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So I’ve seen two ways of prepping a D&D sandbox. One is to do it all in advance. I like this, but, I’ve either never managed to finish enough to start the game, or, I’ve started cutting corners. The other is to expand randomly as you go, but that hasn’t felt satisfying either, because if everything is randomly rolled as you go along, where’s the agency? South becomes the same as north becomes the same as west because wherever you go, the dice are furnishing for you, so the choice about where to go matters less.
I haven’t been able to solve this for years now, but recently I finally had the epiphany. What is it that creates the agency in where you choose to go? Information, right? Rumours!
So I’ve crafted an ever-growing rumor table and I use that to place ruins, dungeons or other adventure sites.
One list of rumors is called the “buzz” list. It starts empty.
The other list is called the quest queue. It’s a list-of-lists, i.e. a two-level deep tree. It starts with at least two (the more the better but two is fine) rumor lists from adventures/dungeons/quests.
When the party manages to find a new rumor, first determine which list to roll on: the buzz, or the quest queue. If one of those two is empty, obv use the other – and the buzz starts empty, so start off by using the quest queue once. Once you’ve gotten going, it’s a 70% chance of buzz, 30% chance of quest queue. (I roll a d20 first and go to the quest queue on a 15+).
Let’s say you have placed some adventure sites on the queue, and their corresponding rumor lists:
The Fish’s Nest
People are going missing near a cove
Werefish that turn human in the full moon
The Fish’s Nest only has three levels (F)
The Skeletons’ Camp
A group of skeletons have been seen setting up camp outside town
A human in weird robes was seen in town purchasing a large diamond
A lone skeleton attacked the clerics in their beds, when they were sleeping
First, determine one of these adventure sites randomly. In this case, there are two so a d2, and let’s say we roll a 2 — “The Skeletons’ Camp”. Then roll on that table. Let’s say you roll a two; “A human in weird robes was seen in town purchasing a large diamond”. That’s the rumor the party hear.
Second, move the other rumors from that site to the buzz list. The site has “become active” and more rumors about that site are likely to be heard. Delete this site from the quest queue.
Sometimes you decide where a location is when you place it on the quest queue. Maybe there’s only one obvious place for it to go. If you haven’t decided where it is, though, it’s too late to decide once a rumor is rolled. In that case, you can roll randomly to determine where this is located.
The map scale on which level tier the newly activated adventure site has (not the tier that the party currently is at). For example, for low-level stuff you might be working with six-mile hexes. I’ve made both square & hex versions of a way of rolling “random nearby location” with a d10 for distance and a d6 or a d4 for direction.
Random nearby hex
Random nearby square
The buzz is just a collection of unheard rumors about already activated sites. Once the site is cleared, delete the remaining rumors from the buzz. I thought 70/30 in favor of “more info about already active sites” was a good split, but who knows. Always be testing.
I wrote the original version of this page three years before I actually started using this method for real. It is working so well! One thing I was struggling with for the longest time was how to actually roll, if your list is on paper, like in a notebook. It’s easy if you’re on digital (just use (code shuf)) but on paper I was doing all kinds of cockamamie things with numbered lists etc and special rules in case I rolled an already scratched out number etc etc. I asked a math nerd friend (Simon from Simon säger) and he came up with the obvious solution: first count pages, roll a random page, and then roll a random entry on that page. It doesn’t ensure that each and every entry has the exact same likeliness of being rolled but it’s definitely good enough for gaming and a lot better than some other ideas I was toying with. So now I don’t even have to number the entries, I just need to keep track of the pages.
Of course the campaign can also have other things going on. You can use the same system (buzz + quest queue) for things like bounties, military orders, missions from the clergy or thieves’ guild, etc, in case you want to format those rumors differently than just random bar talk. Your campaign might also have a faction game, a timeline, or other things to give it life.
I am going to add a small chance of just stumbling upon a random (unactivated) location when the party is out exploring. It does bring us back to some of the agency issues mentioned earlier, but, it’s just a quick & easy way to patch that little hole in the system.
If it’s a tidbit of information, or just a single job, just add it to the buzz. You can also add things (even location-based) to the random encounter tables if they are things that are clearly ones designed to stumble upon rather than seek out. (They already aren’t designed with agency primarily in mind, so you’re fine.)
The DM has three jobs between sessions:
1. Make sure everything from the session has been documented. Maintaining maps & tables is more work in a system like this, compared to a ready made sandbox (like Curse of Strahd) where you just can look things up, without having to write things down.
2. Make sure the quest queue doesn’t run empty. Put in new things. Add dungeons & rumors, homemade or made by others.
3. Go through any other random “todo”-items you’ve noted down during the session. (As you’re running the game, note such things separately.)
4. If you’re also doing a faction game, a timeline or something like that, then you have four or more jobs between sessions.
One way my sandbox games tend to peter out has been when it’s time to add new things. It always felt so wrong to add things after the game has started. But the quest queue solved this for me.
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