by Daniel Lunsford
When the call went out for someone to “put finger to keyboard and put together a few (or several) pages on which D&D worlds they know, love, and hate” I thought “Aha! Mystara! Planescape! I know those like the back of my DM screen”. There were questions I had to answer first in keeping with the different worlds theme that RPG Review announced, though: “Why do I love those settings so much? What do they have in common that makes them stand out?”
Simple, really: they're both big, open sandbox campaign settings.
Let me describe exactly what I mean when I say they are big, open sandbox settings. Arguably the term 'sandbox' is used more in regards to digital games, but it applies to good old-fashioned tabletop RPGs as well. The 'sandbox' simply represents the extents of the game world, and all of what lies therein. Such a setting:
has a lot of room to move about and explore
features few artificial barriers to exploration
is non-linear, and includes multiple possible paths forward
allows PCs some ability to shape or influence the campaign
may even have more than one story arc
has rich, complex, and deeply developed background
So here I will talk about all of the pros and cons of larges sandbox campaigns, these two systems as large sandbox campaign settings, and what I perceive as their strongest and most engaging characteristics. At this point in my gaming career I consider open sandbox campaigns to be my specialty.
Pros and Cons of a Large Sandbox Campaign
I can't claim that large sandbox campaigns are better compared to the more narrowly-defined, linear 'railroad' type of campaign. They both have their uses, and both can be disastrous if done poorly and amazing if done well. I would even say that there are some situations, like con games, where a very linear railroad campaign is necessary. Generally speaking, though, as a player and as a GM, I prefer large sandbox campaigns.
One advantage of a big sandbox campaign is the wealth of possibilities. All campaign settings have a lot of possibilities, of course, but not all settings are created equal. Consider TSR's Ravenloft setting, for example, compared to Spelljammer: the former takes place in a large (but finite) demiplane of no escape, while the latter is basically a fantasy version of Star Trek. For various reasons, I feel that Mystara and Planescape are tops when it comes to a wealth of possibilities- as I will explain in a bit.
Having a wealth of possible story arcs, places, persona, threats, challenges, and adventure ideas implies a second strength of large sandboxes: they require a rich, well-developed background. If I have learned anything from my decades as a GM, it is to never half-ass the trivial- because the players will ask about it. That also applies to major subjects such as history, culture, society, religions, etc. To make a big sandbox campaign work, then, you have to have a well-developed world.
That well-developed world translates to the third advantage of a large sandbox campaign: the ability for players to get involved with, stay engaged with, and even shape the world they are in. In every Planescape campaign I have ever GMed, I knew the campaign would continue indefinitely the moment at least two PCs got involved with at least two of that campaign's factions. After that, it was easy to put one possible adventure after another in front of the party, and see which direction they went. This often created some unexpected results, such as a minor throwaway NPC shopkeeper becoming an important NPC contact, and one player character becoming leader of a new faction of her own design! After awhile, the wealth of possible paths becomes self-sustaining in an open sandbox, especially if the GM is good at making those possibilities sound enticing.
Finally, this adventuring party autonomy makes a big, open sandbox feel more dynamic. One PC steals the body of a hated enemy to make sure he cannot ever be resurrected, and incurs the wrath of not only that enemy's faction, but also another faction that is responsible for collecting the city's dead. In Mystara, the party became so well-known and feared by the area goblinoid populations that sparing a tribe of hobgoblins at one point led that same tribe to offer themselves to the PCs barony as vassals out of sheer gratitude later on. In turn, that led several other tribes in a long and bloody attempt to overrun the barony to teach the turncoat tribe and the despicable PCs a lesson. Again, when the setting feels dynamic and exciting, especially due to the actions of the PCs, it is more interesting and is more likely to keep the players engaged.
One disadvantage of a big sandbox campaign is also the wealth of possibilities. A big, open sandbox campaign can make it very difficult for the GM to decide where to start, or what possible paths of many to present to the players. It can also make it difficult to create a single story arc throughout the campaign with so much going on, since at least some of the paths the PCs may follow should be relevant to the main story.
Even if the PCs have multiple paths to becoming involved in the main story arc, there is no guarantee that they will take any of them- or that they will remain on any one path. Another major disadvantage to big sandboxes is that along with PC autonomy comes the necessity of doing a lot of cat-wrangling. This not only applies to story arcs, but also to party cohesion: what happens if half of the party wants to pursue one path, but the other half wants to do something entirely different? That isn't generally a concern with a railroad-type campaign, but it is a constant headache in an open sandbox.
As I mentioned above, after a point a well-done open sandbox campaign is self-sustaining; the players don't necessarily want or need to rely on the GM to lay out the proverbial trail of breadcrumbs through the forest. However, unless the players are already familiar with the setting, they can only act on what the GM tells them about. Open sandboxes require a lot of extra effort from the GM up front. To make the most of the open concept, the GM has to not only present multiple possibilities to the players, but also to do so in a way that appeals to them as players and as their characters. And to effectively do this, the GM must be able to keep a metric buttload of people, places, relationships, causes, and effects straight and be able to explain them to the players as needed. It can be quite overwhelming, especially over time.
Formally first published in 1980 as the stand-alone Module X1: Isle of Dread, Mystara actually had its origins somewhat earlier with the 1975 publication of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor setting (Blackmoor was later placed within Mystara as a sort of prequel setting) (1). It rapidly expanded in scope and complexity through several boxed sets (including the OD&D Basic-Master Sets), a series of gazetteers and almanacs, and at least one monthly Dragon magazine serial. Its last TSR-published product was the Red Steel / Savage Coast campaign material in 1995-96 (2).
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Mystara, and one of the reasons I love that setting, is the amazing variety of nations, kingdoms, regions, cultures, and the history behind them all. Granted, most were directly inspired by real-world places and eras: the Thyatian Empire was a pretty unapologetic version of Imperial Rome, the Sind was obviously a fantasy version of pre-colonial India, and the Savage Coast area was a fantasy version of the New World colonies.
1 Unknown. (2014, April 06). Mystara. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mystara
2 Unknown. (2014, January 29). Red steel (boxed set). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Steel_(boxed_set)
3 Mystara and Planescape logos © TSR / Wizards of the Coast
Other areas were obviously based on existing fantasy places: Alfheim bore more than a passing similarity to Middle Earth's Lothlorien, and there was a region actually called the Shire that was, big surprise, inhabited mostly by halflings. Even so, TSR somehow managed to do a great job of putting these varied different cultures and nation-states together on the same planet and then provide histories and backgrounds that tied them all together quite neatly. A series of Gazetteers (TSR GAZ1-15) and Poor Wizard's / Joshuan's Almanacs expanded on both the history, culture, and recent events of most of Mystara's Known World. What's up with that “Known World”, distinction, you ask? Well, I'm glad you did ask, because that brings up another example of how one campaign world ended up being amazingly complex.
Any Coincidences to the Real World, Past or Present, are Strictly Coincidental
The Known World: it isn't flat, but it is hollow. The moment I saw that on the then-new Hollow World boxed set in 1990, I had to have it- and the Sega Genesis game it inspired some time later. This boxed set made a complex setting rich in different places even more varied by adding other civilizations believed to be long gone on the surface: Nithians (read: ancient Egypt), Azcans (guess which real world culture inspired them), even the remnants of ancient Blackmoor, to name a few. Not only could PCs explore the surface of Mystara, but now they could explore its interior. And since the Hollow World was basically a giant preserve for Mystara's past, they could also 'go back in time' while doing so. Because the gods really didn't want the outside world meddling with their favorite but failed cultures, just getting to the Hollow World could be a mini-campaign. Not even a skyship could make it through the polar openings due to a pervasive anti-magic field...
As if dozens of past and present-day places weren't enough to keep PCs busy, enter the Champions of Mystara boxed set. Inspired by a long-running series of stories in Dragon magazine centered around the magnificent flying ship the Princess Ark, this expansion added a whole new way to explore Mystara: skyships. Similar to the vessels from the older but by then defunct Spelljammer setting, the Designer's Manual more importantly included rules on paying for, building, powering, and flying skyships. The set also included detailed information on the Sind, its archnemesis the Hulean Empire, the reprinted Princess Ark adventures from Dragon magazines 169-188 (not to mention deck plans for the Princess Ark herself), and some other examples of skyships. Armed with this boxed set, I was able to revitalize my active but stagnant campaign with new ideas and locales. The campaign became a naval campaign, with the PCs accepting a letter of marque from the Sind to prey on Hulean ships. The very generous share of the spoils offered to them as seasoned, well-known adventurers allowed them to design and build their very own skyship, which came in handy when the delicate peace between Thyatis and her archenemy the Alphatian Empire was broken in the War of the Immortals .
The Wrath of the Immortals boxed set (1992) wasn't the last Mystara publication TSR released, but to me it may have well been. My gaming group would soon break up due to half of us graduating high school and going off to different colleges. What better way to end a years-long campaign than with a war between the gods that would ultimately involve most of the places my gamers knew well already and change the face of both the Known World and the Hollow World? By now the group was well past 'name' level, with two older characters retired to baronial life as nobles (remember those hobgoblins?) and the remaining four players still running amuck as always, but with quite a reputation for derring-do across multiple kingdoms. Wrath of the Immortals allowed me to end the campaign in a big way and intimately involve the PCs in those epic events- and it would not be the last time I would use a world-changing resource to do that. I also see it as TSR's last hurrah for Mystara; along with the almanacs which released annually afterwards for a few years, it gave players who knew and loved Mystara a bit of the future to think about. It was, in a way, a partial reset of the campaign setting.
“Bryre Galvan? Now that was one top-shelf cutter right there. Yeah, she was a Prime- th' meanest Prime I ever saw. Th' Hardheads an' Sinkers didn't even like to cross her path. What? Nah, wouldn't say she had a temper, she was cold as Stygia. But she wouldn't suffer any fools, either. If she said pike it, you'd better shut yer bone-box, or she'd shut it for ya!”
What sounds like a poor attempt at speaking Nadsat is actually a prime example of why Planescape was so engaging: it had its own slang. A cutter was someone you didn't want to mess with. To 'pike it' meant to shut up. The Hardheads and the Sinkers were just two of the many factions constantly locked in a Machiavellian power struggle for control of the center of the multiverse. To rattle your bone-box was to talk incessantly and annoyingly. You have to love any campaign setting that includes its own street slang (not to mention a very unique art style).
Planescape (published between 1994 and 1998, including at least one PC game) was in many ways a whole new campaign setting, with DNA borrowed from the old Manual of the Planes (4). It centered (quite literally) on Sigil, the City of Doors, the crossroads of all the multiverse. From here one could travel to any Outer Planes, any Inner Plane, the Astral or Ethereal, or the Prime Material Plane- if one knew the right door to use and the trigger to turn it into a magical portal. Talk about a large sandbox- Planscape was the biggest sandbox ever! Sigil itself sat at the middle of the Outlands, an infinitely large (as far as anyone knew) neutrally-aligned plane which touched all the other Outer Planes via gate-towns. These gate-towns, with names like Glorium, Bedlam, and Excelsior, were so influenced by the plane they led to that they would occasionally slide right off into that plane.
Planescape was possibly the only campaign setting ever to be both so cohesive, so coherent, and so utterly weird at the same time. Quietly warring factions, which were part philosophy, part secret society, part cult (and some even had official duties in Sigil). The ability to theoretically turn any door, window, arch, or other opening into a portal to another plane. Cosmological 'rules' which governed the multiverse regardless of alignment or locale. The idea of a neutral city in a neutral plane where a yugoloth and a guardinal could walk down the same street and not try to destroy each other. The idea of a setting where the yugoloth and the guardinal might possibly have to work together at some point. A guardian of the city as powerful as any god, but utterly enigmatic and without worshipers or even servants and retainers. Sigil even had its very own species of wickedly pervasive, thorny weed. It was weird. It was wonderful. It was like a genius mix of L. Frank Baum, Robert E. Howard, Glen Cook, and Lord Dunsany- and I loved it.
4 Unknown. (2014, April 07). Planescape. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planescap
One of the first adventures I picked up for my Planescape campaign was the Great Modron March. How much weirder can you get than highly lawful, absolutely neutral part-clockwork-and-part-organic creatures that, for reasons unknown, take a grand tour of the Outlands every few centuries? And when they suddenly deviate from that normal routine, can you blame the whole Multiverse for freaking out about it?
Planescape definitely has the well-developed setting down, but to me where it excels above all other settings is how much PCs can influence things. In a way, the whole setting is about individual actions shifting the balance of power between factions, between alignments, even between factions of the factions. Why is it important that PCs go to a certain place in a certain layer of the Nine Hells at a certain time and plant a rose? They may not be told why, but you can bet it is important to someone, somehow. One act of evil may be enough to push a gate-town into the Abyss- and one act of law might be enough to keep another gate-town from sliding into Limbo. As you can imagine, there is no end to beings who might want one or the other, for any number of reasons. Planescape may be the only setting that had adventures that were specifically designed for the PCs to change the setting: the Factol's Manifesto, containing the deepest, darkest secrets of every faction leader in Sigil comes to mind. Armed with that, a GM could unravel, change, or destroy any amount of Planescape canon. That sourcebook alone could make or break a PC, depending on what they learned from it and what they did with that information.
Just like with Mystara, when the delicate truce between factions breaks, very fundamental things can change. The last adventure released for Planescape- Faction War- profoundly changed the City of Doors and at the same time gave PCs a chance to become arguably the most important cutters in the city (even if few would know why). Although I didn't always use Faction War to end my Planescape campaigns, when I did the outcome was remarkable: one PC became leader of the Cipher faction and the next day, when the Lady of Pain uttered her final decree regarding the factions, disbanded it. Meanwhile, another PC became leader of the Taker faction and moved them to a new stronghold in the Outlands, outside of the Lady of Pain's influence. In no other campaign was it so easy for the PCs to change the printed canon of the setting without GM contrivance, but rather because something they did caused so many ripples.
Open Sandbox or Not?
I've certainly heaped praise on the big, open sandbox style campaign. I've certainly waxed very nostalgic about my two favorite campaign settings. I do neither at the expense of more linear type campaigns; as before, they both have their place, and the truth is some of that depends on the gaming group. I've played in groups that did not do well in open settings, and I have played in groups that disliked having their hands tied by a linear story arc. I would like to suggest that any campaign can benefit from some of the things I like about Mystara and Planescape. An engaging and well-developed background, a sense of dynamic change and cause/effect, and even a little flexibility for PCs to go off chasing butterflies once in awhile can add spice to any campaign setting and structure.