How to create a sandbox!

The Sandbox: the most desireable achievement for a GM and the most feared, but wanted sort of game in a pen-and-paper RPG. First let’s start with the question: “What’s a Sandbox?”. According to techopedia the definition of Sandbox is:

“A sandbox is a style of game in which minimal character limitations are placed on the gamer, allowing the gamer to roam and change a virtual world at will. In contrast to a progression-style game, a sandbox game emphasizes roaming and allows a gamer to select tasks. Instead of featuring segmented areas or numbered levels, a sandbox game usually occurs in a “world” to which the gamer has full access from start to finish. A sandbox game is also known as an open-world or free-roaming game.”

A player free to do anything He wants can end up by doing nothing.

I kinda like this definition and I think it explains quite well what players and GMs should expect from this term (even if with a videogame-oriented terminology). But why a sandbox campaign is “better” than, let’s say, a railroaded one? In fact I think it’s not, it’s just a style of game. Some likes it and some don’t. Personally I tend to prefer this kind of games for my campaign, but I totally enjoy railroaded campaigns and I understand why they exist and I am not saying that one category is clearly better than another one. Creating a good sandbox campaign is difficult and I think it requires a lot of improvisation skills (as a DM), maturity and flexibility (as players). But how do you create a great Sandbox? Well if you know the definite answer to that question, please write it to me, because I think it’s almost impossible to create a comprehensive and ultimate guide to Sandboxing. What I can tell you in this article is How do I create my sandbox campaign.

  1. Create solid and characterized PCs – This is maybe the most important part of the process. I know what you’re thinking: this should be the basis of any RPG campaign, but let’s say that if you want to be a GM of a Sandbox campaign your characters are going to be not only the center of the story, but also the creators of the story. That’s why they don’t have to be just blank dolls with a class and a race stickers upon them, you need to know what are their dreams, what’s their short/long term goal and a lot of other details. But how to do that? What you must not do is to force the players to write a very long background and ask them to fill it with all the details they want. You don’t have to do that or you will fall under one of this two situations:
    1. They won’t do it – it can be because of lazyness or simply because they don’t have so much time to invest in a game, but they won’t write anything and you’ll start your campaign with nothing but the previous doll with the class/race stickers. This is a bad situation because while all the other players will feel involved with the story, this player will just be dragged around by the others, without a goal or an identity. And this is extremely bad for a Sandbox campaign in which the players should be the central point of the story.
    2. They will do it and you won’t read it – they will fill their document with a lot of useless details and they will write it with a colorful narration, but the important information you’re looking for will be hidden inside the document and they’ll be very difficult to recap. The result will be a huge document with a lot of information you can’t use. (That’s the mistake I usually do when I am asked to write a background :P)

    Whatever is going to happen it won’t be a good thing for you as a GM and for your Sandbox campaign. So What I do? I ask my players the following 5 things and I note them down for later use. I’m stressing the word ask because you don’t have to force your players to write anything: not every person likes to write. Personally I do, but none should be forced to do things they don’t like, especially if they’re gaming.

    1. Tell me one person your character loves and one person He/She hates
    2. Tell me one quality and one flaw of your character
    3. Which is you character’s most important principle?
    4. Tell me what are His/Hers short-term and long-term goals?
    5. Why you’re here?

    One of the greatest principle of GMing is Show don’t tell. If you know that one of your players can’t bear the abuses of the authority, you can show him a guard who’s beating a poor farmer and hook him easily in one of your plots, instead of placing him into the story as a caravan-guard.

  2. Start from a small place – If you want to start a new Sandbox campaign you should be ready to react to your characters’ actions. This can be easy if your characters are in a quiet village of few inhabitants, but it can be much harder if they start their campaign in a big city like Baldur’s Gate or Absalom. I’m not saying it’s impossible to start a Sandbox campaign in a large settlement, but if you’re at your first experience in sandboxing I think you’d better think small. Both if you’re using a published setting and if you’re in your homebrew world, choose a small place with a nice mixture of settlements and wilderness and consider an area of around 24/48 miles (about 2 days of travel) from your starting area. What’s happening there? Let’s make an example of a good starting area: the Dalelands (Forgotten Realms setting).

    The Dalelands map

    In the Dalelands you have a great list of small settlements (like Archendale, Battledale or Daggerdale) with a great variety of plot hook for that region. You have a dangerous forest (Cormanthor), a good plot you can use as a background for your campaign (the nearby wanna-be conquerer nation of Sembia) and a wide variety of minor plot hooks suggested in the 3th edition of FR Setting book. Starting from a small town (like Feather falls) and preparing some small plots in the nearby area you’re sure that your players won’t be lost in an area bigger than them.

  3. The 5-places/5-events rule – Now that you’ve chosen your starting area, you have to find a way to bring it to life. How to do that? I try to create 5 interesting places and 5 ongoing events in the chosen area, so that the players feel that the world is alive regardless of their actions. Let’s make a small example: I choose Feather Falls as a starting area. In the description of Featherdale (pg. 213 of the 3th edition of FR Setting) I read these 4 interesting places: The Blackfeather BridgeThe tower of Cholandrothipe (an abandoned wizard’s tower), some unexplored caves behind the fallsthe Ashaba river and I add an home-brew 5th place called The golden field, which is a great area near to the town designated to the agriculture. After I have found these 5 places I keep reading and I find out that Feather Falls it’s a democratic farming community, that their inhabitants settle their quarrels in front of the elderlies of the town and that 60 years ago there was a blood feud between the families which ended in the exile from the community of the few survivors. Finally we read that there is an historical interest of the Sembians towards Featherdale and that they have already attempted to conquer the dale in the past. Ok, we have a lot of informations: how to use them? We create our 5 events:
    1. My grain field is sick – One of the farmers of the town (possibly a parent of one of the PCs) has a field of grain, but recently He sees that his plants are dying without a clear reason.
    2. He killed my sheep! – A local breeder blame another one for the death of his most furry sheep. The first accuses him to have put some poison inside the animal feed, but the second one denies. Since the Shieldmeet festival is coming the killing of the animal is an economic problem for the breeder that point out his case to the elderlies of the community.
    3. They raided our wagon  – A war meeting is called from the elderlies of the town in which a merchant from Feather Falls tells He has been robbed by a small militia bearing the symbol of the Sembia. A PC could have seen the crime or one of his relatives could be involved.
    4. The long awaited party – Shieldmeet is coming and everyone in town want to prepare their own stand for the incoming visitors. Of course they also need help to find the goods and any help is well-payed.
    5.  Creepy strangers arrive at the town – More and more inhabitants of Feather Falls report of some creepy facts that are happening in the town. Some of that have the strange feeling of being watched while they are working, while some others talk about a foreigner who is staying at the inn. Maybe these are just paranoias, but one of the PCs takes that seriously (maybe a person who have his/her trust is involved)

    Now we have our 5 events and our 5 locations. You should know tie one event to one (or more) locations. This doesn’t mean that the event has to take place in one of these 5 locations, but that one of these locations should be involved in the event. For example the sick grain field of event A, is a small portion of the Goldenfield, or one of the witnesses of event E tells He saw some strange lights around the tower of Cholandrothipe. The most important thing that you want while planning a Sandbox campaign is to instill in your players the feeling of a living world so if the players choose, let’s say, the event A, as they solve the mistery of the grain field one of the other events should change. For example the accused breeder of the event B has been condemned to refund the sheep and to do that he need to sell his house and leave Feather Falls. If you do something like that the players will see that that their inactions have consequences and so that they are not the center of the world. Of course you shouldn’t punish you players for choosing one of your plots with respect to another one and you should always let them do something about the changes that occurred (like helping the breeder).

  4. Create a large-scale plot – The more common mistake that I think is done by the GM when they plan to build a Sandbox campaign is to forget to build a story. We all know that in a pen-and-paper RPG the players write the story, but a good GM should give them the pen: if your players keep wandering around doing small quests unrelated each other, you’re not doing a sandbox, you’re playing a MMORPG at your table. Small quests and side quests are fine, but the players at some point should face an event. It doesn’t have to be a world-shaking event, but there has to be a major plot behind the small events we were talking about in the previous section. Let’s keep going with our Dalelands example: let’s say the players want to investigate the event A and that they find out that a cleric of Talona (the deity of plagues and diseases) has cursed the place and that she’s hiding in the caves behind the Falls. When they find the cleric the quest should not end there! The cleric can be a member of one of the heirs of the families who were exiled 60 years ago. This family made a deal with Talona: they will spread a lethal disease which will destroy the farming communities in exchange of her favor to take back the city. While this heir has become a cleric of Talona, another one is now an important merchant in Sembia and is assembling a personal militia to strike the traders of Feather Falls (see Event C), or (if you want a more subtle approach) is trying to cause a war between the Sembia and Featherdale creating a fake casus belli hiring some mercenaries and dressing them as Sembian warriors. The thing is, try to think about a large-scale plot and then reveal it little by little through the small quests, but don’t let the small quests become the game itself.
  5. Be ready to change your story, mind, everything! – Ok, now you have 5 plots, 5 locations a living plot and you’re ready to start your first session of your Sandbox game. You present the quests, but your players completely ignore them. This is perfectly fine in a sandbox game. The important thing is: don’t try to railroad your players if they showd no interest in what you have already offered to them. If you force your players in one of your 5 events you’re not playing a sandbox. Try to reuse what you have prepared for this session and to think about what happens next before the following one. For example if your players show no interest in any of our 5 events, but they find incredibly interesting the exploration of the Cormanthor forest, for Torm’s sake, let them explore the forest! Improvise a sketch of a map, put a random event in front of them, but do not force them to face the events you have already proposed to them. If you don’t want to be unprepared you can re-use some material you have already prepared for your events making some small adjustments. For example the confrontation with the cleric of Talona can become a fight with a Malar cleric in the forest who is trying to create a new breed of lycanthropes from the wolverines. You just take the gaming statistics you prepared for your cleric of Talona and you use them for your new event.
  6. Don’t be afraid to create deadly places – in a railroaded game the PCs (almost) always face threats they can win, but in a sandbox game this is not true! If, for example, the players want to explore the dead wizard’s tower don’t be afraid to create strong magical defenses which would kill a distracted PC. If the players just walk inside the caves in which the cleric of Talona is hiding they should face a dangerous threat. If dangerous places are not dangerous your PCs will soon stop thinking and start facing any plot with a brainless approach, your players should face the consequences of a stupid behavior. Of course this doesn’t mean that you, as a GM, have to kill the PCs at the first occasion: a defeat in battle can be easily converted into a kidnapping. Maybe the cleric of Talona was looking for some sacrificial victims to offer to her deity, so she keep the players alive planning to kill them later. The possibilities are endless, but the concept is: your players should fear dangerous threats and it’s your duty to show them as dangerous.
  7. Use NPCs! – Remember: show, don’t tell, and the best way to show is to use an NPC. Let the player meet the NPCs, and let them get a sense of the two farmers in event B. Dialogues are the best way to give the informations you want to the players and they create a sense of reality. World is made by people and so it should be in your sandbox game.

The importance of NPCs

Ok, that’s pretty much everything I had to say, but I leave you with two of the tools I use while preparing a sandbox campaign. These tools are very useful if you have to improvise a plot, an NPC or a small town.

  • donjon – I think you all know that, but c’mon I had to link it. This is an amazing tool you have a lot of cool generator for places, quests, names, dungeons, treasures and for more stuff than you’ll ever need for a sandbox gaming.
  • Fantasy name generators – This is the ultimate resource for random names.

And what’s your opinion about sandbox games? Do you like them? Tell us what you think in the comments section or on our Twitter/Facebook page!

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5 responses »

  1. Did you used to have like 15 steps or more detail? So curious! Lots of great stuff.

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  2. Pingback: Outstanding Heroes and the Secrets of the Game Master – Castelviator

  3. Pingback: How to create a sandbox! (Shared) – Aurican's Lair

  4. Reblogged this on Aurican's Lair and commented:
    Fantastic Blog Post explaining ways to run a Sandbox “Living World” RPG. I have always wanted to try it myself, and this would be my go to for going about it. Give it a read and a like!

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  5. S J Grodzicki

    I have started writing an introductory sandbox setting/adventure and found these tips very helpful, especially the 5 rumours/5 events part. Thanks so much! Steve G

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