OSR/sandbox play: "Balancing the Challenge"

A staple of OSR/sandbox play is that the world exists without the PCs, such that, for example, PCs can wander into encounters for which they are hopelessly mismatched. This can be fun, whether it’s a gloriously memorable TPK or ingenious players use guile to escape with treasures beyond their wildest dreams.

But what about when the shoe is on the other foot, and Conquerors/Kings seem to stumble upon a goblin (and three copper) under every rock. (This is not so fun.) Are there strategies players should be using to ensure their higher level characters are taking on worthwhile challenges?

What’s a Judge running sandbox play to do, if anything, short of “You see a brooding castle ahead with a sign that reads Evil Genius Here”?

In the “Balancing the Challenge” section of the Secrets chapter of ACKS is the following guideline: “The easiest way to address level advancement is to design the regional map as a “borderlands” environment.” Further explanation, if you haven’t read this section: “The result of this structure is that early on in the campaign, the party will adventure near the border settlements. … Then when they reach the middle levels of experience, they will begin to go into the wilderness … As their power peaks, they will begin conducting forays deeper in the wilderness, far beyond the border.”

Also, on the Autarch forums, I believe Alex mentioned the Judge preparing a growing supernatural threat that the players gain knowledge of as they rise in level. (Similarly, I have an idea for a Mythic China campaign inspired by the Jin-Song Wars, and a growing human threat will be war between the Jin/Song/Mongols, which the players may or may not become involved in, as they explore receding supernatural pockets dotted across the map.)

Are there other ways of “balancing the challenge” you have used in your higher level sandbox play?

My players are still in relatively low levels since we play rather slowly (play-by-post), but I have often felt that the wilderness encounter tables as they’re written in the book are a little too random, at least as it appears on a quick reading. It would be preferable to make custom encounter tables where, while the possibility of danger existed in every type of environment, it would be possible to “look for trouble” in regions like mountains or swamps that just plain have tougher foes, on average.

I’ve always felt that custom encounter tables for each major region, and any important minor region, are worth their weight in gold for a sandbox campaign.

As an example, I am (very slowly and really just toying around with it) building a world of my own, and in one part that’s a very civilized and safe starter area (where the PCs will be at first level), there is a swamp that takes up a total of 3 or 4 hexes.

I plan to make the encounter table for this swamp absolutely horrifying, appropriate for 10th level and above characters. However, I also plan to populate it with monsters who don’t move much, or who are restricted to the swamp biologically (it’s a coastal swamp, so predators that can only survive in brackish water would be an example of that). Thus, being near the swamp is perfectly safe, as long as you don’t go into it.

Having little knots of horror like that helps keep the world feeling wild and unsafe, as well as sometimes contributing to the kind of events that make the best stories (guys we need to go through the swamp, it’s the only way to get to Placetown in time! go through the swamp? that’s suicide! and so on.)

The reaction roll mechanic helps save players’ bacon during wilderness encounters at low levels. For example, I once rolled a pair of fire giants in the desert as a 3rd-level party was trudging back from the dungeon, laden with treasure. Reaction roll: apathetic. OK, the two giants are dueling a couple of hundred yards away. Players observed, and were greatly afeared, but did not suffer for it. Even if the result had been hostile, it probably would’ve been a shakedown for loot rather than a TPK.

On the flip side, at high levels, you send in the army the henchmen, or the mage with fly, fireball, and protection from normal missiles to deal with the goblin villages. They’re not really adventures anymore. I think Cameron had some guidelines for handling these sort of low-power obstacles on one of the Grim Fist threads; some function for the number of lairs the PCs could clear with no risk in a week as a function of number and level of participating PCs (so having your wizard sit around and do research did impede hex-clearing operations, even at this level of abstraction).

The single most useful strategy we developed for ensuring that mid-high level PCs were going after lairs full of both danger and treasure was treasure maps. Send your thief treasure-hunting, give out maps as treasure, and watch the fun. It sort of boils down to the castle with a sign out front, but it makes a little more sense in the world at least.

As others have mentioned, custom encounter tables are awesome for moderating danger. Consider also using sealed areas, like barrows, to house pockets of high danger in otherwise low-danger zones. Having a growing threat definitely helps maintain party cohesion into the high levels, too, when there’s a temptation for everyone to set up their own separate domains and operate independently. Danger unites.