In previous posts, I’ve said how much I enjoy savage fantasy — fantasy adventures set on the primeval edges of the world, where life is cheap and magic is weird and dangerous. Conan’s Hyboria, Warhammer’s Old World, and Dark Sun are rife with savage potential.
Sandbox adventures are especially appropriate for savage fantasy. A sandbox adventure is one that equally balances exploration with adventure, where there’s not an obvious path from the adventure’s beginning to its end. Sandboxes work really well for savage fantasy because players have more agency — if they get over their heads, it’s entirely their fault.
Doom at the Players’ Own Hands – The Isle of Dread
Years ago, I ran one of the most classic, old-school savage sandboxes — The Isle of Dread. In this 1981 adventure, the PCs explore a tropical island filled with dinosaurs, superstitious villagers, and lost ruins, hoping to find a legendary black pearl. The PCs discovered a plateau in the middle of the jungle — climbing it required an eight-hour climb. Worse, there were obvious signs of pterosaur nests on the way up. Rather than looking for a safer passage, my impatient players decided to make the climb. Hours into the climb, they got attacked by angry pterosaurs. What followed was ugly! One warrior fell to his death, the magic-user got carried off to be eaten alive, and the mighty dwarf got swarmed and killed in just a few rounds. Only two PCs made it to the top.
Despite this deadly outcome, no one in the group questioned whether the fight was fair! Instead, they all regretted ignoring the signs of flying carnivores and making the decision they made. And the two characters who survived — an elf who never rolled below an 18 in that adventure, and a thief who just hid in a small cave until the feasting was done — felt rewarded by both luck and cunning. Savage fantasy at its most memorable!
Tapered Sandboxes Help
Sandboxes are challenging too. They often have weak beginnings and endings. Players don’t know what to do at first, and the adventure may end with an anticlimax because players don’t end up where the GM expects. Few adventurers ever find the Isle of Dread’s black pearl. And sandbox adventures are often long. I think the The Isle of Dread took me at least six or seven sessions to run.
So in writing this month’s adventure, Roar of the Terrorghorger, I decided to start and end the adventure in a more linear fashion. The PCs are all foolhardy merchants who have voyaged to the Old World’s Vampire Coast to sell a rare wine to the vampires who rule a small town. However, they get accidentally caught up in vampire politics, and have to flee the town deep into the jungle through old catacombs.
From there, the adventure opens up in a small sandbox. They have to make their way back to the vampires’ port to escape. The jungle is filled with hazards — man-eating lizards, vampire patrols, and long-lost temples. How they make their way back is up to them. Do they take the river? Stay on the trails? Head for the beaches? There is a mixture of encounters that range from savage combats to tense negotiations with powerful undead lords.
But then the adventure funnels back in for the finale. As a GM, you know they’ll end up sneaking back through the port to their ship. The adventure’s ending will be more predictable, and more likely to be an epic climax.
This “tapered sandbox” approach is how a lot of videogame sandboxes work too, by the way. Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry always start with a tight tutorial, open up the world, and then finish with a carefully planned endgame. Steal this design technique for your roleplaying adventures!
Download Roar of the Terrorghorger for FREE:
You can download the adventure, Roar of the Terrorghorger, for free here:
Related: More jungle adventures