Sandboxing Part 3 - The Old School OSR Urban Crawl
I have seen a lot of comments about how gaming sessions work in various games. I run a very open ended game, but I don’t do a ton of prep. I have a setting, and the players do their thing, the setting reacts, and that’s the adventure. I have always wanted to share how the game works at my table, but it takes a long time to write it up. Since this session was so much fun, I decided to write this one up.
If you want to know what it’s like to play in an old school OSR style urban crawl dungeon, rulings over rules, sandbox style play, this is how I do it.
I also thought it would be helpful to dispel some myths, that old school D&D is all about fighting, that it’s lack of formal rules for “social conflict resolution” mean that social role play is either all fiat, too easy or too hard, and that you have to do a ton of prep to handle a sandbox style of play.
Sit back and enjoy.
Hot in the City
I have a homebrew city, Bhavisyavani, where my players started off at the beginning of this campaign. They used it as a base for a few sessions then went exploring, and only returned there this past week. They just finished an adventure, they had travelled to the distant past to find a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom. They came back to the present and when they arrived back in their time they were outside the city.
In their adventure they had picked up some holy relics of Athena, a sword, a shield, armor, a necklace, a crown and several rings. When they arrived back in the city they decided to give those holy artifacts, several of them magical, back to the priests of Athena to avoid any bad mojo.
They found a barge, hit the canal and headed to the temple where they returned the items, and the temple priestesses told them they would always be able to come to them for aid. They had a new ally.
At this point, their quest was complete. I run a full sandbox game, so it’s up to them to decide what to do. There are some running events that involve them, NPCs they have wronged that might be seeking revenge and that sort of thing, but there was nothing happening then. The way I play I generally let the players decide what to do, and react to that. Rather than having a “new adventure” ready to go when the old one ends.
DM - “OK everyone, what’s next”?
After some discussion, they decided to ask the priestesses if there was anything they could do for the temple.
That was my hook.
When I have a moment like that I draw on many years of reading sci-fi, fantasy and comic books, and I just produce something. At this moment I said to myself, what haven’t they encountered, what would be new?
A paladin had just joined the party. Hmmmmm. Undead, we haven’t hit any undead yet, I don’t use them often, paladins can turn undead, so that was my way in.
“Well”, said the priestess, “You see, a week ago a body turned up in the canal, one of our priests found it, and it had been drained of life by one of the unliving.
We took in the body and prayed for guidance. One of the priestesses received a vision of more bodies, and indeed, another one turned up a few days later where she saw it in her vision, floating in the canal and a third this morning. We brought the bodies here and were waiting for a sign. You arriving here today with holy relics of Athena is no coincidence, you were sent by Athena to give us aid.”
“We do not know where the bodies came from, just where to find them when they surfaced. That you will have to figure out on your own, but your purpose here must be to eliminate these foul unliving things.”
So that was the new adventure.
So at this point I had a task for them, but nothing prepared, I didn’t know what kind of undead it was, where they were, anything at all. So rather than trying to invent it on the spot, or asking for a break to figure it out, I said,
“What do you want to do”?
They went out, found an inn to stay at and met in the bar for food and discussion:.
PC - “The priests don’t know where these things are, how are we going to find them?”
PC - “I can sense evil, I will find them.”
PC - “The city is too big for that, it would take forever”
PC - “Do we have any spells that will help us here”?
Furious character sheet consultation.
PCs - “No, we don’t”
PC - “I’m a ranger, I could track them”
PC - “You have to know what you are tracking first, and find the trail”
PC - “Hey, I could contact the thieves guild, if anyone is going to know about dead bodies popping up in the canals, it’s the guild”
PC - “OK, you go to the guild, I’m going to the druids, they can help us”
In a previous adventure they had made contacts at the Druid’s coven, they had someone there they trusted, so they were going there for another source of information.
So already they have two leads, and I’ve done nothing.
With that decided, the party ranger asked me if she could dual class her character.
“To what”, I said.
“Assassin”, she said.
So, we had a talk. Assassins are evil, rangers are good, both alignments are class requirements. However, I do allow non-evil assassins in my game, they are generally holy warriors for a temple, carrying out their missions, sometimes with deadly force, to eliminate evil.
I decided that she should do that. Her deity was Artemis, so why not go to her temple. She liked the idea, so we were good.
So that was the third thread for the session.
We did that first at the table’s direction (when there is solo play the table decides the order of the players)
The ranger went to the temple of Artemis (actually, in this setting most of the temples are to Hindu gods, the other pantheons generally have one temple for all their gods, with a few exceptions for the more popular gods. Artemis has priests and priestesses in the temple for the pantheon), and told them her desire.
I decided to roll to see if they took her in or not. I could have just done it, but it creates a bit more excitement doing it this way. So I told her that they were going to pray, given that her motivations were pure, and that she had been good in the past and courageous, I gave it a 50% chance Artemis would hear her plea and make her a holy warrior for their cult.
I rolled on the table in the dice box, she got it.
So now I had to figure out what to do about it. I decided that it would be fun to let her do a simple job for the priests to see if she had the moxy to be an assassin. So I spun this out on the spot,
“The goddess welcomes your service but first wishes to see if you have the mettle for the job. Clegas Aamm is a wealthy Bhavisyavanian merchant who has been vocal about forcing out the priests of “foreign” gods, in particular he objects to our goddess as she has domain over the same area as his, Soma, goddess of the moon. He has gone so far as to threaten violence, but never directly. Send him a message that the temple of Artemis is not to be trifled with, don’t slay him, that will just fuel suspicion and give his arguments strength, but let him know he is touchable.”
Since Artemis was a minor goddess in this setting, the idea jumped out.
DM: “How do you want to do this”?
PC to priest - “How do I find this man?”
Priest: “He has a home in a wealthy ward, we can direct you to it”
So the player turned to me - “I want to find this guys house and spy on it for a few days, see when he comes and goes, who he’s with, that sort of thing”
DM: “OK, you can go to his house during the day”
So she did.
PC: “how busy is the area around his house”
DM: “Light traffic, though there is a market very near.”
PC: “Are there any buildings around his house, and does it have windows”
I have ward tables I can roll on to determine what various buildings are, I pick his house at random on the map in the chosen ward and I roll the buildings around it.
DM: “There are residences to either side, across the street there is an inn, a small apothecary, and a storage building. His house has windows, due to the heat they are usually open”
PC: “Does the inn have more than one floor”?
I have a table for that, I roll,
DM: “Yes it is two stories tall”
PC: I go to the Inn”
DM: “The Black Lion Inn has a fairly busy bar right now, the proprietor gives you a look as you enter”
PC: “Do you have any rooms, on the second floor if possible?”
I roll to see if any of the second floor rooms are available, I roll that one is
She asked which way it faced, I rolled and it faced the direction of the house.
PC: “I’ll take it”
So she took the room, and she sat in it for three days and nights with her spyglass, watching the comings and goings. I described the area (the yard is filled in the back with barrels and carts, the parts of the house you can see are opulent and clearly expensive, a giant lizard sits in the front yard tethered there for him to come and go…)
At this point it was time to roll on the DMG spying table to see if she was successful. Technically she was a 0 level apprentice, so I looked at the DMG spying table and it gave a 1st level assassin a 50% chance of success on an easy spying mission. As a ranger I figured she would have some experience sneaking up on animals in the wild and studying them, so I gave her a 20% chance of successfully spying.
If she was successful, I would give her useful information from her spying attempts. If she was not, I would give her little information.
She rolled successfully. So I decided that from that vantage point and for three days and nights of viewing, she would get three pieces of information (I rolled a d4 to see how much she learned)
1 - The door to the target’s room was visible to her from a window at the end of a hallway
2 - Clegas Aamm went to bed alone most nights around 11 and woke around 5
3 - He had armed guards at the house who stayed in the front foyer, about 50 feet from his door.
During the day when he received visitors there were two armed guards, overnight he had one guard.
So she decided to sneak in one night around 1am or so.
In 1e assassins get thief abilities, but only starting at 3rd level, she had none.
So if she was going to sneak in I had to decide how that works. In 1e if you try to sneak up on someone quietly you roll for surprise. As a ranger she surprises on a 3 in 6.
She waits until the street is clear of anyone (I roll for that) and she sneaks over in the dark. She goes to a window, pulls over one of the barrels (there were empty ones) and climbed in the window.
At this point I spoke to the player.
DM: “Let’s see if the guard is awake, it is 1 am and he might be dozing, there is a 2 in 6 chance he’s asleep”
I roll a 5
DM: “You listen and hear him clearing his throat and coughing, he’s awake”
PC - "Rats, I sneak up to the door".
So she has a 50% chance of surprise, but she’s not attacking the guard, she’s trying to get to the door quietly.
DM: “Roll for surprise to get to the door quietly”
She rolls and fails.
DM: “OK, the guard hears you”
PC: “But wait, maybe he just thinks that noise from outside the house, the windows are open, there are sometimes people moving around at night”
I thought about that, when a player thinks about the environment in that way I’m happy to reward it.
DM: “There is a 50% chance he just ignores the noise”
I roll it, he ignores the noise.
PC: I’ll sneak into the merchant’s room
I roll to see if he’s asleep, 4 in 6 chance of that, he’s sleeping.
DM: “you open the door and he’s sleeping”
She rolls for surprise again, she fails.
DM: “He wakes as you approach at the sound of a creaky floorboard”.
PC: “Can I cover his mouth?”
DM: “Roll for initiative”
We roll, she wins.
She rolls to hit, and does it easily.
She puts a blade at his throat, and presses it down until it just cuts the skin.
PC: “Make a noise and you die”
She takes his ring off his finger and whispers to him
PC - “Artemis sees you whenever the moon is out, leave her priests alone or else, there will not be
PC to me - “Can I stuff his mouth with something”?
DM - “you look around and see a silk scarf, a belt a hat and a cloak near the bed on a chair.
PC - “I stuff the scarf in his mouth, tie his hands with the belt and bolt for the door”
DM: “Roll for surprise to see if the guard hears you or hears his grunts”
PC rolls and fails
She is now out the door in the corridor, and has made enough noise that the guard will hear. Since this is the second time he heard a noise, he’s now going to look.
I look at the distance between him and her, and the distance from her to the window, she’s much closer to the window. So I look at movement rates, and see if he will come around the corner in time to see her before she heads out the window.
She makes it to the window first, is out and down.
I roll to see if there is anyone on the street, from an urchin, to a thief to a city ward patrol.
The street is empty. She bolts off into the night to hear the distant shouts of the merchant when the guard finds him. She takes the ring back to the priests to show she completed her task, she has delivered a message to the merchant that the temple can get to him.
She is now a 1st level holy warrior for the cult of Artemis.
We then switched to the PC going to the druid.
Druid’s IMC are all animal cultists, and each one wears a carved bone mask for their animal most of the time. Their contact wears a carved alligator mask.
The players knew the druid from an earlier adventure, as they had a positive relationship before I didn’t have to roll for reaction, and the PC asked a bunch of questions. He was using this NPC to get information about undead in the campaign.
No “lore check” roll here.
I let his questions lead the conversation.
PC - “Are undead common in the city, we have reason to believe there are some here”?
Druid - “No the sheer number of priests here makes it dangerous for them, we haven’t had undead in the city for years”
I just made that up on the spot.
PC - “Why would they be here now”?
Druid - “If they are here and not being destroyed by the temple clergy, they must be hidden or protected in some way”
So now they have caught wind of a possible conspiracy or know that the undead may not be working alone. Also made that up on the spot.
PC: “Where would they be hiding”?
Druid - “They wouldn’t be out during the day, and they would stay in places where they can’t be seen, they would not want the priests to come for them, but they would hunt by night in the dark then slink back to their hiding places.”
PC: “Maybe they would be in places that nobody would go to”
Druid - “That would be one way to avoid detection”
DM - I wasn’t sure where to put them, so I pinched this idea, they would be hiding in a place people don’t go to, and come out at night, thank you very much to my players. Never do the work when you don’t have to, throw them a few bones and watch them create your solutions.
PC: “Do you know where they are”?
Druid - “If they enter the forest around the coven we will sense it, the unliving blaze like a star to us, but we have no power elsewhere”
The idea is to give them some things, but not everything. They gained a few pieces of information by leaning on a past alliance with a faction in the city. This sort of factionalized play creates advantages and disadvantages, but it is crucial to success in a sandbox environment, where information is power.
So I don't roll for this information, they earned it through earlier play by creating relationships with factionalized NPCs.
So with some small talk that encounter ended.
The last individual mission was the party thief.
He goes to his guild contact (he has this from earlier in the campaign) and asks for information. I roll to see if the guild knows anything about this. Thieves skulk around at night and go to places others don’t go, so it isn’t a crazy idea that they might know something.
I decide it’s a 15% chance, and I roll it.
Their contact says it will cost to find out anything. The PC offers him a 200gp ruby to find out. The thief says it will take a week or so to gather information.
The PC takes out a 400gp emerald and tries to talk his contact into doing something faster. I roll an encounter reaction check and the result is positive. I decided since the first estimate was a week or so, I’ll peg that at 7 days, I roll a d6 to see how much faster the information will be with the extra gem, if I roll a 6 it’s 6 days, a bit faster, if I roll a 1 its 1 day, a lot faster.
I roll a 3. The PC has three to four days to do this (the PC ranger spied for three days then did the attack on the fourth) so they will have the info in three days, plenty of time.
I decide that the guild knows about two areas where the undead might be, but it is only two wards that are being identified, they don’t know a specific place in the wards.
Note that I don’t tell them the specific buildings, or PICK the Wards, thought that might be tempting, to make it easier or harder, or to direct the party to a particular part of the map. But I have NOTHING planned, so I let the dice decide, they will make it harder or easier on the party. This is important, if you start picking too much then you will likely work to make it harder or easier, if you roll, then the “hard” and “easy” dimensions of the adventure are not up to you, so it’s more naturalistic.
I roll randomly to see what Wards they note, and I get Ward 14 and Ward 24. Ward 14 is in the NE quadrant of the map, it’s huge with more than 100 buildings and roughly triangle shaped. Ward 14 is the military ward, filled with garrisons and soldiers. Ward 24 is mostly crops, and only has 28 buildings.
So the thief meets his contact and gains this information, cost = 600gp
The party all reconvenes at the Inn.
They pool information and decide to go to Ward 24 as it is the smallest. They will investigate during the day and come back at night to hunt.
They found a barge on the canal, paid the fare and went to the Ward for House Aerew, Ward 24, a crops ward that harvested vahela plants, used to make spices and medicinal herbs.
My city setting doesn’t detail every building, there are more than 1000 buildings in the city, it would take forever. Instead each Ward has a random table with representative buildings for that Ward.
If the PCs explore they can do one of two things:
1 - They can go building to building and I roll to see what each one is
2 - They can ask the locals where something is and I can arbitrarily place it and direct them there
This time they wanted to check every building.
So I told each of them to take out a percentage dice.
I drew a quick hand sketch of the buildings in the ward in relative position and numbered them.
Then they went around the table rolling, as they approached each building they would roll the number and tell me and I would write down what the building was and tell them, and gave each numbered building an entry.
There are three buildings in every Ward that are not rolled randomly, the warlock’s tower (they are the tall 3d columns on the map) and the two largest buildings in the ward, one is the garrison and the other is the temple. There is a temple ward and each ward has its own temple.
So we started going around the table, we rolled a restaurant, an inn, a tavern, residences, several markets, storage buildings, stables, a grocer or two, an alchemist, a seer, and an astrologer.
They all immediately wanted to go to the seer.
So they did.
They walked in and we had about 10 min left in the session. I asked why a group of 7 had come in together. Before they answered, one of the PCs mentioned that the seer could be involved with the undead, so they had to watch how they asked their questions.
PC - “We need to know something of the future, where to find something of interest to all of us so we all came, can you help”?
Seer - “I can read the cards for your group, see what I see”
I took out my tarot cards. I always bring tarot to the game. I don’t read them formally, as that takes too long and I don’t want to be constrained by the cards I have.
So I make up an arrangement, in this case the four point star, and I lay the cards out. I decide when I see the cards what each position stands for, and what the card in that position signifies. This is riskier as you have to interpret it on the spot, but it is more adaptable as I can interpret it in any way I like to fit the situation.
So I flipped the first card, it was a knight. A paladin had joined the party 4 sessions ago (new player), so I said:
“This card is the key, the key to your success, and it is the knight of pentacles, the magic knight”
They all squealed, they are now convinced the paladin will be key to their success, and as he can turn undead, this fits completely.
I turn over the second card, it is a eight of swords, and depicts a woman bound, with her eyes blindfolded, and eight swords around her, stuck in the ground. I look at the list of buildings, then I say:
“This card is place, the blindfolded figure suggests that this is someone who sees without eyes”
My campaign is set in a Vancian far far future, a few thousand years before the sun burns out, the solar system has eight planets, with Pluto out of the running.
“The and the eight swords must signify the eight planets, the place you must go has someone who sees the planets without eyes”
The party looks over the list, there is an astrologer’s place of business. That fits the bill.
The third card I flip is the seven of cups, it has cups with various things in them, the person looking at the cups appears to be looking at the 5th cup, it is filled with coins and such. Since the last card was “place”, I think “face” for this one. I say:
“The face, the appearance of the thing you seek, will be wealth, riches.”
They chatter and think that the undead they find will perhaps be a merchant, or will be gaudily dressed, or have obvious signs of wealth, maybe a vampire, definitely not a ghoul or a skeleton. Then they wonder if it might be a zombie with jewelry rather than a rusty helmet, or undead controlled by a wealthy warlock..
I file all these ideas as I haven’t picked the kind of undead yet, and any one of these sounds fine to me.
I flip the last card, it’s a three of swords. Three swords piercing a heart. This one comes to me instantly. I say:
“The seer pulls back, and takes in a breath, then looks at you all gravely. This card speaks to loss, all ventures suffer some sort of loss, in this case it is death, there will be three deaths in this endeavor”
The players start to talk, jumping out of their chairs, shaking their heads.
PC - “But wait, that could be others that die, not us!”
At this point we have about a minute left, so I decide to mess with them.
Seer - “I’m afraid not, the heart indicates the death will be of someone you know, someone who matters to you, it will not be strangers that die”
And that was the session.
The party has 5 henchmen in the group, and I might send along the priest from the temple of Athena who found the bodies along with an assistant low level priest, so that’s 7 NPCs to go along with the 7 party members. To fulfill my quota three will have to die.
The great part about the game is that just running the encounters BTB there is a good chance that any of the NPCs can die (henchmen have 1-6 hp each), so I will just see how it goes and I shouldn’t have to do much. Or of course one of the party members might die too...
ObservationsA few things to note here.
In each case I didn’t have anything prepped in particular, the PCs choices suggested courses of action. I just needed to have a setting in the background to respond.
I rolled for a lot of things by assigning percentages based on the situation. Gygax recommends doing this when you don’t have a mechanic for something. This allows me to capture the party’s actions in a game mechanic without having to have a “single rule for everything”, or “rules for everything”, it keeps me adaptable. However, when there was an existing rule (e.g. the assassin spying table) I used it, even if that meant a bit of modification for the situation. I also used encounter reaction rolls in a few places, but there were minimal social mechanics that supported an entire session of social role play.
I adapted the game rules to allow a player to play what they want. I think this is very important. I run a game for kids, I can’t really have them running around as paid assassins, I’m sure their parents wouldn’t like that. But holy warriors for the temple of a good god, carrying out their divine will and smiting evil? That’s cool. I want to let the players explore the game, if a class can’t be used in my game for some reason I can reskin it to make it acceptable so the player can get access to the class.
I think that’s the way you do this.
The game is not “all combat”, nary a sword was unsheathed or a spell was cast in aggression in this adventure. It was two hours of information gathering, alliances with representatives of factions and exploration.
I used my players to get ideas rather than planning them out myself. I started with bare bones (there are undead in the city!) and each step of their investigation inspired me to a new piece of the puzzle in real time. They now have a potential conspiracy theory, an faction on their side in the temples of Athena and Artemis, and a direction for their next few sessions. All of this was done in real time during the session.
The tarot cards have also given me inspiration to fill this out, they will be going to the astrologers, so she is involved in some way, they will also have to encounter wealth in some way as the “face” of the undead they seek. I have a week to come up with ideas, you don't need to sort everything out ahead of time or on the spot.
I let the dice stand. There were many places where I could have interfered to make this “easier” or “harder”, but instead I let the dice surprise the players and me. By doing this the adventure unfolded before me without a lot of work on my part. Success was not “automatic” or by “DM fiat” as the dice did a lot of the decision making, and if you look there were many successful and unsuccessful rolls in the session, each one forced both the PCs and me to adapt.
This sort of organic, back and forth reaction based play drives the session and keeps it fresh, challenging and exciting to everyone.
This is what OSR style D&D looks like, it’s fun, open ended and challenging.