Dungeons & Dragons Online

How to: sandbox

Content of the article: "How to: sandbox"

There's a kind of sentiment against sandbox campaigns, like they tend to be boring or "the players need a railroad" (punch the next person who unironically says that, they deserve it). That's, obviously, bullshit, but I can understand where that comes from.

It's very easy to completely drop the ball with a sandbox campaign. So, I'll try my best to explain, how to run a sandbox without making it boring.

The first thing you need to understand: a sandbox requires many tough choices. If you run a linear adventure, you can have next to zero choices and still have a fun game (that doesn't mean that you should: choice is the backbone of TTRPGs), but you can't do the same with a sandbox.

So, what is a good choice? It should be:

  • Informed (even if based on a false information): the players need to know what they are choosing. Going left or right on a fork in the path isn't an informed choice. Going long, but safe or short, but dangerous way is.
  • Tough: every option should be pretty much equally desirable (or undesirable). Getting 100gp or getting smacked in the face isn't a tough choice. Getting 100gp for betraying a friend or getting smacked in the face for refusing to do so is tough.
  • Consequential: it should lead to some consequences.

Basically, a good choice is a sacrifice — whatever you choose, you sacrifice something and it leads to consequences.

Thankfully, any believable game world is basically a choice factory. There are different factions (that have different relationships with each other), there are threats and the time waits for no one. Just leverage all these facts.

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Let's start with the time. That's simplest one.


Time’s arrow neither stands still nor reverses, it merely marches forward.

Naturally, the party can't be at several places at once. They theoretically can, but that probably wouldn't be effective — lone wolves always end up in a ditch, y'know. So, they naturally must choose, where they need to go and what they should do.

When they choose to do something, then they are automatically choosing to abandon or at least postpone other things — and if there are too many fires to put out, it naturally leads to a tough choice.

So, imagine: the players start a small village of Jijovo. Recently, a farmer's son went missing. That's it. That's an interesting hook, but it doesn't leave much choice — the party either goes and does something, or they just do nothing.

But, if you throw something in the mix, like, there's a boy gone missing and a travelling merchant urgently needs someone to guard him and pays good money for it — then, we have at least some food for thoughts. What's more important for the party? Doing the "right thing" or getting quick buck?

Just make sure that there are several things going on at every given moment and that the clock is always ticking.

Next step…


The factions

Just like in the real life, there are probably different factions in your fantasy world. And they probably have some kind of relationships with each other. It naturally poses a choice: who the party is going to help?

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It shouldn't be like in Skyrim, where the College of Winterhold, the Companions, the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood exist in vacuum and don't give a single fuck about each other. It should be like in Morrowind, where climbing the ranks of Mages Guild prevents you from getting promoted in Fighters Guild.

The simplest way is just create a several factions that compete for the same goal. Think New Vegas: the NCR, the Legion and mr. House all want the Hoover Dam for themselves — naturally, when you work for one (or work on getting the dam for yourself), you lose reputation with others.

Then, you can spice the things up with creating triangles. Faction A is an ally of faction B and an enemy of faction C. So, the party must carefully choose who are they working with.

So, imagine: the Čížek clan and the Hlaváč clan are two wealthy families, struggling for control over the city of Vawaldov. The Čížeks have ties with the Crows Gang, the Hlaváčs have ties with the City Watch (who are basically just another gang in the city) — and they both seek outside help.

Whoever the party chooses, they make two allies and two enemies — and it will naturally lead to interesting consequences.

TL;DR: sandboxes don't work without consequential choices and whatever the party chooses, they must gain something important and lose something important.

My other stuff:

  • How to run games (and actually run'em good)
  • How to start a campaign
  • How to run a one-shot
  • How to use partial successes, position and effect for skill checks
Read:  By far the most fun I've had with players arguing over a plan for 2 straight hours.

Footnote: the fact that reddit doesn't have some kind of "horizontal line" or another text separator fucking infuriates me.

Source: reddit.com

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