Sunday, February 7, 2016

More Sandboxes! An Example Expedition

I'm back! Moving was more of a hassle than I expected, but I'm back and picking up where I left off. Today I'll present a sample of the area for a sandbox game, delve into the behind the scenes mechanics I am proposing, and then give an example of the adventure-level sandbox.

I chose a little section of Primeval Thule to use as my test bed for an adventure locale, between the southeastern Dhar Mesh region and the grasslands known as Kalayan the Golden. The city of Moklat serves as the home base of a hypothetical adventuring party. For this, and future entries, let's introduce a fairly-typical four person group:

  • Kreida, a glory-seeking Dhari human barbarian (Dhari Hunter narrative)
  • Mbalu, a prophesying Lomari human druid (Soothsayer narrative)
  • Nalhars, an exiled Thulean dwarf warlock (Star Lore Adept narrative)
  • Selorra, an amoral Thulean elf rogue (Free Blade narrative)

Last time I promised a sample adventure location map with supporting information, and here it is, courtesy of Hexographer. It's not as precise as an actual map of the area, but rather is designed to give players and the DM an idea of the most prevalent terrain and general qualities of a given hex rather than provide down-to-the-quarter-mile detail.

Keep in mind I have the graphic design and color coordination skills of a slug. It's a bit garish, but is the baseline for what I'm presenting. A small stretch of swamp lines the northern border, most of the west is jungle, and there are vast grasslands full of marauding barbarians and natural dangers. Finally, in the deep southeast, the tiniest edge of a mountain range and and a nearby glacier peek their heads out at the players.

So the map itself doesn't get super cluttered, I keep a separate spreadsheet with the cell number and its contents. There's a lot of adventure content packed into a seemingly small area. Every hex has a level (though the vast majority are level 1 or 2 at this nascent stage) and I've given ~25% of the 625 hexes something interesting in them, even if it's as simple as a landmark feature.

While the players would probably use the city of Moklat as their home base, an important facet of the setting is that cities are decadent and corrupt places where their fortunes are not easily held onto with all the temptations around. There are also a few small settlements in the area where the players can look for work, trade for goods, or whatever else the DM imagines.

Exploring a Hex

Simply walking through a given hex doesn't count as adequate exploration. A group of adventures must take the time to explore it thoroughly, which takes approximately eight hours and automatically uncovers any obvious locations that would be discovered by more than a casual observation (a ruined temple, a monster lair, etc.).

A DM that wants to keep a location particularly hidden may call for an Intelligence (Investigation) skill check to uncover signs of it in the terrain, or even require a map to the hidden location. While the DM is welcome to set the difficulty for this based on their needs, a good set of guidelines would be as follows:
  • Grasslands or Desert: DC 5
  • Forest or Hills: DC 10
  • Jungles or Swamps: DC 15
  • Mountains or Glaciers: DC 20
I elected to make it automatic in most cases for purposes of quickly getting to the point, but you should feel free to do whatever works for you and your players.

The act of exploring a hex also prompts a check of a random encounter. Players need not raid or delve into dungeons or lairs to earn exploration rewards, especially if they determine that the denizens of such a place are well beyond their capabilities. They can always return another time, but cannot receive exploration rewards more than once for a given hex unless it repopulates (see below).

The rewards I propose for the exploration of a given hex is equal to defeating an encounter with a Challenge Rating equal to its level. This is in addition to any experience earned by engaging in encounters within the hex itself, or by advancing whatever story objectives the DM might have.

Most of the hexes on my sample map are low level, as stated, and thus would only give an extra 200 or 450 XP to be divided among the player characters (for level 1 or 2 encounters). However, an expedition into the mountains and glaciers, which I went out of my way to make higher level, would be much more rewarding to the players (with subsequently greater dangers).

Repopulating Hexes

At the end of a season (that is, every three months, usually on solstices or equinoxes), the DM should check to see if any explored hexes repopulate or change features. This enables players to return to locations they explored previously to discover new dangers and rewards. I don't encourage doing this with hexes the players haven't at least poked their heads into, mostly for bookkeeping sanity purposes, but you're welcome to do this to every hex in the region if you like (even unexplored ones). I'm mostly content with the idea of Schrodinger's Hexes.

A hex has a 25% chance to repopulate each season. If it does, you can decide for yourself what happens to it, or check on a simple table I've constructed. Roll a d6 to determine the outcome.

  • 1-2. Waxing Dangers: The hex level increases by 1, and all existing lairs and dungeons repopulate with monsters of according encounter level. If the hex's level is 20, reroll this result.
  • 3. Waning Dangers: The hex level decreases by 1, and all existing lairs and dungeons repopulate with monsters of according encounter levels. If the hex's level is 1, reroll this result.
  • 4. Bandit Plague: All random encounters are replaced by bandits.
  • 5. Abandonment: The hex's level does not increase or decrease, but any lairs or dungeons are abandoned.
  • 6. Settlers: The hex is populated by settlers. If this result is rolled again next season, the settlers become a permanent settlement, and the hex no longer checks for repopulation.

Of course, I'll probably expand this table a bit at some point, but this felt like a good starting point.

Downtime Activity: Carousing

This downtime activity hasn't seen much use in any games I've played in, so I wanted to give it a decidedly Thulean flair while also leveraging my love of recently-released Darkest Dungeon. Disclaimer: Do not play this game if you get attached to your characters too easily.

I am working with the optional rule of using the Sanity ability score, which as any good student of the Mythos knows is an essential part of a cosmic horror setting. The carousing downtime activity, which consumes resources as though a player engaged in a wealthy lifestyle, can also be leveraged to recover lost Sanity. The implication is that the character is drowning their sorrows and engaging in debauched activity to forget the mental trauma they were forced to endure.

After a week spent carousing, a DM and player determine what happens normally (as outlined in the DMG), but the player also recovers up to 1d3 lost Sanity points. They cannot go above their original ability score value before the Sanity loss occurred. 

Foul Idolatry: A Sample Expedition

The four adventurers outlined above are sent by an enterprising merchant prince to negotiate with a village elder in Anshra to secure trade in their stores of grain. The city of Moklat sorely needs the grain in the wake of a plague of rats, and it would be remiss of the merchant to overlook such an obvious resource to the north -- especially if he can sell the grain he buys back to the city at a significant markup.

While on the trail, the adventurers are attacked by a band of raiders who are clearly ill with what appears to be some kind of wasting disease. After Mbalu examines the others to assure they were not infected, Selorra encourages the others to track the raiders back to their hideout for the promise of some quick treasure.

In the vicinity of hex 16.10, the players explore the area and find a forgotten barrow after fighting off another group of sickly bandits, none of which survive to be taken prisoner even after efforts to subdue them.

It's fine, this is perfectly safe. Really.
The barrow's upper levels are the stronghold of the bandits, but they are all infected with the wasting disease, appearing hollow and haggard despite their obvious successes and plunder. Deeper within the barrow, the raiders have succumbed to the illness and are effectively walking corpses without free thought. Nalhars, the warlock, finds the source of the terrible "sickness" in the darkest tomb of the barrow -- a marble idol of some extraterrene entity, weeping black oil from its empty eye sockets. This rattles the adventurers a bit, as can be expected.

Kreida, ever-superstitious, shatters the idol with a mighty swing of her maul before anyone can protest, and the curse upon the tomb seems lifted (though Nalhars surreptitiously grabs a shard of the broken object for later study). The party takes their haul of the bandits' treasures and continues on their way to Anshra to carry out their original quest.

At Anshra, the adventurers easily convince the village elder to part with their stores of grain, for he is greedy and the promise of gold matters more than the risk that his own people may suffer come the winter. With the trade agreement signed, the party returns to Moklat and spends their earnings on personal endeavors, working to forget what they saw in the barrow's depths.

So What Happened Here?

By virtue of an encounter the DM placed on the road, the players were spurred to explore a nearby hex of their own volition, even though the adventure itself did not call for it. The players investigated and cleared a level 2 hex that contained a three-level dungeon, after engaging in a random encounter with more bandits when they explored the hex.

In addition to experience gained by defeating the bandits encountered on the road and in the barrow itself, the adventurers gain additional experience equal to a CR 2 encounter (450 XP) for exploring the hex.

When the adventurers encountered the extraterrene idol, it caused a Sanity saving throw, which everyone except Nalhars failed (reducing their Sanity by 1 point and causing a minor short-term madness effect). Upon completing the adventure, everyone went back to Moklat and engaged in a week of carousing to recover the lost Sanity, spending a goodly portion of their plundered treasure from the bandit-infested barrow.

Next time, I want to go into more non-traditional activities players can do on the adventure scale, such as trading and research activities beyond what the DMG recommends. See you next time!