A Dark Sun Sandbox

A few weeks ago, I made a colossal DMing mistake—I had the players follow the DM, rather than let the DM follow the players. Here’s how the situation went down:

In the War of the Burning Sky campaign I’m running, the characters were tracking down some vital military intelligence. Eventually, they discovered it was in the hands of an NPC named Shealis. They even found out where she was located. However, it was night, and the PC’s were low on hit points, powers, and healing surges—so they took an extended rest.

The next morning, they woke to discover that another NPC they had been travelling with—Kara Ravencaster—had gone off to do some reconnaissance on Shealis on her own. In the meantime, she left word that the group should follow another plot thread, one where a gang of terrorists was planning a major attack on the city. The characters were pretty adamant about following up on Shealis themselves, even going as far as saying that Kara could need their help if she got in over her head.

I thought to myself, “I don’t have the Shealis encounter prepped yet—I have the terrorist encounter prepped.” That’s not a very good reason to hold players back from doing what they wish; after all, everyone’s supposed to be taking part in the story. At the very least, I could have lead them to a dead end; maybe then they would have returned to the terrorist encounter on their own, feeling like their fate was still in their hands. It’s important that the players feel like they have free will and aren’t simply playing a part in a novel that’s already been written.

In addition to portraying all the roles not controlled by the players and being an impartial rules arbiter, the Dungeon Master is responsible for driving the story forward. But what happens when the players take the reigns? A good DM will loosen the slack and see where the characters go; most of the time, this only serves to increase the depth and richness of the story. Occasionally, it leads to boredom and eventually the characters will head back to the plot; a wise lesson every DM should learn.

After that debacle, I decided it would do me some good to run a sandbox campaign; something to hone my DMing skills, which over years of use, could due with some sharpening.

What’s a Sandbox Campaign?

First of all, sandbox games take their cue from the very object they’re named after: A sandbox is a zone with a finite, albeit large, play area. Within that territory, you can do anything you want, go anywhere you wish. Players can let loose and choose to follow a plot or not; they can literally do whatever they want and the DM usually just makes it all up as it happens. Fun and interesting characters develop from such games because players feel like they have more time to stop and smell the roses—they’re not constantly rushing to get to the next plot point.

Of course, sandbox games are not without a strong plot or story. It’s just that, instead of the DM, the players drive the campaign at their own pace and in whatever direction they want. They decide what appeals them and follow it to its conclusion. In fact, a sandbox campaign can have all the magic and mystery of an in-depth, pre-fab campaign—just know that the magic and mystery is determined by what entertains the players.

It’s been over five years since my last sandbox campaign and I was excited and nervous to revisit the concept. Would I still find it enjoyable? Would the players have more fun with freer reign?

Once I knew this was a done deal, I quickly made the decision that it was going to be set in the Dark Sun campaign. Athas has always interested me due to how different it is from other settings, such as Forgotten Realms or Eberron.

Preparation

First of all, sandbox games are typically known as zero-prep campaigns—since the players decide what to do and where to go, no one can know beforehand where the action’s going to take place or how it will play out. Despite this, sandbox games are anything but zero prep. Or rather, it might be better to say all the prep is done before the campaign starts.

There are several aspects of D&D that I derive great enjoyment from. With those aspects missing, some of my excitement for playing is lessened. One of them is 3D terrain. Another is music. So how do I incorporate those elements if I can’t prep for them? What about the other aspects of 4th Edition, such as good encounter design? Unless you’re a DM savant, it’s very hard to put together a well-thought out encounter on the spot, what with all the monster roles available, as well as hazards and traps.

Music

Out of everything that I prep for a campaign, music is probably the most difficult. It requires pouring through hundreds of movie soundtracks, looking for the right song to evoke the appropriate feeling for the encounter in question. Obviously, with a sandbox campaign, there’s no way to anticipate what songs will be right for each moment. This is why I organize my music into several categories, such as Danger, Hope, Mystery, and Upbeat. When organized like this, it’s relatively easy to play music during the session that is pretty close to the right temperament for the moment. Unfortunately, Dark Sun is a demanding beast; I knew none of the music I had organized was going to work. Can you imagine travelling through the desert under blistering heat to the tunes of The Princess Bride?

What I ended up doing was gathering together a bunch of setting-appropriate music, dumping them into a folder, and letting iTunes play through them. When an inappropriate song came up, I’d just quickly move to the next track. It wasn’t ideal, but was fine for music in a pinch.

I made use of the following soundtracks:

  • 300
  • Rome
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Gladiator
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Battlestar Galactica

I plan on organizing the music before our next session so that things will be a little smoother; whenever possible, you want to avoid thundering combat tracks from interrupting serious roleplaying. It kicks everyone out of the mood.

Terrain

Part of the benefit of 3D terrain is, once it’s built, it’s built forever (barring any unforeseen circumstances, such as clumsy players). After almost a decade of making terrain, I have a hobby room filled from floor to ceiling with crates, cliffs, beds, desks, chairs, castle walls, waterfalls, houses, wells, rafts, boats, statues, coffins, ladders, chests, pillars… really, the list goes on and on. Any time a prop is needed, I just grab one off the shelf and put it into play—no prep necessary. Of course, occasionally a prop will come up that you don’t have; when this occurs, just jot it down on a list and make it the next time you’ve parked yourself on the couch in front of the television.

Atmospherics

Things like lighting, smoke, and smells are still pretty easy to use in a sandbox campaign. My lighting setup, for example, makes use of remote controlled LED bulbs. They just sit there, screwed into a light socket, and I can either choose to use them or not as the mood moves me. Same goes for my smoke machine, or the incense I burn to produce different smells. All of them can be brought into play at the drop of a hat, with almost no time away from the DM’s chair. Then again, I find in a sandbox game the players spend a lot of time roleplaying with each other, so if you have to get up and move around the room, just let them continue to do their thing. When the need arises, you can still answer quick questions or chime in when appropriate.

Encounters

One of 4th Edition’s strengths is good encounter design. A well thought out encounter can provide a great deal of enjoyment. When you run a game with no prep, it’s a bit harder to make encounters up on the spot. And even if you are good at doing that sort of thing, how do you access all those stat blocks easily? For example, if you’ve put together a combat with a few soldiers, a lurker, some artillery, and one or two controllers, you’re going to spend a lot of time flipping back and forth between various monster books during the encounter. In my mind, there are three ways you can get around this:

  • Adventure Encounters: Between the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, the official Dark Sun adventure, the Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day adventure, the Free RPG Day adventure, and the various Encounters adventures, I have plenty of pre-made Dark Sun encounters at my fingertips. For Sunday’s game, I just opened up one randomly, grabbed an encounter of the appropriate level, and rubbed off the serial numbers. For example, I used the first encounter in the Marauders of the Dune Sea adventure: Dwarf Conscripts and Elf Snipers became Caravan Guards, the two Thri-Keen Bounders became Caravan Lieutenants, and Sarhan, Templar of Hammana simply became Sarhan. All the powers stayed the same. With all of these resources at my fingertips, finding an appropriate encounter took around 15 seconds.
  • Encounter Binder: For DM’s with a little more time on their hands, you can make an Encounter Binder. This is easy enough; simply take all of your Dark Sun materials to your local FedEx Office and photocopy all of the monsters onto single sheets of paper. Then, organize them in the binder however you want: alphabetically, by level, by role, etc. As the encounter is about to begin, you can flip through the binder, pull out the monster sheets you want, and then lay them out in front of you. This method has the added benefit of letting you write directly onto the sheets, keeping your books and adventures clean.
  • Laptop Software: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Power2ool, created by EN World’s doublewumpus. Without a doubt, Power2ool is one of the most amazing pieces of free 4th Edition software available on the Internet. Imagine my Encounter Binder example, except make it all digital—that’s what Power2ool is. First, you start off with a workspace—a large, clear area. With a D&D Insider account, you can log in and pull up the stats of any official monster. Second, you just drag those stats right into the workspace. This works perfectly if you DM with a laptop (unfortunately, it does not work on an iPad). Of course, Power2ool does so much more; my advice is to create an account and check it out.

Yeah, but how did the session go?

It went splendidly. The characters began as recently capture slaves, on their way to Gulg to be sold. Once I set the stage, I let them loose. I didn’t provide any information other than what was necessary to set the scene: “You’re a day outside Gulg. There are ten cages on wheels being drawn by mekillots. The cage bars are made of ivory. There are between four and five slaves per cage. You are all in one cage. There are eight guards, two lieutenants, and one leader. Go.” I had nothing planned and let the PC’s decide to do whatever they wanted. A few options were immediately obvious, of course: They could either try to escape right then, or they could wait for an opportunity in Gulg.

They decided to escape then and there.

They used a combination of bluff, diplomacy, and intimidate to position the guards in such a way as to assist escape. They also created a ruse or two, as well as some distractions. Lastly, once freed, they ended up enlisting the help of some of the other prisoners, who were happy to turn on their captors. In the end, the guards and lieutenants were killed, and a history surrounding the leader of this caravan—Sarhan—had been created, both by my portrayal of her and also by things the players made up on the spot. (I gave them full narrative control over the situation, allowing them to make up experiences they’d had with her, as well as things they’d heard about her history.) Instead of a few numbers on a page, the players turned Sarhan into a cruel tyrant, one who tortured without mercy.

Of course, she escaped into the desert, probably heading to Gulg. And of course, the characters are going to follow her in order to enact revenge. Thus, the players were able to keep their characters together and create a plot to follow for Session 2.

A Happy Accident

One of the last things the characters did before the session ended was muse about what a powerful psionicist such as Sarhan was doing leading a caravan of slaves from one city to another. I sat there and silently waited, wondering what answer they would come up with, as I didn’t have a clue. A Streetwise check was made, roleplayed out as talking it over with some of the other freed slaves, and resulted in some information: Sarhan was rumored to be a spy sent from Hamanu, the sorcerer-king of Urik.

“So it was a cover, to get her into Gulg!” surmised one of the players. And thus a small part of a larger plot was born.