One of the major draws of a sandbox campaign is that players get to choose their own paths. But in order to make informed choices, players need setting information. There are two major ways of communicating such information: 1) setting documentation and 2) learning about the setting through play. Option 1 is also known as the infodump; published setting canon belongs to this category. Unsurprisingly, I favor the second method, but it does sort of beg the question: if you need info to play intelligently, and you gain info only by playing, does that mean that you must play stupidly to begin with?
You could take a hybrid approach, which I suspect is actually the most popular in the wild. Something like: read this small infodump, and then learn the rest through play. And I’m certainly not against some amount of background info (though it does have the tendency to grow once unleashed). However, under the principle of restricting preparation to elements likely to affect the game directly, there is a traditional structure that can be used: the rumor table.
It seems to me like we already have an integrated rumor table without any extra work required: the stocked hexes. You just need an impartial way of deciding which areas you want rumors to be about, and (optionally) their truthfulness. I’m not sure that much actual utility is gained by seeding false rumors (as is usually done in old modules), but it is easy enough to roll for truth if you so desire (maybe 1 in 6 rumors are false or misleading). Here is the method I am considering.
- 1 – 3: current hex
- 4 – 5: adjacent hex (roll again for direction)
- 6: farther hex (roll again for direction and for distance)
Optionally, in the case that a 6 is rolled for both farther hex and distance, you can have the possibility of a rumor from even farther afield. Here is one way to do this. Roll a d6 to “confirm” the far-distance rumor, and then another d6 for the actual distance and add it to the previous distance. Continue this process as long as you roll 6s on distance rolls. Or stop at the edge of your stocked hexes.
When PCs enter a hex, roll for one rumor automatically, no matter what the characters do. This information may be conveyed in any way you like, via encounter, dream, whatever. These may be framed in whatever way works best for your particular group (some ideas include: leads, quests, and direct encounters). I imagine the appropriate number of leads will vary by group.
Additional rumors can be uncovered by PC action. Maybe roll d6 more times, and maybe adjust that result by charisma or intelligence as appropriate to the context. For example, if the PCs are in a tavern, charisma is probably more relevant, but library research might use intelligence.
Example uses of the rumor system:
- Rumor roll: 3. Select a rumor from the current hex.
- Rumor roll: 4. Adjacent hex. Roll for direction: 3 (southeast).
- Rumor roll: 6. Farther. Roll for direction: 2 (northeast). Roll for distance: 6. Roll for even farther: 6. Roll for additional distance: 3. So, the rumor should be taken from 9 hexes away to the northeast.