Welcome to Adventure Log! While the Borrowed Time may have finally run out, there are still new adventures to be had around every corner. Today, we move from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to a distant world, where empires have crumbled and the planes themselves are opening passages between dimensions. There may be dungeons, and there may be dragons, but not everything is as it seems.
For about as long as this website has existed, I’ve been trying to plan a sandbox fantasy campaign. The basic premise was fairly simple and fairly open-ended: the game would take place after an apocalypse of sorts, leaving the map largely blank and no significant power structures in place. My intent in doing this was to encourage players to send their characters forth into the unknown, gain power and renown, and play an active role in rebuilding civilization. I knew there should be magic, and I knew the world should be dangerous. But when I first started sketching out the campaign, that was all I knew.
There were two major activities I needed to complete before I could start writing in earnest and get ready to present the campaign to my players. First, I needed to build my sandbox, and second, I needed to choose a system. Once those were done, I needed to adapt the system, and write an overarching metaplot. While I had some ideas in mind, I was reminded yet again that no plan survives first contact with the players, even if you haven’t started playing yet.
Build a Sandbox
If I wanted a sandbox for my players, I’d need to build systems that would allow me to write a large, detailed world for them to run around in. As I’ve written before, there are two methods you can use to build a sandbox: top-down or bottom-up. For me, bottom-up was the obvious choice, as not only did I not know anything about the world’s geography going in, but I also didn’t know how far afield the players would want to go. To ensure that I was creating a world rich with danger and opportunity, I broke out Hexographer and turned to the Welsh Piper. The Welsh Piper is another RPG blogger whose “Hex-Based Campaign Design” series of articles is a solid set of rules for randomly generating a believable world for your hexcrawl. Using the provided generators, I could lock in a few parameters I wanted (e.g. the starting city is on the coast), and go to town. The resulting map is big enough that the players have room to roam, small enough that I can actually write it all out, and filled with enough potential points of interest that it isn’t hard to give the party things to do.
Choose a System
After I chose how to design the world but before I really started filling in the map, I needed a system. I had been thinking of many potential systems, including Fate, GURPS, Mythras, Zweihander, and D&D. Fate and GURPS held my fancy the longest, but ultimately the two generic systems would require a lot of work for me to write the world the way I saw fit and provide rules for the things I thought were important. Mythras was a new system for me, so when I saw that it too didn’t really hew to the feel I wanted, I wasn’t sure how I would best be able to hack it. That left Zweihander and D&D. Both systems had built-in setting assumptions that were broadly compatible with what I wanted, and Zweihander was a darker, more gritty system, which fit perfectly with my vision of a fantasy post-apocalypse. Add to that whispers from the developers that there’d be a supplement with domain rules (something I wanted for the future), and it seemed like the obvious choice.
Except it wasn’t.
I proposed the idea of running my next campaign in Zweihander to my players, who flat-out rejected it. We had played a one-shot and had fun, but the idea of randomly generating characters for a long-haul campaign was distinctly unappealing to them. I thought the random generation was part of the fun, but tried to come up with tweaks to the character generation system that would give them more control while maintaining some of the randomness and lower power level that came with it. No dice (literally). I wanted the random, they didn’t, so I decided to shift to a system that was balanced for player-driven character generation.
D&D wasn’t initially a top choice, but upon further examination it had a lot of things going for it. It and Zweihander had exploration and overland rules built right in, and D&D also has loads of support for creating a dangerous world through random encounters. Also, with the popularity of the system, any tweaks or hacks I wanted to make had likely already been done, or might even come in the book. Finally, with Volo’s Guide to Monsters providing a number of monstrous race options, I had the ability to really shake up the world assumptions and create a setting that would not look like typical D&D. It was time to start writing.
Adapt the system
Once I had settled on D&D, it was time to make the changes that would make the campaign unique. First, I altered the race list: elves, half-elves, gnomes, and half-orcs were out. Eladrin, Firbolg, Goblins, and Kobolds were in. Rewriting the race list both let me set up a range that didn’t look like typical D&D, and also lay the groundwork for a metaplot involving grand forces which created all the different races.
Next it was time for houserules. First, there are alternate rules in the D&D core books which make the experience a little more gritty. I decided to use the alternate encumbrance rules and the slow natural healing rules for that reason, to make magical healing more precious and the logistics of treasure hauling a little more interesting. Then, I went outside the core books. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything provided a number of tool proficiencies, which I thought added something neat to characters. Wanting to give players an opportunity to use said tool proficiencies, I created a fairly basic “armor damage” houserule, which used some of the conditions from the massive damage and lingering injury rules to provide circumstances in which armor could be damaged. I also went into Dark Dungeons, the BECMI retroclone, to borrow the domain management rules. The version I ended up using is a lot simpler than rules-as-written, but still provides some detail to running a fiefdom or kingdom that could come in handy later.
Write a Metaplot
So now I just had to write the story that would drive the world (and the characters) forward. The basics were there: Three racial blocs evolved in different places across the world: the Folk, consisting of humans, dwarves, and halflings, the Goblins, consisting of goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears, and the Dracona, consisting of dragonborn, lizardfolk, and kobolds. All three of these blocs evolved separately into mighty cities, empires, and armies, and when they met, they clashed. After a century of war, most of civilization lies in ruins, regardless of who originally built it. Complicating this fact is that, as nature reclaims civilization, doors to the fae realm are appearing and popping open. Firbolg and Eladrin are wandering through, finding a world completely different from their own.
The characters start in a city mired in xenophobia, where the elders fear another invasion and hold a tight grip on the city gates. The characters, of course, each have a reason to leave. The party comes together when they all hire a pair of smugglers to get them out of the city.
As of this writing, the game has just gotten going, and is off to a good start. This is my second campaign using D&D Fifth Edition, and a lot of the choices in how the campaign is designed are in some ways responses to my previous campaign, which ran out of steam. In my previous campaign I wrote a world top-down, but was inconsistent at the level of detail I provided. This meant that outside of places I wanted the characters to go, there was a lot of empty space. If there was any one thing that inspired me to write a sandbox, it was remembering how dissatisfied I was running a game with large swathes of poorly defined area, where travelling was little more than rolling for a random encounter or two and saying “you walk for a week”.
Some of the design choices were also inspired by my time running science fiction campaigns, specifically in cyberpunk settings. In a cyberpunk game, the corporations hold most of the power, and the characters’ main lever of influence is to mess with these corporations. The idea that the characters could ascend to leadership positions and get to that level of influence and intrigue in a fantasy game was very interesting to me. Of course, in many fantasy settings that power is quite entrenched, somewhat unrealistically so when you consider the power level of even a level 10 D&D character. That also reinforced the fact that I wanted alternate means of power than magic items and treasure. Fifth edition helped with that, too: since magic items are no longer embedded in the progression math like they were in 3.5, I have more room to play with alternate forms of influence and wealth.
Even at this early point, some interesting characters are beginning to come out of the woodwork. As the campaign continues, the map will expand, the power level will increase, and the decisions will become more and more important. How will the world be shaped by the actions of player characters? Even I don’t know at this point. Check back in on this Adventure Log, so we can find out together!
The Adventure has begun! Check out Session 1 here.