Goal-Oriented Sandbox: Kathmandu Campaigning

In the last post, I mentioned how “Centre of the World” was to be a goal-oriented sandbox. That was not the first time I wrote about such a beast. Back on 10 September 2009 I was spooling out a story based on the “Mundus Novit” setting – part of which is available from Dark Quest Game, the rest of which was never published. One of the articles discussing that story also discussed the goal-oriented sandbox, and I’ve reproduced that below.

I hope its of interest.

Originally published 10 Sep 2009:

Mundus Novit: Kathmandu Campaigning

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.

Examples follow:

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.

The Goal-Oriented Sandbox

One of the games I’m running right now is something I’m calling “Centre of the World,” because the urban location for the opening of the campaign is supposed to be a city that considers itself just that.

I included the pitch for “Centre of the World” in a previous post, but here it is again:

The group are minor agents for the Urban Prefect in the city of Hadrapole – once an outpost of the dread Aeolean Empire, and now the most prosperous and powerful city in the world, trapped between its old masters and the Holy Kingdoms, a collection of squabbling states bent on exporting their messianic religion. In the middle of this powder keg, strange, ritualistic murders begin to occur. Think Lankhmar meets Constantinople meets Seven.

The style that I intend to use is a “goal-oriented sandbox.” The idea is that there is a goal or set of goals – in this case centred on a series of murders. As the GM, I have a variety of information – who is doing it, their plans, relationship charts, and a timeline. What is not set out is how the PCs should or can approach the problem. Further, all that information I have is support, it is not “canon.” The PCs actions and the players’ desires can change how this all unfolds.

I have done this before, specifically in the published adventure the Khorforjan Gambit. What I found what that this method of running a campaign or adventure is much easier done when one is not publishing it for others. Everything that one as the creator might short-hand or accept as a given needs to be spelled out in a published adventures, so the reader has all the necessary information available.

It will be interesting to see how the goal-oriented sandbox unfolds, given that my players are pretty creative and involved.

You can learn more about Lankhmar  at Wikipedia.
You can learn more about Constantinople at Wikipedia.
And you can read about the movie Seven also at Wikipedia.

Mission Creep, Mission Crawl

Last post, I shared with you my offers for the two groups that will continue the Riggers playtest. There were two games left on the floor: Mission Creep, Mission Crawl and the Vanguard.

From the Image comic the Activity

Which makes me sad, because I was quite excited to run Mission Creep, Mission Crawl.

I really enjoy running espionage or covert action campaigns. While in the past those have been mostly covert special operations force campaigns (military), Mission Creep, Mission Crawl was going to be closer in tone to Dark Horizons, the short novel I published for free. I’m not going to lie to you – Dark Horizons is not my best work as it lacked an editor and I was generally under pressure to deliver the chapters on time. However, I had a lot of fun with it.

I didn’t intend for MCMC to include psychic powers or magic. This was going to be very much a relatively grounded game. I got excited for the plot, which was pretty intricate. It’s something I’m still thinking about and might try to work through as a piece of fiction. Given that I’ll be developing two campaigns and am still in the middle of my Master’s program, I don’t know how much time I will have.

Also? It needs a better title.

Edge of Inspiration: Rigging for Running

As I mentioned in my last post, the Riggers playtest is going well, but Dream Riggers has woken. I have to admit that I was getting into the creation of the campaign, but the results at the table dulled that enthusiasm. I corrected that problem by splitting up my gaming group into two, but enthusiasm for the campaign had waned.

I gave the groups choices, and these were what was on offer:

Centre of the World (fantasy)
The group are minor agents for the Urban Prefect in the city of Hadrapole – once an outpost of the dread Aeolean Empire, and now the most prosperous and powerful city in the world, trapped between its old masters and the Holy Kingdoms, a collection of squabbling states bent on exporting their messianic religion. In the middle of this powder keg, strange, ritualistic murders begin to occur. Think Lankhmar meets Constantinople meets Seven.
Lankhmar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lankhmar
Constantinople: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantinople
Seven: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_(1995_film)

Warlords of the Wastes (post-apocalypse action)
Post-apocalyptic with a group seeking a way home from a foreign land after the assassination of their leader and destruction of the army of which they were a part or with which they had travelled. Think the 47 Ronin meets Anabasis meets Fallout.
47 Ronin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forty-seven_Ronin
The Anabasis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabasis_(Xenophon)
Fallout series: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallout_(series)

Mission Creep, Mission Crawl (espionage thriller)
You are the Contact Team of the Clandestine Activities Special Executive – CASE – sent to disrupt North Korea’s recruitment of a Russian physicist in Almaty, Kazahkstan. Think the Mission: Impossible films meets the Bourne move series meets The Activity.
Mission: Impossible films: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission:_Impossible_(film_series)
the Bourne series: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourne_(film_series)
The Activity: http://theweek.com/articles/466307/most-secret-secret-units

The Vanguard (fantasy)
You have been recruited into the Vanguard, a mercenary company that traces its roots back to the last legion of the lost Aeolean Empire. The company seeks the banner and eagle of its ancestor legion, two items of mythological power. Think the Black Company meets the legions (as portrayed in Centurion: Legionaries of Rome).
The Black Company: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Company
Centurion: Legionaries of Rome: http://swordsedgepublishing.ca/tag/centurion/

One group chose Centre of the World and the other chose Warlords of the Waste.

More on those later.

Too Many Riggers to Dream

From out of the mists of too much work I have emerged. My two concurrent courses are done and I am down to one. I am hoping that I’ll have more time to write and game, so hopefully you will be seeing more of me.

That’s not a pledge, that’s an aspiration.

The playtest for the system that is going by the name Riggers has gone really well from a developmental standpoint, but the campaign itself fell down. This seems to have squarely been a factor of too many players.

I remember the days when I was straining to get three players together in the days of my Viking campaign. For Dream Riggers I had eight players. Eight. Now, granted, usually we had six or seven at the table, but that was way too many.

From the movie Mirrormask

There are those who regularly run with large numbers of players. I don’t. My sweet spot is between three and five – four preferred. With seven or eight, there is not enough time for everyone’s character to get the spotlight regularly. Fights – which the system allows to be pretty quick – lasted long periods because of the number of characters involved. People could not get very invested in their characters because their characters often weren’t involved in a third to a half of what was happening in any give game.

So I split the party. The players, that is.

I now have two groups of four. While the scheduling has become an issue – so many games, so little time! – I am excited to get back to intimate games in which I can really focus on the players and their characters instead of trying to manage a full table.

Though not all my problems have passed.

But that’s for another time.

You can read more about Dream Riggers here.

You can read about and listen to my Viking campaign here.

You can read more about my Viking campaign here.