Not biting off more than you can chew in a Sandbox

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Suppose you were not running a linear narrative of a campaign but allowing the characters to explore their environment Sandbox style. Rather than placing artificial limits on what the PCs encounter, scaled to their level (e.g. yes, the rumors of giants in the hills you heard about are actually just orcs and ogres because you're only 4th level), how would you allow the players to anticipate what challenges are within their current power and which far above or below their current capacities?

I'm thinking of allowing characters to make the appropriate monster knowledge skill checks about an entire adventure site (possibly using the most prevalent rumored monster inhabitant to determine the DC) before they set out to make such a determination.

Does that sound right to you? Have others implemented a similar or alternative mechanism to allow for less tailored railroading in their game? 
The few times I ran sandbox style games I was actually running a bunch of short prebuilt adventures hooked one into the other. (This was back in 3.5)

At the end of one adventure, the party would decide where to go next, usually with two or three ways they could go. There would be hooks for every way they might head and depending on what they chose I would grab the appropriate adventure pack.

It worked pretty well. Gave the campaign a very episodic feel. With each adventure being resolved on average in two sessions.

I always had way more prebuilt adventures than needed, so some would be skipped over as they out-leveled those and moved on to other options which happened to be close enough to catch their interest.
When the players encounter a monster you can always add in a phrase like "the massive giant in front of you seems like more than a match, you get the distrinct feeling in your gut that you shouldn't aggrevate it." Or give them a round of combat and if they think after it they're in over their heads give them the opportunity to escape somehow "you strike at the giant, but your blows seem little more than a nuissance to it."
how would you allow the players to anticipate what challenges are within their current power and which far above or below their current capacities?

I'm thinking of allowing characters to make the appropriate monster knowledge skill checks about an entire adventure site (possibly using the most prevalent rumored monster inhabitant to determine the DC) before they set out to make such a determination. Does that sound right to you?

Yes.

Have others implemented a similar or alternative mechanism to allow for less tailored railroading in their game? 

I use LFR adventures, which provide scaled stats for many levels. Even if you don't use the adventures, the pre-made encounters could still be repurposed.

Encourage the use of knowledge checks. If the players spot the giants and do their check, give them indicators it'll be a hard battle.

It flows very naturally as sizing up your enemy or charging it recklessly.

Of course, you'll want to tell the players this before they charge in assuming everything is level scaled.   
I'm thinking of allowing characters to make the appropriate monster knowledge skill checks about an entire adventure site (possibly using the most prevalent rumored monster inhabitant to determine the DC) before they set out to make such a determination.

Does that sound right to you? Have others implemented a similar or alternative mechanism to allow for less tailored railroading in their game? 



You could do that, but I typically see monster knowledge skill checks get used most when a monster is actually encountered, or if the PCs hear a specific name of a creature and make a check as a reaction to that. If the players are in a town or something and they just tell you that they are wanting to gather info about a geographical area, I would tend to roleplay all of that rather than solve it with a monster knowledge check; they could talk to some NPCs or what have you. Maybe use Streewise. You could just improv it; that is part of the fun of a sandbox.
Encourage the use of knowledge checks. If the players spot the giants and do their check, give them indicators it'll be a hard battle.

It flows very naturally as sizing up your enemy or charging it recklessly.

Of course, you'll want to tell the players this before they charge in assuming everything is level scaled.   



And if they fail their checks: "This thing is obviously more powerful than anything you know about." ;)
Hmmmm, monster knowledge checks generally are set up such that the higher level monsters are harder to learn information about. This is a good setup in terms of thinking of monsters sort of like wildlife. The creatures that are relatively common and well-known to most people are going to be weak enough that they don't just eat the whole town. In other words if your world is modeled where the places that humans and demi-humans live is the most mundane area, then distant areas and highly unusual creatures are likely more powerful and less well-understood. This breaks down in a couple ways though. First of all when a creature is not really well-known but is legendary (IE the dragon that lives in the mountain up north, nobody alive has seen it and lived to tell, but general information is still not too hard to come by) then knowledge checks don't work. That gets even more odd WRT mythic beings. I mean everyone would probably know that the Platinum Dragon is good, etc. even if they will never ever meet it or anyone that ever met it.

So, the question is do knowledge checks really serve well? What happens when the PCs consider heading into the mountains? Do they have to make a Paragon DC check to know better than to go mess with giants? Certainly a paragon check might be a good way to find out how to read giantish, learn specifics of the giants clans, etc. but knowing "There be giants in them thar hills, don't go there" seems like it might be better off being a lower level check that is easy for low level PCs to make. In fact it is arguable it shouldn't be a check at all. I'd perhaps consider something like SCs where you can learn basic info trivially, and have some chances to learn some other more interesting stuff, perhaps (IE it could be a paragon SC, but even making one success tells you accurately the general fact that giants live in the hills, surely even level 1 PCs will make one such check, and could perhaps use a ritual or some gold to get a certain success).
That is not dead which may eternal lie
My suggestion would be to use history checks instead of monster knowledge as history is the default for geography and locations (i.e. "here be dragons!").

I'd also discourage them from certain areas by having them run into solitary monsters of the appropriate type that have de-leveled but made into elites or even solos (ex. a basic Hill Giant is a Level 13 Brute, but you could represent it in an encounter for a level 4 party as a Level 6 Solo Brute and then let them know that they got lucky because this one was alone and they normally travel in bands of five or more so maybe they should turn back. If they choose to proceed then hit them with whatever makes sense until they either get the message or their carcasses end up in some Hill Giant's pot.
Thanks for the feedback, folks. There are many good ideas here. In particular, History checks make sense, followed up by the leveled down solo versions of monsters. Thanks, all!
Suppose you were not running a linear narrative of a campaign but allowing the characters to explore their environment Sandbox style. Rather than placing artificial limits on what the PCs encounter, scaled to their level (e.g. yes, the rumors of giants in the hills you heard about are actually just orcs and ogres because you're only 4th level), how would you allow the players to anticipate what challenges are within their current power and which far above or below their current capacities?



I just tell them because I assume the characters are capable enough to gauge such things better than the players can.

I'm thinking of allowing characters to make the appropriate monster knowledge skill checks about an entire adventure site (possibly using the most prevalent rumored monster inhabitant to determine the DC) before they set out to make such a determination.



What happens if they fail? If the answer is "nothing happens" or "you don't know" then I don't think that's a good use of a skill check. Skill checks should mean something changes, even when you fail otherwise it shouldn't be a roll. Giving them bad information is also not credible because any player with something functional between his ears will know not to trust information he got after rolling a 1 not matter how hard you may decry metagaming.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

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Just tell them, in no uncertain terms, that facing the enemy in question head on, or trying to kill it, will fail. They can decide for themselves how their characters arrive at this determination. However, make it clear that they can still travel to the location and engage in activities that don't involve taking the creature on. Discuss what those options might be and suggest things like scouting missions, rescue missions, and raids, wherein the point of the mission is to get in and get out. There can be encounters with lesser (ie. on-level) threats, and the main threat can loom and be hot on their heels as they exfiltrate, but it's pointless to risk pounding the players flat just for exploring the world.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

You might find a Hill Giant fighting 4 orcs, both parties injured. You might find a hill giant wounded from falling off the cliff who is recovering from a wound, or a hill giant child. You might also find a friendly hill giant who needs help from a "little" against his big mean brothers, "Fi, Fo and Fum".

I will have you find what is supposed to be there, however I will adjust the situation to ensure an appropriate level balance.


In my game, there isn't very many "normal encounters". Most often, something was happening before the PC's walked up and what they walk into can change depending on the circumstances. Normally, these "circumstances" allow many various defeat and victory conditions to be applied.

Within; Without.

You might find a Hill Giant fighting 4 orcs, both parties injured. You might find a hill giant wounded from falling off the cliff who is recovering from a wound, or a hill giant child. You might also find a friendly hill giant who needs help from a "little" against his big mean brothers, "Fi, Fo and Fum".

I will have you find what is supposed to be there, however I will adjust the situation to ensure an appropriate level balance.


In my game, there isn't very many "normal encounters". Most often, something was happening before the PC's walked up and what they walk into can change depending on the circumstances. Normally, these "circumstances" allow many various defeat and victory conditions to be applied.

Yes, I like this. I used to have a problem with random encounter tables, because even ones that were for the PCs' level would often have what seemed like extremely lethal encounters on them, right next to extremely trivial ones. I now realize that just because the roll comes up "young green dragon" doesn't have to mean a fight with a young green dragon. So, just because the players are headed to a region with a green dragon and don't know what they're getting into (though why wouldn't they) doesn't mean that the DM needs to flatten them. That's "logically" what would happen, but there are lots of other "logical" things that can happen, and many, many more if the situation is looked at with just a slightly more open mind.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

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