John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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High-Level Sandbox ... Do I Dare?

Gaming generally has been a rare thing for our group for various reasons, not the least of which is gaming prep tends to take time I don't have to spend on it, and as I'm the group's primary GM, if I don't run, that tends to mean no game. We had a great time with Red Hand of Doom, largely because it was a complete campaign in a book and I didn't have to do that much prep in between sessions. While I did do a little customizing, I ran that one almost straight "off the shelf," and it worked beautifully.

Now, however, everything I've got going is homebrew, pulled out of my own brain and usually with a lot of customizing. Having finished the Gamma World intro adventure, anything I might want to do next is going to have to be put together from scratch (at least until Famine In Far-Go comes out). My Star Wars and Arkham Special Cases Unit games can nick the occasional scenario or plot hook from elsewhere, but anything I use has to be stitched pretty heavily into the existing background.

Then there's Revenge of the Giants. Being a sequel of Red Hand of Doom, it has two things that cause friction when I try to work on it: first, it's a sequel, so I want it to build on what's come before and take it up a notch; second, it's high-level, which means there's precious little that can be used "out of the box" for it — on top of which, thinking in a "high level" kind of way just makes my head hurt. Characters fly and teleport all over the place, on-level foes are few, far between, and usually nightmarishly complex mechanical constructs.

When I started the game, I had visions of setting it up something like a MMO structure — a set of discrete "hubs" that would each have a double handful of small quests, and the completion of one hub would point you to the next one. Worked great on paper, until I realized that doing it that way meant that I had to have all of the small quests written up or at least quickly-improvisable by the time the characters got to the hub, so they could just pick where they wanted to start and go. Some of that could be faked by having a bunch of pre-made thematic encounters that could fit into any given "quest line" and doing a lot of handwaving, but there's only so much of that you can actually do without it becoming real obvious what you're up to.

...especially when characters are flying and teleporting all over the place...

So for the last scenario, I punted on the sandbox idea and turned the whole "Dwarven Outpost" hub into a single pretty straightforward dungeon crawl that ended with a massive all-session "boss fight" capstone. It worked fairly well, but to me at least it seemed a little thin. Once you've done your third room full of drow, they start getting a little monotonous, even if some of the drow are melee types, some are clerics, and one or two are oozy demons made out of wax. I think some of my group's plot-hungry tendencies have rubbed off on me to the point where if an encounter isn't directly related to the overall arc, I have a hard time justifying its presence.

This "all plot all the time" approach, however, is the exact antithesis of the sort of sandbox structure I'd imagined. And now that the players are out of the Dwarven Outpost, which was a fairly constrained environment, and coming back out into the wider world, it's going to require even more reconciling. My players tend to be something of a self-railroading bunch, preferring to have a nice, shiny plot hook to chase instead of an open map to explore. I might take a cue from LotRO here, where they give you an overarching quest that has six goals:

Aiding Rivendell
  1. Complete Gandalf's Task

  2. Complete Aragorn's Task

  3. Complete Arwen's Task

  4. Complete Elrond's Task

  5. Find Elladan and Elrohir in the wilderness

  6. (not revealed until 1-5 are complete)

That way, "Go explore the sandbox!" becomes the plot hook. It doesn't help me with the "OMG how do I cope with high level gameplay" problem, but it does at least reconcile the quest with the sandbox.

-The Gneech
Tags: dungeons and dragons, gaming, gamma world, lotro, pathfinder
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