09 December 2023

Campaign Spin-Up VIII - Fuzzier West March Sandboxes

I ran an open table game and wanted to dig into a little how it all came off from the DM prep point of view. There are some player session write-ups that went up on Obsidian Portal.

Deliberate aspects of this campaign were:
- open table, drop-in game - go whenever 3 were available
- follow the players, drop hooks but no big plot
- minimise prep - I had three other campaigns running, there was no time for more prep
- newbie friendly

The tools used in sessions were
- a hidden depths table for the wilderness
- Brancalonia non-lethal brawl rules to make non-wilds/underground less dangerous but still fun
- an overloaded encounter table for the tunnels beneath their base
- a semi-randomly generated dungeon made with a map and tables from the DMG 3.5e
- someone elses Dungeon 23 run for the big hidden dungeon
- maps from photos - woodworm burrows, tourist guide to a castle, hexmap
- a city page generated using my workflow - the In Corpathium and Infinigrad generators combined with Stupidly Quick City-Building from r/DNDBehindTheScreen and steps 3 & 4 from creating fantasy villages, towns and cities to get the layout
- a few special sessions built off a dedicated tool - two from Where the Wheat Grows Tall, one from the bathhouse table

Going session by session on what drove play each time a group sat to table:
1. Balronco and Beyond Campaign intro, some futzing about in the starter location, getting feet under them and heading off to find out why a beer shipment was delayed. Getting lost along the way has them exploring a mage tower. First test of hex-traversing; rolling up encounters on the hidden depths table, investigations in a village.

2. Beer Rescue Continued hex-traversing, first test of the brawl rules. Old school 'back of napkin' session plan plus encounter tables.

3. Hunting Trip New table members, flailed a bit without a hook, ate at a rival restaurant and went on a hunting trip. Encounter table interaction entirely.

4. The Shrimp Committee First solely player direct session, blindsided me. Latching on to a bad shrimp catch, the players head off into the wilderness to find some rivals and cut a deal with them. Stopped by a hags cottage - deliberately - and cut a deal, then headed off into the depths of the swamps to find the rivals and negotiate with them. Pure working off the hexmap and encounter tables.

5. Rugantino was an adventure straight out of the Brancalonia book - most orthodox session we ran.

6. Where the Wheat Grows Tall I A-table returned, chewing on a hook that led to Where the Wheat Grows Tall adventure. Getting there and spooky nature of investigation has things run slowly so we broke our 'session ends back at the tavern' rule because all the same players were going to be at the next session too.

7. Where the Wheat Grows Tall II Direct continuation, finished out Where the Wheat Grows Tall, one of the first difficult combats and the session ran late completing the tale.

8. The Taxmans Donkey A hook thrown in at the start of the session leads to a venture into the swamp, hexcrawling and encounter table driven.

9. The Smugglers Trove Exploring the tunnels beneath Balronco, seeking a way into Castle Balronco, our heroes get distracted, find a smugglers trove, brawl with the smugglers and call it a day. Encounter table driven - overloaded encounter dice for tunnels under homebase - combined with the map.

10. A Pocketful of Taxes Our heroes venture back into the tunnels to get some cash from their buried tax chest. Similar underground map + overloaded encounter table driven session.

11. The Dam-Busters Following a hook from an NPC fished out of the tunnels during The Smugglers Trove our heroes venture out to foil an archaeological dig. This was a site-based one, a mini-map with elements and the players figured out what to do. There was rabble rousing, sneaking about and a stealthy dig that recovered a relic before setting a fire, inciting a riot and leaving the workforce spooked and refusing to continue. Classic back of a napkin adventure.

12. Cracking Castle Balronco The team works their way through the tunnels into Castle Balronco and find some clue to the strange things beneath the castle. After a significant detour to check on the tax chest, find a big snake in residence and paint a warning sign, they press on. Once inside the castle itself, an amazing reaction roll has them are mistaken for requested aid. They decide to roll with it and be that aid - helping the resident beetlings find their missing compatriot to stop a conflict with the local flylings. After clue gathering, our heroes retire to strategise. Player motivated, working through a 'dungeon-in-a-hurry' map cooked up with the 3.5e DMG.

13. All Knowledge Lies in Books and Witches To figure out what to do about the things beneath the castle our heroes venture across the hexmap to visit a 'friendly old lady in a cottage in the swamp' and toward a known fallen wizard tower. Hexmap, wilderness encounter table and site driven combined with researching rolls at the site and chunky lore drops.

14. The Spiders Lair Returning to Balronco castle to find the lost beetling, our heroes climb out onto the roof, struggle across the ancient tiles and then break into the lair of the spiderlings that were holding the beetling hostage. Working off the map of Castle Balronco, animalfolk superior climbing skills helping a bunch here. Built off the dungeon map.

15. A Big Freaking Snake A different group of our heroes decide that the snake living on the tax chest has to go and spend significant effort bricking up tunnels and then chasing it out into the river, before attacking it as it emerged and getting into a tough fight before finally digging up the tax chest once again and emptying the last remaining cash before burying it for a final time. Player decisions, retreading existing sites established in previous sessions.

16. Pub-crawl in Dotheas A group decides to venture over the river to Dotheas, seeking knowledge from the scholars there. Player decision, using city generated with my usual city-creation workflow plus a D4 Caltrops event table.

17. The Great Forest of Heng Looking for paying work the B-table gets a delivery run and sets off south. Session entirely driven by hexmap and wilderness encounter table.

18. Beneath the Monastery Same table returns and so decision to ret-con that they remained at the Monastery found in the last session and venture into the dwarf roads below. Site entirely generated using jungle dwarf carousing tables from Lizardman Diaries.

19. A Feast for Indlewith the Brave Slight variation on the previous table where the ratman bard was asked to help host a party for an errant knight. The driver for this one was to flex the content generated for Dotheas. It went pretty well as the party drew on in-world resources and accidentally addressed an issue from a previous game - blocking the smuggling tunnels in 'Big Snake' was causing hard times for the flylings they lived among - but then the party for this session commissioned all the flylings to be serving staff for the event and put coin in all their pockets - enough to tide them over while the tunnels were cleared.

20. The Bath House Effectively a beach session in a Spirited Away style bathhouse, driven by this blog post on Cthonic Halls. The hook was being asked to run an errand by one of their contacts and they all had a mystic bath and experiences moments of personal revelation. Except for the guy who refused to bath and got stuck talking down and enraged guest.

21. Chestnut for the People Another visit to Dotheas driven by the desire to research treasure found beneath the Great Forest of Heng. A district crawl, solving some encounters drawn from a d4 Caltrops blog post, and starting to get involved in local politics - pitching partymember Chestnut as candidate for mayor of Dotheas.

22. Postage in Dotheas Under cover of running some mail over the river to Dotheas our heroes engage in some recon for who is in the mayoral race and how to make sure one of their pals gets elected. Another city crawl session with information gathering.

Here is where the campaign hit hiatus and is likely to stay off until my evening slots reopen. Looking back at the key aspects:
- Open table, newbie friendly,drop-in game - worked really well, people got to know new people and forged teams of heroes that did well together
- Follow the players, dropping hooks, avoiding big plot and minimising prep - went very well - sessions were generated off a couple of rolls, to give the tactical texture that hung within the large scale context of big-picture worldbuilding so I could improvise setting-correct stuff as needed.

The various worldbuilding tools to stock those tables and maps are detailed in the campaign retrospective.


  1. This is great- I find myself at the other end of this process, having just posted about setting up a weekly drop-in megadungeon (technically an abandoned Neolithic city-crawl). I'll have to have a scan of your campaign retrospective, too. Many thanks

    1. Sites sprinkled around the local map and a well populated encounter table were the backbone that let me catch anything they threw at me - have those two in hand plus some high level knowledge of local factions and you'll be grand.

  2. This is something I want to try if my evenings ever free up. Now to read all of the embedded links sprinkled throughout the post! Thank you.

    1. It was good fun - for relatively little prep time. Any questions just ping me and I'll be happy to answer.