Friday, February 1, 2013

An idea from apocalypse world to help you run your first sandbox campaign

(this is a heavily updated & revised version of something I posted a couple of days ago, thanks all for the comments and criticism)

Someone asked for this a long, long time ago. I forgot, remembered, forgot, etc. (sorry) Finally, +Edgar Johnson's post here inspired me to actually write this up.

This is about using +Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World's "countdown clock" in sandboxes to retroactively nab past player choices to create quest-like experiences. It's an idea that was born out of a conversation about a year ago. A few months past, I started implementing the basic idea, grafting on pieces as it went. 

Results & Why Bother?

I don't know if I'd do this again. Trying to fit your game into a framework like this chafes (or, anyway, chafed me), though it definitely helped me organize my thoughts better.

That said, I recall really struggling with running a sandbox game without railroading: I think the natural inclination is to try and supply a mid-level party with intrigue and factions and the like, but how to do that without the railroad? This clock thing could be a way. The trick, though, is to figure out when stuff like this is an unnecessary crutch rather than a learning tool. Toss the crutch aside.

The clock

Vincent's clock is a riff on the Doomsday Clock maintained by the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

A standard analog clock has 60 second marks and at least two hands. The Doomsday Clock's hour hand always points to midnight and has five marks, one for midnight, four clustered just before midnight. When you're using a clock as a metric of the relative likelihood of a nuclear apocalypse, reducing the 720 bits of information on an analog clock's face to five makes sense: in this particular case, the information that you really, really care about is right before midnight. 

Making your Countdown Clock

Draw a circle. Imagine it's a clock. Draw dots at 3, 6, 9, 10, 11 o'clock and "midnight." Draw a line from 12:00 to 6:00, from 3:00 to 9:00 and from the center of the clack face to 10:00 and 11:00. 

Or, if you own apocalypse world, just copy the clock from there, I guess.

Once the party gets to a point on the clock, fill in the wedge before it (at 3:00, fill in 12:00 to 3:00, at 6:00, fill in 3:00 to 6:00).

How to read the clock.

Whatever happens at 3:00 and 6:00 are things the players have knowingly and intentionally done, but may not be of serious import at the time.

9:00 is when things get serious. This is where you've pretty much informed them of certain danger and they proceed (or don't). It's their last opportunity to back away without taking a serious, serious risk to health and property. They may also be able to back off and come back later without any chance of borking the mission.

10:00 and 11:00 are like this (h/t +Joey Lindsey). Basically, the party decided to bring the pain. You bring it right back. 

Midnight is:

So, boss fights, do or die time.

Midnight is also either something the players really, really want  to happen (in which case, keep the clock secret from them), or something they really, really don't want to happen (in which case they don't see the clock until it's at 9, maybe 10, if ever [and I'm thinking a good narrative description of what's going on is likely better]). The players contribute to the escalation in clear and demonstrable ways.

So here is what's what.

Hornets! Hornets!

Whenever the party pisses off johnny law, upsets the status quo, loots a dungeon, empties a tomb, shirks some mandate from a local muckety-muck, gets involved in some public imbroglio, etc, etc, write it down. If a hex mentions something, and they do something with that something, write that down. Whenever you mention a rumor about something happening far away, write it down. Basically, you write down the party's exploits and any sort of miscellany about the setting/campaign that they know about. To use against them later. 

The Long Term

Here's how this all breaks down on the really macro level. Obviously, hack, adjust to taste.  Basically, this is a way of using player input to generate scenarios with "interested forces" and "triggerable plot events." (See this post from Zak for terminology, skip down to Sandboxes). When I talk about levels below, I'm talking about average party level.

Low level play.

The Character: At levels 1-3 you are exclusively engaged in exploration. You're wiping the fog off hexes and off dungeon squares. You're also getting to know the locals. 

If a major world event happens, you didn't cause it (on purpose). You still influence local events (rescue townsfolk, clear mutants from a mine, etc). You aren't a major player.

The Player: You are getting to know your character, getting a feel for the rules & the setting.

The Clock & the List: This is more or less the "extreme sandbox." Nothing shows up without the players having their characters kick the rock under which it was sleeping. You can start your hornets' nest list now. If you do, the stuff that happens at this stage is really just for ideas for the real hornet's nests. Once most of the party is at level 4, draw a big line at the bottom of the list. Below that line is for big hornets, big nests.

Big hexes, Big web

The Character: Welcome to levels 4-6. At this point, you're getting (unwillingly) involved in politics. You did things and people took notice. You're being watched, there are big things going on. Either you're going to need some smooth talkers, leverage or a shit ton of fire power.

The Player: Your character probably has a cool ride and some badass gear & scars at this point. Maybe some new limbs, maybe some cybernetics. Definitely some augments. The world that seemed almost capriciously lethal before is now... still lethal, but somewhat manageable.

The Clock & the List: The big transition here is from the extreme sandbox to the party's ability to act (and be acted upon by things) beyond their current hex. The party has or is in the process of accruing some serious firepower and, more importantly, the ability to move long distances with greater ease and relative safety than before (ie, bypassing wolves).

Start your hornet's nests list, or if you already have, start it for real. Everything from this point on is potentially playing for keeps.

On the list, as play progresses, start highlighting/circling things.

yellow are candidates for 3 o'clock
orange are candidate for 6 o'clock
red are candidates for 9 o'clock

By the end of level 4, the party should have done 3 things on the list worth circling in yellow. 

Yellow things are stuff the party may have been involved in directly, witnessed or heard about. 

By the end of level 5, the party should have done 3 more things in yellowAnd 3 yellow things get escalated to orange. 

Orange things are stuff the party may have been involved in directly or witnessed or heard about. If they're things that the party has heard about or witnessed, they've witnessed them more than once, heard about them more than once, from different sources. 

Essentially, yellow things get escalated to orange once the players have had the opportunity to get involved and (a) either chose to be involved or (b) have clearly opted to not get involved.

It'll be helpful if you can come up with several different reasons why the escalation happens. None of them are necessarily true.

Do this highlighting throughout level 5. This is an ongoing exchange between you and the players, but the milestone events are at the end of the average party level.

Once you escalate something to orange, wait no longer than a game session to try and telegraph some indication of that escalation to the party. Evidence of the escalation should be obvious. You're basically inviting them to follow up, so they need to understand that there is something on which they can follow up.

By the end of level 6, the party should have done 3 more things in yellow, and 3 more yellow things have been escalated to orange, and 3  orange things to red.

Red things are either stuff with which the party has already been directly involved or escalated events they've chosen to ignore. Red things clearly demand the party's attention and clearly telegraph that something serious, with consequences for not just the party but the rest of the campaign setting. 

Campaign at 10:00

The Character: Welcome to levels 7-9. At this point, you're actually kind of an incredibly powerful badass. You're a major player. People pay attention when you talk.

The Player:  Here is where all those things you've done up until this point can actually feel like they're leading to something.

Design: You've got factions e,t,c and they're all doing shit and it escalates. You've got an endgoal in mind. Likely something catastrophic. 

At the start of level 7, begin presenting the red things you've highlighted above. They'll need to make a choice and they likely will be able to address one completely, address the other only somewhat and ignore the third entirely. This should give you your priorities for the next few levels. And once the party hits level 9 and is in the process of thinking about carving out little domains for their characters, they should have already been involved in some major world events. It doesn't have to quite dovetail so nicely this way, but it happened to dovetail this way when I ran it. Likely because the players were thinking ahead of their current level.


You can use the clocks to manage each major faction in your campaign as well. This is much closer to how the clocks are used in Apocalypse World. The second of the two examples is more or less exactly how I would run the final stage of a "campaign at 10:00."

Single Faction working towards a goal

Your 3 o'clocks and 6 o'clocks are likely retroactive. Events in which the players were directly involved, witnessed or even just heard about. 9:00 is something you set up for the party. They can engage here and choose to try and push back or they can just pass. If they pass, it still happens. Let 10:00, 11:00 and 12:00 play out in the background, but telegraph it to the party.

If they choose to engage you'll need to come up with some kind of thread for them to follow. Pull them through hexes and let the contents of those hexes serve as natural distractions. 

You've got factions e, t, c and they're all trying to do something to one another or are working towards a specific goal.

It's more fun if you can put the goal in terms of narrative (each faction wants control of a newly discovered, at least partially functional vat) that are tailored to each faction (e wants it for nefarious purposes, t wants it to legitimize their position in the heirarchy, c wants it to cure his disease and curse-ravaged daughter) but also in terms of a hex on a map (vat is likely in one of these four hexes). It's also more fun if at least one or two of those goals somewhat resonates for the characters (ie, they've encountered these factions before, maybe have personal feelings about them).

I used an example of three factions here. In my actual game I had seven. Really, whatever number works, works.

Each of those factions gets a clock. The party can slow or speed each clock by helping or hindering the factions. Otherwise, the clocks all move at the same speed. Time is important here. If you're going for a hectic pace, a tick/a session makes sense, but it should also be fair to the players. If the scenario is a few major political powers preparing to invade another power's land to seize a soon-to-be vulnerable artifact, it's not really fair to the players if a two hour session consisting of about 6 hours of game time = 4 major factions rallying huge armies, building weapons of war, etc. For longer scenarios, use a reasonable amount of in-game time.

Once one faction gets to midnight, stop tracking the clocks. Any of the opposing factions at earlier than 9 o'clock is basically out of it at this point. Any of the opposing factions at 9 o'clock or later goes to war with the remaining factions still "in it." All of the opposing factions start in their own territory/city/temple/primary base of operations.

Factions at 10 o'clock get to bring some elite units or crazy weapons to the field.

Factions at 11 o'clock also get to bring a really powerful warmachine to the field.

Factions at midnight also are much closer to the goal.

Use warhexes (aka +Zak Smith's "warboxes") to play out the opposition (if it gets resolved, in my game, the party foiled the leading faction's plans but in no way resolved the war).
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