single house in every street then in how many of that houses you will find something worthwhile? In the first hundred or so you find lots of useful stuff, good loot interesting challenges but then it starts to get boring and you start to skip houses you think are not worthwhile.

On the other hand there are houses that are interesting far longer because they are far rarer. An industrial complex vast enough to hold its own population that never needs to leave it holds buildings that are super interesting all the time.

As long as you give them enough information on how the hexes look like / what to expect from the NCSs (through rolls against social skills) the players will soon start to skip stuff and start to learn when something is "just random" and what stuff is "significant". (And think about all the interesting plot stuff that happens if they get it wrong.)

This learning process is one of the things that makes sandboxed games so interesting.

Also, sometimes people can't skip random stuff. That happens, really. The gang that wants to mop them up is going to pray on them, either because they carry around significant amounts of cool loot, or they happen to have the wrong shade of gray skin.

After about 10 sessions or so (your call) you should allow your players to make one roll if they think their current encounter is significant to their personal plot to fasten things up.

If you go this route you should tell your players so and recommend to them to keep notes, because it happens that they skip stuff they should not have skipped and they need to be able to figure this out afterwards.

As a sidenote: I found it very hard to come up with "good" randomness in such situations. I use the world generation stuff for this, only I generate "countries" (in my Post-Apoc setting more like "tribes" or "warlords" but its all the same) with it. Works like a charm. I generate the countries by the Traveller rules and then write two to five lines on it what it means in the world. Stuff that just won't fit gets re-rolled.

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Character generation, world creation

I read this on a series of sandbox articles, but don't remember where.

Don't create all the world before the characters. Let empty space to be filled later. Then, when creating the characters, allow them to create part of the world.

Example: A player creates a character who was raised by a cult who worship a powerful artefact. This artefact is stolen by an order of assassins, who sell it to an evil temple. The character has the mission to recover it.

So, when the player writes his character background, he creates world elements that the GM must integrate. In the given example: the good cult, the assassins order, and the evil temple. Of course, the GM must control this, and is allowed to forbid or to give ideas to the player. But the most creative the players, the better.

This way, the dungeons and the encounters are no longer random, but integral to the story.

But you already have created the characters! And the world! In this case, the only thing I can think of is:

Break a little the sandbox

If you don't mind about being pure in sandbox applications, maybe you cheat a little to achieve the meaningfulness. This an include:

  • Retcon the world to be relevant to the players backstories. Substitute some random unexplored locations for relevant locations.
  • Create events that put the players in motion. Create story hooks. Maybe their enemies are occupying dungeons for their purposes (again making random dungeons- explored or unexplored- meaningful dungeons), or they put a price on some character head (making random encounters relevant encounters).
  • The quests don't wait for the characters. Their enemies manoeuvre, so they must too, because if they wait until they are rich and powerful it can be too late. It's wiser to give their enemies a coup or two to abort their plans.

The GM intervention goes against the sandbox spirit. The ideal case is that the GM prepared from the beginning an interesting world, and the players interesting and motivated characters. But if you don't care about being too pure, the intervention can fix a sandbox game and making it more interesting, specially if the players are starting to get bored.

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You could try applying the following ideas to your sandbox:

Mapping

  • Use a 'small' physical map: this can give the impression that play is slightly restricted, especially if you implement some of the following...
  • Include distinct map items: use roads and towns without any other features - this can give more control over what's going to happen and where
  • Give locations names that reflect the general ethos that you want to portray there: you've seen it all over, 'The Citadel of Chaos' (Jackson/Livingstone - Fighting Fantasy), 'Mirrormere Lake' (Tolkien - Lord of the Rings), etc. Planting that seed in the player's mind is half the battle!
  • Restrict travel: Mountain ranges and wide rivers and similar geographical features are great ways of restricting play until the players can figure out how to get past them.
  • Deadly zones: Similar to restricting travel, but these can be incorporated into other plots for the players to travel into and out of.

Backstory

  • General background: introduce your sandbox with a small background which includes zones around the map. You may find players gravitate to certain areas based on how interesting you make a particular area sound.
  • Flamma's ideas seem pretty good too.

Remember that even a sandbox has limits - namely the box!

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Short answer:

Make a series of random tables based on 1: Terrain, 2: World themes, and 3: PC motivations.

Long answer:

First things first, you'll want to identify: What do you want to achieve with these encounters? From your post, I believe that your priorities are:

1: They should be random (I assume, so that you don't have to plan out the whole world) 2: They should be relevant to revealing the world - not just some random violence 3: They should be relevant to the character motivations.

To that end, now you start to make your random tables.

The first set of tables will involve the descriptors for the hex itself. You want to identify the types of terrain. As you have described this as Post-apocalyptic Tokyo, so you won't have the normal 'forest, mountain,' etc terrain. You will have 'High-tech city' 'steampunk' 'slums' 'destroyed city' 'returned to nature' (with plants growing over destroyed buildings) 'laboratory complex'.

Perhaps you have different communities within PA Tokyo, so you'll have that as a descriptor, too. This hex is controlled by the Blue Thunder Megacorp. This hex is controlled by the Free Republic of Tokyo. This hex is controlled by the NeoEmperor. This hex is controlled by the local warlord / gang.

Finally, some hexes might have special modifiers. This one might have high radiation levels. That one might have crystals growing everywhere from an escaped experiment. etc.

Once you have your list of 'hex types' and different modifiers, now you make your second set of lists - and for these, you need to decide, what do you want to show about the world around them? What do you want them to discover about your world? Such things might be:

1: The NeoEmperor seems harsh and violent, but he is just trying to protect his people from a violent world. 2: The common people are trapped in power struggles between the various powers. 3: Blue Thunder Megacorp is doing genetic experimentation on the homeless. 4: The Free Republic of Tokyo is secretly controlled by a council of escaped lab experiments 5: The FRT council are actually all telepaths, using their powers to control the populace.

etc, etc, etc. Decide on the motivations of the players in your world. Say you get a list of 20 of these 'story themes' in your world, you can roll a d20 and pick a story theme to try out.

So you've got a list of random hexes, and a list of random themes. One more randomizer is needed: Your players' motivations.

Work with your players to generate a list of motivations. Say ... 3 for each player. So one player has as his backstory that some corporation ruined his family and left them homeless in a radioactive part of the city. As his list: "get back at the Blue Thunder Megacorp," "Make lots of money (for my family)", and "protect others from being taken advantage of."

Now you have your tables. How do you use them?

Well, start off rolling the terrain. This one is ... (roll) A high-tech city, controlled by (roll) the Free Republic of Tokyo, and as its special descriptor, it is (roll) actually pretty normal. So you know by this that there is a telepathic field dampening people's free will. The people here all seem lifeless and uninspired, like cogs. You also know that the players need to make a will save (or whatever the equivalent is in your system) or start taking negatives to any violent or high-energy actions. It is full of bright lights and efficient machinery, but none of the neon lights and night clubs you'd expect from, say, a Blue Thunder controlled high-tech city.

Now you roll on the themes. You roll 5: The FRT council are actually all telepaths, using their powers to control the populace. So you want to highlight exactly how strange the citizen's actions are. How? Well, roll your 'player motivation' random table. You get 9: "Jane: Spread the word of my religion, (based on pre-apocalypse taco bell commercials)"

All right. Now you use your imagination. If you want a more active conflict, do this:

So as they're walking along, they see a fleet of white vans go past. No one looks at the white vans. It's like they're not even there. They stop up ahead, and everyone completely ignores it as a squad of white-powersuited military types go rushing into a store and there's a lot of noise. Then, the white-powersuited soliders start dragging people wearing high-tech headbands out of the building, and tearing the headbands off. The people scream, go wide-eyed ... and then suddenly go peaceful, and wander out to join the rest of the crowd as if nothing had happened at all. And Jane notices that one of those people had a handful of papers, and when the headband gets torn off, she drops them, scattering "Church of Yo Quiero" pamphlets everywhere.

Or, if you want something less active and more passive, then the player is trying to pass out Church of Yo Quiero pamphlets, and getting ... far less response than usual. People aren't listening ... they're not even annoyed. They just look and shrug and move on... and if Jane starts getting more fervent, suddenly they pay less attention to her. It's like she's suddenly unseen and unheard. She can't get ANYONE to respond to her, as the ruling council telepathically deletes her from the populace's perception until they can either overcome her mental defenses or she calms down enough to no longer be making a fuss..

I hope you get the idea! Keep your random tables general and focused on your goals, then combine the elements they bring up into a quick little story or scene that follows those prompts to make the scene you want.

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According to the PCs knowledge, current goals and the game pace, you can use the empty spaces to either:

  1. Point the group towards important locations.
  2. Convey and strengthen the theme and atmosphere of the game.
  3. Control the game's difficulty by forcing them to use resources or allowing them to replenish them (or gain access to new ones).

You can plan ahead what will each empty place be, or you can prepare a list of ideas and encounters, choosing from it on-the-fly (either randomly or as best suits the session and that point in the game).

1. Stir the group to more important locations

If the empty space is not that far from an interesting location, you can hint about it by letting it's effects "spill over" to nearby hexes.
Say there's a biker gang camp in the ruins of a TV tower a few hexes away. Aside from the obvious encounter with a patrol of bikers, the group can find more subtle clues that will tell them that the TV tower is important - gang graffiti with a symbol representing a broadcasting tower; a crashed motorcycle with a half-burned key-card bearing the TV-station logo found among the driver's remains or even some impaled heads next to a "This is Reapers territory - stay off!" sign.

You can be blunt if you want your players to be aware of the bikers quickly, but otherwise, you can slowly add more pieces to the puzzle - having your players wondering about all of the details. This both allows them to prepare for the bikers, and makes finding them out much more rewarding.

2. Set the theme and atmosphere

Empty spaces can have small mysteries or traces of events, which can help set the tone of the game and give opportunities for inter-group role play. You can have the PCs encounter the remains of people who perished in the apocalypse or recently after. If you show them a dead family, with multiple generations - the adults evidently died trying to futilely protect the young, elderly or infirm - you paint a very different picture than if they encounter a burnt brothel, or the breached armored transport of some rich celebrity.

Some of these scenes can be very effective if they somehow echo the background of the characters (or clash with it). You can also use them for in-play "info-dumps".

These doesn't have to take long, or involve combat or elaborate puzzles. Just stuff for the PCs to talk about, and make the different empty spaces more memorable...

3. Adjust the difficulties

In a sandbox, the players may become overpowered to the point that an important location is no longer challenging, or conversely, they may stumble upon a "doom-hex" too soon. You can use the encounters in an empty space to force them to spend resources, get hurt etc. Making them partially spent when they reach the "under-challenging" location. Similarly, they can encounter potential allies, a cool vehicle, new weapons or just information that will help them survive the hex of doom until they are better prepared.

Final Note: When overused, all of these ideas will become railroading and take away most of the fun and challenge from a sandbox game. Used properly, they help you stir the game in the right direction, creating a richer narrative and avoiding needless TPKs. How and how much you use this depends on your group's play style.

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Plot

You don't need a metaplot, but it sure helps to have one. In a random adventure, either throw in some clues to your metaplot, or throw in a "boss" who is clearly part of the metaplot.

EG: The party marches to Western Innish. They have a random encounter with a group of Merchants, and a random fighter is on the high end of the expected levels. Drop a clue that they fear the W.I. Guild of Marauders

EG: The party goes into a random orc-infested dungeon in Western Innish. At the end, the BBEG is a member of the Guild of Marauders. He fights to the death, but not until after using a magic mirror to send a message about the invasion of the "tamed orcs"

EG: The Party goes into another random dungeon, this one empty but trapped, and encounters some key symbols... if they succeed in penetrating, then they have found some goodies the WIGoM was storing for later.

Event Triggers

A form of metaplot advancement is the Event Trigger. In this mode, you set a goal at which point specific adventures/encounters happen. In most cases, this can be handled numerically. Each dungeon of a specific type adds to a total; asking certain questions in the right places might, as well. When the total is high enough, the BBEG sends either an invite or a back-off message. If it climbs further, stronger force is used. Eventually, it's all-out war.

This works even better when you have multiple such tracks. Say, Orcs and Goblins on one, an evil guild on another, a secret society of Chaotic Good Holy Warriors, The Mad Wizard Grunk, and the Dragons...

These can even be 2-D grids. 0,0 being origin... say, 10,0 is "They Know who you are" and –10,0 is "They think someone else is you". 0,10 is they want to recruit you, but don't know you; 0,-10 is they want to kill/capture/imprison you. The line from, say, 5,-10 to 10,-5 defines the "Let's Erase Him" threshold, while 5,10 to 10,5 is the "Recruit him, don't accept a No!" line...

The bigger the grids, the more you can do on it.

EG: A 30 point grid for the "Antisentient Guild" might run from
0-10: attack if convenient; recruit upon surrender.
11-15: Attack unless outnumbered;
16-20: attack on sight;
21-29: Attack, fighting to the death;
30: recruit. (You've proven too tough to kill and killed enough that their demon masters want you for elevation.)
Each encounter against members posing a threat is ±1; if you drive them off, or kill them leaving a witness, +1; if you flee, -1; no witness, +0

Note that this mode can actually be a lot of fun keeping the points in the open, but not explaining the rhyme nor reason...

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