Running a Sandbox Game

Sandcastle, dump truck, shovel, or little green Army men? Or something different?

In part, this post is an expansion or clarification of two previous posts.  The first one was Joann’s comments on Writing a Campaign where she alluded to how I think about doing so.  The second was my post two weeks ago on Taking Notes.  Both of these danced around the subject I wanted to talk about for today’s post: Running a Sandbox Game.

First off, what is a Sandbox Game?  When I refer to a Sandbox Game, what I’m referring to is a game designed to allow maximum freedom for players to pursue their own agendas while the life of the world in which their characters inhabit happens around them.  This is in contrast with a more plot-driven game where the GM actively tries to “herd” players back toward the central plotline that they have come up with.  Now, what I am not intending to do in this article is suggest that one of these is better than the other.  They both have positives and negatives, and there are “hybrid” variations of each.  In other words, think of it more like a sliding scale where a particular adventure or campaign is more “sandbox-y” or more “plot-driven-y” (Yes, I’m making those words up.  No, I don’t care.)

Next, let’s talk about some of the characteristics of a Sandbox Game.  When we talk about ‘maximum freedom for players to pursue their own agendas’, what do we really mean?  What I mean is this:  Over the course of my time playing and running roleplaying games, I have come to see my role as a world builder and a facilitator.  I have the primary (but not sole) responsibility for bringing a fantasy world to life for my players’ characters to interact with.  But in my mind, what they choose to do in that world is entirely up to them.  I am simply there to first, tell them what is there, and second, tell them what happens when they make their choices with regard to their actions (sometimes with the help of the game mechanics). For a great example of this, have a look at Keep on the Borderlands (especially the excellent 5E rewrite that Goodman Games did). It’s a fantastic example of a Sandbox Game.

But how do the players know what to do?  Over the past several years, I’ve shifted to focus very heavily on Session Zero.  I try very hard to use that time to get my players into their characters’ heads and then to get into theirs.  To understand their motivations and then, when we are actually playing, to use those motivations as a guide for my “GMs camera”, the focal point for my storytelling, so that the things that are being presented are the ones that are the most relevant to my players.  While the concept of a “living world” does indeed suggest, that in a quiet house in the city, Nathaniel the Baker’s Janitor gets up every evening after the Bakery closes and goes and cleans the shop, that’s not likely very relevant to what the characters want to do, nor is it particularly exciting most of the time.  So the “GMs camera” doesn’t tend to focus there.

During Session Zero, I try to get my players to dream up at least one character arc for their characters; something that drives that individual, that moves them to act and take initiative (not necessarily combat initiative) in order to make something happen, to get something done.  If possible, they do this together so that over the course of that discussion, there can be some organic weaving of these threads together.  I try to further develop this interconnectedness with character bonds: explicit ties that the players themselves develop that link two or more of their characters in the story.  If needed, after that session, I will go back and look at the character arcs and the character bonds and do some weaving of my own, usually with NPCs or plot devices in order to link several of these together.  This both simplifies the number of things that the “GMs camera” has to focus on and at the same time, makes those things feel more relevant because they are now part of a shared narrative between characters.

In my previous post about Taking Notes, I showed several examples of notebooks I have used.  The one I showed from my D&D 3.5E Waterdeep Campaign was in particular an example of how I look at preparing a Sandbox Game.  If using a published campaign setting such as Forgotten Realms, Ptolus, Starfinder, or one of many thousands of others, the first thing I look at is the map.  A Sandbox Game needs a good map.  For me, the word ‘good’ here means that the map has enough interesting features that players can go investigate so that they won’t get bored for about ten sessions.  Now, there’s a couple of reasons behind this.  First, if they stay in this area, I want them to be able to feel at the end of the campaign that they have truly integrated themselves into this area and have become “natives”.  Second, if they do not want to stay in this area, they have had enough time to interact with each other and the environment that I as a GM can get a sense of what kinds of things they want to focus on and how they tend to tackle problems.  If the setting you are using does not have one, you’ll need to make one.  I use Campaign Cartographer, but there are other options like Inkarnate and Wonderdraft (supported by Watabou and Azgaar) that have a lower learning curve and are less expensive.

In order to manage that second option, I tend to build lists of potential adventure ideas.  In the Taking Notes post, I mentioned that this book had a list of over 50.  I honestly do not expect to use all of these, ever.  But it gives me enough that I can scan through during prep and pick one that “feels right” to insert in a particular location or at a particular party or world dynamic’s “feel”.  Note the choice of words.  This is not a science.  It takes practice, like art, and it takes learning your group.  The other thing that helps here is lists of power players.  Revisiting our friend Nathaniel, the Baker’s Janitor, we hardly expect him to be up to much that would interest our players.  But if we build a list of individuals and groups that might, when we need someone for them to interact with or a “bad guy” for one of our many potential adventure ideas, we can pull one from here.

The main idea with this is to give yourself as a GM options to “riff” off of in the moment.  If the players, instead of staying in town A, choose to go to town B, and you’ve decided that there is a Thieves Guild there working on extorting the local businesses, you immediately have ideas for rumors, potential adventure hooks, and NPCs that come to mind to support that main group goal.  Then, if there is another group, law enforcement, an adventuring guild, or something else, that is actively opposing that Thieves Guild, you have natural conflict in the town.  Now there’s something brewing that your characters can (wittingly or not) get mixed up in.  You throw them into situations that are “simply happening” in their larger world, and let them deal with the ramifications of those situations.

From there, between sessions, you can build small maps based on what seems likely for them to do the next session and populate them with mooks, monsters, traps, treasure, and whatever else seems best.  But since you have already thought about the big picture, all of these should flow logically down.  In other words, a Thieves Guild hideout will have different things populating it than would a Vampire’s Lair.

The other thing a good Sandbox GM cannot ignore is lists.  Names, personality traits, oddities/knick-knacks, business names, etc…  I love Cypher’s NPC deck and Larcenous Designs’ Gamemaster’s Apprentice decks.  Once you use one of these, make sure that you write it down in your session notes so that you can refer back to it later.  This gives a sense of continuity and immersion in your game and also some potential hooks for background events to happen to.  The better notes that you can take during your sessions (or immediately after), the more tools you will have at your disposal to plan the next session based on the characters’ choices.

Sandbox Games aren’t really no-prep games, but they do require a bit of a different mindset.  Instead of focusing on a pre-determined plot, you’re planning around the player’s actions.  You arm yourself with cues (lists, maps, etc…) that you use to fill in when you need something quick because the players do something unexpected, and you “map out” or prepare only what you need to in order to cover the results of the choices that the PCs made the last session or couple of sessions.  A great resource to do this kind of quick session planning is Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.  There are a couple of good videos on Sandbox Games by Guy Sclanders and Matt Colville if you’d like some more (and varied) information on the subject.  Most of all, have fun with empowering your players and, as always, happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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