Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide (self-published under his personal imprint, Sine Nomine) is the best RPG sandbox-creation guide I know of: inspiring and evocative, yet succinct and laser-focused. The steps are step-sized. For new DMs in particular I think it’s unbeatable. Here’s Crawford’s high-level process for kicking off a sandbox campaign:
- Campaign folder: People, Places, Encounter, Chronicle, Maps (81)
- Create two home bases: city and borderland (83)
- Additional sites: court + ruin for each of two home bases (sufficient for first session)
- Generate initial adventure for group
- Between sessions: expand outward a few hexes from current location (84)
The golden rule
Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session. (84)
- Choose court type (e.g. noble court, extended family, business): in essence, the type of social network encountered (85)
- Define 1-3 people of importance (useful to have different levels of authority for varied PC access)
- Give each important person a couple of details and a power source
- Identify conflicts discoverable by PCs (e.g. adultery, treachery, theft) (86)
- Loose ends: what happens if conflict resolved? rewards? leadership changes?
Court types are listed on pp87-89.
- Choose site type (e.g. estate, delve, village, etc.) (90)
- Select tags (92). Consider blending two
- Select sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)
- Determine services/available funds: most border sites have a smith. 2x prices for adventuring goods for outsiders. 20% of priests have minimal clerical powers, 10% of villages have 1st-lvl magic user. Most villages can buy 5gp of plunder per inhabitant; larger requires city.
- Where is nearest Cure Disease/Remove Curse/Raise Dead cleric?
- Stat up NPCs (Enemies especially)
- Rough map, more specific if fighting likely
- Couple of adventure hooks. Local colour important. Hint at tags to draw PCs in
Borderland tags are listed on pp93-102.
Crawford’s ‘tags’ might just as easily have been called ‘tropes’ or ‘setting elements.’ For an idea of the level of detail he finds useful, here’s a sample borderland site tag:
The settlement’s ruling authority demands that the locals perform some sort of labor for their rulers, providing their own food and shelter while at work. Most credit old customary laws requiring such service, but the laws may have fallen into disuse or be fabrications. Peasants hate corvee labor, as it takes them from their fields, and other settlements often resent the demand for their unpaid work.
Enemies: Grasping local official, Cruel corvee taskmaster, Greedy merchant who misdirects the labor to his own profit. Friends: Angry peasant elder, Historian who remembers the old laws, Magistrate who feels the labor is being misused. Places: Sullen labor site, Empty fields, Tavern with knots of angry men. Complications: The corvee is actually a legitimate demand, The corvee is being used to build some vital infrastructure, The corvee was supposed to be paid work. Things: The pay that was supposed to be given to the workers, Proof of the demand’s falsification, Evidence of corrupt redirection of the corvee labor
- Physical: 12K people reasonable, scale as you like. Walled. Water. Districts, internal walls. Local colour (104)
- Social: legal authority. Profession/class/ethnic/religious faultlines. Status of adventurers (105)
- Select tags — can be used per neighbourhood/district (105)
- Rumours/events per tag to act as hooks
- Sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)
City tags are listed on pp106-110.
- Ruin type (e.g. delve, mine, wizard tower) (114)
- How was it ruined? (115)
- Choose 1+ inhabitants (116)
- Treasure available, twists (117-134)
- Stock the site (keyed map)
- Typical day? Expected reaction to PCs?
Antagonist groups are listed on pp117-134.
Echo, Resounding sandbox instructions
In An Echo, Resounding, Crawford presents more detailed instructions for building domains suitable for high-level play:
The following system of region generation is intended to allow you to create a large chunk of adventuring terrain in an afternoon, along with its corresponding political structure. You will lay down the major population centers, important ruins, significant monster or bandit lairs, and areas of vital resources. You’ll establish the major political domains in the area and pick out a half-dozen significant villains or antagonists that could serve to occupy more powerful PCs. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have a good bare-bones framework that you can then elaborate in the ways that you find entertaining or useful for your next session. (9)
The process generates a square-ish region 300mi on a side. Each location (village, temple, mountain pass) has Military, Wealth, Social values, traits (like mini-tags: origins, activities, etc.), obstacles to PC control (penalty to location values), and assets.
Here’s Crawford’s domain-savvy process:
- Pick a spot and start a map, 200-300mi to a side
- Place 1-4 cities (fewer for borderland) spaced out, 10-15K pop in each, near water (17-19)
- Place 4 towns per city, 1-2K pop (mercantile centers: villages, fisheries), can be further from major waterways. Blank spaces fine: there be dragons (orcs, plague, etc.) (17-19)
- Place 5 ruins per city (1-3 were major human habitations) (20-23)
- Place resources equal to number of towns, equidistant (23-24)
- Along each land/water route, place a lair near middle (‘the wicked and the bestial, dens for the bandits, monsters, renegades and savages that scourge the wilderness’) (25-28)
- Place 3-4 lairs w/access to remote or poorly defended resources
- Place lairs in barren areas
- Start naming locations and assigning each one traits
- Place obstacles: 1+ for each city, town, and resource (29-37)
- Optionally assign site tags from Red Tide to cities and towns (might inspire obstacles). This is almost certainly worth doing (RT93-102, RT106-110)
- Start outlining domains: unified polities. City-states, fiefdoms, priestly domains, etc. Choose settlements to be their capitals. Neighbouring pairs/triads to generate conflict
- Hall of infamy: pick a major regional danger (lich, tyrant, etc., expected capstone lvl of campaign)
- Place two name-level (lvl9ish) threats: criminal organizations, cults, major monsters. Attach to cities/lairs/ruins
- Place four mid-level perils: warbands, warlords, wizards, etc. Can attach to lairs — any lower-level threats don’t need to be placed in advance, since they’re local enough to be reasonable as surprises
- In play, remember to add repeat/significant locations to map
Detailed instructions for more realistic demographics (e.g. city/town pop are 5% of total in region) are found on pg16.
The process for fleshing out cities, towns, ruins, obstacles, and lairs expands on the Red Tide material: city/town origins and activities increase location values, and obstacles play on specific values. The domain management and mass combat rules take up about a quarter of Echo‘s 100+ pages, and a system for integrating PCs into the domain and combat systems takes another five pages. The balance of the book presents introductory material, helpful sandbox advice, and an evocative miniature setting (The Westmark) about 50×50 hexes.
Crawford’s sandbox systems emphasize simple gameable abstractions and story-building over, say, the well intentioned economic simulationism of Adventurer Conqueror King or the well intentioned accountancy of the Rules Cyclopedia, and his thumbnail geo/demographics bypass altogether the well intentioned ‘realism’ of Rob Conley’s method. And he can write!
Even better, every one of his medium/large products offers a comparable collection of tools for procedurally generating your own SF/F gaming materials. I recommend Stars Without Number, Other Dust, and his many supplements without reservation to ‘trad’ gamers of every experience and ability level.
Kudos to him.