So I’ve mentioned Justin Alexander’s website before, The Alexandrian. He has developed an idea called Node-Based Scenario Design. His site has a whole series of articles on it. I’m going to try and summarize the concept, but if you want you can read the whole thing on his site, starting with Node-Based Scenario Design – Part 1: The Plotted Approach. Since we have been talking about the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver, and since a sandbox can’t be handled in a linear way, I thought introducing the concept of Nodes, along with some of Alexander’s other design ideas, would be helpful to DMs who aren’t sure how to run a sandbox adventure.
The basic principles of Node-Based Scenario design are these:
The easiest way to identify nodes is to look at the locations you want your PCs to explore, or the locations you think are most likely for them to explore. I think there are other types of nodes, but this seems the easiest to wrap your head around. And it applies to our problem of the sandbox, too, because we’ve already identified four locations in the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver.
Seed Clues with the Inverted Three Clue Rule
The Three Clue Rule states: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. The reasoning behind this is that with three clues, you have enough redundancy to ensure that the PCs will find and correctly interpret at least one of the clues, preventing a bottleneck and keeping the scenario moving forward.
This logic leads to the Inverted Three Clue Rule: If the PCs have access to ANY three clues, they will reach at least ONE conclusion.
So if we look at Phandalin as our starting node, we can label the four locations in the sandbox as A, B, C and D. In Phandalin, we have seeds leading to each of those four nodes. Now, we do the following.
- Node A: Place clues leading to nodes B, C and D.
- Node B: Place clues leading to A, C and D.
- Node C: Place clues leading to A, B, and D.
- Node D: Place clues leading to A, B and C.
Using this approach, you can be sure that the PCs will find some of the clues, and will therefore go to some of the locations in the sandbox. As written, there are also two locations (Thundertree and Conyberry) that can potentially lead to Cragmaw Castle (the end of “The Spider’s Web” section) and Wave Echo Cave (the location for Part 4 of the adventure). You can decide to add that same information to any of the other nodes in the sandbox section, to ensure that the PCs actually know how to get to those two vital story locations.
Prepping the Nodes
So you’ve got four nodes, and you don’t know for sure which nodes your PCs will decide to go to. How do you prepare? In his article “Don’t Prep Plots, Prep Situations,” Alexander lays out the following design principles:
- Three Clue Rule: For any given problem in an adventure, you need to prep at least one possible solution, and remain open to any other solutions the PCs come up with. But for a chokepoint problem, prep at least three possible routes to success. A chokepoint problem is one that would halt the player’s progress in the scenario.
- Goal-Oriented Opponents: Instead of trying to predict what your players will do, focus on what the bad guys want to do. This can also apply to NPCs who are not necessarily opponents–determine what the NPC normally does or wants to do. This can be a simple bullet list, or a detailed timeline. It’s up to you and how much time you have or want to spend.
- Don’t Prep Contingencies: Don’t get caught up in trying to determine what the NPC will do if the PCs get in the way. This is exactly what you are trying to avoid! If you know what the NPC wants or what it normally does, you can respond to the PCs actions in the moment, at the table.
- Know Your Toolkit: In order to react appropriately to the PCs actions, while you’re at the table, you need to know what you have to work with. What resources does the NPC have, that they can use to respond? Typical tools are: equipment, personnel, locations, and information. This is particularly important for prepping a possible confrontation with a “bad guy”, but can be useful for any NPC that is not already an ally to the PCs. Because any neutral NPC can become an adversary depending on what the NPC is like, and what the PCs choose to say or do. Like any toolbox, you need to know what each tool does. A hammer is used with nails; a screwdriver is used with screws. Figure out what each resource (location, personnel, equipment, information) can do, so if the PCs toss you a “nail” you know you can reach for the “hammer”.
If you use the principles in this article, you can prep each “node” in the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver in a minimal way. You can be reasonably certain that the players will find the information they need to get to the next part of the story, and reasonably certain they will find whatever other information you seed in those locations (such as clues leading to other locations for future adventures).
Next time, I’ll show you how to use these principles, by setting up those nodes myself.