There are a lot of pros and cons when it comes to running a sandbox campaign. It’s main drawing point is complete player freedom. The GM drops the players off in the big wide world and lets then have at it. There is no quest to derail, no story to ruin. If the players want to suddenly leave town and travel across the continent, cool. That’s what a sandbox is for.
There are some drawbacks to this style of play, however. First, it becomes more difficult to implement a continuous story arc. For players who like their games to feel more like a novel, this can lead to dissatisfaction and analysis paralysis due to all the options. If your character can do anything, how do you make the choice to follow a single course of action?
Another downside of of the sandbox is prep. If the players can go anywhere at any time, that is a lot to prepare for. There isn’t really an end in sight. Depending on how precise you want to be, you could detail every NPC in every inn, court, and alley. Anyone who’s spent time world building knows this curse. No matter how much world you’ve made, there is still more out there.
There are a few RPG systems that specialize in sandbox play. Even if their flavor doesn’t match what you’re looking for, they’re full of ideas to pilfer and bring over to the RPG of your choice. The two I’ve had the most experience with are Autarch’s Adventurer Conquerer King and Modiphius’s Mutant: Year Zero. Both approach the concept in very different but imaginative ways.
This week, we’ll be looking at Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKs).
Adventurer Conqueror King exists because of D&D 3.0 OGL license. That makes it really easy to port over to your D&D 5E game, or any other edition for that matter. The parts that are important aren’t too edition dependent. ACKs boasts a consistent internal economy based off of actual history to some extent. This means the money you pay for a sword vs the money you pay someone to wield it makes sense. The core book is worth it for this alone.
ACKs also has a rather specific attitude about the scope of your fantasy game. Adventurer, Conqueror, King refers to the three tiers of a character’s career. At first, the character is an adventurer, penniless and striving to make a name for themselves. Their exploits are small and relegated to clearing out the occasional dungeon. Next up is the conqueror, who is starting to perhaps own land themselves and must administer to it. Maybe they are a merchant starting grand expeditions or a cleric raising a temple to their god. They are a somebody and others follow them.
Finally, there is King. This is a scope D&D doesn’t really doesn’t have the dynamics for. ACKs lets you know what the taxes from your province look like. They have rules on how to expand your influence, build strongholds, and raise armies. It’s no longer about one on one combat with a bug bear. It’s about your kingdom and the evils outside its border striving to get in.
What really makes it kick, however, is Chapter 10: Secrets. This chapter in particular contains a wealth of information that isn’t necessarily system specific. The very first part of it is constructing the campaign setting, which immediately deals with one of the most important parts of sandbox play: mapping.
ACKs suggests using hex graph paper, with two sheets to represent two different scales. One represents 6 mile hexes for the players current area, while the other is 24 mile hexes for the campaign setting. This will give you an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean region, which is enough area to have a lifetime of adventures. They don’t offer too much in the way of advice about land features, but there are plenty of resources for that. What they do provide is more valuable than that, however: demographics.
ACKs provides various realms, from Baronies to Empires, complete with population and sizes. It’ll also let you know how many Baronies are in a March and how many Marches are in a County. A lot of this information is useful for things covered earlier in the book, such as ruling a province. Know what sort of province it is that you rule will let you know how much area it covers, as well as its population.
Acks then has you throw in some metropolitan areas, trade routes, and dungeons. They have systems for all of this, of course. Then, after everything else, it runs you through creating the starting city. Here you’ll make the guilds and figure out what other NPCs are in town, all based on the size of the settlement. ACKs even limits item availability by size of a metropolitan areas market. It really takes everything into account.
It’s really a great how to guide to creating a sandbox for the players to run around in. On top of that, the book contains everything you need for them to utilize that sandbox and let the characters become more than just adventurers. It goes by a philosophy that, the farther you stray from home, the more dangerous the world becomes. It’s a built in control that keeps the players close by the areas you have fleshed out the most and lets the, gradually stray further and further. That way you have time to nail down the details of farther away lands.
This supplement for the game tackles a really big question: What happens when the scale of the battle grows to the size of kingdoms? Domains at War has that answer. Divided into two parts, it has a wargaming system based on your favorite fantasy game stats. There have been other products in the past that have attempted this. Where it really shines, however, is information on the campaign. It covers rules on raising an army, hiring mercenaries, training new soldiers, as well as what it takes to supply them on the road. Cutting off an enemies supply line suddenly becomes a very viable option.
This book really hits a beautiful sweet spot between war game and RPG. In the type of sandbox that ACKs imagines, this is near indispensable as the characters gain levels. Eventually, they’ll have to defend their kingdom… or raise an army to take another.
Yet another great tool in your sandbox. When it comes to exploring a region, ACKs doesn’t want you to have it all mapped out. Instead, it treats many of the locations in the same way it treats random encounters. There might be a monster lair in the hex you just entered, but it lets the dice decide.
Lairs and Encounters gives you just that: lairs and encounters. If you need a quick point of interest, or the dice decide there is a lair in the area you’re in, this book has it prepared for you. That is a lot off of your plate when it comes to preparation. It also gives some neat systems on searching for lairs. A six mile hex is a lot of area to cover when you’re looking for a single burrow.
Last but not least, perhaps you want a sandbox style game but don’t want to plan it all out. Dwimmermount is that game and then some.
At its heart, Dwimmermount is a mega dungeon. It contains thirteen massive levels, which each one being more dangerous than the last. It is a plethora of magic items, traps, and monsters. It contains more than just the dungeon crawl, however.
Dwimmermount also has a gazetteer of the lands surrounding the dungeon, making use of the ACKs rules for domains. This provides the potential for a much broader scope of game than just the dungeon when combined with the core rules and domains at war. It also spends some time detailing the character’s starting town, which is intended to serve as their home base. This is old school sandbox at its best.
ACKs is a great tool for sandbox style play, if you like a nice thick system. It is chunky. The upside is that is has rule sets for dealing with so many things that could conceivably happen in your game world. If you don’t mind some bookkeeping and enjoy mechanics, this is a great game for you. This is doubly true if an old school feel if you find an old school feel appealing, as ACKs oozes with it.
Next week, we’ll talk about Mutant: Year Zero, which is many ways is the opposite of Adventurer Conqueror King. It’ll provide you with a system for sandbox play that is very much “make it up as you go.” If you are interested, click on any of the book images to purchase the PDFs. Enjoy your sandbox!
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