A Fantasy Sandbox in Five Easy Steps (#0)
Updated: Feb 16
The sandbox-style adventure is the holy grail of RPGs. A place of total freedom for the player characters to build an emergent story out of random and semi-random elements built by the DM/Judge/GM. But, sandbox adventures are daunting -- there are no rails! There is no direction! A lot of GMs run to keep ahead of their characters, laying various tracks that lead back to pre-set encounters or sites. This hybrid approach is one way to do it, but I am a lazy DM. I don't like to spend a lot of time thinking about what the player's will do next so that I can throw something in front of them. I want the characters to do my work for me.
Made with Worldographer.
And so do you. With a bit of work up front, you'll have a up-and-running fantasy sandbox in...well... five easy steps. A sandbox that responds to character's actions without you having to rebuild, reposition or...do anything other than exactly what you're good at: Creating situations that challenge the PCs, entertains the players and even allows you to be part of the game!
The Five Easy Steps
What are the five steps?
Make a Map (and collect a bunch more)
Build some Tables (and find a bunch more).
Build some Sites (and steal more)
Set a Home Base.
Play the game.
Step 0.1: Stop Overthinking It
As a lifelong DM, I understand the desire to spend hours and hours on development of a perfectly crafted world from the solar system down to the color of that special flowering tree that grants wishes.
Stop doing that.
A sandbox is not a fantasy novel series. It's a place where you and your buddies can spend a few hours per session solving problems and seizing treasures. You start small, with a detailed home base. The farther away from the home base, the less detail you need. As the PCs explore, the details come to the fore and the "adventure" or "story" emerges.
Step 0.2: Where to Start?
Before you start, you have to make a few decisions...
Genre -- You already know it's fantasy, but are you going dark? semi-historical? mythic? Just straight up kitchen-sink D&D? This will guide everything you develop (and how you modify the stuff that you include).
System -- You probably already have a go-to system, but maybe you're trying something new. Either way, you have to know the system before you start developing. DCC RPG feels very different from Swords & Wizardry, from Savage Worlds, from Pendragon.
Setting -- Is this surface? Underworld? High Seas? Airships and Dragons? Planehopping? Knowing the general setting drives you through the 5 steps.
Style -- Is the game a West Marches-style drop-in/drop-out game? Is it a set party of players on a given night of the week? The style of sandbox you want to run dictates a few of the decisions you're going to have to make.
Players -- Obviously you should know your audience. In a drop-in/drop-out West Marches style game, it may be more difficult, but ultimately, you just want to make sure that the style, system, genre and general gameplay is compatible with the folks you're going to play with. West Marches is "build it and they will come." Other styles may require you to actually sit with your players and talk about how you want to build the game. And you may find that they have no interest in a sandbox at all -- then you get to make other decisions.
Step 0.3: Stop Over-Development
Maybe controversial, but I fall into this trap all the time, especially because I'm usually testing something for eventual publication. If it's not the game, stop doing it.
By this, I mean drawing beautiful maps, designing, printing and painting custom miniatures, formatting your manuscript for publication, crafting museum-quality handouts... Stop it. These are all the things that Game Masters do that take away from the actual game. Yeah, they may add to the *experience* but your game should be the experience. Roleplaying is a social game that utilizes the imagination for most of the heavy lifting. Stop doing more heavy lifting! I know it looks great on your Instagram posts, but it's really not the game.
If you're wondering why you can't seem to get a campaign off the ground, this is probably why.
In the next posts, I'm going to share the simple tools and methods I use to lighten the workload on all the "not gaming" stuff you think you need in order to run a successful sandbox (you don't).
Step 0.4: Copy from Your Neighbor (i.e. Steal Everything)
Many many people have already done what you're trying to do. It doesn't make your effort any less unique and cool -- it actually helps you. The Internet is your friend. Here you will find a lot of your work done for you. In addition, you'll find inspiration for your own stuff. You may hear that you're somehow violating copyright or trademark or some other BS -- this is not true. Are you publishing your sandbox? No. You're not. What you use at the table is whatever you want to use. Go out there and find a bunch of inspiration then patch it all together into a semi-coherent sketch of a world. And you'll be helping a bunch of semi-professional writers, artists, editors, layout folks and others that are creating all this great stuff.
Step 0.5: When in Doubt, Just Start Playing
It's a game, not a part-time job. Part-time jobs pay you -- you don't pay them. Grab a published product, a dungeon you've had laying around in a folder for ages, or some randomly generated thing off the Internet, and start playing. There's no better way to "emerge" a campaign than to be forced to do it as you run the game. Run the game. The rest will follow.
So, that's all the pre-advice. The next five articles are going to show you how to quickly develop and run a sandbox campaign that will last as long as you and your players want.