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A Fantasy Sandbox in Five Easy Steps (#2): Build Some Tables



This continues the series on making a fantasy sandbox in five easy steps. 0. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

 

A sandbox campaign is one thing above all else: Emergent. What’s that mean?

  1. There is no story except the one that the player characters and game master develop through exploration.

  2. Almost everything is improvised.

  3. Even the game master doesn’t know how things are going to shake out. It takes the game to a different level for the players and the master/mistress of ceremonies.

So, how do you create a fully emergent game? The simple answer is: With Tables. Lots of them.

Encounters

Every fantasy adventure game (or roleplaying game of any genre) is built on one thing: characters interacting with other people/places/things. This is the essence of the encounter, and your encounter tables are the essence of your fantasy sandbox.


So, what's an encounter? An encounter is exactly equal to "something happens." In the fantasy adventure game, that's a wandering monster, a monster lair, an adventure site, or some non-combat event.


Your first table is a generic Encounters table that provides you a base chance of something happening (or nothing happening) in a given circumstance. The Encounter table I use, I stole from my good buddy Eric Hoffman, with only a little bit of modification based on the game I'm running. It's simple, weighted based on the situation, and it keeps things flowing quickly.


For this game, I check once per 6-mile hex while the party is moving and once per night when camped. Hex Encounter Table

Roll 1d12

Explored

Unexplored

Resting (Explored)

Searching (Full Day)

1

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

2

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

3

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

4

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

Event

5

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing

Wandering

6

Nothing

Event

Nothing

Wandering

7

Nothing

Event

Nothing

Wandering

8

Event

Wandering

Nothing

Monster Lair

9

Wandering

Wandering

Event

Monster Lair

10

Event and Wandering

Event and Wandering

Wandering

Monster Lair

11

Lair

Lair

Event and Wandering

Site

12

Site

Site

Monster Lair

Site

As you can see, this is really four tables. Each column applies to a different situation -- if the characters are passing through the hex for the first time (exploring), if the hex has already been explored, if the group is resting, or if they spend a full day searching the hex.


The entries are simple and self-explanatory. If an Event or Wandering Monster is indicated, roll on the appropriate table. For lairs, I just roll on my monster table (see below) and improvise a lair (remember the "collect a bunch of maps" advice from the previous article?). For Sites, I keep a folder of canned adventure sites, either ones that I've produced, published adventures, or one of the many thousand sitting out there on the internet for free. More details on that in the Sites section below.


With this simple Encounters table, you can add other, different encounters -- like if you want to have an NPC specific encounter table, separate from your Monster table, or you want a chance for the PCs to find a settlement (aside from your "Sites" table). I sometimes add a generic discovery table -- where the PCs find generic ruins (unoccupied), terrain features (like geysers, interesting mountains or lakes, etc.), caches, and other non-adventuring sites that, if found and cataloged, gains the party XP outside of treasure and fighting. This is a game of exploration! And at its base, a hexcrawl/sandbox is about discovery. Give those characters something to discover.


Monsters

If the characters aren't in danger, then they aren't in an adventure, and monsters are the tried-and-true fantasy adventure game danger. Here, you can overdo it -- either by working too much to make these encounters unique, special flowers or by not giving yourself enough tools to quickly consume the results and keep the game flowing. This is how I do it:


Before I craft a table, I look at the major areas on my map. For each one, I figure out what creatures I want the characters to encounter here. Like everything you build for a sandbox, Start Small! I build a monster table with 7 (2d4) entries.


To populate my random monsters, I run on over to the tables starting on page 140 in the old AD&D Monster Manual II (1983): Monsters by Terrain and Frequency on That Terrain. A greater set of RPG tables I have never found.

  • From that table, I pick several Common and Uncommon monsters to populate the middle of my table (more frequently encountered when rolling a 2d4).

  • On the 2 and 8 positions, I put the big nasties for that region – dragons, hydras… rarely encountered but memorable! These two positions could also be reserved for custom monster encounters that exist in that region.

  • For the other positions, I might throw in humanoids/human/demi-humans that are found there, usually because of a lair or adventure site I've pre-set or plan to have appear in that region.

This gives me a good spread of generic monsters found in this terrain, as well as some custom encounters that make sense for this particular area. What's great is that this simple table can be expanded as it becomes stale, or the characters actually change the area. So, when that big Orc Fortress is rooted out, maybe there aren't many orcs found in this area anymore.


Here's a sample table for the Alnear Forest outside of Bexley from our sample map. For this one, my “custom monster” is the forest spirit known as the White Mare, a warhorse killed in ancient times in one of the many battles between light and darkness. The spirit horse searches the battlefields of the forest for its lost master, the Opal Knight. The "draug" is just a zombie that doesn't act last every round and has a fear effect on NPCs / animals in the party. The Red Sprites have the exact same stats as "elf," but they have a chance to cast dancing lights or sleep. They're tied to a site in the Alnear Forest, as well. The "animals" entry is the most common in the Alnear forest and gives the characters a choice whether they attack (hunting, essentially) or otherwise interact (i.e. druids, etc). A "lair" of animals might be a resource the characters could exploit if they clear the hex of dangers.. anyway, you get the idea.



Wandering Monsters: Alnear Forest

Roll 2d4

Monster

Appearing

Page

Notes

Treasure

2

White Mare

Unique

N/A

Ghostly warhorse seeking its master, the Opal Knight

See Battlefield Event

3

Red Sprites

2d4

148

Small, elfin humanoids (Elf); 1 in 6 can cast a spell: 1d6: 1-5) Dancing Lights 6) Sleep; Wary of intruders (-1 reaction); Site: The Titan Corpse (0604).

VI

4

Fire Beetle

1d8

123

Flaring lights appear as will-o-wisp at night.

VI

5

Animals

2d6

N/A

1d6: 1-3) Deer (2d6 rations) 4) Rabbits or Squirrels (1 ration) 5) Wild pigs (2d4 rations) 6) Wild cattle (2d20 rations)

N/A

6

Large Spider

2d4

186

Poison (save or 1d8 damage)

VI

7

Draug

2d4

197

Zombies (fast); Sight causes fear (Morale check +1) in animals and hirelings.

VI

8

Wyvern

1d2

195

Only 2 in the forest; Lair in HEX 0502

XVIII

Other Stuff: I like to streamline a few things: I put the number encountered, a page number (if applicable), and the treasure type if these monsters are found in a lair. These notes give me almost everything I need to run any result on the fly and a reference if I'm flailing and need some help. Sometimes, if I'm being really obsessive, I'll build the full statblock into my table, but usually that's too much work!


Events


Remember when we talked about Barriers and Gates in the previous article? At its core, your Event table comprises a series of interesting barriers and gates -- almost all of them non-combat encounters with an element of danger and a few interesting discoveries.


I also stole the table below from my good buddy Eric Hoffman. His are always hazards (in fact, his table is called the Hazard table). I combined hazards, discoveries and at least one custom event that's kind of a combination of site/lair/monster, depending on the situation.

 

An Important Note About Events: Do Not make custom events for every terrain type/region on your map. A "barrier" is a barrier is a barrier. The mechanics stay the same (slow down the party, give them the opportunity to bypass with skills). The trappings of that barrier are improvised depending on the region that you have it -- so, a barrier in the mountains might be the switchback the characters were following that is blocked by a rockslide. In the woods, the barrier might be a brush-choked gorge. That single entry can be reused anywhere -- and that's part of your improvisational GM'ing bread-and-butter. Don't be afraid to throw a custom entry into your events table to give a specific area some flavor, but seriously: do less work and game more. That's the Mystic Bull motto and it should be yours, too.

 

Events Table: Alnear Forest

Roll 1d8

Event

Notes

1

Battlefield

1 in 6 chance per hour that the White Mare appears here. 2 in 6 chance that the Opal Knight's tomb is here. If searched (Full Day): Treasure Type: VI.

2

Discovery

10 xp/level 1-3) Natural wonder 4) Ruined hut (Rest healing) 5) Resource (nesting grounds, fur-bearing mammals, fresh spring, etc.) 6) Sanctuary (no wandering monsters for 1d4 days; Rest healing doubled).

3

Passage

Old road, dry riverbed, or some "gate" through this hex. 10 xp/level; +1d4 Movement points for the day

4

Mishap, Resource

Supply problem 1d6): 1) 10-40% of rations ruined 2) 50-100% of water spoiled; 3) Sickness or mild poison (half movement points lost until all save vs poison) 4) random weapon or tool breaks 5) Mount or conveyance problem; Lose half movement points to repair; 6) Sleepless (no natural healing; no spell recovery when camping until a save vs magic is passed)

5

Mishap, Severe

1d6: 1) All water is fouled; 1 hp damage per day until save vs poison passed; 2) Animal dies or conveyance breaks beyond repair 3) Venomous fauna attacks one random party member as F1; save vs poison or 2d4 damage. 4) Weapon mishap; Attacks as character against random character 5) Poisonous flora is consumed, touched or breathed (1 hp damage and -1 to all d20 rolls until save vs poison is passed) 6) All rations fouled

6

Sinkhole

One random character must make save vs paralysis or slide off the trail into a deep muddy sinkhole (note: character's mount must make the same save). CON check to remain above water, penalized by Armor Class of armor worn. 1d6 damage per round until dead when drowning.

7

Freak Weather

The weather in the region changes suddenly for the worse.  Rain, wind, hail, snow, extreme heat or other inclement weather causes delay or hardship. 1d6: 1-4) Nuisance weather causes +1 MP per hex 5) Heavy weather doubles MP per hex 6) Severe weather causes 1d4 damage per character unless party takes shelter for the day.

8

Barrier

A ravine, cliff, lake, dam or other terrain appropriate feature delays travel. No further movement possible for the day. A ranger or other wilderness type can bypass this with a successful tracking check (-40%; double movement costs for this hex)

 

A Note About This Table: As you can see, there's some campaign specific stuff in this one -- especially movement points. We use a system abstracted from movement rules to simplify overland movement -- essentially a movement point represents distance and time. This simplified system lets me add barriers and gates through simple +/- movement points. Also, I play OSR games (Advanced Labyrinth Lord or B/X D&D primarily) so rangers, surprise checks, etc. Don't let that confuse you -- just be sure to make the table simple and populate it with the information you need to improvise the situation and adjudicated with your chosen ruleset. Your system may vary.

 

Sites

We're going to talk about sites in more detail in Step 3, but for my Encounter table purposes, I usually throw all the canned adventure sites into one folder on my hard drive. I put a sequential number in the file name and build a simple table to roll on. That way, all I have to do is roll on the table, look in the folder and open the file to run the adventure.


I usually have one pre-set site per region. This informs my random encounter tables for the region, gives them a unique quality, and helps me to understand how to place other clues, like rumors, hidden caches, treasure maps found at other sites or otherwise obtained, and the like.


Find a Bunch of Other Tables / Generators

I’ve boiled my hexcrawl game down to the tables above, some monster tables found in the published resources I like, and a handful of Internet resources. Generators are just tables that a system rolls for you, and they are your best friend. The ones that follow are some that help me keep things running smoothly and emergently!


Names

Names are always a problem for me to generate on the fly. For one thing, everything ends up sounding homogenous. Secondly, I immediately forget the name I came up with. These are the name generators I use. They are fast, very detailed in their genres, cultures, types, etc, and I can easily copy/paste out of them into my ongoing notes for the campaign.


Behind the Name – Hands down, this is best person name generator on the planet. Many culturally specific names (and surnames!) as well as some fun fantasy-style name generators. Plus the names all have some data associated with them – origin, meaning, relation to other names etc. So, you can spur some emergent story ideas right there.


Fantasy Name Generators – Quick and simple. This doesn’t always generate the best names every time, but I can always take what’s there and make it my own. And if nothing strikes your fancy, just hit the “generate” button again.

 

Another Note About Names: It’s almost a red-herring to do so, but I try to name *everything* the character’s interact with. If the characters talk to a goblin, even if they end up stabbing her later, I give her a name. It personalizes the roleplaying experience for very little mental overhead and it puts a bug in the players' ears that this person/place/thing might be important. And if they think it’s important, you can make it important. Or you can just continue to let them think that the named thing is important. That’s one of the dirty secrets of game management sleight of hand: Let the players do the work. They'll tell you what is interesting to them. You can either indulge that (because it's cool and you didn't think of it) or use that engagement to direct them to something else.

 

Curses

I always like to have a table of curses about, for no particular reason other than I can’t think of good ones on the fly. So, your character decides to defile the evil shrine you found in the woods? Okay… well… make a save versus spells or your nose grows to 12” long. Or whatever. There are hundreds of curses tables out there – find a few, keep them handy, keep the players on their toes.


Interesting Encounters / Discoveries

Your encounter tables may be simple and to the point, but maybe you want even more “emergence.” Like, you have 1-7 results on your table, and you want #7 to go to another, more dangerous or more interesting table. I use the plethora of encounter/event/discovery tables out there on the internet for this. I don’t want to build 300 tables for a region the characters might pass through once. But, I might keep 10 generic tables with some interesting stuff and use them when mine get stale or I just want to mix things up.


Monster Tables

If I’m being really obsessive, I might copy out all the monster statblocks that appear in my adventure into one document and keep it handy. Usually, I’m not obsessive. I use statblock tables in the back of whatever monster book I’m using or one that someone else built. It definitely streamlines the encounter if I don’t have to dig for monster stats in this or that book. So, consider that a time saver and a way to appear more all-knowing as a game master.

 

Final Note on Tables: I can’t think of any others that I use. But, think about how you run your games and what tables would help you run it faster/better/less clunky. Having those things at the ready makes your game more emergent, because when the players ask “what’s in the ruined hut,” you won’t have to fumble around for something to key on. You’ll have a “random things found somewhere” table that can spur your improvisational skills and keep the players engaged in this living world that just keeps delivering new wonders.

 

Go check out the rest of the series on making a fantasy sandbox in five easy steps. 0. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

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