When I started this blog a few months ago, one of my first posts was about starting a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That post dealt primarily with narrative-focused campaigns that followed a central story arc, but I said I’d do a follow-up at some point dealing with more open-ended, sandbox-style games. That time has finally come!
Now, to be honest, I’m a storyteller at heart–most of the games I run are narrative games (and if you bristle at my distinction between ‘narrative’ and ‘sandbox,’ yes, I know sandbox games can have tons of narrative and narrative games can be set in a sandbox; I’m using the terms to refer to the game’s primary focus). That said, I’ve run a few sandbox games in the past that turned out quite well.
The first thing you need to do when setting up a sandbox game is decide on your location(s). Sandbox games, at root, are about exploration–the thrill of discovering an exciting world of adventure. Naturally, then, location is important! You need to have compelling places for your players to visit. However, don’t feel like you have to create an entire world. If you want to, that’s great! But a sandbox doesn’t have to be massive. The best sandbox game I ever ran was actually pretty small; it took place entirely within a single city and its immediate surroundings. As long as you have a lot of different, interesting things for your players to see and do, your sandbox can be as big or little as you want. It could be a single city, a country, a continent, or a whole planet!
Once you’ve picked out a location, I find it helpful to break that down into smaller pieces that are easier to plot out. For the purposes of this article, let’s say you do pick a city as your location. So, how do you go about populating this city with characters and plot hooks? It’s a bit overwhelming to consider the whole city at once, so break it down into discrete ‘zones.’ When I ran my City Campaign, I split the city into districts. There were two residential districts (one upper-class, one that was little better than a slum), an entertainment district, a shopping district, and the government buildings (which were not a district per se, but occupied the center of town). I also classified the outskirts and immediate surroundings of the city as a ‘zone.’ If you’re going bigger than a single city, this still works, you just have to adjust the scale: break a world down into continents, continents into countries, countries into regions, and regions into cities. In these cases, some of the terminology might shift a bit; if you’re building a whole country, you probably don’t need to then subdivide each city into districts–the cities themselves can serve as the ‘zone’-tier items. You also don’t need to meticulously plot out every single settlement in your country–just do a handful that your players are likely to visit!
After that, I broke the ‘zones’ down further into ‘groups.’ I thought, What kind of people would live or work in each zone? I aimed to have three groups per zone. For the slum, I decided that a major hook could be a gang war between orcs and kobolds, which gave me two of my groups: the Redscales and the Greenskins. For my third group, I just went with a catch-all ‘Common Citizens’ group–people who were just trying to get by and not get caught up in the violence. Note that a ‘group’ in the sense I’m using it here doesn’t actually have to be a collection of connected individuals who know each other; not all of the citizens in the slum knew each other, but they all fit into the same group!
Three groups is an arbitrary number; you can set your target as high or as low if you want. If you’re having trouble thinking of groups for your zones that would have cool plot hooks, that’s okay! You can make a group that you don’t have a plan for. Just try to think about what your zone needs or what it might logically have and make a group for it. For instance, when I was working on the Entertainment District for my city, I was stumped for a third group. I already had some acting troupes and stuff; what else might one find in a place like that? Then it occurred to me: it seems like everywhere people gather to have fun, there’s always a few folks who show up to protest it. People boycott events, rally against “immoral” movies, and so on. So my third group ended up being ‘Protesters.’ At first, I didn’t really have any ideas in mind for them, but as I worked on fleshing out the faction (building characters for it and thinking about its place in the city) I started giving the group a sort of ominous, cult-y vibe. They weren’t Westboro Baptist Church-style protesters who would angrily wave signs at people on their way to the theater; they were quiet, robed figures handing out pamphlets about the evils of music and dance. They weren’t violent or rude, but there was something… off about them. So even though I didn’t have a plan in mind for them at first, they ended up developing into one of the more interesting parts of the city!
Speaking of fleshing out a group, guess what the next step is? Once you’ve got your groups picked out, divide them up further into individual characters! If you’ve already got specific character ideas in mind, that’s perfect. I know that when I made the Redscales, I already had a good picture of their tough-as-nails leader in my head. If you don’t, though, that’s alright! Again, think about what your group needs. What does it make sense for the group to have? Start from that base and then fill in the specifics. For instance, say you’ve got the following breakdown:
Location: Zarakeel (City)
Zone: Entertainment District
Group: A Handful of Coppers (Popular Band)
And now you don’t have any specific ideas for individual band members. No big deal! Just think about what a band needs. How about a lead singer? A lute player? Maybe a flutist? Depending on how many characters you’re aiming for per group, you could also add in the band’s agent, roadies, or prominent fans. Just make a list of all the roles you need to fill; maybe in the course of doing so you’ll think of ideas for individual names or personalities. If not, no worries! There are tons of random tables out there to help you with that; check out the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything for more random tables than you’ll know what to do with!
The bigger the sandbox, the more you’ll rely on those tables, too. Building NPCs is fun, sure, but it can be exhausting–especially if you’ve already made all the ones you were excited for. Not every NPC can be Stragg Stoneaxe, the one-eyed dwarf archer with an enthralling quest to save his family’s mine; sometimes, you just need to throw together a few lines about Steve the Blacksmith, because hey, your players are probably gonna visit the blacksmith at some point and you should probably have a vague idea what that guy is like. No need to break your back writing Steve’s biography, though–roll on a few tables and you’re good to go!
The other benefit of rolling on tables for NPCs is that you don’t get too attached to that character’s concept. That makes it a lot easier to improvise with them, and often you’ll come up with character tics or backstory choices for them on the fly that are just as fun and interesting as the NPCs you poured a lot of time into. I can’t tell you how many times my players have taken an interest in a random NPC and made him a much bigger part of the game than I intended. Heck, in my current game, the party ended up being so unexpectedly kind to a goblin they captured–just a nameless goblin that was part of a planned encounter–that he joined their group permanently and now helps them run their bar. Stuff like that can’t be planned for at the outset–you’ve just got to roll with it and put in the work to flesh the character out later, after your players have started to get interested.
Once you’ve broken things down this far (from location to zones to groups to characters), you’ll probably already have a lot of ideas for plot hooks! I usually try to have about one plot hook/quest idea per group to start out, but depending on your scale, you might have more or less (for instance, if you’re doing a continent-sized sandbox, you might only have one plot hook per country or region). If you don’t have quite as many hooks as you’d like, don’t panic. Look over all your work again and see if there’s anything you want to expand on more. See if you might be able to make some connections that didn’t occur to you before. Maybe you’ve got two groups that could get into a dispute that your players could solve. Perhaps the snooty nobleman you designed could have an heir that’s gone missing and needs found. Also, look at your players’ characters; do any of them have backstory hooks that you could integrate? Do any of them have particular interests that you could build a quest around? And if all else fails, just start the game with what you’ve got and watch your players. See what they react to and are interested in. Then, expand on that! Trust me, you’ll have lots of potential quests brewing in no time.
Well, there you have it! That’s how I like to prep for sandbox games. As you can see, it’s a bit different than my narrative prep, though there’s no reason you couldn’t use some of these strategies (particularly the NPC generation) in a narrative game too. Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas on running a sandbox game of your own!