When I started playing RPGs, railroading was the only way ahead. Then something called a sandbox came along. I initially thought, “isn’t that where children play and cats do their business?” That’s only partly accurate; sandbox design is a way of making the campaign world more alive.
More alive? I just wanted to kill things with my character. Still, over time I came to love the new, open worlds previously unavailable to me – it was mind-blowing just thinking that I could go anywhere. I ultimately found sandbox design to be amazing and used (or perhaps abused) it for years. I went off the track just because it was expected that I could, and I could have been a better player if I hadn’t.
To this day I still expect a GM to know the proprietor of every tavern in the campaign setting. Now that I’ve taken up the gamemastering reigns myself, my views on the sandbox approach have changed…or have they?
Let’s consider it against its most polar counterpart: railroading.
I hate pure sandbox; learning everything in a campaign setting by heart? No thank you. Because I have a life, you ask? No, because there are too many cool campaign settings for me to reasonably do that (although I might add that I do have a life). For me the sandbox is of infinite size, both as a player and a GM. The player side of me loves the opportunities, but the GM part of my brain despises it, as the party can run everywhere and expect you to be prepared. This might be because my players are an evil lot, but in my opinion it is because if you give them a possibility, they will seize it. I know I would, so it is only fair that they do so when I’m the GM.
To combat the infinite size of the sandbox, I turned back to railroading. As we played around in the sandbox, we discovered the failings of railroading; it was restrictive and often proved to an impediment rather than aid to the GM. Basically, there’s a good way of railroading, and there is the bad way of doing it. Let me give you examples of both.
The wrong way:
The party is summoned to the count’s castle. A railroading trick, the players are summoned by a powerful NPC so that no one tries anything, because the NPC is so powerful.
You must go to X and before the next full moon. Another trick, make sure the distance and time given allows for no or little leeway.
Carry this treasure/ransom/document to X. Make sure the item in question is so valuable that the party will not take any chance that might endanger the item.
Arrive at X, and sit in an antimagicfield and watch the villains take off with the ransom. This is the result of bad railroading; now we can wait until next time, where we will be sent off to somewhere else.
Did this actually happen to me? Yes, and I hated it; it was boring and restrictive.
The right way:
Give the players an awesome handout. A map, a prophecy, or a book, if you are so inclined (I am looking at you Mike Myler, giving them a book, talk about raising the stakes for the rest of us.) Seriously with a handout like a map you can control their most likely path of travel (and compensate for going off the trail) and the same goes for a prophecy; any handout that controls some of or any part of their whole journey will help you narrow down your sandbox, which will help you make the passage to the destination more believable. You can prepare a few encounters and read up on the most likely towns they will visit, thereby making sandboxing a breeze.
I must admit that I don’t make handouts for all campaigns, but putting together an intriguing verse or prophecy gets easier with practice.
Checklist for a successful sandbox campaign:
1) Get familiar with or prepare a couple of backwater villages, including a small inn where the party can stay should they go too far from the path.
2) A list of names for quickly naming minor NPCs, so we can avoid the Hanson family of farmers, and the brothers Jonas.
3) You should know where the clerics that are capable of raising and resurrecting are located in the world – there is no free resurrection in every little village.
4) A list of rumors with details conveniently located on or close to the path you want the PCs to take.
5) Lists of the various city guards and mages might come in handy as well.
To sum up my ramblings:
Narrow down the sandbox.
Use an awesome handout (prophecy, map or otherwise) to influence the PCs path.
Prepare lists of useful details for the campaign.
Submitted by Brian Wiborg Monster
[Edited by Mike Myler]
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Aura none (medium abjuration and medium conjuration, see text); CL 7th
Slot none; Weight 800 lbs.
The Eternal Torment is always a beautiful marble statue of perfect proportions, slightly larger than the creature it portrays. The face is contorted in pain but otherwise an aura of beauty surrounds the artwork. Upon careful examination, however, the statue surrenders its dreadful secrets—hidden hinges open revealing the interior of an iron maiden. Small spikes dot the inside, barely large enough to allow a creature to fit inside.
The Eternal Torment is a devious device used to imprison people in a torturous cage made all the more sadistic by their innocuous presence within a populated place. The statue bestows the benefits of a ring of sustenance, although the effects start only last from when a victim is fitted inside to when they leave it. The statue also has a working nondetection spell placed upon it. If a divination spell is attempted against the occupant, the caster of the divination must succeed on a caster level check (1d20 + caster level) against a DC of 19 (as if the occupant had cast nondetection on herself). The auras from these effects are hidden, and are only discovered with a successful DC 11 Will save (see detect magic spell text for greater details on how this is discovered). The spikes inside deal 1d6 piercing damage every round TheEternal Torment is closed, receding slightly when the victim reaches 1 hit point.
Magic Items any statue or body suitable for a golem or similar construct.
A character that makes a Knowledge (history) check to learn about The Eternal Torment identifies the following fragments of lore:
DC 15 This statue bears all the hallmarks of the now extinct char’krar culture, nomadic horse raiders that conquered Kith Guhr, the jeweled city, some eight centuries ago. Seeing how comfortable city life was, their leaders abandoned their ancient ways in favor of urbanity. The few disgruntled tribesmen that voiced any concerns or reluctance were quickly found floating face down in the Ruby River.
DC 20 In the first three centuries after the fall of Kith Ghur, char’krar culture had a renaissance, going from crudely carved wooden idols of their ancestors to paintings and sculptures rivaling nearby cultures. Several of their nobles collected statues, trying to outdo each other with massive outdoor collections, called gardens. The char’krar enjoyed several profitable trade routes with nearby nations before four to five centuries ago, when a radical change overcame Kith Ghur: the temples of the city were defiled and the ancient gods were abandoned in favor of open worship of the demon lord Tzzeraxxt, lord of pain and joyful suffering. For almost a century trade continued with Kith Ghur until at last relations grew too strained to continue—the missing caravans and rumors of human sacrifices could not be ignored. Three hundred years ago Kith Ghur closed its gates for the last time as the char’krar withdrew into the city to worship Tzeeraxxt and tend to their own increasingly vile, debased, ritualistic practices of worship.
DC 25 As time passed, the gardens grew but a new feature was added—hollow statues used to torture and torment in the name of Tzzeraxxt. Many times servants awoke to find one of their number missing and another statue was added to their master’s garden; horrifyingly, they soon discovered their lost companions as statues, as the truly devout made their tombs to resemble their victims. Fear was a constant companion in Kith Ghur—no one was safe from joining a garden. The char’krar nobles tried to outdo each other in an attempt to gain favor from their vile lord Tzzeraxxt by increasing the pain caused by removal from the statue—spikes were added to the hollow insides, longer spikes combined with regeneration (not that anyone were ever taken back out according to the legends). In time Kith Ghur fell silent apart from the muffled cries from some of the statues before those within died out, as the city itself eventually did as well.
DC 30 Persistent rumors speak of a few statues with the power to halt time for the occupant, it is doubtful if these statues were ever made, but if they do exist, the question arises: who or what will emerge should one be found?
Submitted by Brian Wiborg Monster
[edited (into a cursed item!) by Mike Myler]
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Either in a previous encounter (from last week’s Sidequest Saturday)—or by chance while in the city of Mohkba—the adventurers acquired an invitation to a masquerade ball and a beautiful mask of diplomacy +1 (actually a mask of thirst). The event is being held on the night after the party’s encounter with the trio of muggers and is lauded as the most grand occasion to come to the city in many months.
Notable persons from all over the realm will be in attendance, and the PCs are sure to meet influential and powerful individuals that hold sway over considerable resources in the Klavek Kingdom while there. Countess Darah Veresovich is the host of the masquerade, and her sizable mansion is located in the affluent area of the city. Adventurers keen to scope out the residence beforehand or wise enough to learn more about the countess may make a Diplomacy check to determine more about the event itself and the property it is being held in.
The countess is the sole heir to the Veresovich fortune after her older brother tragically died in a hunting accident. She is thought to have distant cousins, but they have scarcely visited Mohkba these past ten years.
The whole ward in which the manor is located is one of the oldest parts of Mohkba, and the Veresovich estate is rumored to be coated with small magical enhancements to amplify its presence and grandeur.
While not a recluse, after traveling to oversee Veresovich mercantile interests afar, the Countess began to create odd waves in the social climate of Mohkba that has put much of the nobility ill at ease. It’s thought that this upcoming grand masquerade is her way of mending the fences with her elite peers.
Read the following as the adventurers approach Countess Veresovich’s mansion to attend the grand ball:
A large iron-wrought gate stands open to accommodate the steady stream of gilded carriages entering the magnificent manor gardens before you. A gravelled boulevard leads up to the mansion where servants greet and assist the guests, lit by lanterns hanging from the lowliest bush to the mightiest oak, suspended on the branches of every plant in the gardens. Amongst the masked uniformed servants, a tall, gaunt man stands and surveys the scene in silence.
A servant quickly looks over your invitations and guides you to the door, where another attendant leads you to the ballroom via dimly lit corridors, finally stopping in front of a massive ornately carved door—as it opens you are overwhelmed by light and the sounds of a full-fledged nobles’ ball in Mohkba. Servants dodge dancing couples while carrying trays with glasses full of different liquors as what seems like a full symphonic orchestra provides the fantastic melodies flowing through the room.
Everywhere you look masked guests meet your gaze, some glancing cursorily in your direction. While a few avert their eyes, others seem to take a greater interest in your presence. On a long table in the back of the ballroom there are a panoply of different foods, the countess’ chefs having prepared well for the masquerade. The countess can easily be made out, a tall lithe woman dressed in a black ballgown with gold accents, her face concealed by a white porcelain mask inlaid with rubies arranged in a heart-shape pattern over the left eye. Only her smile reveals her mood behind the mask. The servant behind you whispers, “the countess wishes to make your acquaintance this eve, and wishes you to know that she expects much of you”, before closing the doors again.
Before approaching any of the members of the grand ball, the PCs can reduce the DCs for the checks required to ferret out their secrets (by 3 points) with successful DC 18 Perform (dance) checks. Otherwise, the adventurers find it challenging to get in touch with any of the nobles as the Klavek customs in observance that evening do not allow people of lesser rank to address the elite socialites of Mohkba until the unveiling at midnight. Still, the masquerade element presents an opportunity for cunning and mischievous adventurers to rub elbows with nobility—to earn their trust, however, they’ll have to Hopak!
Radimir Vlasputin, Mercantile Entrepreneur
Male human [Klavek] aristocrat 6; CR 4 (XP 1,200) HP 33 (6d8+6); AC 12 (+2 Dex) Init+2; Speed 30 ft.; Atk unarmed +0 (1d3, provokes attack of opportunity) Base Atk +4; CMB +4; CMD 16 AL Neutral; SV Fort +2, Ref +4, Will +5; Str 10, Dex 14, Con 10, Int 13, Wis 11, Cha 15 Skills Appraise +13, Bluff +11, Diplomacy +13, Intimidate +9, Knowledge (geography) +6, Knowledge (local) +6, Knowledge (nobility) +6, Perception +6, Profession (merchant) +9, Sense Motive +9; Feats Deceitful, Persuasive, Skill Focus (Appraise), Skill Focus (Diplomacy)
Igor Rastvick, Merchant of the Rastvick Trading Company
Male human [Klavek] aristocrat 6; CR 4 (XP 1,200) HP 33 (6d8+6); AC 12 (+2 Dex) Init+2; Speed 30 ft.; Atk unarmed +0 (1d3, provokes attack of opportunity) Base Atk +4; CMB +4; CMD 16 AL Neutral; SV Fort +2, Ref +4, Will +5; Str 10, Dex 14, Con 10, Int 13, Wis 11, Cha 15 Skills Appraise +13, Bluff +11, Diplomacy +13, Intimidate +9, Knowledge (geography) +6, Knowledge (local) +6, Knowledge (nobility) +6, Perception +6, Profession (merchant) +9, Sense Motive +9; Feats Deceitful (+2 bluff/disguise), Persuasive (+2 diplomacy/intimidate), Skill Focus (Appraise), Skill Focus (Diplomacy)
Frieda Manovitovich, Ensconced Socialite of Mohkba
Female human [Klavek] aristocrat 6; CR 4 (XP 1,200) HP 33 (6d8+6); AC 12 (+2 Dex) Init+2; Speed 30 ft.; Atk unarmed +0 (1d3, provokes attack of opportunity) Base Atk +4; CMB +4; CMD 16 AL Neutral; SV Fort +2, Ref +4, Will +5; Str 10, Dex 14, Con 10, Int 13, Wis 11, Cha 15 Skills Appraise +13, Bluff +11, Diplomacy +13, Intimidate +9, Knowledge (geography) +6, Knowledge (local) +6, Knowledge (nobility) +6, Perception +6, Profession (merchant) +9, Sense Motive +9; Feats Deceitful (+2 bluff/disguise), Persuasive (+2 diplomacy/intimidate), Skill Focus (Appraise), Skill Focus (Diplomacy)
Cultus Sanguineus Secrets!
Diplomacy DC 20 The entrepreneur is here in the interests of several other merchants that have heard new and truly exotic (perhaps even illegal) trade will soon be coming into Mohkba, exclusively for Countess Veresovich.
Diplomacy DC 30 Radimir was asked by Count Krev to locate the fastest runners in the land for a very specific courier job; apparently, he did not trust the services available in Mohkba or the use of magic for whatever task he was up to. A DC 24 Sense Motive checkreveals that whatever it was, Radimir doubts it was entirely within the bounds of the law (though he’s smart enough not to pry or say any more on the matter).
Intimidate DC 32 Under duress he recalls that when Krev approached him about the runners, the Count seemed to know Radimir’s thoughts during the conversation and the distinctive black mask he insisted on wearing still gives Vlasputin the chills.
Diplomacy DC 25 Countess Veresovich is an esoteric sort that enjoys exotic delicacies. The Veresovich line has been influential to trade for decades and she has enjoyed the life of a debutante—perhaps too much.
Diplomacy DC 32 Rastvick knows for a fact that Countess Veresovich is quite mad and drinks blood in her wine—not just any blood, but the blood of young women.
Intimidate DC 32 He has several times observed how the Countess has used an exquisite necklace that beats like a heart to instill envious desires in younger women. These lasses—servants or socialites, but always extremely attractive—are never seen again. Once when Igor got close to see the amulet he himself felt an unearthly desire for it and its wearer. With all his mental might Rastvick tore his eyes from the amulet and promptly left. He will remark that the amulet she wears today does not beat like a heart at the moment, but…
Intimidate DC 16 “Well no need to be so rude! Let me tell you, the way you lot carry yourselves about, someone might take…no, will definitely take offense and you might find yourself at the wrong end of a Klavek dueling blade. Proper etiquette mind you, know your place. If you want to talk to someone, do impress them with a display of “Hopak”![a traditional Klavek dance, DC 18 Perform (dance) check]
Diplomacy DC 22 Frieda knows nothing of the details of the accident and is more interested in the problems with hiring good staff. “The Veresovich manor is built in the oldest ward of Mohkba, but there are some rumors that the ward is dangerous. Last year the manor of the Ollianov family fell into a sinkhole and killed half of their staff; considering how horrible it is to get good staff nowadays, can you imagine how hard it is to find so many at the same time. Poor Darah, should it happen here, her servants are so well trained; they are here, but you don’t see them, just like a disciplined dog. Frieda shows no emotion when comparing servants to dogs and openly declares that dogs would make excellent servants, if they had opposable thumbs. She follows this macabre joke with the high-pitched laughter of the bourgeoisie.
Diplomacy DC 32 “Why yes, the countess is an avid collector of Klavek historical items and paraphernalia. Lately she has been actively searching for the cloak of Jaroslav Mandatin, the greatest duelist in Klavek history! Rumors say that the cloak was part of a set, consisting of a mask and an amulet as well, but that must be nothing more than an old wives’ tale, typically the fodder of the peasants. Now where were we, Lubov?” She gives a wolf-like smile before sipping the last bit of crimson wine from her tall glass goblet and heads to refill her glass.
If the adventurers are not looking for the remaining enchanted items from the set the mask of thirst belongs to, Krev Ragata is! His agents are seeded throughout the event and as the night drags on, an expert hired specifically for the task approaches the PC wearing the magical masquerade mask, engaging them in a conversation that seems very friendly…
Daineus Guslar, Master of Lore
Female halfling bard (sandman) 7; CR 6 (XP 2,400) HP31 (7d8+7); AC 22, touch 14, flat-footed 19 (+5 armor, +3 Dex, +3 shield, +1 size) Init+3; Speed 20 ft.; Atk mwk rapier +4 (1d4-2, Crit 18-20/x2) or mwk light crossbow +9 (1d6, Crit 19-20/x2, Range 80 ft.) Base Atk +5; CMB +2; CMD 15 AL Neutral Evil; SV Fort +3, Ref +9, Will +7 (+2 vs fear); Str 6, Dex 16, Con 10, Int 13, Wis 12, Cha 18 Skills Acrobatics +9, Bluff +15, Escape Artist +13, Linguistics +9, Perception +7, Perform (oratory) +18, Sense Motive +9, Sleight of Hand +13, Spellcraft +11, Stealth +12; Racial Modifiers+2 Acrobatics, +2 Climb, +2 Perception; Feats Ability Focus (slumber song), Skill Focus (Perform [oratory]), Spellsong, Voice of the Sibil; Languages Common, Halfling, Klavek, Vikmordere, 4 bonus languages (GM’s choice) SQ Bardic knowledge, bardic performance (move action, 20 rounds/day; countersong, distraction, fascinate [Will DC 17], inspire competence +3, slumber song [Will DC 19; as deep slumber, no HD limit], stealspell [Will DC 17]), cantrips, lore master 1/day, versatile performance (Diplomacy, Sense Motive), well-versed Gear +1 chain shirt, +1 heavy wooden shield, masterwork light crossbow (15 bolts), masterwork rapier Bard Spells Known 3rd (2/day)—charm monster (DC 17), confusion (DC 17) 2nd (4/day)—blindness/deafness(DC 16), hold person (DC 16),suggestion (DC 16), tongues 1st (5/day)—charm person(DC 15), cure light wounds, disguise self, feather fall, summon monster I 0th—detect magic, ghost sound, lullaby, mage hand, prestidigitation, read magic TACTICS Daineus uses Spellsong (swift action, Perform [oratory] vs observer’s Perception/Sense Motive to realize a spell is being cast) to hide charm person and lullaby before using suggestion to draw the member of the party with the mask of thirst away into an otherwise empty chamber, where she tries to convince them to give her the item willingly—even offering another mask of diplomacy +1 in trade. Anyone that interferes is targeted with blindness/deafness or confusion (hidden by Spellsong). If bartering fails, Count Krev (hiding in the shadows; his statistics will be on the AaWBlog tomorrow, but in the meanwhile use the “Freelance Thief” entry in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: NPC Codex if need be) loses his patience and assaults the PC, attempting to wrestle away the mask of thirst physically! Five of his most trusted acolytes, scattered throughout the masquerade, come to back him up and ensure none of the guests realize that there is an attack going on in one of the mansion’s rooms.
CR 4 (XP 1,200) Male or Female human (Klavek) fighter 4/sorcerer 1 HP 44 (4d10+1d6+19); AC 18, touch 14, flat-footed 14 (+6 armor, +3 Dex, +1 dodge) Init+3; Speed 30 ft.; Atk mwk rapier +6 (1d6+3, Crit 18-20/x2) or mwk light crossbow +8 (1d8, Crit 19-20/x2, Range 80 ft.) Base Atk +4; CMB +5; CMD 18 AL Neutral Evil; SV Fort +3, Ref +6, Will +3; Str 12, Dex 16, Con 15, Int 8, Wis 10, Cha 14 Skills Bluff +8, Intimidate +7, Knowledge (religion) +4, Perception +5; Feats Combat Casting, Dodge, Greater Spell Focus (necromancy), Spell Focus (necromancy); Eschew Materials, Toughness, Weapon Focus (rapier), Weapon Specialization (rapier) Sorcerer Spells Known(CL 1st; concentration +3, +7 defensive; spell chance failure 25%) 1st (3/day)—ray of enfeeblement (DC 15; CL 2nd), ray of sickening (DC 15; CL 2nd) 0th—acid splash, detect magic, mage hand, touch of fatigue (DC 14; CL 2nd) Bloodline Undead (Sanguine) Gear masterwork breastplate, masterwork rapier, masterwork light crossbow, 78 gold The Blood Is the Life (Su) Sanguineus Acolytes can gain sustenance from the blood of the recently dead 5 times a day. As a standard action, they can drink the blood of a creature that died within the past minute. The creature must be corporeal, must be at least the same size as them, and must have blood. This ability heals the Sanguineus Acolyte 1d6 hit points and nourishes them as if they’d had a full meal. TACTICS These cultists have little regard for their own well-being, believing (falsely) that an afterlife of pleasure or existence as an immortal undead awaits them. They will wade into battle, attempting to first weaken and sicken their targets with spells before dashing forward with their rapiers. The instant another of their group falls, however, any adjacent Sanguineus Acolytes are overcome by blood lust—they drop to the ground and feed on their recently fallen peer without regard to any dangers doing so might present.
At this point in the adventure, either Count Krev has the items and dons all three (the mask of thirst, cloak of the dark servant and amulet of the sundered heart) or one of the PCs does: doing so causes them to disappear entirely until the stroke of midnight! However, Countess Veresovich has been prepared for the arrival of the Cultus Sanguineus items for some time and her entire mansion is warded specifically for their use. If a creature dons all three items while within her home, the entire manor and its surroundings are coated in magical darkness for 3 rounds as they are affected by the items’ rituals.
Countess Veresovich’s preparations protect the creature from the harshest of the Items Sanguineus’ effects: only on a natural 1 will they fail the associated Fortitude and Will saves, though they still disappear until midnight. On the end of the third round, the magical darkness from all around the mansion draws back in on itself and explodes into a vortex of blood that splatters everywhere, coating all squares previously occupied by the disappearing creature in a fifteen-foot radius.
Blood Vortex — CR 9
XP 6,400 NE persistent haunt (manifestation) (15 ft. radius) Caster Level 14th Notice Perception DC 20 (to get a feeling of a centuries old hunger which soon shall be sated) HP 40; Trigger (special see text); Reset 1 day Effect When the items transform anyone into a vampire, Exsanguinator’s desire and yearning for blood manifests as a swirling vortex of razor-sharp blood droplets. The manifestation deals 10d6 damage (Reflex DC 22 for half). The vortex remains stationary and lasts for two rounds, after which the vortex harmlessly dissipates. Destruction: A manifestation is indestructible permanently unless the entity behind it is slain or banished back to whatever realm they came from.
After someone has donned all three of the Items Sanguineus, the nobles and merchants at the grand ball become far more talkative and Countess Veresovich is nowhere to be seen—the DCs for them to reveal their secrets drop by 10 and may be attempted again if previously failed.
Were that not enough, the Exsanguinator has been waiting, watching his acolyte Veresovich mastermind the bloodbath about to take place. The blood vortex caused by her rituals of protections and the Items Sanguineus draw his hunger; he locks the building down, barring the outsides with walls of force (CL 14th). On the other side of the walls of force are more of the blood vortex haunts, out to a radius of 20 feet from every surface of the building’s outside walls.
The adventurers (possibly missing one of their own) are trapped within Veresovich Manor, surrounded by the extremely-panicked nobles and merchants, utterly bereft of a host or direction! They must try to divine what is going on before the stroke of midnight, when all HEL breaks loose…