D&D 5E DMing, Sandboxes, and Boring Dungeons. HELP

SpiritOfFire

First Post
Hi everyone.

New to the board and a newish DM.

I started to reply to the HotDQ Sandbox thread, but it got too big so here I go:

SANDBOX ADVENTURES:
I REALLY want to run a sandbox adventure for once. I've seen a video of the guys at RollPlay and the way they play blows my mind. TBH, the only meaty experience I have with any table RPGs is D&D 4e. And the adventures I ran for it were mostly a series of dungeons...what a chore.

So when I decided to make my own adventure, it was super derivative (which the players noticed to my embarrassment) and I still felt like I was forcing the players down a story line. I'm beginning to understand the importance of focusing of the setting and events occurring over an area rather than a movie-like plot. But the problem is, I am not creative enough to come up with a whole campaign by myself without ripping off popular movies/shows. T_T

So I need help. I figured Hoard of the Dragon Queen could help me achieve that, but if it's just a series of small interactions and linked dungeons, I'm going to cancel my preorder. If anyone has HotDQ already, please let me know what it's like! What do I even need to run a sandbox? Are published adventures even what I'm looking for? Maybe campaign setting books (none planned for 5e)? I am running the 5e starter adventure, and it seemed open when the players got to the main town hub, trying to figure out what's going on, but once they collected all the intel, it just became one dungeon after another in search of the mcguffin. There's also no info on the surrounding areas. The players wanted to go to Neverwinter to get better supplies and etc, but I know nothing of this city! No info whatsoever, even tho the players supposedly just came from there :mad:.

HATE DUNGEONS
I am learning to hate the idea of dungeons. It always devolves into: search for traps, clear room, search/loot, repeat. I can FEEL the exasperation of the players as they try to rush to get through. It almost feels like playing an old JRPG where you're trying to get to the next town, but forced to stop by random encounters in between. After 4e, I decided to try to "theater of the mind" a dungeon in the 5e starter set, but the players lost their sense of direction and tactical awareness. The wizard complained how he didn't know how to space out his movements and AOE spells. Everyone got lost since they didn't know which room connected to which hallway without their grid. I still think I prefer theater of the mind, but I don't think these dungeons could stay as-is. Perhaps I could strip down these dungeons to a few areas with the memorable enemies and traps? How do you deal with stuff like zoning, flanking, etc and AOE spells using the "theater" method? Does anyone use a diceroll to determine how many enemies get hit within blast range or if allies get caught up in it too? How do you keep the players from getting lost in these complicated dungeons without a battlemap drawn in? I am DREADING the last dungeon in the starter set. LOOK AT THE MAP! OMG!

HALP
 
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Crothian

First Post
First off welcome to the boards and do not despair. Running an RPG is like doing anything else the more you do it and the more practice you get at it the better off you become.

I am sure there are some great blog posts on how to run a Sandbox but I feel the best way to start it off is to ask the Players "What do your characters want to do? Where do they want to go?" I like to have rumors that can lead them to all kinds of locations or NPCs. Stories and legends of places that they might be interested in. It can take a little bit of work up front though some people are great at improvising things and do not prepare much.

I don't have Hoard of the Dragon Queen but from what I hear it is not something that you are going to want. It is linear.
 

Ravenheart87

Explorer
To start a sandbox campaign just work out a smaller area (eg. a town and nearby lands), then you can expand later. All you really need is places and NPCs with their issues and relationships, don't write scripts - the story will write itself once the players jump in. Take notes what they did and then think about what consequences it will have in the world, how will the various NPCs and factions react to their deeds. You will need to improvise a lot and your sandbox might become a huge mess after a while, but it's a glorious and fun mess. Random encounter tables, rumor tables and hood adventure hooks are very useful. If you want to see a good sandbox setting, I can recommend the free BlackMarsh supplement, the Points of Light books from Goodman Games, the Hex Crawl Classics line from Frog God Games, and the granddaddy of all sandbox settings: the Wilderlands of High Fantasy from Judges Guild. I'm going to run a campaign in the latter once the new City State of the Invincible Overlord is out in November.

As for dungeons, I keep a map in my possession and let my players draw their own maps, although I do help if they make a huge error during mapping. If they really want to have a more tactical view I make a sketch about who stands where, but only rough. Also note that the characters can't really make the calculations in a six second round about where to throw exactly a fireball to avoid the flames. Tell them to use common sense and use objects as targets. Some abstraction is required, but it's a bit more realistic and faster than calculating squares on the battlegrid.

Dungeons are pretty boring if they are presented as labyrinths with encounters. I like them as living and breathing environments, like Moria or the city in R. E. Howard's Red Nails. A good dungeon has interesting places you can explore, weird :):):):) that will confuse the hell out of you and (usually monster) factions that live there and can use the PCs for their advantage or can be used by the PCs. Check out Caverns of Thracia, Dark Tower, Citadel of Fire and Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor for good examples. I can also recommend Dungeon Alphabet from Goodman Games, it's one of the most entertaining book ever written about making dungeons interesting.

I hope I could help.
 

Hand of Evil

Hero
Epic
Welcome to the boards. [MENTION=232]Crothian[/MENTION] covered it.

  • Know your players, what they want, and work with them on the background and let them do some of the work; ask them how they came together as an adventuring group.
  • Start small, focus on an area of you campaign setting and the move outward.
  • Take, borrow and pillage from the news, history, books, etc. to build hooks for your games. This is the gossip NPCs will be talking about, the players hear this and it could lead to an adventure.
  • For every action, there is a reaction. If the characters are in a fight and burn down a tavern, that tavern has to be rebuilt, the watch will be asking questions. Just ask yourself, after a session, what would happen now?
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I will start with linking an article I wrote here a few years back that I think sums up my opinions on the matter: Seven Sandbox Essentials Note by the way that I am not an authority on the subject; I'm just opinionated. ;)

More generally, I would say that the Starter Set adventure is a much better example of sandbox play than HotDQ appears to be. There are problems with Lost Mine of Phandelver, certainly, including some pretty boring areas and repetitive enemies, but it does a pretty good job (once the PCs are introduced via the first mini-adventure) of providing a home base with lots of things to do. There is a "situation" that needs dealing with, but solving it does not necessarily end play in the area, and there is lots of room for DMs to come up with their own side adventures. All those elements help a new-to-sandboxing DM find his or her way.

On the subject of dungeons, one way to make them more fun and less grindy is to make sure there are lots of meaningful choices -- not just left or right and up or down, but provide clues as to what might lie that way and incentives to take the more precarious road. Also, don't forget interaction. The bigger the dungeon, the more boring it is is everything want to fight the PCs. Animal type monsters might not care about the PCs at all if they aren't on the menu -- even predators can have plenty to eat so they don't attack PCs on sight -- and intelligent dungeon dwellers might need help from, be afraid of, or decide to worship or follow the PCs (how do you think all those evil wizards get goblin servants?). You can always toss in a rival adventuring party -- what fun is the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark without Belloq?)

Anyway, I hope you have fun and remember it doesn't all come at once. Keep playing and trying different things. Run mystery adventures and exploration adventures and intrigue adventures. Try short modules and full Adventure Paths. And, if you have the opportunity, play at other DMs' tables, whether in Organized Play or at cons/game days or if there's another group in your area. Nothing teaches one how to DM quite like being a player (sometimes you learn what to do, and sometimes you learn what to avoid doing). Good luck!
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
Man do I hear you about dungeons...

Personally, I would suggest step one is to get out of the "adventure" mindset. To riff off of [MENTION=79274]Ravenheart87[/MENTION], start with a small area. Don't write an adventure. Write a few villains, miscreants, and enemies. Give them some goals and motivations...agendas. Don't be afraid to put them in contention with each other. Then consider the impact these have on the environment. That gets you your rumors, petty crimes, threats, etc. Those will be the hooks that get your PCs involved. When the PCs start to pick a fight, villains and their minions fight back. Rinse and repeat, building on what you already did. IME, playing this right can really get players into the world.

There are some things to watch put for, though:

First, travel. Its usually good for the PCs to move, but you can't let it be too easy or you might bump into things that you haven't prepared yet. Along those lines, have ready-made travel encounters and slow-ups prepped. That way, if they decide to head off against the Ogre tribes you mentioned out of hand...you can toss in the Smugglers vs. Bandits stuff to give yourself 'til next week to stat up the ogres.

Second, over thinking/planning it. The real world is hot random mess of things, religiously, historically, and geographically. Humans, and presumably our demi-human fictional cousins, do not act or understand things in the manner of the all-knowing and enlightened beings that play this game. Tossing in magic and powerful godlike beings can only make a further hash of it. Don't try to have everything make sense or have it all planned. You don't actually have to have the answer to any questions they might ask. When they ask "Wait! Isn't Covey a god of peace? How is he okay with to two different militant sects that are vigorously trying to kill each other?" Its perfectly fine to respond with: "How are you trying to find out?" Especially if you've stumbled into that situation unthinkingly.
 

mips42

Adventurer
Hi everyone.

New to the board and a newish DM.

I started to reply to the HotDQ Sandbox thread, but it got too big so here I go:

SANDBOX ADVENTURES:
I REALLY want to run a sandbox adventure for once. I've seen a video of the guys at RollPlay and the way they play blows my mind. TBH, the only meaty experience I have with any table RPGs is D&D 4e. And the adventures I ran for it were mostly a series of dungeons...what a chore.

So when I decided to make my own adventure, it was super derivative (which the players noticed to my embarrassment) and I still felt like I was forcing the players down a story line. I'm beginning to understand the importance of focusing of the setting and events occurring over an area rather than a movie-like plot. But the problem is, I am not creative enough to come up with a whole campaign by myself without ripping off popular movies/shows. T_T

So I need help. I figured Hoard of the Dragon Queen could help me achieve that, but if it's just a series of small interactions and linked dungeons, I'm going to cancel my preorder. If anyone has HotDQ already, please let me know what it's like! What do I even need to run a sandbox? Are published adventures even what I'm looking for? Maybe campaign setting books (none planned for 5e)? I am running the 5e starter adventure, and it seemed open when the players got to the main town hub, trying to figure out what's going on, but once they collected all the intel, it just became one dungeon after another in search of the mcguffin. There's also no info on the surrounding areas. The players wanted to go to Neverwinter to get better supplies and etc, but I know nothing of this city! No info whatsoever, even tho the players supposedly just came from there :mad:.

HATE DUNGEONS
I am learning to hate the idea of dungeons. It always devolves into: search for traps, clear room, search/loot, repeat. I can FEEL the exasperation of the players as they try to rush to get through. It almost feels like playing an old JRPG where you're trying to get to the next town, but forced to stop by random encounters in between. After 4e, I decided to try to "theater of the mind" a dungeon in the 5e starter set, but the players lost their sense of direction and tactical awareness. The wizard complained how he didn't know how to space out his movements and AOE spells. Everyone got lost since they didn't know which room connected to which hallway without their grid. I still think I prefer theater of the mind, but I don't think these dungeons could stay as-is. Perhaps I could strip down these dungeons to a few areas with the memorable enemies and traps? How do you deal with stuff like zoning, flanking, etc and AOE spells using the "theater" method? Does anyone use a diceroll to determine how many enemies get hit within blast range or if allies get caught up in it too? How do you keep the players from getting lost in these complicated dungeons without a battlemap drawn in? I am DREADING the last dungeon in the starter set. LOOK AT THE MAP! OMG!

HALP
Welcome to the board, to DM'ing and well met! You've gotten some good advice already but I'll throw in my two cents as well.
I a lot of ways, a Sandbox-type adventure is harder to run than a straight delve. It's because you need to know what's happening in your adventure and why it's happening.
Let's say you've got a ruler and his brother who are vying for the throne of the land ad one of them decides to win at any cost so they choose to throw in with a underworld crime lord.
One side, we'll go Ruler, is 'playing by the rules' and the other isn't. Does the Ruler KNOW his brother has decided to assassinate him to take the throne by force? If so, what is HE willing to do to prevent it? What happens if the Ruler wins? What happens if the brother wins? Can the players stop the plot and, if so, how?
Once you've decided on your overplot, start asking yourself these types of questions so that, when your players ask (and they will), you know the answer.
Does that mean that they'll never be in a 'dungeon'? no. But it does mean that, when they are, there's a good, story-backed reason for it and, in theory, they'll care about being there.
Another thing that I find helps me a lot is a timeline of events that are going to happen whether the players are involved or not. This helps with the 'it's a living world that is not centered on you' feeling.
Finally, as has been said, DM'ing is a skill and it can be hard to level up that skill. Keep at it!
 

Mercurius

Legend
First off, check out Rob Conley's Fantasy Sandbox creation guidelines. You might find it a bit overwhelming, but it is a fun read-through.

I'll try not to repeat what others have already said, but throw in a few more ideas.

If I were you I'd think about what type of sandbox setting you want. Most good sandboxes, in my opinion, include a little bit of a lot, but not too many of each type. For instance, you could start with a region about 100 x 100 miles or so, with one swamp, forest, hill region, lake, mountain range, etc. But you could make it more specific: a desert region with some canyon lands, a forest, a sub-arctic waste, etc.

Every sandbox needs a home base of some kind - a village or town, although realize that the larger the settlement the more details you need to start off. Maybe start with a farming village with one or two taverns, a couple shops, some local characters (e.g. the crazy old herbalist, the blind man who sits in his rocking chair reciting ancient stories, the ex-adventuring blacksmith, etc). See Shadowdale of the Forgotten Realms for a good example.

Also, don't be afraid to use pre-published stuff. You either love campaign design or you don't; if you do, you won't be able to stop yourself from homebrewing, but if you don't then it will be a chore.

If you can find a copy of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy box set for an affordable price (good luck), you'll have a huge landscape of sandbox ideas (the PDF is more affordable, but still quite expensive).

Keep a notebook on you at all times to write down random ideas. And constantly generate locations to visit, everything from monster lairs to a broken pillar with obscure runes on it - maybe those runes hint at a lost civilization that could lead to larger explorations.

Finally, be flexible. Let the players guide the action. At the same time, don't be shy about throwing stuff into the mix that you like. Want the PCs to explore those ruins that you just think are so cool but they keep avoiding that area? Move the ruins a bit so they bump into them.

Anyhow, good luck!
 

SpiritOfFire

First Post
Oh wow, lots of stuff in the replies.

Ravenheart87
When you mention the player's drawning their own maps, do you mean have the players play cartographer based on what they experience? I mean...if this works, it could be an amazing way to engage the players while reducing my work!

How would you determine which enemies and allies get caught in say... a blast 3 spell?

Also, I'm not sure what to make of the sources you posted. Are the settings stuff I can just plug right into D&D 5e?


Reynard
Yeah! The town hub was really my favorite part with lots of things to look into. But I felt like it ended too fast. I only have a little over a dungeon left. I just wish the town hub style was the meat and largest portion of the adventure rather than the dungeon crawls leading and ending at the mine.

Also, I've strongly been considering an opposing party (as opposed to just a rival). I kind of ad libbed some stuff due to a player acting in some pretty interesting and unanticipated way with the enemy, so it'd be perfect and I'd like to see it happen, but I'm gonna have to power up the monsters. I'm thinking of turning them into full fledged characters, but I'm afraid this will feel too... PVP? I mean, they'll be able to heal when members are unconscious and stuff right? Also, the basic rules are so....basic. They'll feel like a copy of the players' group lol.

All

Man, it seems so scary to go in without knowing much. I've like to have EVERYTHING ready and planned out, but that's that not going to be feasible if it's truly a sandbox. Urg, I guess I have to try it...hopefully it wont be god awful for the players >.< I hate it when I freeze because I don't know the answer.

The background/motivations, and world events are stuff I really dig. I can't really think of anything amazing though, so I guess campaign settings are a way to go? At the same time, It'd be really neat to have the players continue on past the starter set. Is there anything like that I can use for the sword coast?

 


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