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Home » Exploration in Sandbox – Following The Legend of Long-lost Fire Wyrm’s Arrows

Exploration in Sandbox – Following The Legend of Long-lost Fire Wyrm’s Arrows

I show efficient and engaging way to handle map exploration in my Forbidden Lands sandbox. Though the party haven't discovered a large part of Ravenland, the travel and survival were the main parts of our game.
I show the efficient and engaging way to handle map exploration in my Forbidden Lands sandbox. Though the party hasn’t discovered a large part of Ravenland, travel and survival were the main parts of our game.

The company of aspiring ruin pillagers sets out under Grulf the Ailander. The challenging mountains of the Thynde Range are closing in above the horizon. Thus, the central part of most sandbox games begins — the exploration. I love how the Forbidden Lands mechanics really bring that out. And with just a few additions of my own, it quickly became the primary plot-driver.

How the sandbox exploring works in the Forbidden Lands

When I read the rulebook, I thought that journey and exploration are very arduous tasks, mechanics-wise. I thought the number of rolls needed per every hex crossed was huge. It goes like this:

  1. Lead the Way
  2. Making Camp.
  3. One person probably would Sleep on the Ground before the camp is set to regenerate before the night watch.
  4. Meanwhile, the rest of the party would probably look for food or water.
  5. Every one in the party needs to eat
  6. …and drink.
  7. At night, the look-out is testing Scouting

Now, every point above requires a roll (1-4 are all rolls for Survival). 5 and 6 are rolls using resources dice – one per party member. In the case of my sandbox campaign, the total of rolls per hex explored was 11. Eleven rolls to just handle the basics. Excluding 6 rolls of resource dice, the players could double it, should they want to push their rolls. And with any mishap, encounter, or action by a PC – the number of tests could easily reach 20.

But it was not as bad as it sounds

The thing is that the exploration in the sandbox RPG isn’t just a means to reach the goal of completing a quest. In this case, that would be getting to the castle to which the legend generator pointed. But “the quest” is just a pretext for the characters to move around. Like in this long-overused saying that the journey is more important than the destination. When you think in these terms, you’ll quickly see that exploration of every area in the game world could be material for a whole tale.

In our game, the first Making Camp roll during the journey ended in a mishap. Well, the Survival test was successful, but I secretly rolled an abstract encounter from my homebrew table (see below for the link). The dice yielded “fear” and “poison.” During the night, I asked each player to roll for Endurance. One who didn’t pass – Hrod – experienced terrible nightmares due to a plant growing in the area that produced hallucinogenic pollen. The riddle of what exactly happened that night took a good part of the session. It even evolved into a side-quest. The party decided to harvest some of the plants and ask the midwife Nirvea about it.

Exploration of a Sandbox – Into the Unknown (?)

One thing I don’t especially like in the Forbidden Lands exploration rules, though, is the way the proposed handling of the map. By default, the GM is advised to Place the large map in the middle of the table and allow the players to ponder and discuss where they want to go. I understand that it’s very inspiring for the players and adds an aesthetic aspect to the game since the map provided with the game is beautiful. But at the same time, it ruins the feeling of venturing into the unknown realm that the Ravenland supposedly is. If the players can see how far they are from the infamous Alderstone is or how far the mountain range spans, they plan differently. And if they only have vague rumors and legends to base on, the world feels deeper and more exciting.

How to use a map in a hex-crawl

One option was to go by the rules, but I didn’t really consider it. I wanted this suspense of exploration to play out in my sandbox campaign. Then, I thought about covering the printed map with some transparent foil. Thus, I could cover it with stickers or whiteboard markers and reveal it piece by piece when the party explored the land. But it proved to be hard to make in practice.

Finally, I decided to print a blank hex map and fill it with types of terrain as the players explored it. I wrote major geographical names around their actual locations but didn’t draw specific borders. The photo you see at the top of this post reflects the state of the game when we finished our campaign. In the beginning, I filled only 4 or 5 hexes the party moved through on the first session. The adjacent but unexplored ones I colored only lightly to give the players a hint on where they’re heading.

There are more possibilities to handle exploration mapping in a sandbox RPG, for sure. Here, I tried to show you how I did it in my game. It proved to be efficient and fun. Also, we’ve been playing mixed online and live games, so having a tangible map to draw on was very convenient. I’m curious what sandbox, exploration-oriented systems you run or play in. How do you keep track of what areas the party has visited and what they can find around the corner?

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