The question of whether a DM should force the party along rails or allow them to stomp around in a sandbox continues to be addressed. The topic was discussed heavily in a blog carnival last year, and most recently this week at Critical Hits. It is not a new concern for DMs, and there are numerous suggestions for how to effectively run a sandbox style game for your PCs. My approach to the campaign I run has been slightly different, and I think other DMs may benefit from the structure I use to balance PC flexibility with central story arcs. The following post is my attempt to describe my structure for running the world and handling the railroad/sandbox situation.
Before 2009, I did not play D&D for over 15 years. I filled in that time with countless hours playing computer and console games – mostly action, RPG and sports titles. It is a major influence in how my brain functions to prepare adventures for my D&D campaign. When I received the opportunity to DM once again, I decided to create my own world for the PCs to inhabit. I leaned on the structure of certain videogame titles to keep my sanity and not have the process of “building a world” become too overwhelming.
Specifically, I relied on a model used by Rockstar Games for titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games offer expansive worlds for the players to explore while participating in a wide variety of activities. However, there is also a primary storyline the player can complete at their leisure. Recently, I took a break from Dragon Age Origins (80+ hours in and still haven’t finished it!?) to play Red Dead Redemption. The game is phenomenal, and I got wrapped up in that for a few weeks while completing the game’s primary storyline. There are several interesting components to the Rockstar titles that translate well into building a D&D campaign.
If you have never played any of the Grand Theft Auto games or Red Dead Redemption, then I will briefly explain how the main storyline progresses. The player is introduced to the world through an introductory cutscene (or seven), and then dropped into the world. At this point, the player can go just about anywhere in the first section of the world, but your equipment and skills are quite limited. An icon on the in-game player map indicates when a mission available. The player can trigger the mission by traveling to the specific destination marked on the map. The player could spend hours roaming around before triggering the story mission, or he or she could skip the exploration and travel immediately to trigger the story mission.
The system in the game works well because it spaces out the story and the areas of the game that can be explored. For example, there are three large areas to explore in the cowboy-centric Red Dead Redemption – the Old West, Mexico, and an area that resembles the Midwest. The player starts in the Old West and cannot travel to the other locations until later in the game. The game limits how much you can explore in the beginning by ensuring that bridges leading over bodies of water to other areas are broken or otherwise out of service (a Rockstar design staple). This basically acts as the DM telling you, “No, you can’t joyride in the Astral Sea at Level 1.”
I built my world, Cydonia, for my PCs but knew that the party would not – and really should not – be able to travel to certain locations right away. Those locations would unlock themselves over time depending on how the PCs interacted with the world. I created a rough sketch of the map for Cydonia and populated it with several towns – the capital city, two farming communities, an outpost in the wilderness, a coastal resort and a gritty port/docktown. I decided the PCs would start in the docktown, and would be centered there for several levels to start the campaign. As a result, I focused all of my efforts on filling in the details for my first town, Poormina. After deciding on the town the PCs would start the campaign, I borrowed heavily from the information published in the Dungeon Master’s Guide regarding Fallcreast. I re-skinned things and combined other ideas, but Fallcreast basically became Poormina in many ways.
Out of necessity, I decided the details on the rest of the world could wait. I did not have the time or creatively to design the entire world. Also, the PCs actions would give me ideas throughout the early stages of the campaign and help me develop future quests and locations. By not unlocking all areas at once, it continues to give me flexibility to alter the details in each location as the campaign marches forward. Last, it allowed me to focus on a small handful of NPCs to populate the first town.
A primary component I borrowed from the structure in the Rockstar Games titles was the focus on NPCs. In games such as Red Dead Redemption, the NPCs drive the story forward. I mentioned above that a player can travel to specific locations on the world map to trigger the next story mission; the icons on the map are the names of important NPCs in the world. The player knows at any time during the game the NPCs that are available to trigger a story mission. I used this design to build my campaign.
I wanted to create several NPCs that would be available to the players to trigger different quests. According to the plot of my campaign world, I developed a handful of primary NPCs – Brother Laurence, a retired battle cleric working for a religious/military organization; Dorwin Farringwray, a rogue of questionable allegiances; and Hornan Dawntracker, the town’s captain of the guard. Each NPC has his own backstory and personality (and in some cases, their backstory is intertwined). Through roleplaying, the PCs in my group have learned the types of quests that are available through these NPCs.
Brother Laurence is the primary advisor to the group, and advances several story arcs that have been set up since Level 1. Dorwin is a scoundrel that offers clues to treasure and other riches, but the missions are dangerous and filled with great peril. Hornan was designed to offer the party straightforward missions, “Go quell the goblin uprising,” but even he turned into a bigger NPC in my campaign because of the PCs actions. (Quick Tangent: my group first met the quite-injured Hornan when they rescued him from a group of doppelgangers, but the PCs weren’t sure if it was another shapeshifter trick, so two players – without consulting each other – simultaneously rolled Heal and Intimidate checks. The Intimidate was a natural 20, so poor Hornan was beaten silly by the wizard while being healed by the cleric. Hornan has been resentful every since, and interactions with the PCs are always lively when Hornan is in the room!)
To summarize my process in building a campaign, I started from scratch in creating a new world. Borrowing from the design in games like Red Dead Redemption, I created the following information for my world:
- The name of my world, Cydonia, and a rough sketch of the world’s map
- The names of a few major cities with the dock-town, Poormina, serving as the PC’s starting point in the campaign
- Three detailed NPCs for the PC’s to interact with in Poormina to get the adventure started
In addition, I had a two-page document (nothing fancy) that presented a brief history of the kingdom and current affairs. I shared the document with the players, and allowed them to create a background story for their character if they wished. The format has served me well, and I believe I’ve found a good balance between allowing players to dictate quests and developing “set pieces” that I know the party will pass through during the campaign.
Focus your creative efforts on a small group of NPCs. The structure in the Rockstar Games lends itself quite well to DMing. Emphasize the important NPCs close to the PCs in your world, and then let the PCs decide who they want to interact with next. Prepare encounter possibilities for every NPC that can be triggered during your next session. If you want to limit the players’ options, simply reduce the number of NPCs that are available. Perhaps one NPC has left town on business or is otherwise occupied at the moment. This NPC can – and likely will – return in the future to trigger another quest. If you run into a dry spell creatively, dust off a “retired” NPC and bring them back into the campaign. By focusing on creating interesting and dynamic NPCs, the PCs will know who to interact with and have good reason to proceed through the combat encounters you prepare.
Combat encounters can be interchangeable. Another videogame suggestion comes from games such as Mass Effect, which is an action title with RPG elements. The player in the game must make a variety of decisions, and the game does an excellent job of making you feel like those decisions are crucial. However, the player often encounters the same combat environments and action sequences regardless of the decisions they make; there are subtle differences, but the structure is the same. D&D 4e makes it very easy for the DM to throw together an encounter and change things on the fly. If you really wanted to, then you could develop a series of three combat encounters that could be used for the mission triggered by any one of your NPCs. For example, you could reskin monsters, rooms, and traps/devices depending on the NPC the party choices to trigger.
Players can experience more freedom than they really have. If you give the players in your campaign a dynamic set of choices, they may feel like anything is possible. They will probably not think too much about what else they could be doing if you make their interactions with available NPCs compelling. You do not need to prepare for every possible direction the PCs might decide to take. However . . .
Players will continue to challenge the boundaries of your world. It is going to happen, and sometimes in unexpected ways. I have dealt with this in two ways. The first is the “bridge is broken” device mentioned above. You are the DM, and it is acceptable at times to say, “No.” The second is going along with things for a while to determine if there is a way to get the PCs back on the rails. I’ve accomplished this by roleplaying heightened NPC anxiety, determination or angst. I recently funneled my own panic regarding the PCs going way off track into a NPC who started to plead with the party to help him. Is that cheating? Probably, but at least I used a NPC in the game to further the plot, interact with the PCs and find a way to keep the session moving.
Borrow from everywhere. In creating encounters and NPCs for my campaign, I have lifted ideas from everyone – novels, videogames (obviously), comics, movies, television and published adventures. As a DM, you do not need to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down with your group. Use a published adventure or any of the great ideas on available online with your players. Reskin the adventure if needed, or set up an NPC in your world that leads the party directly to that adventure.
Good luck, and I’m happy to hear your thoughts!