Running a Red Sandbox

Ever since I read Ben Robbins’ now famous West Marches blog posts, I dreamed of running a sandbox of my own, but when I tried to imitate Ben’s experience, using first 3.5e and then Savage Worlds, the prep killed me. Not to mention I couldn’t get the players to organize games, or to set session goals. I could get people to show up just fine, but they expected to play whatever I had prepared. Combined with the heavy amount of up-front prep in a West Marches game: maps, dungeons, wandering monster tables, treasure… and a compelling “history” to tie it all together, well, it was tough without external deadlines and solid direction.

Then along came the old school renaissance, especially New York Red Box. They were having such a great time, and Red Box seemed like it had it all: low prep, lots of tables and charts for winging it, and a really simple system. The One Page Dungeon template sealed the deal; I started my wiki/forum and started running games a few months later, in March of 2009. A little over one year, 44 sessions,  four DMs, thirty-six PCs (not counting the ones that didn’t survive their first adventure), dozens of retainers and thousands of gold pieces later, here’s what I’ve learned about running a West Marches-style sandbox with Red Box D&D.

1. Give the players a hex map.
Ben specifically mentions this, so I have nobody to blame but myself. I don’t have much in the way of art skills, so I tried describing the lay of the land during games. Nobody listened on the way to the starter–and for months, the only–dungeon. Nobody remembered in-between sessions, when the planning was supposed to happen.

Then I wrote up wiki pages for each area, with links to adjacent regions. Even more confusing and harder to visualize than traveling through the area in-game. Finally I broke down, cropped the Nentir Vale map and replaced the place names with my own. That sort of helped. But not really, because I only gave them the immediate area around town, which is what Ben did.

For why I think that didn’t work out for me, you’ll have to read #4 below.

I’m pretty sure what you want is a big hex map, so players can tell how far apart everything is. And on that hex map, you want interesting looking names and pictures, separated by swathes of white space. And the interesting names and pictures don’t necessarily have to be where they really are on the players’ map, just in the general neighborhood. That way players can make meaningful decisions like “let’s do a three-month trek to the Spire of Iron and Crystal” or “let’s see what this ruin is two days down the Dwarf Road”. Versus “let’s go north through the Haunted Forest and find out what’s on the other side. Hope there’s gold!”

2. Make the first dungeon small.
Fully half of the early adventures in my game were in the Lost Mine, the “starter” dungeon. Why? Because not knowing what else was out there, and being busy adults, my players were content to go over the same ground, again and again. Also, Red Box characters are fragile. In a world where the average blow from a weapon does d6 hit points, and fully 5 of 7 classes have d6 hit points at first level, information is the difference between yet another massacre on the Rope Bridge of Death or survival. It pays to go back to familiar territory, because you’ve got prior knowledge of some of the dangers. Knowledge your companions paid for with their lives.

My first dungeon was pretty big: two levels and about thirty rooms/features/death-traps. Even now there are still areas the players haven’t explored and treasure they haven’t uncovered. If you want the players to explore the wilderness, you want them to finish the starter dungeon, and you want them to finish with solid leads to other “plunder pockets”. Not kill nine months and an equal number of characters fighting the same gang of stirges and goblins.

3. Bribe ’em with xp.
None of the players doing session summaries? Award xp for writing them. Nobody talking on the forum/email list? Award xp for signing up. Nobody showing up to a last-minute game? Award xp for attendance. Because the pace of Red Box advancement is glacial, and survival so difficult, it’s like a license to print money. And as everyone knows, in Red Box D&D money == xp. I’ve awarded almost 1,000xp to one player for his session summaries, more than all the xp he’s earned from enemies and treasure, but I don’t worry about unbalancing the game because we both know that odds are that character will die long before he hits 2nd level, at which point it hardly matters if he had 9xp or 1,999xp. And yet because leveling is such a grind, players will do anything to increase their chances of getting another hit die before some shrimp with a rusty spoon ganks them. I know I will, and I play a thief. A THIEF! (My thief died soon after I wrote this — cr0m)

4. Don’t run a West Marches game.
I know, this probably should have been #1, but I don’t think Red Box and wilderness exploration for the sake of wilderness exploration mix well. In the original West Marches, Ben was using 3e D&D, where you went up levels for defeating enemies. Thus, it was worthwhile cruising for wandering monsters and filling in the wilderness map while uncovering new dungeons. Every wandering monster encounter was worth xp (if it didn’t kill you). Not so in Red Box. Monsters are worth bupkis. And they’re worth even less than bupkis, when you realize that nearly every one of them is a potential TPK. I’ve seen a lone orc take out three PCs in three rounds. Do you know how many orcs are in a wilderness encounter? 10-60.

It gets worse. You can run into much tougher monsters in the wild than in the dungeon, where the level below ground roughly corresponds to the level of the bad guys. Also, monsters you encounter in the wild are, by definition, not at home. And home is where the money is. And we already know that money == xp. So in the wild, you have a better chance of running into stuff that will kill you faster than the stuff that already kills you very efficiently in the dungeon, thank you very much. And that stuff won’t have any treasure, so if you survive, you stand to earn at best a few hundred xp.

As a party. Your PC will get 50.

If I ever do this again (a virtual certainty), the wilderness exploration won’t be the focus. Or rather, filling in the map between suspected pockets of awesome will be the focus. Getting from Threshold to the Caves of Chaos, yes. Crossing the ghoul-infested Haunted Forest to find out what’s on the other side, no.

5. Everybody loves being an elf.
It’s not just because you can fight and cast spells. Wait, no. YES IT IS. If anyone ever wants to make a new rules-light sword-and-sorcery game, they’d do very well to let everyone cast a couple of spells. People love being able to solve their problems more than one way, even if it means giving up the laughably remote possibility of ever reaching second level. The Elf is great because he’s a wizard who can fight with a sword, unlike every other wizard except Gandalf. And Elric. And probably a lot of other cool wizards. I’m not terribly well-read when it comes to fantasy, okay? That guy with the flaming sword in Song of Ice and Fire. What do you mean he wasn’t a wizard? Wasn’t he the guy who killed some chick with a shadow? I stopped reading when it took him four years to finish the next book. They need to put out Cliff’s Notes. I’m telling you, there’s an untapped market there.

Where was I? Right, and people love being able to contribute positively to the adventure after their one spell is gone, by firing arrows, finding secret doors, or looking for footprints with their infravision. Which brings me to my next point.

6. Fracking infravision.
You can’t go ten steps before someone wants to track someone else using the heat of their footprints. Cue discussion of infrared cameras. Cue discussion of conductive properties of shoe leather. Cue discussion of ogre footwear. Cue the DM slitting his wrists.

Darkvision. Monte Cook, et al got that one right.

7. It’s a slow burn.
Don’t go whole hog filling up your wiki with stuff before the first session. A wiki populated by DM-written pages is a sterile, alien place. Write the bare minimum your players need: a brief intro to the setting, the hex map, the starter dungeon, house rules, done. It’s way too easy to put lots of energy into tweaking the forum, downloading old school artwork, writing all kinds of interesting NPCs, etc. That time is better spent constructing wandering monster tables, writing up very solid leads to the next dungeon, and stocking your map. My rule of thumb as a DM–which I break constantly–is to only write pages that help me run games. I write-up retainers, because I need to remember which ones are cowards, which are lazy, which are traitors, etc. I used to write-up session summaries, but players do that now (see #3). I do record the shares of xp/gp for each session, for book-keeping purposes. And I update the timeline so I know where and when everyone is. Everything else I’d like to leave to the players.

The reality is that I still spend way too much time on the wiki, but not as much as I used to.

Also, it took nine months of gaming and mentioning my sandbox on the internet before we got walk-ons. I put a link to my wiki in my signature on Dragonsfoot, pestered the NY Red Box guys on their forum until they linked to me, and made occasional comments on various old school blogs. For the first few months, I only had enough players for one group. It takes time to bring in casual players, friends, and eventually, every nerd’s dream: a stranger who tracks you down on the internet.

In all seriousness, the great thing about attracting players off the internet is that they’ve usually done their homework. That is, they read the blogs, have read your wiki (more than the rest of your players can say), and want to play your game. It’s a great feeling, and so far they’ve been an injection of enthusiasm and fun, that after 15+ months, any campaign can use.

8. The wiki is a backup.
When I started this, I got an old three-ring binder for my rule books, dungeons and character sheets. It’s way, way more useful than the wiki. It’s got notes jotted here and there, scraps of paper, old retainers, sketches, all kinds of maps, characters, dead characters, loot calculations… in short, it’s got context. And it goes to every game I attend. The wiki is always out of date, you can’t quickly search it unless you already know what you’re looking for, and you need to be online to access it. It’s great for restoring lost character sheets, remembering what happened two sessions ago, or tracking xp. But it sucks for figuring out who got the healing potion, where the blue stone came from, or which part of the Mine to explore next. It’s a pen-and-paper game for a reason. And that reason is: Gary wrote it in 1974. But paper is still pretty handy.

9. Red Box is an arcade game, not a video game.
There’s an element of slot-machine gambling with Red Box. You roll your stats, 3d6 in order, and see what you qualified to play. Did you make elf? Dwarf? Fighter is cool. Thief? LOL.

You play your character like you play a game of Space Invaders. You know you’re going to die. It’s just a question of how much glory! Bad luck with the dice (whether its yours, during play, or the DM’s while stocking the dungeon) means you start over. Good luck and skillful play (some people would say “cowardly”. People with dead characters, mostly.) means you make it to the next round.

Over at New York Redbox they’re playing a game of White Box where the PCs start at third level. I’ve noticed that game has a lot more investment in the setting, a lot more complicated schemes, etc. I imagine some of this is due to the increased longevity–or at least the expectation of longevity. A first level Red Box character has no such expectations.

10. D&D is a flawed, human creation.
I got into Red Box for the nostalgia, but I stayed because it’s a fun, rules-light system. What it’s not is perfect, by any means. I started this experiment slavishly devoted to playing “by-the-book”, to see how the old girl held up after all these years. The good news is, she holds up fine. The even better news is, she still needs some help from us. House rule the hell out of it. Try things on for size. The nice thing about a rules-light system is that you can introduce new rules without bringing the entire game down. I’ve got house rules about dying, fighting with two weapons, maintenance costs, lock-picking, splintering shields (all of which I stole from the internet)… and probably more. I’m definitely going to take a long, hard look at xp and advancement before I go much further. (We introduced carousing after I wrote this — cr0m)

There are blogs out there that are devoted to the idea that the rules work, if you interpret them correctly, or in the right context, or with Chainmail handy… and they might be right, but that’s a lot of effort. Change ’em. They’ll be fine.

My secret wish (other than a decent public space for gaming on weeknights in Vancouver. (we now play at Waves Coffee on Broadway @ Spruce — cr0m)) is for one of the players to propose a custom class. Someday!

I hope it’s not too obvious how hard I had to work to get to ten, but I couldn’t stop at seven. There’s no seven-sided die. Thanks for reading, and if you’re in Vancouver, BC, and want to play–look us up:

7 Responses to “Running a Red Sandbox”

  1. Sweet a blog! Anyway, I would like to know people’s thoughts about having 4 DMs running a sandbox, which is where I think we diverge from other Sandbox campaigns which I have seen on the net. I think that there are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. It allows for more games, and prevents DM burnout, and allows for more DM-style variety. However, I think that the multiple DM approach hasn’t been very good for immersion, as it is hard to keep track of all the changes in the game world (as a DM and a player), so mostly what people are keeping track of is whether their character is alive. I think the best solution is to find ways to make multiple DM’s work better rather than restrict to one DM, as this better allows for the holy grail of geeks everywhere, which is the once weekly, and occasionaly (when the wife is ok with it) twice weekly D&D game.

    I also feel that the price list doesn’t leave characters broke enough, and the prices in red box are too low. I don’t really know how to accomplish this, but here are some suggestions:

    1: Henchmen get a half share of gold (but characters still get the xp for that gold).
    2: Switch to the Labyrinth Lord price list where plate mail is hundreds of gp, or make a new one with better prices and put it on the wiki.
    3: Enforce encumbrace rules. Make them buy mules, carts, wagons, and dudes to mind and pull them. I personally think mule trains and caravan crews are the “mini strongholds” of low level D&D.

  2. Thanks Pete! “The Challenges of a Sandbox with Four co-DMs” could be a great follow up post… :nudge: :nudge:

  3. Yes, please! I am thinking of a co-DM sandbox, using Red Box D&D.

  4. Alcamtar (and anyone else who is interested in this topic), I wrote a post on the RBV forum about the challenges of running a co-DM sandbox:

    If you have questions, put them in the comments here or on the forum and we’ll do our best to answer them. Thanks for checking out our blog.

  5. Absolutely awesome. I’m going to go by this list every time I make more house rules, and every time I’m stick in regards to game prep.

  6. Thanks, N. Wright, I’m glad my stumbling to victory is helpful.


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