Or: Notes, Assumptions, and Conclusions About Travel In A Sandbox
-My preference: If PCs are traveling overland from one place to some other distant place, and I want to have something unexpected happen on the way there, the thing that happens should usually have something to do with the decisions the PCs made about how to get there. (Method of transportation, route, what they brought with them, etc.) Otherwise I feel like it's not as much of a sandbox. i.e. If they take the west route and so I roll on the Random Wilderness Encounter Table or I take the East route and so I roll on the Random Wilderness Encounter table, that's not as fun or interesting as making what happens a consequence of a meaningful strategic decision.
-My particular players must, therefore, be reminded (at least at this stage) that their PCs have a choice as to how exactly they get where they're going.
-The easiest way to do this is to draw a simple map demonstrating what the PCs know about the area between where they are and where they're going every time they take a trip.
-Often, what the PCs know is very little, but there should be enough on the map to make at least two different routes seem viable and, in some way, different in character. i.e. the possible routes should make it seem like different kinds of challenges will be encountered there.
-A ranger should know more than other PCs and thus have more landmarks on this map or know a few more tidbits about what locations on the map are like or are rumored to be like. As should PCs who have some reason to have special background local knowledge.
-After a while, every time the PCs are presented with such a map, they will instantly know that they are in for some kind of trouble in going from A to B, and this may change their decision about how to proceed.
-To avoid this, I should probably provide a map every single time the PCs go from any A to any B, even if nothing actually is going to happen when going from A to B.
-Assuming all these travel maps must, therefore, have at least two different reasonable routes (thus providing choice) then that means every time the PCs take any overland trip, they must pass at--at a minimum--one landmark or change in terrain or geographical feature. i.e., the minimum choice a map could provide is "Do you cut through the Swamp of Many Bones or just take the road?"
-Consequently, the campaign world as a whole will eventually be covered in these "in-between" features that may or may not have any actual content behind them.
-Buildings are more enticing to my PCs than geographical areas. Like if I say "You pass the Tower of 2000 Sorrows on the left and the Forest of 2000 Sorrows on the right," the PCs will probably want to investigate the tower either immediately or later but give the swamp a wide berth.
-I assume an average movement rate of 20 miles per day riding through snow-covered forest (it's mostly snow-covered forest) , half that walking, 15 miles per day in icy swamps or snow-covered mountains, and 30 miles per day in open country if it ever stops snowing. Yeah, I know Napoleon's army marched 30 miles a day, but his army wasn't made up of Str 7 rogues and clerics carrying half their weight in unidentified potions.
-Excluding island nations, European capitals are generally at least 500 miles apart. This is a base number for figuring how long you'd have to travel if moving from the center of some empire to the capital of some other empire. Water, mountain ranges, forests composed entirely of carnivorous trees or other major geographical impediments would generally have to intervene if the distance is any shorter.
-This means getting from a big city to a really different big city takes a long fucking time, in game days, or at least requires crossing some famously dangerous or inconvenient geographic obstacle.
-The distance from Ghent to Antwerp is about 4o miles, from London to Birmingham is over 100 miles, from Rome to Naples is like 140 miles. So going from a big city to the next biggish city where they speak whatever the locals call "common" should take from 2 to 5 days, assuming my alles-ist-frozendoomforest movement rate of 20 mpd.
-Castles are more densely distributed than cities, of course. Depending on what you consider a "castle" and what source you consult, a heavily fortified country like England had a medieval density of like one castle every 6-10 miles, or two a day at an ordinary ride.
-Deciding to travel a long distance should feel to the PCs like a more meaningful decision than deciding to travel a short distance. The method can be direct "Arr, tis a long and dangerous road to Argenvoth!" or indirect, but at some point the girls should start to get it. Aside from making it clear the amount of supplies this'll require, the "rhythm" of the number of encounters between areas (whether planned or random) should begin to feel like it's related to the distance traveled.
-Mystery is nice and good but the more information they have about the gameworld, the more it's actually a sandbox. If, in all directions, the territory is equally unknown, then there's no reason to make any given decision. This may be sort of a Duh type conclusion, but the idea that:
+The gameworld is defined as the players explore it, and the idea that
+The players need information in order to make meaningful decisions about which way to go
are actually two opposing ideas. There needs to be a mix or compromise. If I only include new places when the PCs explore them then they have no basis to decide to go anywhere, if I have the whole world planned in advance, then I'm possibly doing a lot of work on places that never get used when I could be adding depth to areas (geographical or otherwise) that the PCs are actually interested in. So there needs to be a mix.
-That is: the "pulp" method--by which an author and reader learn about an internally consistent world by means of a series of "short stories", is actually somewhat contradicted by the "free, open sandbox" method by which presumably the characters in the pulp stories make decisions, which suggests that the PCs have enough information to decide where they wanna go. They are reconcilable, but it's a balance.
-Or, to put it another way: Conan knew more about Cimmeria than Howard did. Howard knew whatever he needed to write a story where Conan wakes up in jail in Lunaticwizardia--but Conan knew enough facts, rumors, legends, and general cultural bs to make a decision to go toward Lunaticwizardia instead of Safeboringium in the first place. In D&D, for the players to make Conan-like decisions about where to go, they must have more information about destinations they may never go to than I am used to providing.
-Howard was like a reality-TV crew dropping in on Conan when his life got interesting. Conan would've needed to know far more in order to get into the interesting situation in the first place.
-(Other people get around this by relying on published settings--or even real medieval europe. I'm not going that way.)
-Choice should be more detailed and interesting than: "go after the only plot hook dangled or just refuse to and look for rich people to rob instead until the GM improvs something out of it".
-On my personal group, three things to remember:
1) Many players will forget any plot hook or piece of local information a week later if they haven't immediately done anything with it,
2) Some players won't forget this stuff but will miss the next session and so will be limited in their ability to act on information they consider interesting,
3) That's ok.
-In a sandbox, Freedom = Information.
-In order to get and remember information, players must be either hardcore or be constantly reminded of the information.
-The players are not, generally, hardcore. At least not in the information-gathering sense. Except Mandy.
-A mechanism to constantly remind players of the information they have should be adopted if the sandbox style of play is truly desirable.
-A wiki, mass-e-mail, or info-folder will be useless with this group.
-A big-ass map with most macro-level information thus far acquired on the gameworld on the wall is probably the simplest way.
-Integrating player-generated info about where exactly these wood-elf parents she has came from into this map is desirable if this is really going to be a sandbox.
-Freedom depends on constantly reminding people they have freedom.
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