Heroic Explorations: Implementing the Sandbox

Heroic Explorations: Implementing the Sandbox

We have our broad-strokes campaign setting, some history, fuzzy notions about incorporating the quirks of FRPG systems as setting conceits, but nothing we can actually use to play with. It’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of implementation. How exactly we do this has a lot to do with the kind of game we’re planning to run, so at this point we need to step away from the theoretical and make some solid choices about the game we’re going to be playing.

Welcome to the Sandbox

This Heroic Expeditions campaign is going to be a hex-based sandbox played in 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, using the Hexbox supplement freely available from Taoscordian Games through DriveThruRPG. Go ahead, download it if you want, give it a quick read-through. The basic idea is that the game is structured by the players’ choices, without a heavy metaplot, and the story arises from the stories they create as they explore.

If you’re not interested in sandbox games don’t worry; most of what follows will still apply to you. The first big difference is that rather than starting with a “bottom up” or “top down” approach, we’re going to start by defining a large campaign area in playable detail, and move on to another when our players express an interest in exploring it. We’ll start on the nation-state level, giving us Avalon, Vaquero, Alem, the Staten, and Etatia to choose from.

I haven’t drawn a full map of these areas, but I picture the Staten in the north, Vaquero to the south, Etatia in the middle, Avalon as an island to the west, and Alem somewhere East. Etatia seems the most centrally located, giving us plenty of room to expand, so we can start there.

A Matter of Scale

Of course, the way a Hexbox map works is that every hex includes something interesting for the players to interact with, so the more hexes we have, the more work we have to do. We could use bigger hexes too, but that means that our map becomes more sparse, with a lower density of “interesting things” overall. In our case, though, Etatia is, for our setting, fairly well settled… there’s still a monster-haunted wilderness and dungeons a-plenty, but maybe here, in the heart of civilization, they’re not so tightly packed. We can definitely get away with a larger scale map.

If Etatia is a Holy Roman Empire analog, we can use the size of the historic HRE as a basis for deciding what we’re dealing with. At its height in 1050, the Empire covered almost 400,000 square miles. The standard Hexbox hex covers 70 square miles, so a standard map of Etatia might require 5700 hexes… or a hex map 75 hexes by 75 hexes.

Yeah. I’m not going to come up with 5700 interesting locations. For Ibu: The Emerald Canopy, we ended up with 60-70 hexes, owing to the irregular coastline and plentiful water, and we can consider starting with a project of similar scope using a 10×10 hex grid. 100 hexes.

A partial map of Ibu
Ibu’s midsection. Each of these hexes had to have some interesting encounter or location written up.

The question is, how sparse are we talking here? If we wanted to cover the entire Empire, we’re talking hexes of 4,000 square miles each. That gives us hexes that are 68 miles across, taking days for a party to walk through. Yeah, that’s possible, but each hex’s interesting encounter is a needle in a hay stack. We could subdivide each hex into a hundred 40 square mile hexes, but that gives us hexes that are only 6 miles across. A party will zip through a handful each day, making it even less likely that the prep work we do will be used. And besides, it feels sort of arbitrary.

Instead, we should consider starting with a hex map of some political or geographical division within Etatia. A given province, perhaps, or some other Feudal grouping. Duchies. If we go with a 24-mile across hex – the distance a party can move in a day under normal conditions – that gives us 498 square mile hexes, and 10×10 grids of 50,000 square mile coverage. Eight such regions makes up our 400,000 square mile empire, and that feels a lot more manageable.

And that is how we’ve come to the design decision that Etatia will be made up of 8 roughly equivalent regions, either geographically or politically.

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