Sandbox games generally take more work, but if you implement the tips below they can be incredibly rewarding. Games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the imagination by allowing players to help steer the narrative and go off the beaten path to explore the game in their own way, quite the deviation from a railroad campaign.
Typically, a railroad game will follow a module or tell a very specific story that the Game Master (GM) has planned. Railroad games are not bad. In fact, they serve a very real purpose for many players and GMs. They take care of a majority of the planning for the GM, and players do not need to craft intricate backstories. Less planning can be great if you don’t have much time. After sitting down for a couple of session zeros with your players, you should have an idea if the game you and your friends are playing will be a sandbox or a railroad.
Planning these sessions can seem overwhelming. The goal is to avoid planning minute details so your players may focus on more important points. It means focusing on details that breathe life into a world. Details like laws, government types, religious ideology, and factions that will impact the party whether they engage with it or not. These details also inform the GM so overall there is less improv while allowing the improv that does take place to be concise and consistent.
Practice improv as a table
Start every game with an improv period. Before every session at our table, we play a game of “Yes, and”. “Yes, and” is an incredibly simple game: one player starts by setting a scene and describing an action in the world; two sentences or less. Such as:
“A person is walking down a crowded city street. They are whistling a happy tune” It then goes to the next person who says:
“YES, AND a meteor appears in the distance. It is barrelling towards the earth at an incredible pace.”
I usually let the story build for 2 laps around the table before allowing it to conclude with the person who started it. You want to focus on accepting the group narrative and not derailing what others have done. The goal is to accept the world in the moment and drive the narrative as a group. Doing this before every session relaxes everyone and builds confidence in their own storytelling.
The story moves regardless of your players
Go ahead and accept that this isn’t your story anymore. You and a group of friends are about to come together regularly for hours each session to tell a story that will likely be far different than what you might have ever planned. This will be surprising and deeply rewarding for everyone at the table.
Embrace this, allow your players to interact with anything and everything that they may want to explore. We will talk about later how to cope with that in a natural way.
SPERM or how to plan the town, city, region
Planning may sound intimidating but I promise it isn’t. If this is your first time running a sandbox campaign, start small. Start by planning only a region. Do not worry about a globe or even a whole empire or continent.
I like to think of Coastal Georgia as a good campaign region. There is a smattering of towns, small cities, and a vibrant trade hub. It spans a few hundred miles and would take a few days by horse and cart to traverse. On the coast, the port city brings in culture, tourism, and trade; and the inland areas you have rural farmlands and small communities. Plenty of adventuring can happen in a space like this without ever including a higher government. When you do this, all you need to do for higher government is to decide its political system. Is it an autocratic monarchy, a military dictatorship, a religious conclave, or a democratic republic. For simplicity in the example, we will say the higher government is a monarchy ruled by a royal family and each region has a lord or lady ruling it.
Now that we know some basics let's look at SPERM. Societal, Political, Economic, Religion, and Military. Let’s apply these principles to our Coastal GA example.
For society, we will say that the large city of Savannah is where all of the wealthy live. They have lavish taverns, performance halls, and grand estates. It is not uncommon to see elegant balls and dress codes. With all of that wealth, they probably feel safe due to a well-regulated police force. Also, we will infer that this wealth has attracted a seedy underbelly of thieves, assassins, urchins, low lives, and impoverished people trying to make ends meet.
In the more rural areas, you have a healthy middle class of small business owners. They keep their friends and family close and are wary of strangers. The lack of high society and wealth has decreased criminal activity and therefore the law enforcement isn’t as robust. Bandits, pillagers, and highwaymen have been known to take advantage of this.
Can you see how even if you know nothing else about this town you could quickly improvise what the party may experience? Let’s add politics next.
We will say that there is a lord in Savannah that rules the region at the pleasure of the Royal family, and each town in the city will have a mayor. Now we have quest givers and movers and shakers for a local government faction. We will go into more about Movers and Shakers later.
Next! Economics. We want a cursory understanding of where the money comes from and where it goes. Savannah’s prime import is rice so we know that there is a large granary industry here that supports the food and markets for most of the region. The rural farms here sell other goods back to the region to supply taverns, homes, and royalty. Large farms grow tobacco that is exported from the ports to other parts of the world. Again, much like societal it’s pretty easy to extrapolate from very little information a slew of side quests and stories. EX: Farms are losing their yield for unknown reasons, Two trade ships have mysteriously capsized in the last month, or Someone poisoned the royal granary.
R! Religion. Determine what religion is the most prevalent in the region. Is it legal? Is it the official religion? Is there another religion that is gaining momentum? Again, I think it is clear that when you decide on this very high-level knowledge it can inform your improvisation regardless of what the players do.
Example: A player wants to interact with an NPC house that you randomly described. They knock on the door. You might say:
A uniformed man with a slight scruff and ponytail answers the door. From his regulation guard leathers and a short sword at his side, he is clearly a man of the law. Behind him, you see an altar to Pelor with incense burning slowly.
This is totally improvised and believable because it is consistent with the setting that you have been planting seeds for as you adventure in this area. Perhaps after some pestering, he lets the players know that he is tired of investigating some new gang that has been harassing store owners.
Finally, the military! Does the region have a military presence and where is it located? There is a robust Navy because of the value of the port and a royal army garrison to protect during an invasion. It is common to see members of these services in Savannah but less so in the rural areas.
The military brings its own other benefits for your players as well. Work for hire, access to better merchants, and craftspeople as quest rewards. Taverns flavored as military bars. Perhaps your level 4 party has suffered a series of unfortunate roles in a kobold encounter and are about to perish out in the countryside. Because you have set the scene and described the occasional rural patrol you can realistically introduce some guards to help save the party.
Source: Dael Kingsmill
Know who the movers and shakers are in the world
You very likely have a story to tell. It may be elaborate or it may be simple, but you need to identify for yourself the key players. The wizard Vecna is secretly amassing power and knowledge on his way to ascend. His cult is growing and has a couple of leaders, he has embedded an agent in the council of the local lord and is poisoning his mind for his own gain. The Holy Paladins of Pelor have taken notice of the cultists and begun an investigation.
In one paragraph, we have established four characters, Vecna, and his three leaders, and we have identified two opposing factions, the cult and the Holy Paladins of Pelor. This is plenty to build a long campaign around. You want to have a general idea of what they are doing and what their motives are, everything they do is in service to their goals.
Vecna and his Cult are using subterfuge to gain political power and the cult leaders are growing the cult. They are being secretive so growth is slow at least at first. Perhaps they are targeting easily turned or disillusioned NPC. Even better, create a faction that is at odds with the current power in the region. That faction can be the target of that subterfuge as well, totally unaware that they have begun forwarding Vecna’s cause. The same can be said of The Holy Paladins of Pelor: What are they doing? Where are they doing it? What rumors are they tracking? Have they been infiltrated? These are all questions that will be answered with my most favorite tool, my calendar.
Plan the Calendar
Again, it isn’t your table, but it is your calendar. It is time to put those movers, shakers, and factions to work for you. You should let your players know during session one that you are keeping a calendar and that events will unfurl themselves regardless of their direct involvement. Remind them it is okay to not engage, it is a sandbox after all, but there could be consequences.
Start with your villain. The good guys don’t know something is up yet because of secrecy. Start marking in your calendar major events the villain, in this example, Vecna, might take to sure up his position.
Example: Month 1 - Vecna starts growing a small following within a faction of wizards that have expressed disdain for the crown. Month 2 - Vecna injects his new followers into the metropolitan underworld to gain more influence. Month 3 - Vecna, with a few followers, plans the assassination of a royal adviser. Month 4 - Vecna embeds his agent into the newly vacant position.
It is good to be a bit granular and specific here. You could mark on your calendar that also in month 3 Vecna sends cultists to city A and city B.
Use your calendar for mundane things too; this will make your life so much easier and keep the world much more alive! Mark what city the carnival will be in each month. Mark if your bard visits a brothel; roll dice and mark out that many months. Use this between sessions to help you refine what your players will experience. If you know they are visiting the town Vecna infiltrated three months ago they may have a very different experience than if they had arrived during the cult's first incursion. Or perhaps, if they arrive before Vecna ever gets there, they will befriend an NPC that you can use later when Vecna does arrive.
Move pieces on the board after every session
Good job, you just wrapped a grueling improv session in a game where you as the DM probably had almost no control over what happened! You were probably excited to let your players explore a town and see the neat things you had for them on your calendar but like you, they probably tried to borrow pliers from a locked shed, got caught in the act, and nearly burned down a house trying to flee. So what now - rest, breathe, and if it’s late, sleep.
The next day. Carve out an hour to see how the actions of the players impacted the calendar, if at all, and make adjustments. I like to reward my players for doing things and yes that includes burning half a town. I might say to myself, “Self, I bet one of these houses had some cultists in it, maybe even a headquarters. I should delay Vecna’s plot in this city. Beyond that, now is the easier part! You get to plan the next session and because events unfolded you can tailor it to what happened. Refine a few NPCs that you made off the cuff, design a rough layout of a detention center because you know they’re off to jail, create a couple of neat prisoners for them to chat with, etc. Don’t go nuts with it as they’ll probably do something you don’t expect, but it is nice to have ready when you can. Most importantly! If you end up not using something DO NOT tell your players. Why? Because this can now get logged in your folder for ten sessions from now when you need a prison break module. Your players will have no clue that you are lifting a module you had planned for one area to use in another if you do not tell them. Also, it may alter their future decision making!
Plan side modules as drag and drop events
All Modules you make should be mostly setting androgynous. You have to assume your players will circumvent anything you make, and if you don’t want to go crazy you need to plan out as little of an encounter as possible. Create a mental file cabinet (or physical) of encounters and modules that you can drop in anywhere. I have a handful of haunted houses that are all haunted in different ways because every town has houses.
These details may seem obvious to some but once you and your table get started, you may forget things, or the pace may move faster than you are prepared. As I mentioned above, if you have something in town A for your players to do and they skip it altogether, use it later! Don’t worry about “what if they come back” either because you can just drop something else they skipped elsewhere in its place.
My suggestions are not comprehensive, and I am sure I will post more to further elaborate on things, but I use these ideas in every game I run. It keeps me sane, it keeps me ready, and it keeps my players thinking I do way more planning than I do! If you do too much you’ll get bogged down in trying to remember it all and that interferes with RP and Improv because you are so busy trying to recall things. Keep it simple whenever possible, avoid naming NPCs that don’t matter (yes, every table has that player that will ask; they won’t remember every time.) keep the basics of SPERM handy, and above all else have fun!
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