About Me

Monday, February 29, 2016


So, the Mongols were the first to use what is known as topological map in their military operations, but in mapping your Sandbox, what you are doing is beyond topology.

Let me explain. I knew a guy very long time ago. He wrote a novel, based on his experience playing the famous A-series of the AD&D Modules. He freely wrote of the Magic Users and Rangers, and of the events in those modules. You know, what the problem with his novel was? He could never publish it as his own work, make money off it or gain recognition - it was all TSR's copyrighted material. TSR's logo, "Products of your Imagination" took on a new and sinister meaning for me.

Let's say you run a D&D game or an OSR clone. You set it in Forgotten Realms, or in the Dark Sun, or in a dozen other commercially available settings. Let's say you find an adventure you like and a bunch of pre-generated NPC's from a supplement you got off e-bay. None of it is your stuff. Every DM I know, customizes every game product to fit their unique fantasy world. What OSR Renaissance really consists of is a bunch of would be Gygaxes creating their own campaign settings, but using someone else's game mechanics under the open license system.

So, the task before any DM is to separate the wheat from the chaff, their unique world from what they borrow from others, so that ultimately, they can develop and publish their own unique ideas. What follows next is to make the topological map of your sand-box. Take elements and images that make up your own unique setting, fantasy, story, and put them on paper, connect them, as it would make sense in a story or a movie.

I know what is in my Midlands setting - my love of landscapes, man-made and natural, some years of field reconnaissance in the military, my love of the wilderness adventure, mystery, mysticism, indecipherable alien artefacts. This is what my map looked like, a list written on a piece of paper:






My next map was of the Barony, the base for the players:


(Mad Wizard Turf)                                                                                                             (Barony)


BURNED LANDS (Burnt forest) South of the Blacklands Barony






DESERT WASTELAND (Demon Coast North Frontier)

After that I drew a regular topographic map of the Barony and its outlaying areas.

I had thought about the Midlands setting for two years or so, before putting it on paper. To show how to map the Sandbox, I will use the example of a sci-fi story I worked on over 30 years ago, and will use the mapping process to make an RPG setting for it:

CENTRAL CONCEPT: Forest on the edge of the desert with hard wind blowing through mighty trees all the time. Local scavengers (humans) make webs of the steel wire strung across the trees to catch stuff - junk and artefacts blown by the wind.

Desert hides an old battlefield

Spider scavenger forest is in the foothills among the crags and canyons channeling the desert wind.

CONCEPT: Space travel experience is piloting by instruments - combination of the WW2 Submarine and the Flying Fortress experience.

Pirate Spaceship Marooned or Laying Low in the Area

Bearded Captain lives in the bridge area of the ship.

His crew camps in the tent camp outside, sheltered from the wind

A spider scavenger human outcast lives in a hut surrounded by rusting equipment. He checks his webs periodically.

Sparse other Scavenger homesteads in the area

MAD MILLER - NPC - Imperial Biologist, lives alone in the maze of wind blown sand stone canyons.

His wife divorced him because he wouldn't grow up.

You navigate the windblown desert in rusty old tracked tractors covered with sheet metal, called Crawlers

Scavenger NPC has a crawler rusting in his yard.

BEASTIES - sentient native animals living in the canyons on the edge of the desert.  Miller knows they are intelligent and does not report them to his superiors as he should.

BEASTIES friends with and protect Mad Miller.

Hunting intelligent beings is an illegal sport.

Miller was going to guide a hunter of intelligent creatures to make a lot of money to get off the world and start a new life, but changes his mind.

BEASTIES trusted Miller and his friends in their total innocence, Hunter was a degenerate about to murder them with his firepower, but Miller murdered him in the fit of conscience.

Miller dragged the body, as well as all of the gear and evidence onto the hunter's ship, and then programmed the autopilot to accidentally fly into an asteroid belt at high speed, thereby erasing his tracks.

As you can see, this is a brainstormed story with coalescing Traveler adventure/setting elements. There are NPC's, Places that can actually be mapped, and possible story hooks:

Wife wants to get Miller back of wants players to escort her to him.

Hunters family hired players to solve the mystery of his disappearance.

Players hunting the Pirate Captain.

Players Marooned on the World.

Players are Pirates' prisoners forced to escape.

Players are treasure hunters, need to explore desert, they did not know was inaccessible due to sand storms.

One thing to keep in mind - if your adventure map is your sandbox, and there are no foreign elements, say, from another setting. If the players are not traversing a topographical map, but a topological map of your story, then they can not throw your game by refusing to go into your dungeon, because they are effectively IN your world from the beginning.

I have no problem with topographic maps, and use the other maps for mapping the social terrain, make node maps for social encounter based adventuring. My players can literally go anywhere they like, crossing the geographic map as a tabletop game, while also navigating the topological map of the story that the DM secretly keeps track of.


  1. I really like this. I love mixing genres, I'll put science fiction elements in, and not really explain them in a way that the players know what they are. It is fun to describe items in terms that the characters would understand, verses how we as players would describe it. What would a fantasy character think of a lightbulb? Clearly some form of magic is in place.

  2. Describing everyday things in an alien, unusual, and an original way forces people to re-examine things that they take for granted. It's an old technique in fiction. Lone Wolf gamebooks series 2 Caverns of Kalte does that to light-bulbs - as in - you walk down a long tunnel lit by magical glass spheres emitting warm light... Magic as technology? I am not sure... I think that Ancient Egyptians believed in magic, but if their high priests laid their hands on a modern assault rifle, they would examine the device, how it shoots and ejects rounds, and some of them would figure it for what it is - a powerful alien artefact to kill people, and they might even arm their troops with it without knowing how it operates.

    Technology as magic would NOT work in Midlands, because of the way I set up physics, Scientific Method is invalid - i.e. you can conduct the same scientific experiment twice, and get differing results. You wouldn't have the consistency to build an electric lightbulg in Midlands - a few might not work at all, one would work great, and one might go off like dynamite! That's why Midlands relies on Wizards working in Guilds. Of course, if the same Wizards ended up in our mundane and mortal world, they would figure out our pohysics and mathematics, and who knows what else, and would become passable scientists. If a Midlands Lich was to survive the transition into our world, who knows, it might master nuclear engineering or rocket science, and might even develop anti-gravity or some other new and high technology, that would seem like magic to us. It would be harder for our science and engineers to transition into Midlands Magic Users, except for a few Philosophers of Science - Hawkins, Asimov, Einstein, maybe Gould, who would be able to grasp the nature of Midands and adapt to traditions of Magical Research, as for the rest, most will end up as scribes, bean counters, and errand boys.