Saturday, January 21, 2017


Someone asked a question about sandboxing on /r/rpg recently, and now I have the wilderness on the brain again.  I have some complaints about existing mapping doctrine.  In the standard ACKS doctrine, civilization is basically required to be mapped (for the domain game if nothing else), which is an awful lot of work for very little payoff because you're not adventuring there.  Really all you need is populations/market classes and travel times between points of interest in civilization, because the travel itself is minimally dangerous; random encounters are likely to be civilized folks, and there are roads and signs and farmers that you can ask for directions.  There aren't really any strategic choices to be made in civilized travel that benefit from the degree of detail that hexes bring.  Consequently, hexmapping civilization is a tremendous waste of time for the mid-levels, and frankly you could run a reasonable (simplified, population- rather than land-focused) domain game without it too.

In the West Marches approach, by contrast, civilization is left unmapped (which is great), but there is an onus to have functionally-infinite wilderness.  This likewise is neither efficient nor realistic.  It isn't efficient because anything that you build that the players never reach in the course of a campaign is probably wasted (sure, you can reuse it later maybe, but how many of us actually do that consistently?).  It also isn't realistic because civilization expands to fill the area that can support it.  The wilderness may be big, but there's always some civilization on the other side if you're willing to travel far enough (or lower your standards for civilization a little).

Ultimately I think the "non-state spaces" notion present in James C. Scott's writing (Seeing Like a State, The Art of Not Being Governed) presents a promising opportunity.  Non-state space enclaves within a state are (relatively) tiny, self-contained wilderness sandboxes that are easily reached from civilization.  I've talked about Mount Rainier before, and it's a good example - one could easily take a couple of hundred square miles around a large mountain, map it in detail, fill it with hill tribes and yetis and a dragon or two, and have a small, self-contained sandbox.  There's civilization on both sides of the Cascade Range (well, if you count Eastern Washington...  I kid), but there's still wilderness in the mountains.  In the historical D&D context, Dearthwood from the City-State of the Invincible Overlord springs to mind.  It's a forest practically up against the City-State's gates, and it's full of orcs.  This is a classic non-state space, and would make a perfect tiny wilderness sandbox conveniently close to a large market.  That was probably the whole point of Dearthwood, from the very beginning (with the trolls of the Mermist Marshes, a little further away, comprising a higher-level microsandbox).  The Isle of Dread is another good example; it's big enough to play for a couple of sessions, like a good-sized dungeon, but it's bounded and therefore manageable.

Obviously the non-state enclave isn't the only type of wilderness.  Borderlands between civilized areas can be bigger, and then there are places like the Russian steppe and the American Old West that are just huge.  But these are unmanageably big, both to DMs who would use them and to players who would traverse them.  If I have learned two things from running the Megadungeon Full of Rats, it is that tightly theming can stimulate DM creativity but bore players, and that tightly-scoping is really important.  My initial intent with the Dungeon Dimensions was not a full-page dungeon of rats; it was many small dungeons, each tightly-themed and linked.  In retrospect, that might have gone better, but I got carried away with the first level.  I think loosely-themed, tightly-scoped, small-scale wildernesses offer a lot of opportunity in this regard.  Having two or three such microsandboxes available offers choices and ability to alleviate boredom with a particular theme by handwaved safe travel through civilization.

So what are some decent ideas for wilderness microsandboxes?  Big enough to take some time to explore, small enough to be manageable to DM and to be easily reached from civilization, and evocative?
  • The Lonely Mountain
  • Mirkwood
  • Swamp of the frogmen
  • Tropical island chain with walled port-city and cannibal natives in the uplands
  • Wasteland
Such wee sandboxes are also relatively easy to drop into an existing campaign.

Of course, there is the distinct possibility that this is what the actual practice of sandbox wilderness play has been all along, everyone knows it but doesn't talk about it much (because talking about the West Marches is much sexier), and I'm a little slow on the uptake where grand ambitions and practical limits are concerned.  Much as I learned in a recent Autarch thread on having players draw their own maps (or not, as it turns out...).  In which case, this is a perfectly useful post for the "OSR Lessons Learned" file [1][2][3].  In the same way that the typical, practical OSR dungeon is not Dwimmermount or Stonehell, the typical, practical OSR wilderness is not the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.


  1. Good thoughts on sandboxing. You hit on a lot of the points which have made me shy away from doing a full-on outdoor sandbox crawl. I like the mini sandbox idea. You could use impassable (or nearly impassable) terrain to define the edges of a more manageable area. An island or peninsula would work well. The nature of that terrain also helps theme the area somewhat.

  2. "well, if you count Eastern Washington..."

    That cracks me up!

    I like your ideas here and particularly the use of Mt. Rainier. Really got the wheels turning in my mind. (Maybe water-wheels, but still.)