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Crumbling UpKeep: Running a Sandbox Campaign

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 them 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 the sandbox is prep. If the players can go anywhere at any time, that is a lot to prepare. 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

Adventurer Conqueror King System

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 for which D&D really doesn’t have the dynamics. 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 will 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. Knowing 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 area’s market. It really takes everything into account.

It’s definitely 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 them gradually stray further and further. That way you have time to nail down the details of far away lands.

Adventurer Conqueror King- Domains at War

ACKS Domains at War: The Complete Set

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 enemy’s 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.

Adventurer, Conqueror, King- Lairs and Encounters

Lairs & Encounters

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.

Adventurer, Conqueror, King- Dwimmermount

Dwimmermount (ACKS version)

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, with 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 of 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 in 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!

Buy the Books Here!

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Adventurer Conqueror King SystemACKS Domains at War: The Complete SetLairs & EncountersDwimmermount (ACKS version)

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Crumbling UpKeep: The First Time GM

Sending your PC into hordes of rampaging monsters: easily done without a second thought.

Wielding Magic that has the potential to tear worlds apart: Sure, what is the worst that could happen?

Stepping behind the screen and GMing a session: Terror has never been so real.

It’s a scenario I’ve seen over and over again: a player wants to become gm, but they don’t know where to start. Either that, or they are so intimidated by the prospect that they stay away from it indefinitely. The idea seems staggering. So much power! So much responsibility!

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Crumbling UpKeep: Starting a new campaign.

This article builds heavily upon the previous one which spoke about what to do before and during session zero. You can find it here.

At this point, if you’ve gone through session zero and its pre-prep, you have a lot of tools in your bag. You know at least a little about your world, the player characters, and the histories of both. Now you just have to mold all that chaos into something cohesive and compelling. This is the fun part. You get to begin crafting the mightiest epic of all time!

Continue reading “Crumbling UpKeep: Starting a new campaign.”

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Crumbling UpKeep: Session 0, Before and After

Starting a new campaign can be a daunting and exciting task. There is a whole new story to create! Where do you start? What about character creation? Should you have a session zero?

One of the things I strive for in my games is getting the players invested. One of the best ways to do that is to make the game about them. If their characters are personally involved in the story-line, that means they are too. You may have a great epic written in your head, but if the characters are just bystanders in it, why would they care?

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The Silence and the Stillness, Part 1 of 3

   Late autumn had come to the Sylvan Empire, bringing the blessing of cleansing rains and the curse of near perpetual darkness. The autumn sky hung heavy with dark clouds, disguising the sun and forever making the time of day a mystery. Morning differed little from midday, which differed only slightly from evening. Life had become a never-ending cycle of twilight.

   The port of Melilsaridon had quieted now, as less merchants were willing to set sail this time of year. In summer months, it was bustling with activity. Dwarves and humans roamed the seaside inns along with other, stranger folk. Their songs were lively, their voices harsh and loud. But now there was only the song of the sea, as cold, foamy waves broke upon creaking timbers. Those few sailors that were to be found walked briskly, interested only in what meager business lay before them. Rarely did anyone wander outside of their own accord in this weather. Continue reading “The Silence and the Stillness, Part 1 of 3”

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Crumbling UpKeep: “Don’t Split the Party!”

“Don’t split the party.”

  The very phrase seems to be known by every adventuring party ever. If ever a character starts making plans to go off in a separate direction, one of the players is guaranteed to shout this from across the table. If you ask the internet, it won’t hesitate to chime in and let you know what a mistake it is, citing personal examples of character death and misfortune. Scooby Doo’s “Let’s split up, Gang” does not apply when it comes to D&D.

   The basic understanding here is that there is strength in numbers. If the GM throws the big bad at the characters, they’ll have an easier time dealing with it if everyone is together. In a game based on random die rolls, bad things are bound to happen when it is most inopportune. Praying to any intangible gods of luck won’t save players from the game master’s wrath when characters go separate ways.

  There is an even more meta aspect at play as well. Many comics and memes have painted Game Masters as vengeful gods who only exist to punish players. The trope exists for good reason, as those types of GMs absolutely exist. Splitting the party means you’ve made the game more difficult for the GM to run and their vengeance shall be forthcoming. It’s not IF that big bad comes when the party splits, its WHEN, because the GM will make sure that it does. This isn’t a GMing style I endorse, but we’ve all seen it.

  There is a third reason I’d advise against it, and one that is not often considered. Splitting the party has the very real potential to make the game less fun. By doing so, you’ve taken one game and essentially made it two. That means that whenever one half of the group is playing, the other half isn’t engaged. They are no longer part of that story. Sure, some players will still hang on every word, but many more are going to be going to their phones or having disruptive side conversations. That’s not really their fault, however. They came to play a game, not watch one.

   As a player, when faced with the option to split the party, I’ll generally try and take a read on the GM and see what they think. Barring a glance from them that tells me otherwise, my inclination is to stay put. There is always a way to rationalize it in character. It keeps the game together and fun for everyone, which should be the main point.

   From a GM perspective, however, splitting the party can be a great engagement tool if it’s done right. There are times when every player is at work doing something different. Each one has their own little aside in a separate area. It seems unavoidable. When it happens, I focus on two things: length and cliffhangers.

   Keep each player’s turn short and sweet. That way, no one is waiting too long for the lens to shift. That doesn’t mean you have to finish their task; just the opposite, really. Give each player just a snippet at a time, with the knowledge that you are going to come back to them. This lends itself really well to the second technique.

   Whenever you can end one of these snippets on a cliffhanger, do it. These don’t have to be huge. It’s almost better if it is not, as a major happening every moment feels a little soap operaish and cheapens the impacts you want to be larger. Did they open a chest? Let them wait until their next turn to see what is in it. Maybe an NPC asks them a deep or unsettling question.

   “UnQuat stares at you menacingly, his jagged smile unnerving you by its very presence. ‘The Dark God comes,’ he says. ‘She demands a sacrifice. What will you give her?'”

   That would be a great time to take a break and move onto another character. Its a big question and deserves a big question. Any players not involved in the scene listening in will be on the edge of thier seat. The player in the scene in question gets time to think of an epic reply, which can only help the story. If it works out, it keeps everyone engaged and active in the story, even when it isn’t about them.

   There is another time when splitting the party can be a great resource for the GM. An extended split can do some great things for storytelling, role playing, and character development. I’ll cover that in the next article, “It’s Been a While.”

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Creation- Myth of the Demons, Part 1: The Beginning

   In the days of old, many cultures believed the world was created by demon kind. While the majority of the world today worships the dragon gods, there are still small pockets whose prayers are directed toward the oldest gods. In dark ruins and ancient temples on the fringes of the civilized worlds, those worshipers read from decaying texts, spreading the tales of the very creation of the world itself.  What follows is one such account…

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A Traveler’s Guide to Samsarras: The House of Nothings

   The House of Nothings lays a quarter mile outside of Varrek proper atop a small rocky outcropping. It is ruled by the Council of the Veil which consists of Cillehartly, Annatree Slipbound, and Cartania the Brass. All three are master illusionists.

   Cillehartly is an elderly Gnomish woman, bent of spine and slow of speech. Originally from Gnomehome, Cillehartly came to Varrek when the city was still young. She made the pilgrimage to pledge her services to Varekussius in exchange for magical knowledge. They have been close ever since. Continue reading “A Traveler’s Guide to Samsarras: The House of Nothings”

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A Traveler’s Guide to Samsarras: The House of 1000 Doors

“One thousand doors, but never one.”
Del Harun Saying

   The House of a Thousand doors is said to be connected to the outside realms. If the fireside tales told late at night in the taverns are to be believed, one can find a doorway to any place or perhaps even any time if they know where to look. There are not many that can verify that information as there are no visible doors on the outside of the structure. Continue reading “A Traveler’s Guide to Samsarras: The House of 1000 Doors”

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A Traveler’s Guide to Samsarras: Zan Zan Turina

   The City of Sin. The Den of the Snake. The Blood Sands. Zan Zan Turina is known by all of these names. It sits in the middle of Qua’ Lorn, it’s walls standing in defiance to the world. It lays upon the only known mine of darkstone, the rock that the gnomes refine into gunpowder. It also hosts multiple gem mines as well as a gold mine. It’s wealth makes this singular city more powerful than many nations.  Continue reading “A Traveler’s Guide to Samsarras: Zan Zan Turina”