Every area designed for a sandbox occurs as part of a larger whole, and this is no less true for the initial area than for any other. Nothing exists in isolation. Unless your starting area is hermetically sealed from the rest of your world – in which case, your starting area is the totality of your world! – this is as true for the game as it is for real life. Merchant caravans come from somewhere, pirates sell their goods in some distant port. Even the distant past is part of the larger picture….Who made that castle whose ruins the player characters are busy plundering?
It is important, therefore, to have a general overview of the region that the initial sandbox area is part of.
Two quick notes:
(1) I have recently been involved in a discussion on DragonsFoot, where one poster seemed to believe that the “box” was an operative part of the term “sandbox” as it applies to role-playing games. I reject this utterly. There is, of necessity, an edge to the region currently created by the Game Master and/or explored by the players in a sandbox game – but this edge exists neither to keep the world out, or to keep the players in. It is just the edge of the work thus far, a frontier that is always ready for expansion!
(2) Although the last few blog posts have been written as occurring sequentially, there is no reason to do the work in this way. So long as the necessary things get done, it doesn’t matter what order you do them in. In fact, the work will be better for as much intersection between steps as possible. Until the starting area is presented as “ready” by you, the Game Master, everything is fluid. You should let yourself be inspired by all parts of the work, and you should be willing to go back and adjust stuff, add material, and even throw out things to make a more satisfying whole!
Concentrate first on immediate needs first.
The purpose of an overview is to have answers ready for the most obvious questions that the players are going to ask, while also having in place a vision that both inspires and grounds your imagination. You can draw a sort of vague relationship map of the surrounding area, noting only major towns, cities, and landscape features. Feel free to name the country that the starting area is part of, determine the basic gist of the government, and name the other countries it is immediately adjacent to (or otherwise in contact with). Decide if their relations are currently friendly or not.
You should have some idea of the major religion(s) in the region your starting area falls within, as well as what type of calendar is in use. Noting the major holidays is also a good idea. Make certain you know what year it is! It is a good idea, as well, to know what event the year is counted from.
Celestially, you will want to know if there is more than one sun, or moon, and, if your world uses a system of astrology, what the major signs of its zodiac are. You may also want to name other known planets or important astronomical/astrological features. For example, in the northern hemisphere on Earth, you would want to mention the Big and Little Dippers, Polaris, and Orion. I like to include the phases of the moon(s) on my calendars, as this prevents me from slipping up. It also helps me keep track of when creatures such as lycanthropes are more active.
What trade goods are available, and where are they coming from? You don’t need to know everything here, but 3-5 samples (good cloth, for example, or wine; ivory, silk, and gemstones; tobacco; etc.). This will help you when you are creating treasures, stocking trading posts, and detailing merchant caravans.
Who lived here in the past? Name 2-3 ancient peoples who are now gone, and give each one 2-3 defining characteristics. These should be characteristics that remain persistent in the campaign milieu. For example, in one of my own games, the ancient Esk made great use of amber beads in their decorative work, and raised barrows and monoliths now associated with the fey. The Partheloneons, on the other hand, were pseudo-Roman militants who delved too deeply into Things Man Was Not Meant to Know (i.e., Lovecraftian mythos stuff).
Not only does this sort of work add realism to the game, but it allows you to create undead monsters which really feel like they come from earlier times. Just as, in a contemporary setting, it is cooler to run into an ancient Aztec vampire or Egyptian mummy than it is to run into the ghost of Joe Modern, it is cooler in a fantasy milieu to interact with the past when you encounter such ancient creatures. Likewise, folkloric fey often partake of the dress and mannerisms of a bygone age…these details help faeries seem different than contemporary men.
Consider, too, that some player characters might be members of long-lived races, such as elves, whose starting ages make it possible that they were alive when the ancient peoples went away!
Your own particular gaming group will have its own special interests; try to anticipate the questions that the players are likely to raise, and make sure that you have some form of answer available (even if you don’t intend to supply it to them right away!).
After immediate needs are met, do whatever work interests you the most. Or, take a break if nothing is particularly interesting to you.
This advice never changes….
Every hour of prep work should result in at least two hours of game time.
……..as long as you keep this advice in mind.
You should assume that your world is mostly Earth-like, except in those places where you intentionally create differences. Thus, in addition to whatever fantastic trees you create, there will be oaks, elms, willows, and pines. That there will be trees, even, is something that the players ought to be able to assume, unless you tell them otherwise.
If you are going to invent other details, make sure that you use them. On the Plain of Prax, the grasses are normal, terrestrial grasses, except those unusual ones that you specify. Those unusual ones you specify should be noteworthy in some way. They should have an effect on game play (even if that effect is not, strictly speaking, mechanical). You should get at least twice the time in play value as you spend in coming up with these details.
If you decide that there is a known symbol associated with an evil cult, make sure to use that symbol in concrete ways. Knowing that symbol should allow the players to (potentially) predict the layout of an area, or even of a secret door. For example, a cult that is known to use the number three repeatedly can have a room with two obvious doors…a clue that there is another, non-obvious door in the area. If you spend the time to write it up, also spend the time to use it in every possible way you can think of! Get the highest yield you can from your design work.
Finally, you have to decide how much of this information to pass on to your players. My advice is, at the start of the game, very little indeed. Rather, as you write the background of your world, assume that the players know all the background you do, and refer to it as you would oak trees, bears, and France. Then let them ask questions as they become interested.
Put the ball in their court in this way, and they may actually listen to the answers!
Make the answers useful to know within the context of the game milieu, and they may actually be eager to learn more.
Next: Initial Adventure Sites.