A ‘sandbox’ style campaign. For those of you unfamiliar with old-school play, there were two different sorts of play styles. The first involved dungeons, and only dungeons, which players serially invaded and shut down.
That, as time went on, was perhaps the more common play style, but the original play style (which I was fortunate enough to participate in) dealt with an entire campaign. A campaign, simply put, was a hex or other map of a wide-ranging area that the players could explore at will. (My DM used a hex map. I’d kill these days to get a look at his original maps.)
These could be really time-consuming to create from scratch, but there are various aids and techniques that help with the effort now. Once of the first 3rd party products for D&D was the Wilderlands, a pre-generated campaign, focused on just such a set of maps, with brief entries detailing lairs, citadels and other locations for a about a third of the mapped hexes. This sort of set-up leaves plenty of room for expansion and work (as I am discovering now) while still speeding up the process of getting a campaign off the ground. I have always been a fan of the original Wilderlands, as well as its recent revision, so this was a no-brainer for me.
The players are given a partially completed version of the map for their own use and they travel about as they will, discovering ruins, dungeons, and all sorts of mischief, in a completely self-directed way. Called a ‘sandbox’ style of play currently, it can blow up in one’s face if the party is given too many choices, with no way of discerning which direction would be interesting or useful to them, so I plan to use rumors to guide them to the more significant areas of interest, while still allowing them complete freedom of choice.
Player engagement in the background of the campaign. This is one of those balancing acts. Too much information and the player’s eyes glaze over, too little and players don’t know what to do. So my base will be the following:
I want each player to have a personal background for each of the players that fits on the size of a note card. One paragraph, ideally. This will be ideally self-generated, but I plan on offering them to players for their characters should they not wish to make up their own. Any more than this is probably too constraining, but I don’t intend to keep them to this limit, if they want to produce more. I intend to base the character’s skills on their written background.
One-half page to explain the Wilderlands world background. Reading this would be optional, and not required.
One-half page to explain the character’s start area: the village of Brushwood in the Wilderlands. Again, reading this would be optional.
Three rumors for each player, each one line, on a note card. These will initially direct the characters to local dungeons, lairs and other sites of interest.
Focus on neglected activities. Things like encumbrance, mapping, and exploration. I think, for one, something is lost when a frenetic, kill-the-monster, grab-its-stuff, and-level-up play style is encouraged. I always told my players that D&D is a game of managing resources as much as it is about killing monsters. That is also a part of the game that is universally dismissed.
I can see why. It simply seems boring to most people, much like personal accounting and doing your taxes is boring. But it is very significant part of the original game. I see acting on the experience in several beneficial ways. It slows down play, especially in the dungeon, which can be seen as a gigantic puzzle in many ways. It allows such equipment (and thus encumbrance) to act as a sort of mini-game, where the right piece of mundane equipment can save a character or even the whole party at some point. It puts the focus on the experience of play, as opposed to what level-up beanie you are going to get when you get your next xp award.