Sunday, September 25, 2016


So I finally finished Seeing Like a State, and the second-to-last chapter on "metis", while very different from the rest of the book, was also very interesting.

The concept [and the word, metis] comes to us from the ancient Greeks. Odysseus was frequently praised for having metis in abundance and for using it to outwit his enemies and make his way home. Metis is typically translated into English as “cunning” or “cunning intelligence." While not wrong, this translation fails to do justice to the range of knowledge and skills repre­sented by metis. Broadly understood, metis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. Odysseus's metis was in evi­dence, not only in his deceiving of Circe, the Cyclops, and Polyphemus and in binding himself to the mast to avoid the Sirens, but also in hold­ing his men together, in repairing his ship, and in improvising tactics to get his men out of one tight spot after another. The emphasis is both on Odysseus’s ability to adapt successfully to a constantly shifting situ­ation and on his capacity to understand, and hence outwit, his human and divine adversaries.

All human activities require a considerable degree of metis, but some activities require far more. To begin with skills that require adapting to a capricious physical environment, the acquired knowledge of how to sail, fly a kite, fish, shear sheep, drive a car, or ride a bicycle re­lies on the capacity for metis. Each of these skills requires hand-eye co­ordination that comes with practice and a capacity to "read" the waves, the wind, or the road and to make the appropriate adjustments. One powerful indication that they all require metis is that they are excep­tionally difficult to teach apart from engaging in the activity itself. One might imagine trying to write down explicit instructions on how to ride a bicycle, but one can scarcely imagine that such instructions would en­able a novice to ride a bicycle on the first try. The maxim “Practice makes perfect” was devised for such activities as this, inasmuch as the continual, nearly imperceptible adjustments necessary for riding a bi­cycle are best learned by having to make them. Only through an ac­quired "feel” for balanced motion do the required adjustments become automatic. No wonder that most crafts and trades requiring a touch or feel for implements and materials have traditionally been taught by long apprenticeships to master craftsmen.

There is no doubt that some individuals seem to get the hang of a particular skill and master it more quickly than most other people. But beyond this ineffable difference (which often spells the difference between competence and genius), riding a bike, sailing, fishing, shearing sheep, and so on can be learned through practice. Since every road, wind, stream, and sheep is different and continually changing, the best practitioner, like Odysseus, will have had experience under many differ­ent conditions. If your life depended on your ship coming through rough weather, you would surely prefer a successful captain with long experi­ence to, say, a brilliant physicist who had analyzed the natural laws of sailing but who had never actually sailed a vessel.

Scott then goes on to talk about metis in emergency response, medical diagnostics, social situations, combat, and agriculture (his specialty).  He also contrasts metis with "techne", characterized as formal, quantified scientific knowledge of an activity (as suggested in his example of the physicist piloting a ship).

I see two obvious relations to the RPG field here.  The first is "why is so much DMing advice so useless."  Metis is why.  Canned advice is often inapplicable or downright harmful in the specific group that a DM finds himself working with.  Moreover, most DMs (being poorly-socialized nerds) are poor observers of people, and probably have very little conscious knowledge of the people in their group and the dynamics of the group (especially given that they as DMs are hardly impassive observers, being involved with the group).  To draw an agricultural metaphor, they know next-to-nothing about the soil and hydrography of the field they're trying to grow campaigns on.  DMing also lacks a good apprenticeship mechanism (which Scott notes is a common feature of metis-heavy endeavours) - while players do observe a DM working, their perspective as heroically-self-centered semi-adversaries who don't see any of the prep involved makes this ineffective for learning to DM.  In this light, it is unsurprising that many DMs are bad and many campaigns suck, fail spectacularly, or both.

Alexis' How to Run is notable among DMing advice pieces in part because it fundamentally acknowledges this, that DMing is metis-driven, and consequently demands a great deal of attention to the particular quirks of your players.  This is also one of its more frustrating features - when Alexis talks about the actual back-and-forth, the way he manages and runs his game during a session, it seems unattainable and maybe a little self-inflated, though he makes very clear that his capabilities are the product of long practice with his particular group (establishing, for example, shared language conventions for mapping).  This is another thing worth noting with metis, that it is intensely specific and local; Scott draws the comparison between the commercial sea-captain, who knows a little about a lot of places, and the harbor-pilot who knows one harbor very, very well.  When you change systems and groups, you lose the advantage of your "local" knowledge about the nature of your players, how they interact with each other, and how they interact with particular systems.

The second, less-serious note on metis and RPGs is the difference between the Intelligence and Education stats in Traveller.  Int in Mongoose Trav governs a huge number of apparently-unrelated skills, including Deception, Gunnery, training animals, haggling, hacking, gambling, diagnosing mechanical and medical issues, noticing the unusual, dealing in contraband, et cetera.  While many of these areas do benefit from formal education in that particular skill, they are also all intensely variable based on local conditions.  It seems very plausible to me that Int in Traveller represents a general capability for accumulating metis, while Edu represents one's store of techne, book-learning and mathematical maturity.

A few notes on metis outside the RPG-context:
  • I suspect that what Musashi means by "the art of strategy" in the Book of Five Rings is essentially this general ability to acquire metis quickly.
  • One of the problems I deal with at work is computer-security education.  What I have observed is this: formal education will only get you to basic competence, and absurd amounts of practice is what separates the really good (fluent) hackers from people who can sort of muddle their way through.  Metis.  Some very sharp people take an order of magnitude less practice to get really good, but they still practice a ton.  Apprentice/mentor relations also help a lot.
  • Finally, as much as I hate leaving my apartment and doing things, many skills I want to be good at cannot be learned to a useful level by reading about them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

ACKS and Non-State Spaces, Wilderness Levels

A follow-up to this post, thinking more about forests, hills, marshes, and mountains as "non-state spaces".

One model for this operating within ACKS' existing terminology would be to 'downgrade' the civilization level of certain terrain types.  A forest within the 50-mile Ring of Civilization around a town might only be Borderlands instead of Civilized.  The raw/actual population density of the hex is still Civilized, but the amount of resources that can be extracted from it (and the amount of garrison that must be deployed to extract those resources) is on par with a Borderlands hex, because its occupants retain a good deal of autonomy and do their best to evade taxes.  "Agricultural investments" reduce the autonomy of this population and bring larger numbers of them under the state's eye, by clearing the forests in which they hide.

As a first-cut rule: forests, marshes, and hills reduce the effective degree of civilization in their hex by one; mountains and jungle reduce it by two (so even if they are adjacent to a town, they remain wilderness).  Hexes in the inner ring (which would be Civilized) use the Inhabited random encounter table, as their occupants are mostly human; hexes in the outer ring (which would be Borderlands) have a 50% chance to use the Inhabited table, and a 50% chance to use their typical terrain-based table.

You could even take it a step further and generalize to a sort of "wilderness level" for each hex, like the "dungeon level" number assigned to each section of a megadungeon.  Settled plains are wilderness level 0 - not wilderness.  Going further from town increases the wilderness level; at 50 miles out, +1, and at 75 miles out, +2.  Forest, hill, tundra, and desert hexes add +1 wilderness level, and jungles, swamps, mountains, glaciers, etc add +2 wilderness level.  Wilderness level determines the number of lairs in a hex, the frequency of encounter rolls, and the target number for encounter rolls.

Wilderness Level Name Lairs per hex Encounter roll every: Encounter throw
0 Civilized 0 Month ‘6+
1 Borderlands 1d3-1 Week ‘6+
2 Wilderness 1d4 Day ‘5+
3 Deep Wilderness 2d4 12 hours ‘5+
4 Unexplored 2d8 4 hours ‘4+

You could do more with this metric, of course - base number of families per hex, garrison costs, modifiers to rolls on the random encounter table (so that results of Men are less common in Unexplored, and results of Dragon are less common in Civilized), and maybe a clearer difficulty progression in terms of monster strength (like we have with Dungeon Levels).

(I suppose this would also be a fine time to increase the frequency of Civilized encounter rolls to once a week, because meeting merchants and knights and mid-level dudes you can hire as henchmen when you're out traveling in civilized lands is actually kind of fun)

One complication with this system is elven and dwarven domains, where you're never going to get much in the way of Widerness Level 0 hexes.  This could be because they're dying races in the Age of Man.  Or, one could modify dwarven and elven towns to use different terrain modifiers (so hills within 50 miles of a dwarven town are WL0).  But in the style of Dwarf Fortress, I think I prefer "if you step outside the front door of the vault, you might be trampled by a wild elephant".

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reflections on a Session: 17 Sept 16

Another stats post.
  • Time spent: ~5 hours
    • DMing: ~2.1 hours
    • Talking to players before session, Ethan chargen: 1.8 hours
    • Restocking depopulated parts of dungeon: 0.5 hours
    • Generating NPC stats: 0.5 hours
    • Encounter tables: 0.1 hours
  • No new areas mapped
  • ~3 rooms restocked
  • Dungeon areas explored in 2.1 hours of play:
    • 1 empty
    • 1 trap without treasure
    • 1 lair, fought, outflanked, fled
  • Game-time elapsed in dungeon: ~1 hour (6 turns)
    • Random encounters checked: 1
    • Random encounter checks missed: 2
    • Turns spent returning to exit from further point of exploration: 1
  • Party size: 10
    • Scarth, Mage 2
      • Aldo, Assassin 2 (KIA)
    • Dora, Explorer 3
      • Gertrude, War dog
    • Beardwin the Optimist, Craftpriest 2
      • Clever Paul (has low Int), Dwarven Delver 2? (Mortally wounded but retrieved, grudgingly loyal)
    • Brynja, Bladedancer 3
      • Binhildis, Paladin 1 (MIA)
    • ???, Paladin 2 (MIA)
      • Leitgardis, L0 normal woman (KIA)
  • Mortal wounds taken: 5
    • ??? the Paladin was first into the lair, surprised by a ratman and backstabbed to 0 HP.  Checked by Dr. Owl, knee damaged.  Left on the field during retreat and captured by ratmen.
    • Leitgardis dropped to -100% max HP while trying to carry Paladin out, left on the field during retreat.  Wounds checked by ratmen, both arms severed, bled to death, devoured.
    • Binhildis dropped to -1 HP while covering Leitgardis' retreat, left on the field.  Wounds checked by ratmen, gruesome scarring but 1HP, taken captive.
    • Aldo went into a building to avoid ratman javelins and/or retrieve the paladins, rolled a 1 on damage.  Cut down by five ratmen inside, abandoned during retreat.  Checked by ratmen, DOA, devoured.
    • Clever Paul followed Aldo in, missed his one shot, stabbed by ratmen.  Retrieved by Beardwin under cover of Sanctuary (first time we've seen this spell used).  Knee damaged, RL&L'd, now followed by an imp.
  • Loot recovered: None
    • Lost Boots of Elvenkind carried by Aldo
    • Lost Greatsword +3 carried by Also
    • Lost Potion of Heroism carried by Binhildis
    • Ended up spending 840 gp for RL&L, Cure Disease, and healing herbs.
  • Traps triggered: 1 (after discovery, but they were in a hurry)
  • XP from monsters: ~84 for ratmen killed
    • A net loss in XP for the party after casualties.
    • About averages out last session's excellent haul.
Rough session.  But they put a fair dent in the ratman lair, and now they know where it is.

I am happy with the level of tactical intelligence employed today; last session's man-spiders should've retreated instead of engaging the numerically-stronger party, and the Delirious Crusaders the party betrayed weren't exactly operating at full capability.  Ratmen retreated from the choke-point the party decided to hold, and circled back around to strike their flank and rear via alternate routes.  Given proximity of lair to dungeon entrance and frequency of adventuring parties, rapid prepared responses seem very reasonable.  When the ratmen came under fire from the Explorer, they retreated back out of LOS rather than just sitting in the open.  They could've popped back out to throw javelins at the party as they were hauling Paul the Clever's comatose form over a rope bridge, but decided not to risk more casualties.  The Explorer is probably a priority for them in future engagements (but AC7 is hard for 1HD monsters to deal with, and she is hard to surprise).

If I'd been applying lessons in combat psychology from Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory, the ratmen who killed the paladins and Aldo should've gone into forward panic and continued to advance.

Important follow-on question: what is ratman ransom procedure?  Gold is nice and all, but you can't really buy safety.  Does it make sense for them to just hold the hostages as insurance against attack by the party?  Something to think about.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Seeing Like a State (Scooped!)

So I've been reading Seeing Like a State on and off for...  dear god, four months now.  There are some very interesting ideas here, particularly relevant to ACKS.  As is my practice, I tend to wait to write a D&D-focused review of nonfiction books until I've finished them, but Noisms has scooped me!  To be fair, I discovered Seeing Like a State because he had a post that mentioned another book by the same author (The Art of Not Being Governed; none of my local libraries carry it, unsurprisingly), so I can't be too mad.

He did grab one of the best quotes, though (reposted for discussion):
[Edmund Leach] suggested that we look at the precolonial Burmese state not as a physically contiguous territory, as we would in the contest of modern states, but as a complex patchwork that followed an entirely different logic. We should picture the kingdom, he insisted, in terms of horizontal slices through the topography. Following this logic, Burma was, in practice, a collection of all the sedentary, wet-rice producers settled in valleys within the ambit of the court center. These would be...the state spaces. The next horizontal stratum of the landscape from, say, five hundred feet to fifteen hundred feet would, given its different ecology, contain inhabitants who practice shifting cultivation, were more widely scattered and were therefore less promising subjects of appropriation. They were not an integral part of the kingdom, although they might regularly send tribute to the central court. Still higher elevations would constitute yet other ecological, political and cultural zones. What Leach proposed, in effect, is that we consider all relatively dense, wet-rice settlements within range of the capital as "the kingdom" and the rest, even if relatively close to the capital, as "nonstate spaces". 
The role of statecraft in this context becomes that of maximising the productive, settled population in such state spaces while at the same time drawing tribute from, or at least neutralizing, the nonstate spaces. These stateless zones have always played a potentially subversive role, both symbolically and practically. From the vantage point of the court, such spaces and their inhabitants were the exemplars of rudeness, disorder and barbarity against which the civility, order and sophistication of the centre could be gauged. Such spaces, it goes without saying, have served as refuges for fleeing peasants, rebels, bandits, and the pretenders who have often threatened kingdoms.

Noisms then uses this to extrapolate a wilderness as dungeon model (of which I am a known fan), with height up from the river valleys corresponding roughly to increasing dungeon level, and with PCs as agents of the river-valley states who go into the wilderness to extract tribute.

I think this model does a particularly good job of making sense of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  Something that always bothered me about the Wilderlands was Dearthwood.  By itself, a forest full of orcs is unremarkable.  But when it's within spitting distance of a powerful city-state, it becomes somewhat more straining of disbelief.  If you interpret the City-State as a river-valley and estuary power, though, the elevated forests full of non-cooperative, semi-nomadic humanoids fit nicely into the "non-state space" mold proposed by Leach.  In the absence of precise cartographic surveying or friendly local guides who know the terrain, the forces of the City-State are largely unable to bring the orcs to battle in the forest itself.  A similar dynamic applies to the Troll Fens, another piece of uncivilized land right on the City-State's doorstep (I recall Seeing Like a State mentioning the Marsh Arabs as occupants of a similar non-state space).

Moving to the "PCs as agents of the state in the wilderness" point, a model I've kicked around over the years for this is tax-farming.  Throughout history, states have found it annoying to collect taxes and tribute from uncooperative people.  Some historical polities (I recall reading of the Mongols doing this) hired independent contractors (private individuals) to go collect tribute in distant provinces and bring it back.  This is a wonderful way to play low-domain / high-wilderness levels.  You bid against other tax-farmers ("I will collect 20000 gp for the crown this year from the province of Baluchistan!"  "Pfah, pathetic!  If appointed tax agent to Baluchistan, I would collect 25000 gp for the crown this year!"), take your private army to Baluchistan, and then shake down the locals for everything you can get.  Cue feuds with local bandits and tribesmen, previous tax farmers who set themselves up as warlords Heart of Darkness-style, wilderness monsters, peasant rebellions...  After a year of this, you bring the crown's share of the tribute (the amount you bid) back, and keep whatever's left as your rightful payment.  And if you didn't make your tribute goal...  well, maybe don't come home.  This also works very well with the City-State, which is nominally a powerful state with many tributaries.  In practice though these tributaries are distant, the infrastructure and bureaucracy is insufficient for easy and safe extraction and transport of goods, and waging a military campaign to go take tribute by force is expensive, risky, and messy.  Much better to let private adventurers assume the risks and reap some of the profits.  It also, like the dungeon, has a nice boundedness property - you're only allowed to collect taxes in the province of Baluchistan, and if you go raid across the border into Afghanistan (to make your quota, say), the tax official for Afghanistan's going to be right pissed if he hears of it.  Also, as in the dungeon, the players are very much outsiders, with poor maps and noncooperative locals.

Another passage from Seeing Like a State suggests a related approach:
The demography of precolonial Southeast Asia was such that control of land per se, unless it was a strategically vital estuary, strait, or pass, was seldom decisive in state building. Control of the population — roughly five persons per square kilometer in 1700 — mattered far more. The key to successful statecraft was typically the ability to attract and hold a substantial, productive population within a reasonable radius of the court. Given the relative sparseness of the population and the ease of physical flight, the control of arable land was pointless unless there was a population to work it. The precolonial kingdom thus trod a nar­row path between a level of taxes and corvee exactions that would sus­tain a monarch’s ambitions and a level that would precipitate whole­sale flight. Precolonial wars were more often about rounding up captives and settling them near the central court than asserting a ter­ritorial claim. A growing, productive population settled in the ambit of a monarch’s capital was a more reliable indicator of a kingdom ’s power than its physical extent.
The precolonial state was thus vitally interested in the sedentarization of its population — in the creation of permanent, fixed settlements.  The greater the concentration of people, providing that they produced an economic surplus, the greater the ease of appropriating grain, labor, and military service.
This reminds me somewhat of this post, where PCs build domains out of whatever sort of creatures they can find and coerce in the wilderness.  Taking peasant, serf, and slave as a muddied equivalence class, it would not be difficult to conceive of PCs as "labor collection agents" for a state, going into the wilderness to acquire peasants (some of whom might be green and have tusks) and bringing them back by force to settle near the capital, where they can be monitored and taxed (help help I'm being repressed!).  Whether any given set of players would veto such a campaign on moral grounds is another question.

Anyway, there's a lot of good stuff in Seeing Like a State (I'm particularly interested in his concept of legibility, the limits of a sovereign's ability to measure and understand the people and places that he rules) as it applies to ACKS, and I'm excited to see other parts of the OSR picking up "wilderness as dungeon" as an operative metaphor.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Reflections on a Session: 10 Sept 16

Some fools went into a dungeon yesterday, and almost all of them came back out alive and unmaimed!  This is a novel flavor of DMing report, with the in-game events secondary to the out-of-game events.

Some stats:
  • Time spent: 14.7 hours over the last week
    • Actually DMing: 3.5 hours
    • Chargen and otherwise talking to players, but not running the game: 3.5 hours
    • Mapping dungeon: 2.7 hours
    • Stocking dungeon (about half done): 2.5 hours
    • Constructing random encounter tables for sub-zones of the dungeon level: 1.3 hours
      • high variability
    • Setting cosmology: 1.1 hours
      • honestly half of this was in the shower
  • Dungeon area mapped: ~80% of a single sheet of graph paper, right around 100 rooms not counting hallways
  • Dungeon area stocked: ~48 rooms
  • Dungeon area explored in 3.5 hours of play: 8 rooms (and some hallways)
    • 4 keyed monsters, 1 random encounter
    • 1 "trap with treasure"
    • 1 empty room
    • 1 "empty with treasure"
    • 1 special (portal room)
  • Assuming no retreading and similar rates of exploration in future, about five projected future short sessions' worth of material currently ready for use. 
    •  ~6.5 hours of real prep (cosmology doesn't count) for 6*3.5 -> 21 projected total hours of play
    • For another 4 hours of prep on encounter tables and stocking the other half of the dungeon, probably another ~20 hours of play.
    • Projected amortized "real prep : real play" ratio is ~1:4 before reuse/retreading - not bad at all.
  • Game-time elapsed in dungeon: ~2.5 hours (16ish turns)
    • Random encounters checked: ~6
    • Random encounters that I forgot to check: probably 2-3
    • Turns spent returning to exit from point of furthest exploration: 4
  • Party size: 11
    • Mage 2 (old player)
      • Assassin 2?
      • L0 woman with 18 Str?
    • Explorer 2 (new player)
      • Fighter 2
      • War dog
    • Dwarven Craftpriest 2 (old player)
      • Spellsword 1
      • Dwarven Delver 2?
    • Bladedancer 3 (new player)
      • L0 woman with 16 Str?
  • Mortal wounds rolls taken: 3
    • Bladedancer knocked to 0HP, treated within 1 round, got up fine
    • Assassin knocked to 0HP, treated within 1 round, got up fine
    • L0 woman with 18 Str knocked to 0HP, got up with minor scarring, subsequently injured while in need of bed rest and killed instantly
    • They got pretty lucky with all the "exactly 0 HP" bonuses.
  • Loot recovered:
    • ~5kgp in gems and coinage
    • Three magic swords
    • Magic ring
    • Boots of elvenkind
    • 3? potions (growth, climbing, heroism, ???)
  • XP from monsters: ~600
    • hm, my "monster xp : gold xp" ratio is around 1:8 instead of 1:4.
      • To be fair, they did kill a high-value lair via trickery.
    • In another 5-7 sessions with XP awards like this, the party will have "outleveled" the stocked portions of the dungeon (modulo casualties, slow-leveling classes, etc).  This could guide my difficulty decisions in stocking the unstocked parts.
Other notes:

Chargen was unusually slow, at around 2.5 hours.  Contributing factors: late players, new players unsure what to play, old players vacillating about what to play, same process repeated with henchmen.  Should maybe have brought pregens, pregen henchmen (especially given that new players were largely guided by Convential Wisdom from the old guard; somewhat predictable proficiency selections resulted).

Ability score rolls seemed unusually high/good (except for Drew :P Although he still ended up with a mage with 18 Int and 16 Con, so I guess they must not have been that bad...).  I'm not sure I like the "reduce other stats to boost prime req" rule, honestly; at least three of the four PCs have 18s in a prime req as a direct result.

My equipment kits saw some testing, and were a mixed success - people bought a bunch of them, and then had to decide which ones to carry and which ones to leave on the mules because they had bought too much gear and were over-encumbered.  So that's a win for resource management gameplay and a loss for time.  The simplicity and singularity of the old Starting Equipment Package was a virtue that I failed to recognize.  Maybe having a Dungeon Equipment Kit, a Wilderness Equipment Kit, and a Medkit is the right level.

New players were fairly passive, with old players plotting the course, taking the risky actions, and choosing when to enact the sudden but inevitable betrayal of the deceived monsters.  I do not know the new players very well yet; unclear if this is just a learning period before they start initiating, or if it's a personality / party composition thing.  They did both pick up the initiative system and THAC0 quickly though, which was great.

Relaying mapping information felt extra-slow due to new architectural features not seen in previous dungeons; noticeable pacing lulls (which aren't inherently bad, but not necessarily ideal for a first session where you're trying to catch interest).  Did do a bit of temporary player-viewable scribbling at the beginning of the session, which helped, but sort of backslid to purely verbal descriptions as time went on.  This might be a good lever to use for conscious pacing control.

Friday, September 9, 2016

ACKS: Last Rites

So I'm running a game with a mythic underworld, and lost souls of people who have died in unfortunate ways are a fairly common encounter type in the dungeon.  Got me to thinking about how before going into the dungeon, adventurers might be wise to make their peace with whatever gods they worship, so that they hopefully end up in a quality afterlife rather than a crap one.

Makes sense as a cleric spell, or even better as a use for Theology (which is currently a meh proficiency that never gets picked).  A character can tend to the souls of four characters who share his faith per rank of Theology, in about an hour a day of prayer, confession, ritual, guilt-tripping, and suchlike.  The beneficiaries of this effect gain a +2 "state of soul" bonus to Tampering with Mortality rolls if they die while under the spiritual guidance of a theologian.  Hireling and henchmen under the influence of a theologian may gain +1 morale because they know they're in good with the big man in the sky, but are also prone to bouts of moral behavior.  Multiple theologians do not stack.  Theologians are hireable as Healers in terms of availability and wages, but they may not want to follow you into the wilderness, so "organic" theologians are still convenient.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Prepping on a Budget

Man, title sounds like this ought to be either about meal prep or apocalypse survivalism.  I am sorry to disappoint.

But the budget I am thinking of is temporal rather than monetary.  Prep is typically time-expensive for me.  But I knew a DM once who ran an ~10 month campaign on about an hour of prep right before every session.  Granted, it was somewhat railroady, but it was generally a pretty good game.

So how to prep efficiently for sandbox gaming?  Strategies:
  • Profile - figure out what parts of your prep process are slow, and focus on improving those.  First step of optimizing slow software, but not something I've ever heard of people doing consciously for D&D prep.  Maybe I will try this and post the results.
  • Reduce - only prep things that are very likely to be useful in play
  • Reuse - prefer to prep things that are going to be used multiple times [1] [2]
  • Randomize - prep tables which can be used to generate content quickly during play.  This is sort of "preparing for the unknown"; you don't know what your players will do, but good tables speed up your response time (or at least help you stall) when you're drawing a blank.
  • Automate - let Friend Computer do some of the heavy lifting, when it makes sense to spend the time to teach it.  Good thing we have self-profiling data, right?
Every piece of prepped content is an investment - make it cheap, and make it pay off many times over.