I can’t really say why it’s happened, but all of a sudden it seems like sandbox-style adventures are back in vogue. Rather than following along (or rather, being “railroaded” along) a series of pre-determined plot points, the current zeitgeist of good adventure design seems to be that PCs should be given some minimal plot structure which grants them a large amount of freedom to wander around a map of a given area, exploring and basically making their own way through an adventure.
As with so many things that are suddenly popular, it’s not too hard to find examples where someone was already there, doing it before it became big. Case in point, Fighting Fantasy – Forest of Doom, by Greywood Publishing.
I never had the pleasure of reading the original Fighting Fantasy novels, so I can’t say how well this adventure holds up compared to them. However, what I did find interesting was the cover’s assertion that this is an adventure for a single character of 3rd-level, or a party of 1st-level characters. Solo adventures have always been much too rare.
From a technical standpoint, the book does a pretty good job for itself. The entire book is searchable, allowing for easy copy-and-paste, and there are full bookmarks throughout. One minor thing here was that the bookmarks aren’t nested – so the bookmark to a heading has the bookmarks for all of its sub-headings appearing right under it; it could have been done better.
Notwithstanding the covers, and one initial two-page map (actually the same map, presented with numbers and again without), there’s no color artwork here. The black and white art is fairly plentiful, however, and looks pretty good. Certainly, there’s room for improvement (quite a bit of it seemed like suspiciously clean pencil drawings), but nothing that was cringe-worthy.
My big problem with the book’s presentation is that the maps don’t have anything save for a loose scale between various numbered locations. Having only recently discovered the whole idea of hex-crawling (that is, exploring the individual hexes on an overland map), it seems like a great idea that wasn’t implemented here. Certainly, there’s no reason why the DM can’t deal with a looser interpretation of the distance between places, and relative travel times, but it seems like it could have been done more neatly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forest of doom is a sandbox “dungeon” set in the eponymous forest. The initial adventure setup can basically be summarized that a local dwarven kingdom has lost the magic item that’s a national symbol of pride and strength, and they want someone to go get it back for them – there’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it. Hence, the player is basically wandering throughout the forest, looking for clues and dealing with whatever situations he stumbles upon until he can find it.
The individual encounters are listed corresponding to the numbers on the DM’s map. Most are singular encounters, though some are detailed to the point of having a tactical map (with the one-inch squares) included. Likewise, most of these are self-contained, but some refer to each other and/or the overarching meta-plot of the adventure. It’s the essence of a sandbox game, though I personally would have included something along the lines of a random encounter table (given how much wandering through that forest the player-character is going to do), or at least a listing of what the major NPCs will do subsequent to meeting/fighting the PC (if they survive).
It should be noted that, before the adventure begins, there’s a section on a new ability score, called Luck. This seventh ability score, meant for PCs only, basically functions similarly to action points; characters can make a luck check to grant themselves bonuses, reduce damage, and several other things. Of course, every time you use a luck ability, successful or not, your luck score goes down by 1, a la temporary ability damage. It’s really quite simple for how it’s presented, and functions just as well as the more popular action point alternative.
The book is rounded out with three appendices. The first covers a menagerie of new monsters. Most of them seem fairly mundane, but interestingly several of these creatures seem to be re-imaginings of existing fantasy archetypes, such as the “titan cavetroll” compared to a normal troll. The second appendix covers new magic items and a new spell (though disappointingly, a spell to boost Luck, mentioned in the initial Luck section, isn’t to be found here), before finally concluding with a third appendix covering scaling the adventure, using it for a lower-level party instead of a single higher-level character, and a series of example PCs for use.
At fort-five pages long, Forest of Doom is a fairly good adventure for introducing low-level characters to sandbox adventuring (or indeed, to introduce them to adventuring altogether). While there were certainly things that I’d have introduced or done differently (primarily to make it easier to explore the huge forest, and adding random encounters instead of waiting for them to stumble across static ones), this is still very good in what it offers. The basic premise is sound, the three dozen or so encounters are interesting and varied, and the Luck mechanics help to cushion the PC from bad luck or wrong decisions being fatal. Conquering the Forest of Doom is a great way for a character to start a heroes’ journey.