Prelude to the Death Crypt of the Ultralich

I don’t have a better name for my current game yet, and it ultimately may not take the direction implied in the name (though the mass combat game I ran two weeks ago did serve as a “distant prologue”).

I’m experimenting with a dynamic exploration-focused dungeon, one which begins… almost empty!

The design concept ties into adventure hook that got the party there:

There’s a small town celebrating its founding day, which is normally a smaller affair, but this is the anniversary of the end of the Wizard War. There’s a stone marker outside of town on a hill, and it’s an “historical site” which Wizard War nerds might want to check out on the 500th anniversary. Between the end of the Wizard War and the founding of the town, there was a “rain of dirt” (possibly a volcano, possibly magic upheaval) that buried whatever was there. Folks didn’t want the spot to be totally forgotten, so they put up a plaque. The party found the ruin because a child playing on the hill fell down a sinkhole.

The complex is actually a small buried temple built on top of a previously buried monastery that was built over a series of crypts to seal up some of the residual evils of a Lieutenant of the Ultralich who was defeated on that spot. Below that are caverns and who knows what; I haven’t even fully keyed the crypt area.

The top level is mostly empty, stripped bare, and even the purpose is somewhat of a mystery until the players find the chapel. There are a few collapsed tunnels at the edges of the map, and a room with bats indicating that the room is near the surface of the hillside. Eventually, these tunnels may become excavated as more adventurers and possibly clergymen and historians begin to explore the upper ruins. These empty rooms will serve as future sites of minor archaeological base-camps or refuges for vagrants and bandits. But for now, the party has the ruins to themselves.

I remembered how much I hated the Bruce Heard game I was in because, despite all of the cool fair and carnival stuff around, I didn’t get a chance to interact with it, so if my players decide to do some carnival games, I’ll let them. We’re going to Millennium Fair it. I’m also allowing them to create a bit of the town themselves, picking what they need to have in the town, letting them name places and people. We’ve already ended up with an awesome tavern keeper named Crazy Jim, whose specialty is Owlbear stew. Over the course of the evening, it was established that Crazy Jim is a retired adventurer of ridiculous level.

My DM (a player in this game) is on a Delicious in Dungeon kick, and I’m happy to oblige. Turns out, the secret to making top-notch Owlbear Stew: you gotta make em good and angry. Most animals if they’re all riled up, the meat can get tough and gamey. But Owlbears are different—when an owlbear gets mad, their muscles get all loosened up, like they’ve done a bunch of stretches and then gotten a massage; makes em move all fluid-like. So, if you want the best Owlbear meat, you’ve gotta get em real good and pissed off before you kill them—the meat’ll just fall off the bones.

So, for now, my dungeon chef is contenting himself with frying up centipedes and mice with the wild green onions he’s picked.

Interestingly, my three players have all opted to run Thieves. They reason that this way they’ll always be able to be sneaky and at least one of them will always get a backstab. They have a fighter and Halfling for hirelings; we’ll see how all of this will work out. The halfling’s probably better at hiding from things than they are at this point, but there’s been very little to hide from so far.

The downside of everyone playing thieves, I can’t use this as an opportunity to really go for broke on sticking to the book on Moldvay magic rules. I went out of my way to stock the dungeon with scrolls to reward someone who picked “Read Magic” as their one first level spell. There’s an NPC elf lady whose spell is read magic, but the party didn’t pick her as a hireling, so she very well may end up as part of a rival adventuring party.

The second level of the dungeon, once they reach it, has two mini-side dungeons off of it. One is a workshop with a few high-loot-value mechanical monstrosities that are terrifyingly out of depth. The other is the original monastery’s library, which has been taken over by Aranea.

A lot of the treasure will be hidden in the crypt below the 2nd level, but opening the vault to the crypt will trigger some stuff that will turn much of level 2 “active”. This could upset anyone trying to set up shop on the first floor, definitely a corner of the 2nd floor, and maybe even the rest of the town.


Mass Combat System Play Analysis

So, Friday before last, I got to test run my mass combat system. Essentially, I tricked my players into playing a hex & chit wargame with my by disguising it as Dungeons & Dragons, but it actually went really well! Much better than I expected, in fact.

The sides were comprised of about 40k humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings and just over 100k (mostly low-level) undead. The PC factions were led by 20th level Humans and max-level demihumans, while the undead were led by 9HD vampires and a level 30 MU lich.

Most undead units were 5k in size, each taking up 2 hexes. Smaller units (1000 or less) took up 1 hex and ignored facing rules, and a pair of 10k strong human infantry took up 3 hexes.

The undead’s objectives were to a)Cross the map with one of a various combination of units or b)kill a certain number of the PC heroes. The PC’s objectives were to either a)eliminate 6 units, b) destroy the lich’s siege engines, or c) force the lich to use half of his spells.

While I gave my players a few options of how they could set-up (envelopment, one-sided flanks, meeting engagement, or a prepared defense), they opted to run a prepared line defense in the middle, with cavalry on the flanks.

In about 11 turns over the course of 5 hours, the PC’s pulled off a stunning upset victory against the Lich.

Here’s why:

  • I forgot to put Permanent Fly on the Lich; I wasn’t going to pull a fast one after I’d already showed everyone the ins and outs of what I’d be running. This deprived him of his ability to do ranged spell damage as often as he should’ve been able to.
  • I allowed some of the smaller “special” units of undead to count towards the 6 unit count; I also forgot that I shouldn’t have allowed wights to take casualties from normal units.
  • The lich had no missile troops. My players did pretty well with their archers and skirmishers. While I did manage to collapse their left flank, many of my troops did so right into clerics who could blow up the weaker skellies.
  • Vampires are too weak to go up against the PC party I’d created pre-gens for; I should’ve used much more powerful undead, but I wanted to keep things simple.
  • Magic Missile was broken; I’ll fix it when I rewrite the rules; it should’ve been a fixed amount of damage based on the unit size (perhaps in relation to the target unit’s average HD) rather than multiplied by the die-roll. The elves were doing maybe 1/3 to half a brigade worth of damage per round.
  • Because I did not want to deal with 3 full levels of spells I didn’t have physical books for, the Lich didn’t have a number of abilities and additional reality-shaping spells that would’ve made this a cakewalk. As such, while he did death-touch a 20th level fighter at one point and began to rout PC units just by wading into the fray himself, he couldn’t have held his own if the PCs ganged up on him, in large part because of an absence of “contingencies”.

Here’s what worked:

  • The combat damage system. Once everyone wrapped their head around how easy it was to figure 10% of the highest two digits, calculating damage was a breeze. The rolls to hit and against armor class were simple enough that the players figured out how the system worked pretty quickly.
  • Leader Combat. Well, okay, it kind of worked. It needs to be improved maybe, or maybe implementing it on a smaller scale would work better. Really, the PCs cleaved through the Vampire colonels like butter; the unit regulars could only hit PCs on 20 and even the Vampires had a tough job of landing a blow on the heavily armored PCs.
  • Cavalry are weak in numbers but can do massive damage. They do the most damage with charges. It made me smile when the players came to the realization on their own that they were using their cavalry wrong; they realized what they SHOULD have been doing was, instead of leaving their cavalry in melee, withdrawing after a charge, regrouping far enough away that they couldn’t be attacked by a charging unit, then charge again from a flank to get the charge damage bonus.
  • Turning worked almost just as planned. 2d6 x 10% of a cleric unit divided by the defending unit’s hit dice. I required that the unit the clerics were attempting to turn must have line of sight on the cleric unit. This meant that cleric units staying behind other units, performing first aid, couldn’t turn; they had to come out where the undead could see them.
  • Giving the cleric units a 3 shot ability to prevent ½ damage to an adjacent unit, up to the total number of clerics in the unit, worked pretty well.

Here’s what was a little iffy:

  • The Combat Order in general worked just fine, and I’m still sold on doing initiative per melee, though the players did say that it slowed things down a bit. BUT if you weren’t using initiative per melee, I’d probably go with the following order within the combat phase:
    • Declare unit combat pairings and splits
    • Unpaired attackers do their damage first
    • Paired/split attackers do damage simultaneously (i.e. use the unit sizes of all units at the beginning of combat to calculate damage, rather initiative-loser potentially takes losses and inflicts fewer casualties)Now what’s with split attacks? When units were being attacked by more than one unit, I allowed the defending unit to make attacks against all attackers, splitting damage proportionally.
  • Magic. Some of the spells worked out, others didn’t. The biggest problem was that I used 1d6+1 x 10% of the casting unit calculate damage for Magic Missile. While it was fine for the 500 strong MU unit, it made the 3500 strong elf unit a murder machine. Additionally, there are just some spells that either don’t really work for mass combat or would require some additional development

Here’s what could stand some further development:

  • Accounting for hit die differences. This isn’t something I did, in part because a) I didn’t have time and b) it would’ve bogged down an initial test more than I wanted. I DID have one unit of 100 bone golems where I had their HP as the true unit strength, and, because they were a small unit, each individual could inflict a kill. So, with 4 attacks, the unit could theoretically kill 400 per round while they had an effective HP of 2400 instead of 100.I treated the PC units as “elites”, using the 2nd column of the to-hit and saves, and the ability to cast spells as a 5th level MU x3. This didn’t mean that everyone in the unit was 5th level, just that the average quality of the troop was such that it had a to hit bonus and a save bonus. This wasn’t reflected in unit strength/hit dice.

    The starkest difference was between skeletons and zombies, 1 hit die monsters vs. 2 hit die monsters; in theory, the zombies should be twice as hard to kill. I didn’t treat it that way (except for Turn results). You could do some tweaks to kills, where there’s a base 10% damage then reduce it proportionally by the number of hit dice. For monsters with more than 3 hit die, I think it makes sense to treat them like I did the Bone Golems (a large group of individuals attacking and simultaneously, while tracking the collective HP, but not treating them truly as a regular unit per the system). Because really, when the bone golems attacked, I was rolling 4 attacks for each one once rather than 100 times, and therefore assumed that those attacks all succeeded against individuals in the defending units rather than an attack against the unit itself using unit to unit resolution. This may actually be the best fix, as it can account for smaller numbers of large monsters (ogres, owl bears, whatever) fighting against mass combat scale units. The entire unit may not be attacking monsters, but all of the monsters are attacking someone in the unit.

  • Morale. The morale mechanics ended up not being used or tested, in part because I didn’t really write them down, so meh. Also, being undead, the Lich’s units weren’t subject to morale per-se. The players didn’t quite figure out just HOW killing the Vampire colonels affected the undead units. Being undead, they didn’t break and flee; they kept fighting, though they didn’t pull back or move further. I noted each time a vampire colonel was defeated that they dropped a sword that glowed black. These were +1 swords of control undead; if any PC had picked one up, they could either command or dispel the brigade the Vampire had been leading, but no players bothered.
  • Fleshing out the system for purposes of accounting, to better tie it to your B/X game. There are book prices for mercenaries but I think it would be worth crunching the numbers for custom equipping units, as well as figuring what “elite” means for both cost and ability (especially for casters).

I really think that there’s some potential to this system. It would absolutely work great with fewer units and at lower levels, I think, but hey, we wanted a stupid-high level battle against a lich.

Skeletons Need to REEEEEEEE!

I feel like skeletons have kinda lost their luster in a lot of games, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. They’re often used as obvious tableau monsters–skeletons at a table playing cards? They’ll get up and attack you; skeletons laying down in beds? They’ll get up and attack you. At one hit die and easily turned by priests, they just never seem like that big a threat unless they can get economy of action on you. And even then, they’re often mundane mooks; players aren’t really scared of them. Then I remembered…

Skeletons are supposed to REEEEEEEEEEEE!

Skeleon Reeee

None of the games I’ve been in have done this, and I’ll admit I’ve failed to include it myself. But when skeletons attack, they are supposed to shriek for up to three rounds. And during each of those three rounds, there’s a 50/50 chance that a wandering monster will come check out what the hell is going on.

So, you go from a blah encounter with a few skellies that the clerics turn and the fighters hack to bits to a cascading nightmare as the dungeon’s alarm system has just alerted half the dungeon to your presence.

Edit: Oops! Looks like I screwed this up! The picture for skeletons are under the entry for Shriekers. No wonder! But hell, why not have skeleton shriekers?


Tabletop Gaming on a Budget

Holy crap, is Cirsova participating in a blog carnival again? It’s been ages! Like, I may have been a guest-blogger at Dice Monkey the last time I did one of these…

Renaissance Gamer is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival with the theme of Tabletop Gaming on a Budget.

Money is usually tight following the holidays, and gamers are not exempt from this. You are likely going into January gift-rich and money-poor. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it might mean your tabletop game spending has to take a backseat for a while.

Or does it? January’s RPG Blog Carnival topic is Tabletop Gaming on a Budget: how to get gold piece value gaming supplies and resources for copper piece prices. Useful just after the holidays? Sure. But maybe you’re new to the hobby and want to dip your toe before diving deep into your wallet. Or you want to try some new games without breaking the bank. Have you considered taking the leap into game mastering, but the laundry list of GM supplies is daunting? This month’s RPG Carnival posts will help you play games without spending big dollars.

This is the anchor post for the month, so if you’re taking part in this month’s carnival drop a link to your blog post in the comments below. If you just want the tips, bookmark this page and stop back throughout the month. I’ll also post a wrap-up at the end of the month, bringing it all together. And keep your eye on the blog, I’ll have my own post on the wonders and delights to be found at your local Dollar Store.

If you’re seriously concerned about gaming on a budget or are new to the hobby, there are a few things to consider.

Don’t: Buy a full set of core books. In fact, I’d say, don’t buy any core books until you’re certain what system you’re playing or running. I’m also not a fan of systems that are spread out across multiple core books (sorry, most editions of D&D!); these can prove to be a big money sink for potential players who don’t know what they want from a game or if they really want to play this or that system. Do: Research the game you want to play. If you’re new to tabletop gaming, there are a lot of great systems out there that are less weighty in terms of both rules and the literal weight of the stack of tomes you’re asked to invest in. My favorite version of Dungeons & Dragons (B/X) can be found for a few bucks in PDF; many clones of earlier editions are available for free–OSRIC’s presentation of 1st ed AD&D is much friendlier than the original in terms of organization of content.

Do: Buy a full set of dice (d4/d6/d8/d10/d12/d20). Don’t: Go all out and buy weird and highly specific or ridiculous dice with prime-numbered sides (d3/d5/d7/etc.). If you’ll be playing in a game that needs these, you can probably borrow rather than invest in the rather pricey sets.

Do: Get some cheap loose-leaf paper, a notebook, and some pencils. Character sheets are nice, but not essential. Still, good ones can be found free online for nearly any system. Don’t: Spend top dollar on a moleskine notebook, day-planners, calendars, etc. IF you’re running a game, a dollar-store calendar might be a good idea, because keeping track of time in a game is an essential aspect of running a meaningful RPG.

Don’t: Buy a whole bunch of miniatures. Miniatures are a ton of fun, and are sort of a hobby in their own right, but having totally accurate minis is not an essential component of tabletop gaming. Do: Find some cheap, but durable tokens that can be used. Most editions of D&D use combat rules that hinge on some use of miniature combat–some folks like theatre of the mind, but for that to work, you’re discarding a significant chunk of the actual game rules, and adjudication becomes a fuzzy “eh, whatever” instead of a fair game mechanic. The same applies for dungeon props, tiles, maps, etc. Those can prove to be hobbies in their own right as well, but if you’re new or on a budget, they’re extraneous and can be supplemented with all sorts of things (my group breaks out a Jenga set sometimes). It’s not the right time of year for it, but Dollar Tree carries halloween miniatures and decorations that double as dungeon dressing for cheap (I’ve got a bone gazebo! For a dollar!) But again, it’s extraneous.


ARPG-Con DCC Session Report (Pt. 2, Evening)

The second DCC session I was in on Saturday at ARPG Con was a run through the level 0 module The Arwich Grinder.

Unlike other DCC modules I’ve played, this one was rather story and role-play heavy, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all!

We had three players and were allowed 6 characters.

The Arwich Grinder is a bit of a fun-house module that is bigger on building atmosphere than instant kill traps. A local family is your typical Lovecraft villain family: reclusive and prolifically inbred with a penchant for the occult. But they’ve got some good will in the town because during a famine they provided everyone in the town with foodstuffs. Well, it turns out they were breeding meat-men; a couple meat-men got out, including one who had the bonnet of “Bessie”(the one young pretty member of the family) in its hand before collapsing dead in the middle of the tavern.

There were a few things that were odd about this session:

  • We were playing as about 10% of the town’s populace, going to check in on the Curwen family to see if everything was all right, in turn-of-the-century America, but none of us had any fire-arms with us. This made it a bit hard to suspend disbelief.
  • It was always a strong point of discussion among the players about meta-gaming vs. roleplaying. While we always opted for the latter, it was funny, because we were all “The obvious solution would be to burn their house down, but we’re here to check on our neighbors and we’re convinced that they need to be rescued from something”.
  • While we “Lost Characters”, they didn’t die—in wargamer parlance, they “successfully exited the map”.

Even for DCC, we had pretty impressive manpower, but we used our resources wisely, treating our characters as the normal townfolk that they were trying to do a normal townfolk thing in the face of otherworldly horror.

  • The meat-man eating pig-slop and brandishing a human rib-cage? The poor retarded lad had to be put down, he was a danger to the community and our neighbors the Curwens!
  • The crazy lady locked in the upstairs? When she came running and shrieking at us, we subdued her, talked her down, put her on a cart and had a few characters drag her back to town for medical treatment.
  • The giant invisible baby in the attic? The characters who saw it were convinced it was a ghost, those who didn’t didn’t believe them or decided it was best not to muck with; we were there to save the Curwens!
  • The crazy old man downstairs? He’s hungry and senile and not a problem; we gave him some food and were all “We’ll come back for you.”
  • In the under-area we run into one of the Curwen couples. “Horrible stuff’s been goin’ on! We’re here to rescue you!” Husband attacks, gets killed because there are still a dozen of us after a few folks went back with the crazy lady. We subdue the wife, because it’s not gentlemanly to kill one of the ladies you’re trying to save. She tells us what’s going on, that the chanting we hear is the patriarch with Bessie and “he’s gonna fix it”. A few characters escort the wife into a room where she’ll be locked up for a minute; we’ll come back for her once we know Bessie’s safe.
  • Patriarch is gonna sacrifice Bessie, tossing her into a pit of boiling mud; a couple folks grab Bessie while we D’Onofrio the Patriarch.
  • Another Curwen couple shows up; we knock out the husband but were unable to apprehend the wife and toddler.
  • We continue sending Curwens back to town in waves, having “rescued” them. Our best characters stay to mop up and look for survivors. Characters going “off-the-map” run into the Constable and tell him they need to send a rider or telegraph to the city, get out the state militia, somebody who actually has guns.
  • We kill a couple of out-of-town cousins who didn’t believe that we’d solved the problem by not letting them summon a tentacle monster and calling up the militia.
  • While we’re unable to find the one woman who escaped or her child, we consider it a job well done that we saved most everybody, our neighborly duty was fulfilled, and G-Men could handle the rest. Also, it seemed like a good time to pack up and move out of New England.

Maybe this was an “easy” module? Or maybe we just “did it right”? The GM was impressed with our run, saying she’d never seen anyone play it the way we had; usually folks would either burn down the house, kill everybody inside, or mess with the giant invisible baby and get killed. I liked it, though, because even though it wasn’t hack & slash, the story emerged from the setting and things we could interact with; nothing felt forced. The GM rolled with our ideas of sending “rescued survivors” back with PCs for medical attention or to jail. The module had a story, but it was non-linear and could’ve played out any number of ways. For us, it played out with no PC casualties, minimal NPC death, and no eldritch horror “fixing” the problem. Ironically, had we NOT investigated, other than at the cost of Bessie’s life, the problem would’ve fixed itself.

It was a great Halloween horror module, even if it wasn’t a particularly good “Funnel”. I don’t think any of our characters would become Level 1 Adventurers following the escapade, but given that no one died, it’s probably the closest you could get to a “flawless victory” in a level 0 module.

Still, I’d like to see this with guns. “Giant nekkid deaf-mutes are shamblin’ into town? A bonnie lass may be in danger? Let me fetch the match-lock from me mantle…”

ARPG-CON DCC Session Report (Pt. 1, Morning)

Over the weekend I attended the inaugural ARPG Con and played in a couple of DCC games. Funnels, of course, since that’s what most folks are into and surviving a funnel is something that you can do in the time-frame of a con one-off and leave the table with a sense of accomplishment.

I don’t know the name of the first module, or if it was even a full module or a portion of a whole, but the second session was The Arwich Grinder. They were good sessions, and I had fun in both, but they were very different. Most significantly, one of them was a story-driven Call of Cthulhu module and I didn’t hate it!

Morning game was framed as a “Mystery” adventure. It was set in the Sutterlands or something. There’s a wedding, the PCs drink from a mystery jug, and they wake up on a haunted farm. It was less of a mystery and more of a puzzle; a puzzle that had to be solved before ghosts killed you.

Table was myself, an experienced gamer who’d not played DCC, and two kids who were experienced players (parents were DCC Judges, and I think they may have been niece & nephew of the folks who organized the con). We each had 4 characters.

Deal was there were 4 farm-houses, a well, a graveyard, and a cornfield. One house had an instant kill death-trap that made no sense so could not have been avoided by smart play (seriously, who would have expected a ramshackle wood cabin would instantly fill with flesh-burning acid in a single round the moment you stepped inside it?). Another house was a “safehouse”, with sigils on the doors that keep the ghosts out, plus two halves of a broken hawthorn staff that you could actually hit the ghosts. Third house had a spellbook that would’ve been great if we were using this to launch an ongoing campaign. Last house had images depicting the puzzle’s story. Cornfield had a pile of corpses around a scarecrow, Graveyard had a pair of earthhounds in it, and the Well had a debris monster.

So, we wake up in the middle of these houses and are almost immediately set upon by ghosts from the woods. Not wanting to make things easy on the GM, we all sent our characters in different directions. Two of my characters got instant killed by the trap (was it a Trap House or an Acid House?) while the other two headed for the house with the sigils that seemed to hold. Other players’ characters ran around in all directions; some with me in the safehouse, at least one other killed by the trap, one triggered the earthhounds, others ran for the other two houses, while one found the scarecrow and the pile of bones. All over the course of a couple rounds.

So, the “story” of the site was that the people who lived there were evil (natch), and a priest had gone to visit them. They killed the priest, broke his staff, threw his holy symbol down the well and left the body as an offering before the Corn Lord.

The solution to the puzzle was to go into the well, retrieve the holy symbol (the debris monster was entirely optional), and place it in the out-stretched hand of the dead cleric. The cleansing rain would destroy the curse and dissolve the ghosts (but only after they got to attack for a couple more rounds). I got a “bonus” (free mini-dice bag!) from the GM for being the first to suggest improvised weaponry (I started with a mithril ingot that my dwarf fastened to his hammer); we were supposed to fashion improvised weapons from things like the hawthorn sigils, the broken staff and at least one silver key to fight the ghosties.

It was a puzzle and we solved it. There was some satisfaction to it, but not a lot of real resolution. Who gave us the jug of magic liquor? Why was there a jug of magic liquor that would take us to redneck Ravenloft? There was not a massive sense of accomplishment, but as a funnel to kick off a campaign, I guess it got the job done.

I did like its scale, however. It felt like the right amount of adventure that would take a character to first level. One of the things that bothered me about Sailors on the Starless Sea was that the upper-castle should’ve reasonably gotten characters to level 1, and level 1 characters would’ve stood more of a chance against the last set-piece encounter. All but the very end of Sailors could be smart-played, which damn near made it a cake-walk for our group, and therefore an ineffective funnel, other than the fact that it expected you to roll up on the last fight and just slug it out toe-to-toe with a(n admittedly weak) chaos avatar and his army of beastmen. With the exception of the instant-kill acid trap that could not have possibly been foreseen, this adventure could be smart-played to a degree where you’d only lose a few characters. Less experienced players would probably finish this one out with at least one character alive apiece, with some smart-plays mitigating character-death.

  • Go straight for the safehouse and wait for the ghosts to leave
  • Burn any corn-husk dolls; this should’ve been a no-brainer, especially as a one-off, but I kept my characters’, and, of course, they attacked me during the final fight.
  • Without pressure from ghosts (whose raids are intermittent), you’d probably only lose one character to the acid-trap
  • Earthhounds are a tough fight for someone who just stumbles into them, but you have economy of action on them like a mo-fo, especially if the ghosts aren’t attacking.
  • You don’t even need to fight the debris monster.
  • At worst, you lose a few characters in the final ghost attack.

All-in-all, much better than “here’s 40 guys, fight them and the characters who live are your level 1”, at least in terms of giving players as much agency as possible over the outcome.

Next, I’ll talk about our power-house, flaw-less victory run of The Arwich Horror!


I came across a bizarre article by DM David yesterday on Sandboxes with the click-baity title “Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think.” His article uses an idea of a sandbox in a way that no DMs I’ve ever played with or who have written on the subject have used the term.

David seems to be using it to describe some sort of absolute free-for-all, nothing planned, no direction to go, the DM just runs with whatever the players decide to do at that moment. It’s nuts, so of course that notion of a sandbox doesn’t work and is not what players really want.

“Sandbox” in every case I’ve seen it used has meant a gaming environment populated with multiple locations to interact with and explore, as opposed to “Here is a dungeon; you are going to explore this dungeon; here is a town; when you’re not in the dungeon, you’re at the town.” The sandbox is typically full of toys; you can play in it and you play with the toys that are there. Sometimes you get more toys, which is always cool, or maybe you find a toy that was hidden under some sand.

Just because players enjoy exploring dungeons doesn’t mean that they’re not in a sandbox game or that they don’t enjoy sandboxing!

Yet David oddly seems to imply that there is some kind of ‘pure’ Sandbox that is devoid of adventure hooks for players to choose from.


“Herpty, derp, you put a castle to be explored in your sandbox? Looks like you’re going back towards the rails, friend!”

While there is some sound advice for open-world gaming in David’s post, it’s all derived from attacking a strawman notion of Sandbox gaming that doesn’t exist.

“I think seeding your sandbox with locations for PCs to explore may be pushing your story too hard!” said no ‘railroad-phobic’ player ever.

A sandbox may not have rails, but it has boundaries and things to do; David’s notion of a sandbox sounds more like a desert.

Anyway, ChicagoWiz has also written an interesting rebuttal to David’s piece.