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Sandbox Dilemmas: The best laid plans of mice and DMs…

adventure in townAs I’ve probably mentioned before in a couple dozen blogs, I run a 4E campaign down in Toledo, Ohio for some of my old college buddies on a bi-weekly schedule.  I’ve technically been running a campaign for them now for about seven years, but before 4E, it was a 3.5 campaign, of course.

I like to think of this group as my Doombringer campaign, being the folks I playtested “The Perilous Secrets of Wilford Manor”, as well as “Curse at the Old Inn” and its sequel “Bane of the Warlock”.  Even though I’ve given up on playtesting adventures anymore for the purposes of publishing them, the story arcs have been compelling enough to make me continue running the plots along and see where they go.  And for this past October, I came up with an adventure that was due to culminate in a horrifying conclusion on Halloween weekend!

Of course, that’s the weekend that one-third of my group caught colds and we had to cancel the session until last weekend.  So much for a horror show adventure finisher on Halloween!  But that’s not really where my plans “…went awry”: where things really went askew was trying to predict what my players would do when presented with a truly wide open sandbox to play in!

A Cityscape of Possibilities

My recent adventure started, rather charmingly I thought, with a pack of assassins murdering one of the party in cold blood, then turning on the rest of the group.  Now I’m not a complete bastard here, the murdered hero actually was switching out characters after being less than thrilled with his original alter-ego, so we agreed to bring in his cousin, allowing me to exit the old character rather spectacularly – and by spectacular, I mean hacked into quivering hunks by assassins who then proceeded to cover their tracks by burning out his room.  Ashes to ashes, and all that…

The heroes, now augmented with the enraged cousin of their murdered and mutilated comrade, then set out to find the villain who hired the assassins, and bring them down before the assassins could finish off the rest of them.  The adventure led them down to Athkatla, the Amnish city made famous by one of the Baldur’s Gate computer games – which neither I nor my heroes played, so we had no preconceptions about the town – and this opened up a wide-spread investigation into who hired the assassins which had them on the “hit list”.

Now city adventures can be a lot of fun, and are perfect for a sandbox style investigation, where the players can use the clues found on the assassins to try and find out who was out to get them.  But the downside to such an investigation is that there is no guarantee where the heroes will roam in search of answers, and it takes a lot of improvisation to keep them feeling like they are making progress.

It’s funny, but in my interview with R.A. Salvatore, he discussed how he felt that the post-AD&D/2nd Edition versions of D&D lacked improvisation.  But honestly, I think he must have only meant combats, because trying to run any sort of sandbox-style adventure, even in the confines of city, still requires a lot of work and mental agility to keep one step ahead of the players!

Personally, I worked out five avenues of investigation in the city (first tier), along with NPCs and further clues which would eventually lead them to a new line of inquiry.  Exploring any of the second lines of inquiry (second tier) would lead them pretty much to the “villain”, and it was just a matter for the heroes to follow two successive trails to end up at the final showdown.

And darned if my players didn’t decide to a) pursue a sixth line of inquiry I had not thought of, which was actually an unintentional red herring on my part, and b) stop short of the second tier of each trail, and veer off to explore not one, but eventually all five of the other first tier inquiries, before finally heading in for the showdown!  It’s awesome to see players want to do a thorough investigation, and even more fun to get to use all my NPCs I created to drop their clues and hints about their nemesis, but it took everything in my power not to facepalm myself when they were on the verge of an “eureka” moment, only to see them zip off in a completely new direction!

I did get to run a lot more combat encounters than I planned, what with the assassins (Shadow Thieves) finding the heroes storming around their city as to practically offer themselves as a target almost every day of the investigation!  But eventually, I had to decide that after four packs of assassins, each more potent than the last, got slaughtered, the Shadow Thieves were definitely backing off and trying to figure out whether it was even worth the bounty they received to go after the heroes in the first place!

The Final Showdown

Even the final showdown did not go exactly as planned, which by now I should have realized was par for the course with this particular adventure.  The heroes had finally realized that they were dealing with a nemesis that was not of this world, and operating through an agent who was literally possessed, and not even aware they had hired the assassins.  Of course, this caused a grim debate amongst the heroes who had to decide the morality of murdering a murderer who was possessed and not even aware they were murdering people!   In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and it was decided that a kidnapping and exorcism was called for to neutralize the “villain” and still feel like heroes.

Of course, planning a kidnapping is quite and undertaking, and once again the players surprised me by researching and executing a plan of stealth and subterfuge, rather than going after the villain “guns blazing”.  So I planned out three potential encounters along their route, depending on how much of a ruckus they made getting to their nemesis, and again, how much they made spiriting her away for the exorcism.

As it turned out, they managed to thwart even those encounters, and ended up with a rather mixed up half-combat/half-skill challenge encounter that had me literally flying by the seat of my pants, fighting the possessed villainess and then her abomination offspring, all while holding her guards at bay, and convincing them that their noble mistress was in need of an exorcism, and they were actually saving her life!  And  yea, I pulled a “Rosemary’s Baby”, making an old dead enemy of the heroes the one who was really behind the assassination attempt.  After all who would expect an unborn fetus turned Far Realms aberration as a villainous mastermind?  Like I said, it seemed like the perfect horror story ending for a Halloween adventure.

So in the end, the heroes saved the possessed “villainess”, killed her twin brother who was trying to reincarnate using her unborn child, and got the assassins off their backs, but not exactly in the way I had planned.  But honestly, I don’t think that mattered too much, because the players felt like heroes, loved playing through all the “CSI” moments, and the story turned out to be epic and memorable for everyone involved.

Now all they have to do is get out of Amn before the Coweled Wizards throw them into Spellhold for illicit magic use in Athkatla, but hey, minor details right?

But honestly, I think I just need a break from playing in the sandbox, for just a little while at least, to recover from an adventure that went anywhere but where I thought it would go.  I think my next adventure is going to be a nice semi-linear delve – and just pray my heroes figure out a ways don’t go too far off track, and give their DM a simple, quiet, dungeon full of ravenous monsters to play with.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


3 Responses to “Sandbox Dilemmas: The best laid plans of mice and DMs…

  1. Runeslinger says:

    Sounds like an awesome ride! I love it when things go this way~
    Don’t quit now, do it again

  2. @Runeslinger: Oh, I’ll definitely go back to the sandbox format in another adventure down the line, because they do tend to be pretty memorable, even if the format can be a pain in the posterior for the DM. But I think that investigation based adventures can be trying for the players sometimes as well, so I think that changing up the adventure formats, from investigations to explorations to delves, just adds more variety to the game and keeps ‘em interested.

  3. Pedro Rodrigues says:

    This last season had the same problem, as stated below; but first, some required background on my situation:

    im running through the DM Kit adventure “Reavers of Harkenwold” (by itself a sandbox adventure) with some modifications and additions, to better flesh the adventure to my liking and integrate with the characters backgrounds created by the players.

    They are on a timeline, since they know that reinforcements from the Iron Circle (the invading army they are fighting) will arrive in a couple of weeks (a change i made to move things a bit towards the adventure storyline, they were drifting too much into some original sidequests i had created).

    They had ended the previous session on Albridge, the village where the center of the rebellion they are working with is in, so i gave them a few choices, each with its own advantages and disadvantages; since time is of the essence, they know that they dont have time to rune through them all, so they needed to choose which to follow:

    - intercept an heavily protected transport of weapons (some of those magical), which would be quite valuable to the resistance (since they are short on manpower and weapons); this encounter was supposed to be an extensively modified version of a more simple one present in the published adventure

    - try to help a village of humans and dwarfs getting rid of a marauding tribe of bullywugs (which unknown to everyone have an alliance with the Iron Circle) and thus get a few more needed allies for the final attack to the occupied keep in the baronys capital, as written in the published adventure

    - go see a mysterious arcane user in a feywild influenced forest, that can shed light on a few cursed items the party has uncovered; this was part of an original sidequest that i invented to work with a few characters backgrounds, as well as serving as a link to the next quest after the current one from the published adventure.

    Not surprisingly they chose the third one, which forced me to prepare a feywild environment, as well as all new encounters, and how the storyline would unfold due to the players choice.

    Fast forward to the beginning of the last session: having prepared for the trek to the witch place, was beginning the session with a summary of what had happened until then (a player had missed the previous session, and the decision where to go), when they suddenly decide to go after the weapons transport instead: ARRRGH :p

    While i had a few ideas on what i intended to do in that particular encounter, was not properly prepared for that change of course and so had to heavily improvise: while the idea (basically a grand combat with plenty of enemies and some resistance allies controlled by the players) was well received, and mostly pulled through, the tactical aspects of the combat ended up underwhelming (the most difficult thing for me to adlib).

    Also they have put the trek to the witch place away for now, which makes me sad, as i was quite looking forward to unleash a few good ideas i had for it, not to mention needing to rewrite the storyline due to the change of actions from the part of the players; im a big believer on having the players actions, or lack of, influence the course of the world around them.

    Both approaches (sandbox world having the player decisions driving the events in it) are my favorite ones for building a campaign, but are hard work indeed and quite exhausting.

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