The ultimate heist as a sandbox
I'm pretty sure I saw this idea somewhere over at From the Sorcerer's Skull, but I can't find it right now*. Basically the adventurers are a group of specialists needed to get inside a highly secured dungeon and steal something very important. The prep work for this heist is the campaign. Ocean's Eleven or Leverage in a fantasy setting, so to speak.
The ultimate sandbox has lost the war
The sandbox itself is a war territory, occupied by evil forces or in the aftermath of a great war. The legendary dungeon is either power source for the evil forces or has something they want but can't get yet to gain more power (I'll take it both). That and shitloads of treasure, of course.
Patron focused adventure vehicles (about sandbox navigation)
The next very important issue is to find a way to ensure total freedom for the players without destroying the main theme. The final heist is the main goal of the game and everything the characters do is more or less connected to that. How is this possible without railroading the players:
- There is a number of events that have to happen before evil gets into the dungeon. It's like a time bomb that goes of at some point in the campaign. The characters can either slow it down or hasten this process with their actions. This is in no way only connected to the "main quest", ideally every action they take has either a negative or a positive effect on the theme. Pretty much like ckutalik over at Hill Cantons describes his world engine.
- They need a Mister Smith, someone with a master plan. He is recruiting for the heist, has a general idea what's going on and the connections to point the way, if necessary. But instead of making this some sort of DM tool to controll the players, he needs to be controlled by random tables and the players. He should be part of the character creation, something all the players create together. In the beginning he is just a man with a valid clue and nearly no ressources. The players will be able to finance him and get what he needs to plan the heist. With time he will be able to outsource adventures (if the characters don't want to do it) and work by himself by getting more and more experienced (which might create new plots, etc.). A little bit like the regents game in Birthright, but as a character all the players have some sort of influence in. Some sort of PC/NPC hybrid.
- Further it's important to let the characters get some clues and hints while they are doing whatever they want. The best idea I could find so far is the Random Clue Generator over at Billy Goes to Mordor. It might need two or three different ones for this, depending on the focus the character decide on. Ancient ruins should produce some ancient connections, hexcrawls others and theme related quests should be the most productive.
This is the engine. The setting is next.
Safe vanilla havens in a destroyed and weird world
Weird doesn't work for my players. There, i said it. Unlimited variations of monsters with huge amounts of strange and alien elements in it, to give but one example, disconnect them from the setting. Giving them a twist or an explanation using the weird is like using a deus ex machina every time. Appendix N doesn't mean anything to them, they just don't care enough and I have to accept that.
In conclusion the weird needs to be labeled to work out. At least I believe that could work. So here is what I'll try to do: I'll take a painfully vanilla setting (mostly Lord of the Rings, because it's what they know) and destroy it (using tropes derived from anything Dark Ages or Wild West). The element of destruction is where the weird comes in. Demon threats wills be recognizable as such and should be in a clear contrast to what is perceived as normal. It's more like how the horror genre works than like D&D (in the horror genre reality is perverted by something alien and hostile, in D&D alien and hostile has gone domestic...).
That's the basics, more is to come
All of this might seem a little trivial. I get that. A lot of text with general assumptions. But sometimes it's useful to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation. Other than that I have a lot of D&D prep-work ahead of me if I want this to happen, which is very nice and I'll tackle it as soon as possible.
Playtesting for christmas
Last month, when I was writing about Endurance, I took a shot on a very small sandbox setting to kill a horse (just scroll down to the dotted line). When running the game next time, I will use Count Shrops domain as a test run and see if my basic assumptions about players and setting work out. First time I will use my own blog as a resource and escalate some goblins :)
Until then I wish all of you a merry, merry christmas! And thanks for stopping by. May the dice be with you...
*Edit: Beedo's comment below helped me find the right post and the right blog about the ultimate heist: it's The Acererak Caper over at Michael Curtis' The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. Thanks, Beedo! (I think the very nice Goon-meets-D&D setting over at the Sorcerer's Skull lead me to believe I saw it there. Still, good stuff.)