Running a campaign similar to Dark Horizons is a tough one. All of the characters act pretty independently. Granted, there is a goal presented to them—find Boyle. How they go about that goal is strictly left in their hands. It’s interesting to consider Dark Horizons as a campaign.
Now if you were to ask me how you could run a Dark Horizons campaign, I couldn’t tell you. I could tell you how I would run it. I’d do it just like I did the Khorforjan Gambit.
The Khorforjan Gambit—like a Dark Horizons campaign—is a kind of hybrid sandbox game. It’s a goal-oriented sandbox, in that the characters are presented with a goal, and then left to their own devices, as in a sandbox. While the characters deviating from the goal in Dark Horizons is unlikely, given that it is a work of fiction, in an actual campaign, deviation from the goal would lead to them losing their patrons and creating powerful enemies, but it would not be forbidden.
Deviating from the goal in the Khorforjan Gambit also has some pretty hefty penalties, but there’s nothing actually stopping the PCs from ditching their mission.
So how do I run such a goal-oriented sandbox game? I create a time-line of events and a collection of well-rounded NPCs. I have event locations prepared with boxed text, NPC stats etc, usually written down on index cards. I have some extra locations ready—a couple of bars or coffee-shops, residences, offices, that sort of thing—also on index cards and tagged for ease of access. The locations don’t need to be heavily developed, just enough that I’m able to wing it should the PCs enter.
With these in hand, I set the PCs loose and see what happens.
The time-line of events is important because this is going on in the background while the PCs are doing their thing. Each event needs a few paragraphs of description. A couple of examples from the Khorforjan Gambit are presented at the bottom of this post to give you an idea what I mean.
The NPCs need to be developed in much more depth than usual. I include sections for personal history, goals, motivations, what he knows, what he will tell, and tactics. An example from the Khorforjan Gambit is again included at the bottom.
Detailed NPCs linked to events in the time-line allow me, as the GM, to figure out what these characters would do when the PCs begin to impact on their plans. It is not always the smart thing. Given a character’s background, goals and motivations, the character’s reaction to PC actions might not be what you, yourself would do, but it’s consistent with the character. If you, as the GM, understand your NPCs and their plans, the PCs changing the time-line won’t be a huge concern. You’ll be able to judge NPC actions on the fly, just as you judge a lot of things on the fly.
And there’s the rub. You must be comfortable adjudicating on the fly. That’s true of any sandbox game. With goal-oriented sandbox, as I prepare it, the GM has a lot more resources at hand to address PC actions.
I shouldn’t have to say/write this, but I’m going to, because it is really, really important for a successful goal-oriented sandbox game (and any successful RPG session, really): you, the GM, are not out to win. When the PCs trip up your carefully prepared time-line, that’s what they are supposed to do. If they find and eliminate the Big Bad well before you expected, they shouldn’t be punished, they should be congratulated. The whole point is for them to win.
If you are the kind of person who is upset when the players act in a way you didn’t expect and throw a spanner into your works, stop GMing. Seriously. The GM facilitates the game, the GM doesn’t run it. It is not the GM’s game, it is the entire group’s game, and the point is for the players to have fun as well as the GM. If one or the other party is not having fun, you aren’t doing it right.
Also, be aware that the players will likely not have the chance to admire your impressive time-line, nor to marvel at the craftsmanship of your NPCs. It is highly unlikely that the PCs will encounter every event and location you have prepared. All that preparation isn’t for the players’ edification, it’s to make your role easier. Anything that isn’t used in this game, use it in the next. Recycle like a mo-fo. It’s the only way to work.
Running a goal-oriented sandbox game can be a daunting task, but the more you run, the more resources your compile that can be re-used. That’s why I use index cards. Infinitely portable from one game to the next. I print out the stats, locations, what have you and tape or glue them to the index cards rather than hand write them. That way, I have all that on file in case the index cards are lost.
So, ready to run a goal-oriented sandbox game? Pretty soon you’ll have an awesome campaign setting in which to do so.
Time-Line Example 1: Kamilov the Messenger
Abbas decides, after hearing of Kamilov’s difficulties around Camp Parker, that the plan needs to be changed. While an authoritarian, Abbas does appreciate the input of his subordinates, so he sends Kamilov to contact the main players in his plan. Abbas will need Kamilov’s eastern European sedan, so Kamilov takes his moped. He departs the office at 1055 after having a short, light meal.
At 1130, he arrives at the small apartment complex in which Boboyev lives. Boboyev is not at home but is actually working in his office, at Boboyev Construction, conveniently located in the main square beside the apartments. Kamilov arrives there around 1140. He has a short discussion with Boboyev, which leads to an argument, as Boboyev is not particularly happy that Abbas has changed the plan unilaterally. He agrees to meet at the New Office that evening.
At 1155, Kamilov leaves the Boboyev Construction offices. By 1205, he arrives at the Old Sadirov Office, where Hasanov is working at this time. Hasanov greets him cordially. Muzaffar Hameed, the main contact for the HMA and the rogue SIG faction, is the manager and is also in attendance. Kamilov, whose first loyalty is to Hasanov, explains the situation and also explains that Boboyev is already angry regarding Abbas’ decision, taken without consultation. Hasanov is more understanding, recognizing that the HMA is not a democratic group. Hasanov decides to visit Boboyev and calm him down. Kamilov does not venture an opinion. Finally Hasanov indicates that he will make the meeting.
Kamilov leaves Sadirov Holdings at 1245. He knows that contacting Iskanov, a colonel with SIG, is dangerous. At 1310, Kamilov arrives at a small coffee house that borders the Blue Zone. It has no name but is run by a widow, Imenaz Salimov, whose husband was a supporter of Marat Burhonov in the civil war and was killed by government troops. He leaves a message with her that “the Wolf must meet the Shephard in his hut at the appointed time.” Salimov has no idea who the code names refer to, but she knows enough to pass the message on to Senior Lieutenant Yaqub Rakhmonov, who frequents her coffee house.
This done, Kamilov heads back to the office. By the time he arrives, 1325, Abbas has left for the Ashanjube Internally Displaced Persons camp. Kamilov has a nap in the unused bed in the guest room.
Time-Line Example 2 No Refuge, No Refugee
At 1300, after having a small lunch, Abbas will leave the New Office with his two Committed Guards. They will take Kamilov’s Eastern European sedan and drive to the HMA Rendezvous camp just outside of the Ashanjube camp. They will arrive at 1400 and from there, Abbas will send an HMA Runner to contact Saparmurat.
Saparmurat will arrive at the Rendezvous camp at 1435, along with the HMA Runner and two Camp Toughs. Saparmurat is in awe of Abbas and will agree whole-heartedly that the plan to attack Camp Parker was foolish. His reverence for Abbas partly colors his opinion, but it is also based on what he has seen of the CASFOR-A operations in the area. Knowing that Saparmurat is one of his best, local assets, Abbas is pleased to have him on-side, and invites him to the meeting at 2300. Saparmurat assures Abbas that he will be present.
After sharing tea, at about 1525, Abbas heads back to Khorforjan and Saparmurat returns to Ashanjube camp. Abbas arrives at the office around 1600.
NPC Example Saparmurat, leader of HMA element hiding in the Ashanjube Internally Displaced Persons camp.
Smart Hero 2/ Strong Hero 2/ Tough Hero 2/ Soldier 2: CR 8; 47-year old Male; HD 2d6+2 and 2d8+2 and 4d10+4; hp 52; MAS 13; Init +2; Spd 30 ft.; Def 18, touch 18, flatfooted 16; BAB +5; Grap +6; Atk +6 melee (knife 1d4+2), or +8 ranged (2d8+2, AKM), or +8 ranged (2d6, M1911A1); FS 5 ft. by 5 ft.; Reach 5 ft.; AL HMA; SV Fort +7, Ref +4, Will + 2; AP 4; Rep +1; Str 13, Dex 15, Con 13, Int 14, Wis 10, Cha 8.
Skills: Craft (pharmaceutical) +7, Craft (structural) +10, Disable Device +10, Forgery +7, Handle Animal +2, Intimidate +7, Listen +5, Knowledge (current events) +8, Knowledge (streetwise) +9, Knowledge (tactics) +7, Knowledge (theology and philosophy) +5, Navigate +7, Repair +6, Search +5, Speak Language (Arabic, Russian and Tajik), Spot +5, Survival +8
Feats: Advanced Firearm Proficiency, Brawl, Educated (Tactics and Theology & Philosophy), Personal Firearms Proficiency, Quick Reload; Weapon Focus (M1911A1)
Talents (Smart Hero): Savant-Knowledge (streetwise)
Talents (Strong Hero): Extreme Effort
Talents (Tough Hero): Robust
Talents (Soldier): Weapon Focus (AKM), Weapon Specialization (AKM)
Occ: Rural (Handle Animal, Survival)
Possessions: AKM assault rifle, 6 AKM magazines, combat knife, M1911A1, 2 M1911A1 magazines, worn clothing.
Background: Saparmurat comes from a small farming community in what is now the Autonomous Province of Qurghon Khujand. He was born Akezhan Saparmurat. Frustrated and aware that his family would always remain poor, Akezhan left Albenistan and joined the Mujahideen, becoming known simply as Saparmurat. He remained in Afghanistan after the Soviet pull-out and even after Albenistan gained independence. Only the civil war drew him back.
During the civil war, Saparmurat joined the Albeni People’s Liberation Army (APLA). While the leadership was not as capable or ruthless as Saparmurat would have liked, they often spoke of their high regard for him and his accomplishments. The flattery worked.
After the civil war, Saparmurat began to work with weapons smugglers moving Russian armaments through the Central Asian republics. Many of his contacts from his days in Afghanistan remained active and they trusted Saparmurat, so he flourished. He also met Bahrom Hasanov. While Hasanov wasn’t much of a fighter, he had a quick mind. Through Hasanov, Saparmurat met another Mujahideen veteran, Abbas. Abbas’ vision of Albenistan infected Saparmurat, and he becomes an adherent of Abbas’ Albenistan Motherland Army (AMA). Saparmurat returned to Qurghon Khujand to lead AMA operations there.
When the AMA became Holy Motherland Albenistan (HMA), Saparmurat returned to the border region with Afghanistan. Refugee traffic offered the HMA a fertile ground for recruitment, and Saparmurat traveled among the various refugee camps and routes recruiting young men and criminals.
Goal: While Saparmurat professes the same goals as Abbas and the HMA, he wants a certain amount of chaos to remain. He has thrived amidst conflict and anarchy and he is not certain he could survive long in peace.
Motivation: Saparmurat retains his farmboy dream of making a difference, of shaking the corridors of power with his actions. He enjoys attacking authority literally. He also enjoys the adrenaline rush of combat.
What He Knows: Since he is involved in its planning, Saparmurat knows everything about the HMA timetable. He is also familiar with all the leaders of the HMA and knows Colonel Iskanov leads the rogue faction of SIG. He commands the HMA element in the Ashanjube camp and so knows everything about the HMA adherents there.
What Will He Tell: He won’t talk willingly. Even under threat of torture and death, Saparmurat will remain silent. Drugs might work on him but extreme duress is unlikely to succeed. In Afghanistan, Saparmurat was questioned by the Soviets and he didn’t crack.
Tactics: While one of the most experienced combat veterans in the HMA, Saparmurat has had no formal training. He knows enough to attack from surprise, and to withdraw from a superior force. He loves his autofire and this is his preferred mode of attack. He will lead from the front, but will not open himself to attack unnecessarily.