I am an unabashed Paizo fanboy. I have been since the first volume of Rise of the Runelords was in my hot little hands. I’ve been a Paizo subscriber since the company was formed, in fact. I feel a lot of ownership in their stuff– like I’ve been there from the beginning. I know I’m biased, but considering the number of awards they’ve earned over their history for adventure design, layout, and production it’s easy to call them the best adventure-writing company in the business currently.
Their latest Adventure Path (a concept they pioneered way back in the Dungeon/Dragon days) is called Kingmaker, and it’s something of an experiment for them. The irony is that the experiment they are running is a version of the sandbox style of play, which gamers have been doing in one form or another since pretty much the beginning. Kingmaker is an attempt to hybridize the Adventure Path format with the Sandbox format, and I’m not sure anybody has tried to do that yet– and if they have, it hasn’t been done well enough to garner a lot of acclaim. But I trust Erik, James, Jason and the rest of the Paizo crew. If anybody can pull that knife-edge off, they can.
The Massive Internet Debate over which style of play is “better” is, as far as I am concerned, ludicrous. We play in an entirely subjective environment when we roleplay. Comparing one way of getting your fun with another way of getting your fun is comparing apples and Flux capacitors the way I see it. So long as the fun is being had, how you get there doesn’t matter to me one whit. Which is why when the trolls start screaming at the top of their lungs that “sandboxes have no resolution!” and “railroads enslave the players and take away free will!” I just want to laugh–loudly– in their faces.
I’m going to stop here for a moment to define terms as I see them. Sandbox is usually defined as a style of play with no over-arching plot that is the focus of the entire campaign. It usually is associated with a more Old School style of play, high character mortality, a more referee-style of GMing, as well as lots of exploration and situations where the encounters a party runs into are not specifically tailored to their level and abilities.
Adventure Paths, on the other hand, are a fairly tightly-scripted series of events, usually focused around a main antagonist and his/her plans for nastiness. Associated with the Storyteller/Director style of GMing– sacrificing full impartiality of the dice in favor of the story. Characters tend to die less because they are usually tied integrally into the storyline. Exploration is usually less prevalent and most encounters are usually calibrated to within a small margin of the party’s power level.
So what happens if we mishmash the two? Put them in a room together for a while, let them mate, and raise the little mutant baby to full health. Well, there’s a medium that already does this: video games.  From Baldur’s Gate back in the day to modern games like Fable, Jade Empire, and the recent Dragon Age: Origins, video game developers have done an incredible job of mixing up adventure path elements as well as more free-form sandbox elements to make for some supremely enjoyable results.
[VIDEO GAME SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]
They combine an overarching storyline, often with multiple nested quests that chain to form the Big Picture. Dragon Age does an exceptional job of this because there are several mega-quests, each with their own numerous sub-quests, that can be tackled in any order. Your character is tasked with gathering allies from a bunch of different, disparate groups, and the tasks for gaining each group’s assistance can be tackled in any order. If you want to go talk to the elves first, you can, and tackle all those quests. Or you can talk to the dwarves, or the mages, or try to help the humans unite against a common foe… etc etc. The overarching metaplot demands that all these tasks get completed, but the order is entirely up to the player.
In these massive video game RPGs, a lot of things happen that we can mimic in our own tabletop games if we are looking to emulate the success of these games. Industry-wide, one of the biggest competitors for tabletop games are video games, so we might as well learn from the competition, no?
- Front-Load Your Story: If we’re mish-mashing sandbox and standard adventures, you’ve got a villain in the story. In nearly every successful video game RPG, the protagonist encounters the Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal somewhere near the very beginning of the game. Usually associated with some kind of horrific villainous event, the PC faces very early on the guy he’s going to have to kill at the very end. This creates a psychological link to the endgame, and helps keep the villain in the PCs mind as they progress. In DA:O, it’s the darkspawn. Baldur’s Gate had Sarevok. Jade Empire had Death’s Hand. To use a movie example, even Star Wars had Darth Vader stalking into that shiny white corridor in the first couple minutes of the flick. Putting your villains up front gives the PCs someone to hate– an amazingly motivating psychological force.
To continue the example in this post, if I’m going to build a campaign around the Iron Dwarves invading the rest of Brittanis, I need to figure out who I am going to present to the PCs as the villain (even if he’s not the actual BBEG. I can plot-twist that later if I so choose). Because 4E is so conveniently divided into tiers, I decide that I actually want THREE BBEGs, each forming a kind of nested metaplot. I personally find it easiest to work backwards here, figuring out the “biggest” badguy in the scenario and then figure out how the rest of the story unfolds underneath them. The story I developed earlier had the Iron Dwarves freeing themselves from the rule of the aboleths who created them… but what if the aboleths were still around?
I decide that the fishy aberrations realized as their creations rose in power that if they continued to be an overt force over the Iron Dwarves, their new servitors would rebel and possibly slay their masters. Instead they chose to become the power behind the throne and manipulate their creations instead of ruling over them. I get a wild idea and decide that the Blackwrought Crown, symbol of the kingship over the Iron Dwarves is actually a parasitic psionic item, enslaving the ruler of the Iron Dwarves. They have a legend that once the Crown is put on, it can never be taken off because the duty of the King is never-ending… but the truth is that it burrows into his skull making him the puppet of his aboleth masters, and removing it would kill him. Ironically, becoming the ruler of the slaver dwarves makes one a slave in return. I also decide that there might be other psionic parasite items the party will run across… which I’ll get to later.
I need a metaplot, something for the aboleths to DO and to use the Iron Dwarves as their pawns in accomplishing. When thinking epic level, the DMG encourages us to think big. I go reading through Lords of Madness, the 3.5 supplement with fully 1/3 of the book dedicated to aboleths, and I run across this, referencing beings or entities that aboleths pay homage to:
Shothotugg (Eater of Worlds): Shothotugg… is one of the few Elder Evils to exist entirely within the realm of the Material Plane. Shothotugg dwells in a distant corner of the multiverse, physically far removed from the world itself. An undulant mass of seething fluid the size of a mountain, Shothotugg travels through the gulfs of space from world to world, poisoning and parasitizing any world on which it alights. With each destruction, the fundamental forces in the Material Plane shift ever so slightly, but over time, these changes significantly alter the multiverse. Shothotugg is honored in aboleth structures by the placement of large pools and fountains of magically treated and colored liquids that are much heavier than water, or by swirling vortex patterns laid into the floor.
From this I get the symbol of the Iron Empire: a black swirling vortex pattern on a field of red. Now my dwarves have a flag, and that makes me smile. In addition, it gives me a metaplot! As far as D&D goes, what is the single most destructive monster in the Manual, no matter what edition you’re playing? Great Wyrm Red Dragon? Nope. Elder Purple Wyrm? Nope.
The tarrasque. And it’s called THE tarrasque, because it’s so badass there’s only one. In the entire world, there’s only the single tarrasque. Monster Manual says it slumbers in the center of the world… where the aboleths happen to live. And the aboleths have a god-figure who lives bazillions of light years away, gobbling up universes. What if the aboleths created the tarrasque as an engine of destruction to honor Shothotugg, an homage in epically powerful flesh to their Elder Evil of Galactus-level carnage? The tarrasque sleeps for long periods, just as the aboleths do, and wakens periodically to wreak havoc on…well, everything. Okay, that’s cool. But just waking up the tarrasque isn’t really epic-scale enough. Yes, it’s a level 30 Solo, but I’m not talking game mechanics, I’m talking story. I think the aboleths who are ruling the Iron Dwarves from the shadows are trying to waken the tarrasque for a reason.
What reason could be bigger than the Tarrasque, you ask? Why, that Elder Evil floating around the cosmos is what. I think the aboleths made the Tarrasque as an exarch of Shothotugg and wakening Big Daddy T causes Ol’ Shothy to sit up and pay attention, drawing him closer to or world with every mighty breath the Tarrasque takes. Thing is, the amount of energy needed to keep the Tarrasque awake is tremendous. And for the sake of argument let’s say it runs on psychic energy. So we’ve got a chain here.
- Aboleths revere Shothotugg and want to summon him to our world– pretty much the Apocalypse.
- Shothotugg focuses on our world while the Tarrasque, his exarch, is awake.
- Aboleths need to find a way to “feed” the tarrasque psychic energy on a regular basis to keep him active instead of going dormant again so that Shothotugg continues his journey to our world.
- Aboleths originally create Iron Dwarves to “harvest” the psychic energy from them using massive psionic rituals.
- Iron Dwarves, however, take a psychic imprint from their aboleth creators and become slave-masters themselves, unaware of their race-wide manipulation. They begin enslaving other races and fitting them with the psionic slave collars, which effectively link all the slaves together.
- Under their enslaved King, the Iron Dwarves have invaded the lowlands in attempt to conquer and enslave anyone and everyone they can. The Darth Vader analog for them will be a dwarf augmented by the psionic science of his people into a mighty warlord called the Omnitar (or a better name if I can come up with it. It might end up as a place holder)
- The Omnitar has led a campaign to enslave the giants and goblinoids of the mountains nearest their kingdom. Several tribes have fled into civilized lands, banding together for survival against the implacable and powerful Iron Dwarves out of necessity. At first it appears that an invasion has begun– in fact, the first adventure will likely be a normal-seeming adventure against humanoids– but all of this is smashed to bits when the Omnitar attacks the humanoids while the PCs are present, slaughtering and enslaving at will.
So there it is– in a nutshell, the over-arching metaplot of the campaign. Next time, I’m going to go into how to use your metaplot to build up your sandbox elements.
 I feel the same way about The Edition Wars. I’ve been a gamer since the Rules Cyclopedia when Elf and Dwarf were character classes, and I appreciate the progression of our game through the years. I personally prefer 4E, but enjoy the Pathfinder that my beloved Paizo has put out too. Different flavors of ice cream– all of them yummy. The nasty, namecalling, elitist bickering has no place in our hobby. Unless you’re talking smack to an goblin right before you take his lunch money.
 I’m NOT talking about MMOs . Games like Guild Wars and WoW, because of their multi-player, single-quest format do not have the kind of playstyle I’m referencing here.