PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Takeaways from running Urban Shadows for a year

After running an Urban Shadows campaign for a year, I have a few takeaways to share.

One of my starting points with any RPG is “Does it do what it says on the tin?” Urban Shadows very much does what it says on the tin, and it’s a fantastic game.

1. After our group character creation session, I spent 1-2 hours turning the hooks, antagonists, and threads the players created into Threats, and I made debt tracker sheets and consolidated move lists for my GM folder.

That was the extent of my prep for the entire campaign.

2. Before each session, I thought about what had happened in the previous session, what the antagonists were up to (all noted on their clocks), and what the PCs had planned for the next session.

Occasionally, I wrote myself a sentence or two of notes so I wouldn’t forget stuff.

3. During the game, I took notes as often as possible without interrupting the flow of play. My group alternates weekly games, so with a two-week gap between sessions (and a shoddy memory!) notes are essential for me.

4. I also created an NPC Rolodex using a 3×5 index cards and a card box. Everyone important enough to name got a card color-coded for their faction with a quick description, notes, and a Drive.

This became unwieldy, and I may need a better solution when we go back to the game.

5. Likewise for my debt trackers. I left a half-page of room for each faction and they were totally full within a couple months. I should have had at least a full page, probably double-sided, per faction, and they should have been lined sheets.

6. Out of five regular players, three loved corruption, one avoided it like the plague, and one was somewhere in the middle. We retired two PCs around the one-year mark due to corruption, with a third just a point or two away from retirement.

7. My table included a mix of PbtA veterans, newbies, and folks in between. One thing I can confidently say that everyone loved about the system was how failures are handled. The whole table paused, excitement in the air, anytime a failure came up.

8. Using only player-created hooks, and logical outgrowths from those hooks, as toys in the sandbox produced an overwhelming amount of threads to keep track of. I regard this as a feature, not a bug; the Threats provided clear calls to action to mitigate option paralysis.

9. With 1/4 Threats fully resolved and another 1/4 on the ropes, we still have 2/4 of the original Threats in play after a year. This created a logical pause point to take a break from the game, and it should make picking it up again easier.

This is one of my favorite campaigns that I’ve run, and it’s a perfect fit for my preferred zero-prep sandbox style of play. Highly recommended!

I’m happy to answer questions about this campaign or Urban Shadows (paid link) in general — just fire away in the comments!

Tabletop RPGs

Twilight: 2000 and its amazing hook

There are a lot of things to love about Twilight: 2000 (paid link) but one of my favorites is its hook (one of the best hooks in RPG history): The PCs, all soldiers, are stuck in the middle of Poland after five years of global war, including exchanges of nuclear and biological weapons, and then, “As division headquarters was being overrun, the CO’s last radio message was, ‘You’re on your own. Good luck.’

From character creation (random stats balanced by time spent in combat) to coolness under fire, random encounters, and a deadly combat system that makes every firefight something to be wary of, the rules are delightfully old-school and spartan in their presentation. Combat is detailed, but my memory of playing T2K 15-20 years ago is that one firefight cements most of the basic rules nicely.

I want to run T2K as an alternate history sandbox, exactly as presented: In its version of reality, 17 years ago looks like 1984’s take on what was then the future. “You’re on your own. Good luck.

Tabletop RPGs Traveller

Space Pirates of Drinax: a gorgeous Traveller sandbox

Space pirates!

I buy 99% of my RPGs only in PDF these days, but when a product as special as the Pirates of Drinax (paid link) ) campaign for Mongoose Traveller (paid link) comes along, my heart goes pitter-patter and I have to make an exception.

It’s a sandbox campaign with a fantastic hook: The ruler of once-great Drinax, now a stellar backwater between two great powers, gives the PCs an old ship and a letter of marque, and asks that they secure the allegiance of the nearby worlds.

But, you know, they’re motherfucking space pirates: They can do whatever the hell they want, and the campaign supports it. There’s a neat system for tracking (and changing) how every important planet feels about the PCs, with real consequences waiting in the wings.

Need a bit more structure? The core is 10 adventures that can be run more or less in any order, anywhere. Some are opportunities signalled by rumors, while others are driven by outside forces. All adjustable to your game, of course, with copious notes about how to do just that.

Plus all the great tools I expect in an old school space sandbox: NPCs with motivations and roleplaying tips, ships, planets, deck plans, a gorgeous poster map, tons of info about the Aslan (who are key players in the region) and more. Its roughly 600 pages of material.

From what I’ve read so far, this is a stellar campaign.

PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Urban Shadows is fantastic for spinning up a sandbox game

I love sandbox games and urban horror, and at that intersection sits the absolutely stellar PbtA RPG Urban Shadows (paid link).

I expected Urban Shadows to be good at facilitating sandbox play, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it is. Since the proof is in the pudding, below is the brief recap of goings-on in El Paso, Texas that I provided to my players after our fifth session. For context, session one was character creation; we did start-of-session moves for sessions two and five (rather than every session); and our sessions are 3 hours tops, usually more like 2-2.5 hours.

Ignore the specifics and think broad — just look how much stuff is happening all over the city after this little play (bold names are PCs):

  • The Warden militia group gunning for Carmen and trying to make Angels’ Triangle their base in the city
  • A new vampire in town, Orlando Cranshaw, who wants to shake things up
  • Another vamp, Carlos de la Rosa, who is a rival to Desmond
  • Katya Ulanov, another demonic soul-trader who shares Nick‘s patron, who wants Nick’s territory
  • Mason Black’s coyote goons after Hector
  • Kyle‘s missing friend, Brandon, who was abducted by the wizard Mason Black
  • A group of coyotes who also want the Paper Shop building for their own, who have struck a deal with Orlando for protection
  • A missing senator’s son, Diego Hernandez
  • An extremely competent cover-up of the killing at Midnight
  • ICE on the prowl for Carmen, so they can deport her like the rest of her family
  • Veronica‘s visions: the Warden skinning Carmen in about a month, after assassinating Father Riley; Hector being choked to death by White Eyes in the sheriff’s office jail; and Father Riley’s death

And how much of that did I come up with, as the MC, before the start of the campaign? Zero.

Player backgrounds, and the Q&A we did for everyone during character creation, produced many of those elements. The first time we did start-of-session moves, several more came into play — including the opening scene for the campaign, another thing I hadn’t prepped in advance. Around session three or four, I generated Threats from all of the sandbox elements my players had created, and fleshed them out a bit with my own ideas. The rest grew out of session five’s start-of-session moves.

The mechanics of the game combined with the energy and creativity of the players produce a sandbox organically and with minimal effort. It’s clever, and it works beautifully in practice.

So far, I fucking love Urban Shadows (paid link).

Old school Tabletop RPGs

An overlooked OSR gem: Lesserton and Mor

Lesserton and Mor (paid link), written by Joel and Jeff Sparks of Faster Monkey Games, is a product that I don’t think has received its due. It’s a fantastic, unique, flavorful, and versatile sourcebook for a premade city and its neighboring open-air megadungeon, and it’s incredibly cool. (Update: And it’s now free in PDF!)

For starters, just look at this glorious Peter Mullen cover:

The late, great Steve Zieser did all of the interior art, and his style — like Mullen’s — matches up beautifully with L&M’s “dirty British fantasy” aesthetic.

The hook

L&M has an awesome premise: The ancient city of Mor, “mankind’s proudest achievement,” was sacked by barbarians, and then destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. The refugees of Mor made their new home next door, and grew that ragged settlement into the city of Lesserton — “the adventurer’s paradise,” a home base for those brave and foolhardy enough to venture into Mor to claim its riches.

Lesserton is fully described in L&M, from districts to buildings to personalities to laws. But Mor is not — Mor, you make yourself. It’s even possible to roll it up as you play, creating new hexes and populating them as the PCs venture into unexplored territory (along the lines of my own Hexmancer).

What’s inside

L&M is a shrinkwrapped bundle, old-school style: a wraparound cardstock cover, unattached to the three booklets inside. The loose cover doubles as a map of Mor, intended to be filled in as you go. Inside are three books: a ref’s guide to Lesserton, a thinner players’ guide to Lesserton, and a guide to rolling up your own Mor.

Lesserton reminds me of WFRP’s Middenheim (paid link) and Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork — two of my favorite fantasy cities — but it’s also its own animal. It’s populated by a ragtag mix of people, including many part-ork (“orkin”) folk descended from the original invaders of Mor, and home to all manner of gambling houses, pubs, and brothels. (“Fantasy Mos Eisley” would also be decent shorthand.)

The Referee’s Guide to Lesserton plumbs its depths rather well, and packs a lot of stuff into 68 pages. It’s not chaff, either — it’s stuff you’ll actually use at the table (like another of my favorite city books, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko [paid link], which I’ve written about on Yore).

There are regular pit fights, places to rob, weird shops where you can buy weird shit, normal shops that will sell you adventuring gear, and on and on. There’s a whole section on carousing, which I now realize I missed in my look at carousing in D&D from 1977 to present, and it’s great.

I loathe homework in RPGs, but I love players’ guides to settings; for me to be happy, players’ guides need to be extremely well done, or they’re just homework. The Player’s Guide to Lesserton is extremely well done. For starters, it’s 16 pages long.

What’s the city like? One page, boom. Where is X? There’s a map on the back cover. “I want to get shitfaced.” Covered. “I got too shitfaced, where do they take drunks here?” Covered. “Where do I gamble/drink/fuck?” Covered.

Also covered are lots of things that feel very Lesserton to me. For example, Brinkley’s Assurity Trust will, for 100gp, sell you a bumblebee pin that signals to the orkin tribes who live in Mor that there’s a ransom for your safe return. That’s brilliant! L&M is full of touches like that; it’s designed for play, not just reading (or worse, endless, droning setting-wankery), and it shows.

Finally, there’s the Referee’s Guide to Mor, plus its companion map. This booklet (28 pages, also a great length for what it needs to do) opens with useful background on Mor — what was where, what sort of city it was, and the like. That gives you a good foundation for improvisation during play.

The balance of the book is a framework for generating your own version of Mor, hex by hex, either in advance or on the spot. Random terrain, random buildings, random encounters, special areas (caches, dead magic zones, excavations, etc.) — pure hexcrawl goodness. It even covers generating the orkin clans who call Mor home.

Awesome possum

Put it all together, and L&M is a hell of a toolbox. To stretch the toolbox analogy a bit, it’s like a toolbox that contains some top-notch tools you’re likely to need, as well as the parts to make the ones it’d be more fun to create yourself, and an owner’s manual to help you make the most of both.

I rarely hear anyone talk about Lesserton and Mor (paid link),  which is a shame — it’s a true gem of a setting. I rate it a 10/10, and heartily recommend it.

Tabletop RPGs

The ripperbox: Rippers Resurrected as a sandbox campaign

My booty from the Rippers Resurrected Kickstarter came in on Tuesday, and I’ve had a chance to spend a bit of time with all three books. As is so often the case, my first thought was, “How well would Rippers work as a sandbox?

All of the ingredients are there, and the hook is so damned sexy — I suspect the answer is “really, really well.”

From lodges to social status mechanics to calling in favors, the setting deftly hooks into the system to add mechanical weight to fun things the PCs would be likely to do anyway. And the setting itself, with rippertech (bits of monsters you extract and graft onto yourself) and a delightful “kitchen sink” approach to Victorian-era monster hunting, is just fantastic.

The books

The Rippers Resurrected line kicks off with three books and a screen. The books are the Player’s Guide (paid link),  Game Master’s Handbook (paid link), and Frightful Expeditions (paid link).

If this sandbox — “ripperbox” — were a hearty meal, the meat would be in the Player’s Guide, the potatoes would be in the Game Master’s Guide, and the gravy would be in Frightful Expeditions.

All three books are gorgeous: full-color, great artwork, clean layout and design, lovely graphic novel format, and available in hardcover (limited) and softcover (unlimited). Like most SW settings, the core rules (paid link) are also needed to play.[1]

For context

I’ve played two city-based, sandbox, supernatural horror campaigns in the past few years:

  • A Dresden Files RPG (paid link) campaign in which the PCs came together to clean up Dresdenverse Boston, which was dominated by witches and snake-people. (This one also involved round-robin GMing and used Microscope (paid link) to gin up our version of Boston.)
  • A Hunter: The Reckoning (paid link) game where the PCs were mortal monster hunters in the World of Darkness version of San Francisco, wildly outclassed by all of its myriad horrors. This one was dark, and mixed “here’s tonight’s adventure hook” sessions with pure sandbox “we, the players, are going to do This Thing That Interests Us” sessions.

Both of those experiences inform how I’m thinking about a possible ripperbox, as does the setup for Rippers itself: proactive PCs, a home base, and a world full of evil that needs smiting — plus many, many ways for the PCs to get themselves in trouble.

Ripperbox ingredients

Rippers Resurrected assumes you want plotted adventures, and offers a wealth of support — including a complete Plot Point campaign — for that mode of play. I don’t want that, so for me most of that support exists as imagination fuel and ready-made resources for sandbox play. Which is great! I’m happy to have it; that’s why I bought all three books.

(There’s no artist credit accompanying the image, but I love this illustration of a Ripper lodge.)

In terms of ripperbox ingredients, here’s what jumps straight out at me (with each element’s book, or books, of origin in parentheses):

  • That sexy, sexy hook (Player’s Guide): In Rippers, the PCs are monster hunters in the late 19th century, balancing their role as fighters of evil with their place in Victorian society. There are different factions of Rippers, and pretty much any classic monster you can think of is out there somewhere, doing evil.
  • Lodges (Player’s Guide): Each group of Rippers, including the PCs, once they’re Seasoned, has a lodge — their home base. Whenever the PCs earn an Advance, they each also earn a Lodge Point; those are spent upgrade the lodge with labs, workshops, etc. A home base with a base-building mechanic is pure gold in a sandbox game, and the lodge system is clever. There are sample lodges in this book, plus more in the other two books.
  • Status and favors (Player’s Guide): What do PCs do? Get themselves into trouble, often while helping people. Both of those things involve one’s status in Victorian society, and that in turn brings favors into play. Help someone (particularly if they’re all fancy), and you earn Favors; do something scandalous, and you have to spend Favors to smooth things over. You can also call in Favors to get help from others. Tying things that will already happen in a sandbox into a fun mechanic which presents further hooks for adventure is a fantastic way to glue things together.
  • Lots of monsters (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): If it’s found in classical literature (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Jekyll and Hyde), the real world (Jack the Ripper), a pulp yarn (mummies, evil wizards), or a Hammer Horror film (skeletons!), it’d fit right into the Rippers setting — and the stats are probably in one of these two books. That makes it dead simple to populate the world with threats. SW is on the outer edge of my personal sweet spot for mechanical complexity, so having monsters already created for me is a big plus.
  • Adventure generators (Game Master’s Handbook): The GMH includes a chart for random encounters during travel (for example: “Fortuitous Find: Someone on the trip has something the heroes want. How they get it is up to them; just decide how they learn of the object.“), and there’s a whole section on rolling up different kinds of adventures. In a ripperbox, I’d recast these as adventure hooks, give the PCs lots of ways to learn about them, and too many of them to possibly follow up on them all — and not plot any outcomes, of course.
  • Lots of world info (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): There’s an assumption of globe-trotting built into Rippers (although I think it’d work great as a city-based game with only occasional travel, too), and that generates a need for concise, gameable setting material — but not too much of it. Day After Ragnarok (paid link) nails this a bit better than Rippers Resurrected, providing so very much in so few pages, but the looser approach here works quite well. If there’s an iconic pulp location, it’s likely to be covered here through the Rippers “lens.”
  • Rippertech and chances to get in trouble (Player’s Guide, a bit in the Game Master’s Handbook): The titular setting element, rippertech, is the thing that originally drew me to the setting: The PCs can literally harvest the monsters they kill and impant those bits in themselves. Want improved poison resistance? Replace some of your organs with preserved organs from a mummy. Want tentacles that can burst from your chest to attack your foes? Rip ’em out of a demon and stick ’em on in there. There are costs, of course, both social and mechanical — and that’s what makes it work. Giving the players plenty of tempting opportunities to get themselves into trouble, which have a variety of meaningful consequences in the game mechanics, is sandbox gold.[2]

It’d be fun to play other ways, too — the setting is just so good! — but for me, Rippers Resurrected cries out for the ripperbox treatment. All three main books (all paid links: Player’s Guide, Game Master’s Handbook, and Frightful Expeditions) would be useful for making it into a ripperbox, although in a pinch you could get by with just the Player’s Guide and some old-fashioned research into locations and monsters.

However you use it, Rippers Resurrected is awesome. It’s a quirky setting that nicely balances existing material with new elements, giving you lots to work with, and it does so in a way that leverages the crunchiness of Savage Worlds to give player agency meaningful mechanical consequences.

[1] And at a mere $10, it would be a crime not to coil-bind that sucker, making it one of the best deals in gaming.

[2] It’s also a big part of why, despite preferring lighter rules, I’d probably run a ripperbox with Savage Worlds: SW has enough mechanical complexity to give grafting demon organs some mechanical heft, and connects that heft to other parts of the rules — without bogging itself down in the process.

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Planescape makes a hell of a first impression

My copy of the Planescape Campaign Setting (paid link) arrived this past weekend, and I had a chance to spend some time looking through it. My first impression is that Planescape packs a punch.

What’s inside?

The guts are classic 1990s TSR: four saddle-stitched books, four poster maps/thingies, and — somewhat unusually — a GM’s screen.

The books are A Player’s Guide to the Planes, which is actually the introduction to to the setting for players and GMs; A DM Guide to the Planes, which is what it says on the tin; Sigil and Beyond, which is the introductory book writ large and aimed at GMs; and Monstrous Supplement, which covers iconic planar critters.

I love this approach. At 32 pages, the intro guide isn’t a burden — and it’s a great introduction to what makes the setting tick. (Birthright [paid link], another of my favorite TSR settings, takes this a step further: There’s a player-facing booklet for every major kingdom. You rule Medoere? Here’s the Medoere book. It’s marvelous.)

The other books are just as good, but do different things. I haven’t read much of them yet.

DiTerlizzi and Cook

Planescape has one designer, David Cook, and one interior artist, Tony DiTerlizzi. DiTerlizzi’s art is lovely and distinctive, and conveys the tone of the setting like no one else could. No surprise from the designer of the Basic D&D Expert Set (paid link; half of one of my favorite editions of D&D), Cook’s writing is clear, direct, and also fantastic at conveying tone.

One interior illustrator, one designer. Talk about unity of vision and purpose! And it shows. Planescape feels like one of those movies where you just can’t imagine anyone else in Role X: I get the strong impression Planescape without this specific creative team wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Here’s a taste of Tony:

And some Cook, clear and useful as ever:

It all comes together in a layout that’s both spare and evocative. When you have a great designer and illustrator on tap, layout needs to support without overshadowing. Dee Barnett and and Dawn Murin do standout work in this department:

There’s the love-it-or-hate-it planar cant to contend with, yes, but so far that’s not bothering me at all. I’m enjoying reading these books.

Sigil. Oh man, Sigil.

Sigil is awesome! It’s a big part of what attracted me to this setting.

From Sigil and Beyond:

Imagine a tire — no hubcap or wheel rim — lying on its side. Sigil would be built on the inside of the tire. All the streets and buildings would fill the curved interior. Meanwhile, on the outside, there’s nothing, see?

And that city-filled tire? It hovers above the top of an infinitely tall spire at the center of the Outlands, and the only way in or out is through portals — magical doorways to other planes, worlds, and everything in between.

From what I’ve seen of it so far, Sigil is one of the coolest fantasy cities ever created.

Planescape says nein

I’ve been thinking about running Planescape as a gold-for-XP sandbox, which I knew ran a bit counter to its nature. That’s part of the appeal.

So one of the first sections I flipped to was “What’s the Point?” in Sigil and Beyond, which covers campaign themes and goals. I can’t recall another example of a gaming book saying “Don’t do that” to the exact idea I had in mind:

Part of me bristles, part of me agrees, and the rest of me is still turning Planescape over and seeing what clicks.

I see Cook’s point. I’ve heard Planescape described as TSR’s answer to their biggest rival in the 1990s, White Wolf, and the glove pretty much fits: evocative, boundary-pushing setting; factions that disagree about the nature of reality, and to which every PC likely belongs; intraparty conflict; marvelous artwork used well; etc. In that light, I’m not sure a gold-for-XP would work.

But a different sort of sandbox? Absolutely. Sigil is made for sandbox play. Everything I’ve read about it so far screams SANDBOX ME.

Whatever I wind up doing with it, Planescape (paid link) is shaping up to be one of my favorite TSR settings. I see what all the fuss is about, and I dig it.

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Raiding the larder for Planescape sandbox ingredients

I’ve been noodling some more about running Planescape as a sandbox, and since my copy of the boxed set isn’t here yet I decided to pull stuff off my shelves that seemed like it might be a good fit.

Important safety tip, Egon

This is dangerous! This is how ideas collapse under their own weight! But I only have two speeds, OFF and TURBO ZOOM, so I can’t not think about it.

I’m not reading, or rereading, these before I dig into the Planescape core set (paid link), and if you’re thinking about running a PS sandbox I’m not suggesting that you do, either. But these are Cool Things, and they’re shaping my thinking, so here we are.

Calgon, take me away!

The stuff in that photo falls into two categories: things that seem like a good fit for a Planescape sandbox, and things I’ve used to good effect while co-GMing a Dresden Files sandbox with no session prep. Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • The Dresden Files RPG, Volume 1: Our Story (paid link): The city creation system in DFRPG is stellar, and while Sigil already exists and doesn’t need to be created, Dresden’s toolkit still sounds like a good match. It involves identifying themes, threats, locations, and faces (key NPCs), and then — and this is important! — using those ingredients before creating others. That’s awesome for sandbox play.
  • Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (paid link): I wrote about why Marlinko is awesome here on Yore, but the bits I’m thinking might mesh well with Sigil are the carousing rules and the Chaos Index. The latter is a simple way to track how the stuff the PCs and others are doing affects how weird the city of Marlinko is, which — based on my half-baked, haven’t-read-the-books-yet understanding of Sigil — sounds like it’d play nice with Planescape.
  • Fire on the Velvet Horizon (paid link): I really need to write about this monster book here sometime, but in brief it’s 1) weird as hell, 2) amazing, 3) strange in ways that make me think of Planescape. I like monsters that confound my players’ expectations, and that’s this book in a nutshell.
  • The Harrow Deck (paid link): This is basically a reskinned Tarot deck for Pathfinder, and it’s awesome for improv GMing. I draw a spread of cards, usually three, and either use them to come up with something specific or just keep them in front of me for those moments where I go “Uuuuuuuhhhhhhh what the fuck is going to happen now?” They go really well with the Story Cubes (below).
  • Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, issue #3 (paid link): Another thing I’ve written about here, but in this case just one thing from one issue: “The Heist.” PCs are always stealing shit, or hoping someone will pay them to steal shit, and this heist adventure toolkit is fantastic for dealing with that on the fly. It includes patrons, marks, heat, and loot, and rolling up a heist is stupidly easy. In a city full of factions, it seems like a good fit.
  • Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer: This tiny book is more or less solely responsible for making me wonder whether Dungeon World (paid link) might not be a better option for the style of game I have in mind. Either way, though, it includes a system-neutral job generator for planar freebooters which, like the Ur-Hadad heist generator, looks like it’d drop seamlessly into Sigil.
  • Red Tide (paid link): I own most (all?) of Kevin Crawford’s books, but Red Tide remains my favorite. It includes great systems for generating locations and other sandbox elements, it’s excellent imagination fuel, and the output is lean and mean — it makes stuff that’s actually useful in play. There’s nothing Planescape-y about it, but the guts line up pretty well.
  • Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link): I have umpty-doodle sets of these, and I love them. I use them when I’m winging things, and in Dresden they paired well with the Harrow Deck. I grab a random handful whenever I need to make or decide something I hadn’t thought about before, like NPCs in whom my players take a sudden interest. Not all the sets are perfect for this, but most of them are.

I’m probably forgetting a bunch of other stuff I shouldn’t be forgetting, but that’s what’s rattling around in my brain at the moment.

D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Planescape as a sandbox

Planescape (paid link) was one of the AD&D 2nd Edition campaign settings that passed me by while it was still in print, but I’ve been curious about it for years. I was thinking about it yesterday when an idea hit me: What would Planescape be like as an old-school, gold-for-XP sandbox?

Since I don’t own it and the core set tends to be pricey in print, I asked two questions about it on Google+: What’s the minimum you need to run it well, and would it work as that sort of sandbox? I got some great responses. Many thanks to everyone who weighed in!

What do I need?

“Just the core box” got some love, which appeals to me. I like improv, and these days the less I have to read to enjoy a game, the better.

Allen Varney suggested the core box plus three specific books: The Factol’s Manifesto, In the Cage, and the first Monstrous Compendium Appendix. In the Cage (paid link) expands on Sigil, the centerpiece city of the setting, and The Factol’s Manifesto (paid link) expands on Sigil’s factions, both of which make for great sandbox components.

I have plenty of planar monsters in other books, so I might skip the MC, but the core box plus two books sounds like a great starting point.

Would it work?

I didn’t get as much consensus around this question, but something along the lines of “Probably, but systems other than D&D might be a better fit depending on what you want to do with it” came pretty close. That’s good enough for me!

Rob Donoghue absolutely nailed what appealed to me about the original idea, though — using old-school D&D, probably OD&D (paid link) or B/X (paid link), precisely because “gold for XP + weird planar sandbox” seems like an odd match. Rob said:

But for all that, there is a magic to doing it with D&D, explicitly because of the tension between the very clear logic of the game and the very much bigger logic of the reality of the planes.

Since power and glory come from leveling up, and leveling up requires treasure to be taken from someplace dangerous and returned to civilization to earn XP (plus a bit of “gravy XP” from dealing with monsters, of course), how do you claim that gold in Planescape?

I find that question deeply appealing. It sounds like it’d be fun to answer through play, and I suspect every group of players would approach it quite differently.

Sigil and portal keys

A big, strange city full of factions is fertile ground for a sandbox, and Sigil sounds like one of the coolest cities ever put into a campaign setting. I was one of four GMs in a city-based, round-robin Dresden Files sandbox campaign that remains one of my all-time favorite games, and our Dresdenverse Boston was a big, weird city full of factions; I know how well that setup works.

Jürgen Hubert also made Sigil sound even cooler when he brought up portal keys[1], which seem like they’d be a currency all their own in a Planescape sandbox:

As for sandbox campaigns, the key way of controlling it is to limit the portal keys the PCs have access to. And you will have to limit the keys, or else the PCs can go anywhere at all in the multiverse. Which might be great for those who can run prepless games, but I like to be prepared, personally.

With a fantastic central city, endlessly rich in adventure opportunities, plus the added special sauce of wanting/needing to acquire portal keys (to seek out treasure, to broker for information, or for a thousand other reasons), basing a Planescape sandbox in Sigil seems like a natural fit. I don’t do session prep, so that’s a good fit for me as well.


In poking around the web, I also turned up Running a Planescape Campaign, which has some interesting ideas in it, and Planescape’s Missing Megadungeon, which proposes a tantalizing option.

“Loosey-goosey planar D&D,” which is kind of what’s grabbing me here, also made me think of FLAILSNAILS. I’ve never run or played in a FLAILSNAILS game, but the basic idea — throw together PCs from a variety of roughly D&D-compatible systems for a night of adventure — seems like it’d apply well to Planescape.

For the moment, that’s where my head’s at with the idea of Planescape sandbox: use 0e or B/X D&D, stick to the core set plus maybe another book or two, base things in Sigil, and see what happens. I lucked into a print copy of the boxed set, so once it arrives I’ll be able to bounce those ingredients off the setting and see if it still sounds as appealing as it does right now.

[1] He also brought up lots of other stuff, and even started an thread to talk about some of it. Like many of the folks who commented on G+, he’s got great ideas about how to run Planescape.

Old school Tabletop RPGs

One choice, two consequences

Over on Monsters and Manuals, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Yoon-Suin, one of the starred recommendations on my big list of RPG stuff on Lulu) wrote a neat post about a rule of thumb for sandbox games: Two Problems for Every Solution.

David shares an example from his campaign that explains it well:

For example, in one of the games I am running, the PCs solved the disappearance of a group of villagers – but as a result of this they now have a vengeful demigoddess to deal with and a magic potion to track down, not to mention having to act as a go-between for two power centres and becoming entangled in an apparently unrelated issue to do with the enchantment of a young noblewoman.

Emergent play with a high degree of player agency is my jam, and I love this rule of thumb. It reminds me of last Sunday’s Star Wars World session, which makes sense because, as David points out, Star Wars is full of solutions that only beget new problems.

One bad roll popped us out of hyperspace in the wrong place, and we crashed our ship. We survived, and learned of a settlement not far away . . . full of dangerous poachers, and about to be attacked by angry natives. Problem > solution > problem, problem, and so forth. It’s a good fit.

For where I’m at in terms of sandbox experience, though, I’d like to offer up a related, but not identical rule of thumb: one problem, two consequences.

Making meaningful choices which have meaningful consequences is a hallmark of sandbox play (and other sorts of game with no predetermined plot), and “problem” is just another way of saying “meaningful consequence.” Reminding myself that choices ripple, and those ripples don’t lead to a single new choice, or consequence, or problem, should help my sandbox stay vital and alive.

When I’m stumped for how the world might react in my DCC RPG hexcrawl campaign, I’m going to keep both of these rules of thumb in mind.