Friday, October 9, 2015

Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part II

The Building Dynamic Sandboxes kickoff post felt a bit light without some of the supporting entries so instead of waiting until tomorrow I am going go ahead and post Part II. (There will indeed be a Part III centered on Faction Dynamics, NPC Actors, and Notebooks, likely Monday).

Beyond having a regular campaign news cycle and building less static encounter charts, I've found having generators for large-scale regional or realm-wide events to be extremely helpful in injecting fluid situations into the campaign. My personal druthers is to concentrate on (or at least having on hand) generators that are either escalating (with PC-action and NPC triggers) or random --even better is when I can manage to combine elements of both.

The Chaos Index. If you've read Slumbering Ursine Dunes or Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, you have perhaps an inkling of what the Chaos Index is. The Hill Cantons has a campaign conceit in which human civilization is hemmed and battered with supernatural/mythic/faerie zones known as the Weird. Because the boundaries between the Weird and civilization tend to move back and forth I put together a track similar to what one might find in wargames.

The track moves up and down when actions inside the game either roll back the forces of the Weird or trigger greater chaos. As the track escalates away from the baseline the afflicted campaign areas get more anarchic and stranger. When things get to relatively high levels things get really odd and start to set off various events.

One, of course, doesn't have to buy into that kind of pretentious cosmological shenanigans. Something like the Index can just easily be adapted for any escalating situation in your campaign: the ebbs and flows of a war and its impact on the surrounding countryside; the rise and fall of a sinister looming great evil/dark overlord, etc.

But let's go back to my Chaos Index for a concrete baseline example. Here's are a few index-related excerpts from Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.
Click on me.
Me too. 

Now that's pretty elaborate and takes some heavy lifting in terms of thinking about the variables that might apply to your own campaign world. The idea is to capture movement, no need to overdo it. 

And, hey, truth be told I use a way more stripped-down, loosey-goosy version at my own table most of the time. I tend to take notes at the end of a session and make a fast and loose judgment call about whether I should move the index. “So the players killed the Ernest Borgnine wizard creating badgerman clones in his vats?” That's going to ratchet down the Weird a slot. “Oh they broke open that lead-sealed chamber containing Nezarr the Aborted, well thats four slots upward.”

Similarly what happens as you hit each level of escalation doesn't have to have a fully-developed chart. One can just as easily seat of your pants as I often do. “Oh this week the Index jumped up pretty high. So that must mean that the war against the kozaks is spiraling out of control. Let me say make it twice as likely that players will encounter a kozak warband.”

Event Charts. Event charts and similar mechanics have been with the tabletop hobby for a good long time but are strangely underdeveloped and neglected by designers. Wargamers of the 1960s-70s frequently employed random chance cards in battles and campaigns, a phenomena that got ported into Dave Arneson's Blackmoor with interesting and sometimes hilarious results.

Oriental Adventures fielded one of the few examples of a good overarching and flexible system for generating events in an old school D&D product. OA's system has multiple levels of magnitude. Big ticket events are diced once a year, medium/regional level events monthly and small-scale daily events are nicely cross-indexed to terrain (and produce some immediately actionable type things like discovering a lost ruined temple and the like).

Though it produces some events that are either or culturally-off (and I want my campaign-shaking events coming in more frequently than annually and monthly) it's an easy system to adapt. The general architecture fits in nicely with the routine of campaign news that I think is important to establishing good habits. I will admit to relying on OA's system quite often when I get stumped for ideas.

Surely you have some personal favorite campaign events systems? Designed your own? Jacked it from Birthright or some other product?


  1. One of the things I like about Pendragon is how it integrates campaign events into the game. I've not played Oriental Adventures but I gather that it's similar on a superficial level.

  2. I used to use the OA tables in my regular Greyhawk game. I had completely forgotten about them!

  3. I'm just not good enough to prep more than a few events so what I have is a 1d6 table of campaign changing events, both big and small. The mind flayer invasion. The manifestation of a greater Slaad lord. The establishment of a Set cult. At the end of the session one of the players rolls a d6. On a 1, we get an event! Roll another d6 to see what it's going to be. This was what I was left with after my disappointment with the Pendragon family events.

  4. I guess you could have your cake and eat it too. Use the Chaos Track to dictate when you roll for the higher level events. As chaos increases, you roll more frequently on the Major Events table; when it declines, there are fewer world-shaking events going on. Depending on how detailed your Chaos Track is, you could tie the Regional Events Table into it as well. If you have different regions with different Chaos Tracks for each region, the Regional Events would ramp up based on that region's individual chaos rating, while the Major Events would increase more slowly as the cumulative chaos index rises overall....

  5. There was a nice weather chart in an early The Dragon (pre 30) which I used quite a lot. Roll once per season to see what, if any, major events happen that season. No details on the effects, but it was quick and simple. Especially useful for domain games - in an agrarian economy the weather is important.

    I tended to use the Events and Natural Phenomena chart from Bushido as part of my old Encounter Tables.

  6. I play GURPS , and quite a few cha4acters have a trait called wierdness magnet, something that raises the local index quite a bit. When three of them are near each other it gets very high.

  7. Hello, I love these sandbox posts, but they reminded me of your Hill Cantons Borderland project. Whatever happened to that?

  8. I just realized how well some combo of Chaos Index + Major Events table would work with role-playing the last few years of Elric's world. I may try to come up with some tables for this actually.