Epic “Save the World” Fantasy In The Sandbox

I finally got around to setting up my RSS feed reader this week. I lost it when my old PC died in January — I’m now using Feedreader which syncs with Google Reader so this should not happen again. As part of this process I went out into the gaming blogsphere and found a whole bunch of blogs I had never read on RPGs (and not just old school RPGs). I’ve added a couple of hundred new feeds this week. I’m sure I will drop a lot of them over the weeks to come due to time constraints, but for now I’m seeing a whole lot of new stuff.

What does this have to do with “Epic ‘Save the World’ Fantasy In The Sandbox”? I read an interesting post, Sandbox gaming vs. adventure paths: in defense of highly narrative adventures, on one of those new blogs I added called The Lost Level.

In this post the author discusses the most common types of adventure modules, the old school favored sandbox style versus the adventure-path style. He makes an interesting case for why the adventure path style is popular, no matter how much of a railroad it is.

But imagine for a moment that you are a Tolkien-obsessed teenager in the early 80s (and at that time there were more teenage boys obsessed with Tolkien than with Howard, I would venture to say.) You’ve picked up a cool new game called D&D because the game’s art, language, and contents promise Tolkien-esque awesomeness: dwarves and hobbits! Rangers! Orcs! Magic swords! But scouring the available adventure modules published for the game, what do you find? Lots and lots of modules that pit you against very localized, non-epic, Conan-esque challenges: bandit attacks. Bands of slavers. Tribes of goblins. Tombs with traps.

Even the most epic of these modules generally kept the action fairly local in nature. You might save a town from a gang of bandits or take out an evil wizard or foil a demon’s plan, but you never saved the world, fulfilled an ancient prophecy, travelled across a continent to rescue a princess, or anything like what the heroes of Narnia or Middle-Earth get to do. D&D did a great job of letting you be Conan, raiding tombs for loot and collecting the bounty on kobold heads. At very high levels (which the general lethality of the game made difficult to attain), you might aspire to save a city-state or become the ruler of a kingdom.

But sometimes, if you were a Tolkien-obsessed teenage boy, you wanted to be Frodo or Legolas or Aragorn, doing something Really Important with the fate of the entire world resting on your shoulders.

And the “adventure path” type of module, starting with the Dragonlance series, aims to do exactly that. You’re not an unknown adventurer who might one day hit level 5 if he kills enough goblins. You’re an unknown adventurers who is going to change the entire world. Your quest will send you on a whirlwind tour of the whole wide world, rather than requiring you to spend months delving deeper and deeper, level by level, into the depths of a single dungeon underneath a ruin in the middle of nowhere. The price you pay for this epic narrative is relinquishing a certain amount of player control; you have to follow where the plot leads, trusting that the narrative payoff will be sufficiently epic to make it worthwhile. In a true sandbox game environment, with its emphasis on random encounters and total player freedom, it’s very difficult for a game group to put together a Tolkien-style epic fantasy story. Even the well-regarded G-D-Q-series of modules, which ended on an epic note, felt more like a loosely-connected series of dungeon campaigns than a Lord of the Rings-style saga.

I will admit that if you are looking for something that will always play out in a way that sounds like a well-plotted epic narrative like Lord of the Rings, you are pretty much limited to an adventure path type of campaign (and a very railroady one at that). However if you just want “to be Frodo or Legolas or Aragorn, doing something Really Important with the fate of the entire world resting on your shoulders” you can still do that in a sandbox campaign, just not the type of sandbox campaign sandbox campaign fans usually talk about. I’ve ran epic “the fate of the world rests in your hands” sandbox campaigns many times. My Arn campaign world is designed for them.

An Arn campaign usually starts with some variation of this basic history. The Island of Arn has ruled the world for thousands of years. Their rule is strict but distant. So long as countries follow the rules and pay their taxes, they are pretty much left alone. Still few like the Arnish (and their alien to most other races ways of thinking/acting) all that much. Dan, the leader of a southern barbarian people managed to summon the greatest of the lost demon lords and it gave him the power to conquer the Arnish. He did so but let lose demons on the world (to seek out and destroy any Arnish who fled Arn). Lots of people are beginning to think the Arnish weren’t so bad.

The PCs are gathered together for a mission by a mysterious but powerful strange elf-like woman. It turns out this woman is the Handmaiden of Arn in disguise. (The Handmaiden of Arn is a position something like the Steward of Gondor.) The PCs soon learn who she is and that she is actually trying to find the Empress of Arn (who was questing to find a legendary item that would allow them to return Dan to nether realms which would give the remaining Arnish a chance to retake their homeland). She has no idea where the Empress is and there is no way to trace her (if there was a way to trace her, Dan would have found her). However, she is months overdue and all the Handmaiden can do is start trying to find the item herself and hope that she will come across some trace of the Empress in the progress.

The PCs are drawn into this search which is really nothing more than a huge sandbox campaign. The Handmaiden has some ideas where to start looking, but then things just go as the players direct with all sorts of side adventures possible along the way from searching for treasure to fund their expeditions to hiding from demon hunters after the Handmaiden to having to play Arnish and diplomatically solve disputes and problems for area leaders to win needed support or just the right to search in some normally off-limits area.

It’s epic-level where the actions of the PCs can have huge effects on the world, but at its core it is still a sandbox which means that you are unlikely to get a great narrative like the Lord of the Rings out of the PC’s adventures. However, it does satisfy the desire to have characters who can — if they play their cards right and get lucky — can have a huge impact on the game world. And no railroad lines are needed. A campaign like this requires a lot from both the GM and the players — even more than a standard sandbox campaign does — but such a campaign can be a fun way to satisfy a “save the world” itch without having to set up the railroad tracks.

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