It’s just over the next hill, I swear…

So in keeping with my ongoing jabbering about my sandbox game, I figured I’d talk a bit about exactly what I’m doing with two particular aspects – overland travel and random encounters – and why.

There isn’t really anything NEW here that hasn’t been said on other blogs, or in various RPG rulebooks over the years, but I figured what the hell, right?

The core of my approach in this area is just a mish mash of encounter tables from the back of the AD&D MM2, the creatures by CR and terrain breakdowns in the Pathfinder Bestiary book, the exploration and monster tables in the AD&D DMG and me making some educated guesses and flavoring/weighting the tables to my preference.

Overland Travel

This was a big issue for my group during the first few games in the sandbox. We were using Fantasy Craft at the time, but that’s largely irrelevant to the problems we were experiencing. Namely…

  • Travel was taking too long
  • Travel involved too much book-keeping for the GM
  • Players couldn’t “find” anything they set out to look for

Travel taking too long and too much book-keeping

After talking to my old gaming group back home, as well as folks online who had been blogging about sandbox travel and encounter bits (cheers to Chicagowiz for the input, it was a great help) and of course my players,  I realized that the scale on my hexes was too fine as was my metric for tracking travel/exploration time.

My map was broken down into large hexes of 5 miles with 1 mile hexes inside them. Using the old AD&D DMG I had set the party’s rate of overland travel at 1 mile per hour. At first glance this seems low, but when armor, weapons, gear and varying movement rates of different character races were taken into account it felt reasonable. Keep in mind the average unencumbered person out for a leisurely walk will likely make 2-3 miles in an hour if they’re putting any reasonable effort into it at all.

The method for travel was for the guide in the group to pick a direction, tell me how long (in hours) they were heading that direction then make a nature/survival check to see if they got lost.

In theory this works fine if you and your party are REALLY into the minutae of tracking specific overland movement. For your average gaming group (including mine) it can get a bit tedious.

This method led to lots of the party wandering around lost and confused (in game this was good, I wanted them lost), the players getting frustrated (this was bad) and me wondering what the hell was going wrong.

They weren’t ever able to zero in on any of the Points of Interest/Landmark encounters I had built even though they’d specifically headed out to find them, and they were getting the shit stomped out of them by random encounters because of all the aimless wandering.

To resolve this I’ve modified the scale of the Large overland hexes to 25 miles and adjusted the party’s rate of travel to 1 hex per day. This is an unrealistic rate of travel, but it was pointed out to me that the actual physical scale of the hexes DOESN’T MATTER to the players. The distance scale could be measured in Gummi Bears on the DM’s map, with, say, the Cursed Wayhouse being 435,298 Gummi bears from the player’s home base; all the party knows or cares about is that it’s a 3 day walk.

That’s very important: don’t let the players get caught up in worrying about miles, kilometres, and other such units.

When building the world you shouldn’t either. Keep in mind that in a sandbox game distance as it relates to overland travel is just a resource sink. That sounds bad and scary but it isn’t: resource management should be part of the game, the main thing is to work out what approach to it works best for you and your players.

In my opinion getting lost should still be a function of a navigation roll of some kind. It gives players the chance to feel like they have some control over their destiny and direction, no pun intended. Let the guy who put the skill points into survival do something with it for once.

To represent characters becoming more familiar with the area there are lots of things a DM can do, including environmental and circumstance based modifiers.

  • Give them a +1 to the roll for each time the guide has traveled or performed a search in that hex
  • When characters buy a map from town, give +X to navigation rolls made in the region the map covers
  • Traveling at night means -1 to the navigation roll
  • Navigation in open terrain (plains etc…) gives +X to the roll
  • Heavy cloud cover and traveling at night gives -4 to the navigation roll

So that removes the tedious tracking of teeny tiny hexes. The gameplay becomes:

  • Player: We go north 3 days
  • DM: Ok, Roll
  • Player: 17
  • DM: -roll-Day 1 no encounters
  • DM: -roll-Day 2 no encounters
  • DM –roll-Day 3 you get attacked by Gummi Toads!

All of that can be resolved in under 5 minutes, perhaps with the exception of the encounter itself. The party, assuming the navigation roll is successful, has traveled north for 3 days and after defeating the nefarious Gummi Toads can explore the area or continue on with their travels.

As far as behind the screen goes I have my worldmap printed out and in a plastic sleeve in my notebook: I keep track of actual party location with a wet erase marker. The party has their own map that they maintain and update as they wander around and find things. I was using Hexographer to track movement in-game but it wasn’t working so hot for me – I tend to be all over the place flipping through books and the like so the addition of a laptop is a hindrance more than a help.

Resolving travel on a per day basis also helps with party book-keeping for rations and such if you are doing that, which once again in my opinion for a sandbox game you should.

Players being able to find things

The party was also allowed to stop and explore an area they were in, dictating how long they would explore in hours. Once again my scale killed me here, I was making the mistake of having them spend time exploring the entire 1 mile hex they were in. If they wandered into a Landmark hex, I didn’t just automatically tell them they had found it, which in hindsight was probably a mistake.

The big change I’ve made here is, once again, the scale. Exploration will be handled on a per day basis. The party essentially stops and spends a full day poking around the surrounding region.

Im handling this slightly differently from travel. The players won’t be rolling any skill checks : a successful exploration check will locate any point of interest inside the current hex . Since in the back of my head I have my hexes set to being roughly 25 miles I have the percent set fairly low for the initial day of searching. Depending on how easily you want players to discover things you could modify the percentage chance up or down as well as adding modifiers for multiple days searching, having found the landmark before etc.

Right now my mechanics for exploration are as follows:

  • First day of exploration 25% chance of finding a point of interest
  • +5% per consecutive day spent searching
  • +X% for having a Ranger in the party (havent decided on this value yet)
  • +10% if the any of the party members have been to the point of interest before. (I’m considering only applying this modifier if the guide has been to the area before, but that may be a mechanic too far as it would require me and/or the players to track who has been where.)

The other thing to keep in mind is that the party will encounter local “wildlife” while exploring, just as they do while traveling. Most monsters and predators are reasonably intelligent, and the longer a party of adventurers spends tromping around a discrete area the more attention they’re going to attract.

To represent this I simply expand the chance of an encounter by 1 for every consecutive day the group spends exploring in one spot. Starting from a 10% base chance  of a random encounter at any given encounter time (1 on a d10), if the party spends, say, 4 days searching it gets up to 40%, or 1-4 on a d10. This is also good encouragement for a party to move on when they’re in an area with no points of interest: if they hang around too long they’ll be hitting encounters all… the… time…. . Let the dice and the environment tell them they’re in the wrong spot, not the mean DM who won’t let them keep exploring.

At the end of the day, even though exploring, getting lost and running from random encounters are all a huge part of sandbox play those elements shouldn’t be painful to manage for you and especially not your players. At some point you DO want them to find all the nifty points of interest that you have built as well, right?

If the core of the experience sucks for everyone then no one is going to want to keep experiencing it. Talk to your players figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and most importantly HAVE FUN!

This ended up being longer than I anticipated. I’ll cover the encounters stuff later this week.

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