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Fantasy Sandbox in Five Easy Steps #3: Sites Are Where the Action Is

Copyright: mbgraphicdesign; Used with Permission.

This continues the series on making a fantasy sandbox in five easy steps. 0. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.


Sites. Adventure locales. Dungeons. Sites are the hardest to quantify in a sandbox because, if you’re like me, you’ve got about 100 published adventures you’d like to run, about 200 ideas for adventures you’d like to develop, and your group gets together once a month, if the stars align properly.

Well, your sandbox ain’t gonna sandbox that way!

I can’t solve your scheduling issues, but I can give you some guidance on what’s worked for me to organize adventure sites in my sandbox campaigns so that they make sense, have attainable goals (i.e. get the treasure; get out alive), and are diverse and interesting – you know…not the same dungeon crawl 20 times.

Throughout this series, I’ve trumpeted the virtues of the emergent sandbox campaign; a game that is as surprising and entertaining for the game master as it is for the PCs, and one where the PCs drive anything resembling a story. I understand this may not be your style and sandboxes work for any play style. You can have a wide open wilderness and still have signposts, pre-set encounters and sites, NPC plots and a whole epic storyline out there to be played. Organizing your adventure sites doesn’t change with this play style – it just may be more structured.

I follow these guidelines for finding site-based adventures, placing them in the sandbox world, and randomly generating other ones on the fly. In my opinion, the game should be as emergent as possible, so take off the training wheels and get to improvising!


A Note About Party Level

I don’t believe that the game should be built in session-digestible chunks, hewn to the exact appropriate character level, and carefully crafted to provide every character in the party their specific moment to shine. It’s great if you do though. And, I’m not a dick – I try not to surprise player characters with a high-level dungeon out of the blue. The way I do that is that I set up concentric “rings of power” centered on the main campaign homebase. So, within 2-3 days of the homebase, there are lots of low-level sites and opportunities for sites, for the player characters. These sites may be dungeons with deeper, more difficult levels, but there’s always something for some new party of adventurers to jenga. And then, a few days out from there, the next higher level of sites will be placed. I’ll mix it up a little bit, but only if there’s a pretty obvious warning that a site might be more difficult than the party could handle at their current level. YMMV.


What's a Good Sandbox Adventure Site?

Adventures are the core of the game – whether they are published modules, your own creation, something free off the internet, or scratched out notes and frantic sketches five minutes before game time. Potential adventures are everywhere, obviously.

An adventure site has a few criteria that make it a perfect fit for a sandbox campaign:

  • Relatively Short – You don’t necessarily want to have a megadungeon plopped into the middle of your sandbox unless that’s what you want to feature for the campaign. Sandboxes are generally more about exploration of whole regions. An adventure site should be large enough to comprise 1-3 sessions of play before being tapped out. If you have one that’s larger, consider breaking it up into distinct, distributed sites. Or, see the Fixed Sites section below.

  • Definitive Rewards – Make sure your adventure site fits with the incentives that you’ve built into your campaign. If treasure is emphasized, make sure there’s some here to find or win. If fighting XP is the main goal, give the characters lots of threats to defeat. Most of my campaigns are built on a balance of treasure, fighting/adventure XP, and discovery-based XP, so I always have a little of all three as part of the rewards that can be gained at an adventure site.

  • Definitive End – A site obviously has boundaries, but the definitive end should make it clear that the site can no longer give the PCs any real benefit (treasure, XP, information, etc.). In my West Marches sandbox campaign, clearing a site actually nets you an XP bonus and sets the stage to clearing/civilizing a hex.  

  • Interconnectedness – This isn’t an ironclad requirement, but it certainly adds to the verisimilitude and “lived-in” feel of your world. Your connections can be light or heavy – a map found in one site that leads to the other or a collection of symbols found at each site. You’re always looking for players to make connections on their own and drive their characters’ actions (action is story). These little clues give the players something else for their characters to obsess over, and it provides natural hooks for the next or future sessions.

Where do I find them?

Literally everywhere!

  • Published Adventures – We’ve all got a bunch of them in modules, books, magazines and PDFs. Dig through your favorites with an eye toward the criteria above. Dig through the ones that you aren’t familiar with. I’m always finding gems in Dungeon, White Dwarf and other rpg magazines. A lot of times, the site adventures in those publications are perfectly sized for a 1-3 session exploration.

  • Free Internet Resources – Not a big secret that the Internet is out there to do your work for you. Specifically, dig out the One Page Dungeon contest outputs. These are generally adaptable to any system, are relatively simple, and fit perfectly into a couple of sessions. Most of all, they capture the pure imagination of the creators – from the design and layout to the content to the art. Every system has its fanbase – lurk where that fanbase lurks and you’ll find thousands of free adventures, sites, seeds, and (sometimes) complete campaigns to dig out content.

  • Patreon/DriveThruRPG/roll20/ Marketplaces – I’m calling out these specific resources because roleplaying games are all about the creators, and we are in a true renaissance with this hobby. A combination of desktop publishing, extreme interconnectedness via social platforms and several great creator-driven marketplaces means that you never have a shortage of site-based adventures of any size, stripe or system. If somehow you don’t have enough adventure sites to drop into your campaign, just spend an hour or two browsing any of the above marketplaces.

  • DIY – This can be a trap, but if you limit yourself to designing sites/adventures to the criteria above, it can be more rewarding because only you know the tone/themes that you want your campaign to project. Just about every system has some level of “adventure builder” guide. Personally, the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has a great dungeon builder in the Appendix. You can adapt to almost any system and it builds the type of adventures/sites I like to build. Another systemless concept is the 5-room dungeon. If you’re not familiar with it, I’ll post some resources in the Appendices to this article series.

Placing Adventure Sites in the Sandbox

I put site-based adventures into two different categories: Set Piece Sites and Emergent Sites. Both serve your aims as a gamemaster and provide the player characters with initial goals, discoveries, and all the interesting interconnectedness and lived-in feel of the world.

Set Piece Sites

There are some adventures that you just want to run. Sailors on the Starless Sea is an

absolute favorite. Really anything by Harley Stroh. I've used that one across a couple of genres and game systems. Stonehell: Down Night-Haunted Halls by Michael Curtis. It's the perfect mega-dungeon. And it's so portable. I can pull out any level -- or even section of a level -- and plop it down on my map if I need a quick dungeon. You probably have a shelf full of published adventures you want to run. And another stack of ones you’ve developed.

Your set piece sites are just that: You put them on the hexmap, and you have at least a vague plan to direct the characters to it.

I follow these guidelines for fixing adventure sites in my sandbox (taking into consideration the concentric rings of power above):

  1. Have one big adventure site per zone. This prevents the characters from having too much "gamer ADD." If you have too many juicy adventure sites in one area, the players have problems choosing what they want to do. I find if there's one big site per region, the players set their expeditions up for those, and though there may be some improvisation along the way, they generally are prepared for that exploration.

  2. Connect the fixed adventure sites but do it lightly. A map discovered in the Dungeon of Unholy Dread leads to the Cloud Palace of the Titanic Temptress. A prisoner here might be from there. Connections fire the players’ imaginations – even if the connections don’t mean anything (or they invent the connection themselves). Use it!

  3. Drop a few rumors, but let the characters generate their own rumors. Remember the advice to let the players do your work? You may want to give ADD gamers an initial destination – and that’s great – drop a few rumors in the starting area about the Giant Barrow of the Hopping God, just a day away. After that, let the players generate their own rumors, suppositions, and goals.

  4. Have discoverable and hidden fixed sites. Characters may find some sites by just wandering past (i.e. the encounter table lists a “site”). Some sites you’ll want to be hidden and only discoverable through other means – like the treasure map mentioned above or notes in a recovered book or carvings on some tomb, etc. Maybe the characters need a key or maybe one of the characters becomes the key. These discoveries fire the players’ imaginations and keep them coming back for more.


A NOTE About Rumors:

My dirty secret is that I hate writing rumor tables. The greatest thing I discovered while running an open table game is that the players share half-drawn maps, misinterpretations of what they’ve encountered or seen, and just straight up lies. The process builds this beautiful game of telephone where you never have to write another rumor table again. It’s all emergent – it’s all in-world/in-character – and it's less work for you.


Emergent Sites

Emergent sites are just that – you haven’t fixed them on your hexmap. You may have collected a bunch of adventures that you’d like to use, but you’ll only fix their location once they come up in the encounter table.

Some tips and tricks on emergent adventure sites:

  1. You want them to be very short – 1 or 2 sessions. This keeps things interesting and allows you to run the adventure on the fly.

  2. Keep emergent sites limited. I mentioned above that I limit my fixed sites to 1 per region on my hex map. I want less than half of my hexes in a given region to have an emergent site on it.

  3. I make a table of the emergent sites/adventures I want to have available in a given region. That way, when a site is indicated on my encounter table, I can roll on the site table for the region, grab the adventure and run it.

Adventure sites are the meat of the game. It’s the dungeon in D&D, it’s the space station, it’s the weird village. With a little bit of work, you can have interesting sites for your player characters to discover, root through, and emerge with treasures, power, and most importantly, stories to tell.

Go check out the rest of the series on making a fantasy sandbox in five easy steps. 0. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

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