Let's talk about what I'm actually doing these days, game-wise.
So, our group is a bit crippled lately. Two of the guys are in shows (damned actors) and one just moved away, leaving us with a fairly small pool of reliable regulars. So, we have turned to the idea of one-on-one gaming to get our nerd-fix.
I came up with two ideas. The first was a solo game of Vampire: the Requiem in a made-up city of crime and blood called Nova City that was a cross between vampire private eye shows (Angel, Forever Knight), Raymond Chandler novels, and the gorier of Clive Barker's works. I'll detail that in a future post.
The second is called Embark! The Sandpoint Chronicles. At least it is in my head. It's a sandbox-style D&D 4e game, centering around a small coastal town called -- you guessed it -- Sandpoint.
What I did was started by reading West Marches, which is something I recommend to all gamemasters of any stripe and any system. I read about what works and what doesn't in big, open, questy, player-driven, sandbox games. Then, I went to my FLGS.
I originally went to the store looking for a book full of encounter tables to give me a jumping-off point for making my own. Sadly, 4e has done away with the idea of the "random encounter" as something that's part and parcel of the core system. I say "sadly", despite having NEVER used a random encounter table before, because they always gave a really great sense of the ecology of an area, and they would've been damned useful to me -this time-.
I was unable to find such a product, but I did find Paizo Press's Gamemastery products, which include a lot of adventure paths, and some really snazzy map sets. So I bought the map set for Adventure Path 1: Rise of the Runelords. This contains the map of Paizo's "Pathfinder Chronicles" world, as well as a variety of smaller maps of towns, cities, and specific dungeon locations. These maps include one which details the town of Sandpoint and another of its immediate environs. Perfect.
I traced the Sandpoint environs map onto a piece of graph paper and set to work dividing it into zones, like Robbins did in West Marches. I then assigned each zone a "target level", sticking between 1 and 10 at this point, and a few sample monsters/enemies for that zone.
Knowing that I wanted some variance in the danger level of a zone, but some overall consistency, I decided that each encounter in a zone would have a target number of experience points based on a d4 x a multiplier. This would generate an "experience budget", similar to that described in the 4e DMG, which would then be spent on a random selection of monsters from the list.
The tables look like this:
|51-56||Bandits - 1d4x40xp per PC|
|01-05||1 Gnome Arcanist||150xp|
|06-10||1 Doppelganger Sneak||150xp|
|11-15||1 Human Guard||150xp|
|16-23||1 Human Bandit||125xp|
|24-30||1 Halfling Thief||125xp|
|31-37||1 Gnome Skulk||125xp|
|38-44||4 Human Rabble||124xp|
|45-51||4 Halfling Stouts||124xp|
|52-58||1 Halfling Slinger||100xp|
|59-65||3 Human Rabble||93xp|
|66-72||3 Halfling Stouts||93xp|
|73-79||2 Human Rabble||62xp|
|80-86||2 Halfling Stouts||62xp|
|94-00||1 Halfling Stout||31xp|
Obviously, this table continues, but this gives a general sense of what I was doing. When someone is traveling through the Ravenroost zone, every quarter-day of travel will result in a roll on the table. First, a roll is made in the leftmost column. A 01-50 on a percentile means the PC has encountered nothing. A 51-56 means they've encountered Bandits. Even though I wanted the game to be dangerous, the realities of a solo adventurer in a D&D game, and the possibility that I might have more or less players in any given session is why I went with the experience budget that scales with the number of PCs. So if I have one player, I roll a d4 and multiply by 40, and that's my budget for the encounter. I then roll on the bandit sub-table to spend my budget. If I can't afford what I roll, then I just go down the list until I find something I can afford. Any extra XP are lost.
Creating these tables taught me certain things about my environments, and forced me to make certain choices. You can see by this bandit table, for example, that human bandits will be more common that halfling, because whenever you drop down the list to something cheaper, the first entry is human. I also "discovered" that kobolds use drakes as guard/attack animals, elves use wolves, dwarves ride dire boards, and hobgoblins have trained shadowhunter bats.
Two things besides simple monster selection control the danger of a zone: the multiplier of the experience budget (x25 is the lowest, and x200 the highest), and the percentage chance of a hostile encounter. The automatic assumption in Embark! is that the "PC" races default to friendly, or at least neutral, and even if "monster" races default to hostile, they will choose their engagements carefully. So, even if the table says there's a handful of hobgoblins hiding in the woods, the PCs might never know about the "encounter" if the hobs decide to keep to cover and avoid an engagement with a clearly superior force. That said, Ravenroost is a fairly safe zone (50% chance of no encounter at all, x40 being the normal multiplier) whereas Shank's Wood is a dangerous one (only 20% chance of no encounter, 50% chance of running into hobgoblins, and x70 being the normal multiplier).
So, now I had the places the PCs would be wandering through, but I needed someplace for them to go. Many of the zones on the map I was using had evocatively named sites already on them. Why was The Old Light (a lighthouse tower) in ruins? Who lived in Foxglove Manor on the foreboding Bleaklow Moor? Why did Habe's Sanitorium sit at the base of the mesa called the Ashen Rise? Starting with those, and making up a few of my own (such as the Ghostly City of Ealford, deep in the Tickwood), I started making "dungeons", in the sense of locations for my PCs to set out toward for loot and glory.
I statted up these "special sites" as follows:
Level; Knowledge check to know about
The name was, of course, the name of the site. Level is the target level. Normally, the special sites are a few levels higher than the zone they are in. Treasure I generated with another Paizo product: item cards. I bought the starter treasure deck, and I just shuffle it and pull a card at random. The best thing about these cards is that the illustration and card text mean that each item has a lot of character built right into it, and you can adapt that into your setting. So if I pulled a breastplate with a leaf emblem on it, I could tie that leaf emblem into my setting. I then cross-referenced the type of treasure with the level of the dungeon and picked treasure appropriately. Hooks I generated with a completely unrelated product, oracle-style. I have long loved the game Once Upon a Time and use the cards whenever I can. To get a hook, I pull three or more cards from the OUaT deck, consider the zone and the treasure, and write a little story or legend about the site. Based on what I've written, I stock the dungeon with defenders. Leads are other locations that the dungeon has clues to. It makes me think about other dungeons, where the PCs might go next, and how the region is tied together (like where else might that leaf emblem be found?). Sometimes the "leads" are just "deeper dungeons". The kobolds' lair goes down a few floors and caps out around level 4 or 5, but where does that caved-in tunnel go, and why is it carved with images of spiders?
So, at the start of the game, my PC or PCs will be in Sandpoint and be able to collect rumours and information about some special sites. They will then head out into the world, learning about the zones as they go, and returning to Sandpoint to rest and recover. I won't be pulling any punches, so if the players decide they want to check out The Pit on Devil's Platter right away, then that's on their heads, not mine.
I also won't be giving the players a map. I have several (the printed one that I bought and the traced one with my zone notes on it), but if they want one, they can draw their own, based on what they see and do during play (another West Marches innovation).