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D&D General How do you sandbox ?

Emerikol

Adventurer
Great post, I entirely agree. I wanted to emphasize that it's the clues and hooks that get the players to the locations, not the locations themselves. I mean you can run a simple hex-to-hex sandbox but I find the breadcrumb style way more interesting.

One nitpick is the word "plot". I try to avoid using it. A DM shouldn't create plot. The plot is created when the players interact with the events and happenings that you've set in motion. It's semantics I know but it helps me get in the headspace of what my job as a DM is, especially in a sandbox.

It really helps me present things as a neutral adjudicator and then get out of the players' way. It's my job to present the world as it is and let the players decide how to interact with it. It's not my job to present only the story I want to tell.
I used the term plot as the NPCs plotting their own agendas and not really relating to the PCs. My gnoll warchief for example is "plotting" to destroy the village by allying the other tribes. So for me an NPC plot is a note that explains the agenda of a PC. Most of my NPCs inside the sandbox have them. They might be very simple. I guess I could have called them NPC goals or agendas. Maybe agenda is good but that term can at times be loaded too. :)
 

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kenada

Hero
Supporter
Making your sandbox sounds like too much work.
It is, but I like doing it. I also use a minimal key style, so combined with the just-in-time approach, it’s manageable. I’ll also second the suggestion to steal liberally. It helps reduce the amount of work.

I do some of my own dungeon design, but I also have a bunch of adventures I want to use. They’re not integrated yet because they’re not in the local area where the PCs have spent most of the campaign.

I rather just buy one. I heard Frog God Games Lost Lands is good...
I’ve also heard Hot Springs Island is supposed to be pretty good.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I’ve also heard Hot Springs Island is supposed to be pretty good.
Yep. It is. It uses a lot of the designs that I think are ideal for sandbox play, particularly around random content generation. The more the DM can outsource to roll tables, the lower the prep since it just creates itself during play. And for people who enjoy playing to find out what happens, roll tables are an excellent tool.

I'm surprised to see a lot of folks preparing content just ahead of where their players will go. For sandbox play, I prefer to have all the preparation done in advance and in the can ready to go. Usually my weekly prep is for the next campaign, not for the current one. When the current campaign wraps up, my prep is already done for the next one.
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
I'm surprised to see a lot of folks preparing content just ahead of where their players will go. For sandbox play, I prefer to have all the preparation done in advance and in the can ready to go. Usually my weekly prep is for the next campaign, not for the current one. When the current campaign wraps up, my prep is already done for the next one.
If I hadn’t adopted a just-in-time approach, I’m not sure we ever would have gotten started. Someone would have wanted to run something else in the meantime, and I might not have stuck to my task without knowing if/when I could run again.

However, I am working to get ahead. Most of the vicinity is keyed, and I am working on finishing off the key over the next month or two. The map has been done for a while (I used Tiled with some pixel art tiles because I like neither Worldographer nor Hex Kit).

Admittedly things have suffered a bit with the town near the PCs. I have some basic information, but I haven’t had bandwidth to weave them together properly. The PCs were exploring a megadungeon, so it wasn’t needed, but they’re not interested in that right now. 😅
 

thirdkingdom

Explorer
Here's the start of one of the most recent hexcrawl games I ran. I run pretty much exclusively in a play-by-post format, so it gives me the flexibility to start with bare bones, do broad sketches, and then drill down to whatever the players choose; I've got a day or two to develop the hook they chose.

With winter over and the bitter cold receding to the north the town of Junction comes alive once more. No longer choked with bobbing chunks of ice and slush, work continues to repair the great stone bridge spanning the Sarn and promising to open up the west once more to the civilizing forces of Man. The streets of Junction are filled with explorers and tradesfolk, mercenaries and merchants, all drawn to the frontier town at the call of the Scarlet Prince and his promise of untold wealth for those willing to brave the uncivilized wilds.

Over dinner the previous night the party's factor, a tall, stout woman named Madam Fleur had spread out the wrinkled, faded map on the table and succinctly recounts what they know.

"This map dates back to the end of the Fifteenth Cycle of Law, and has potentially changed. You may find that the landscape – or the inhabitants found there – are not what is indicated.”
“Here,” she says, pointing to the road leading to the town of Rocky Mount, “a pride of manticores is said to lurk, devouring all who attempt to pass. Their lair is said to be in these mountains here, overlooking the forest below. I have spoken to a merchant who claimed they are denning halfway up an almost sheer cliff, with a difficult approach.”

“A man has made contact with me, wild-eyed and bushy-bearded, claiming to know the location of a lost gold mine that he is willing to sell for the sum of five hundred gold alcedes. Ordinarily I would discount such tales as the raving of a lunatic or the sugary words of a con man, but I have sources who confirm that there was at one point an attempt to mine a lucrative vein somewhere about here.” She points to a section of the map labeled “70.44”.

“Explorers tell tales of Pesh, a fabled city far to the west. However, in order to get there one would have to either pass through Rocky Peak or take a longer and more circuitous route south, and then west.”

“There are also tales that the land west of Junction and south of Rocky Peak are exceptionally fertile. They tell me the Prince has his eye on expanding this way, at some point, as his domain is somewhat lacking in rich soil.”

“The Rufous Baron, ruler of Junction, has offered a reward of 1,000 gold alcedes for anyone able to clear the land directly opposite the bridge of all threats, so that he may garrison a squad of troops there and begin construction of a watchtower.” Her finger traces a ring around hexes 73.46 and 73.47.

“There’s a community somewhere to the north of Alice,” says Madam Fleur, “called Kimrid. It’s a largely unremarkable village, heavily fortified against the incursions of Chaos, and valuable only because it is contains a monastery that trains holy warriors, known as dervishes, that are well-regarded in the Principality as bodyguards and assassins. We haven’t had any contact with Kimrid since the end of the previous Cycle of Law. The Prince is willing to pay 2,000 alcedes if the road north to this monastery is cleared and contact re-established, should it still exist.”

“The Principality in general, and Junction in particular, relies on the mining camps to the north,” her fingers trace the Sarn north to where the woods thin out and give way to hills. “Ore, especially iron, is in short supply, not just in the Principality, but the Variagated Kingdoms in general. There are a number of mining camps spread throughout these hills, run by private mercantile concerns. The largest company, the Red Sky Mining Company, is offering a bounty on beastmen heads. Their main office is here, but they’ve established a semi-permanent camp here,” she indicates hex 72.43. “That’s about as far north as the riverboats can go before bottoming out. Goblin heads are five alcedes, orcs ten, hobgoblins twenty-five, and ogres one hundred.”

Madam Fleur takes a sip of wine and warns the adventurers that they surely will not be the only brave souls called to the frontier. “There are two other parties that I am aware of currently in Junction, and more will certainly follow with the warmer weather. I have told you what I know and leave the final decision to those more experienced in such matters. I will be here, looking after your concerns. You can reach me via the magic mirror every seven days”. With that she sits back, cradling her wineglass in both hands, and lets the adventurers have time to decide their next course of action.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
If I hadn’t adopted a just-in-time approach, I’m not sure we ever would have gotten started. Someone would have wanted to run something else in the meantime, and I might not have stuck to my task without knowing if/when I could run again.

However, I am working to get ahead. Most of the vicinity is keyed, and I am working on finishing off the key over the next month or two. The map has been done for a while (I used Tiled with some pixel art tiles because I like neither Worldographer nor Hex Kit).

Admittedly things have suffered a bit with the town near the PCs. I have some basic information, but I haven’t had bandwidth to weave them together properly. The PCs were exploring a megadungeon, so it wasn’t needed, but they’re not interested in that right now. 😅
Yeah I think figuring out prep is mostly down to knowing one's limitations and setting appropriate goals. Like once I broadly sketch out the scope of what I'll be creating, I'll make a list of all the individual components e.g. maps, monsters/NPCs, factions, roll tables, etc. Then I'll break those down into smaller tasks e.g. prepare overland hex map, create roll table for Dark Forest encounters, set up monster sheets for denizens of the Swamp Dungeon. Given that I start the design process thinking about how many sessions I think the campaign will run, this also sets the amount of time I have to work on the next campaign. I can use that to break down how many tasks I need to get done per week to be on schedule for the new campaign to start when the current one finishes.

Since I know my most creative and productive times are the two days following running or playing in a game, I set time aside for prep on those days and bang out as many small tasks as possible. If I find my productivity waning, then I just schedule to run or play in an extra game that week to boost my creativity again. Then I repeat that process until the whole campaign is done.
 

Check out The Alexandrian's blog. He's covered hexcrawls extensively and recently published an article on making Descent Into Avernus more of a sandbox. He also recently published a video on Rime of the Frost Maiden that talks about how to sandboxify that adventure further, too. Lots of good thinking on this topic from him.
 

Yep. It is. It uses a lot of the designs that I think are ideal for sandbox play, particularly around random content generation. The more the DM can outsource to roll tables, the lower the prep since it just creates itself during play. And for people who enjoy playing to find out what happens, roll tables are an excellent tool.

I'm surprised to see a lot of folks preparing content just ahead of where their players will go. For sandbox play, I prefer to have all the preparation done in advance and in the can ready to go. Usually my weekly prep is for the next campaign, not for the current one. When the current campaign wraps up, my prep is already done for the next one.
The key to the just in time approach is to ensure you at least have an idea of what is in the hexes that surround the player’s current hexes. Then, at the end of the session (or a suitable time before the next session), the players themselves have to decide on their goals for the next session. This gives you the opportunity to prep more detail, but you’re still covered if the session takes an unexpected turn into a completely different location.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The key to the just in time approach is to ensure you at least have an idea of what is in the hexes that surround the player’s current hexes. Then, at the end of the session (or a suitable time before the next session), the players themselves have to decide on their goals for the next session. This gives you the opportunity to prep more detail, but you’re still covered if the session takes an unexpected turn into a completely different location.
The way I prep a hexcrawl, generally, is that either the hex contains a keyed location or it doesn't. If it does, then when the PCs go into that hex, they experience that location (dungeon or other adventure site or situation). If there is no keyed location, then they get a random encounter. This is all prepped in advance so I don't have to ask the players what they are doing next session or try to keep prepping for the current game every week. It's already done. All I need to do is show up to DM and the players can do whatever they want. I think I would find the "just in time" approach to be hectic.
 

The way I prep a hexcrawl, generally, is that either the hex contains a keyed location or it doesn't. If it does, then when the PCs go into that hex, they experience that location (dungeon or other adventure site or situation). If there is no keyed location, then they get a random encounter. This is all prepped in advance so I don't have to ask the players what they are doing next session or try to keep prepping for the current game every week. It's already done. All I need to do is show up to DM and the players can do whatever they want. I think I would find the "just in time" approach to be hectic.
Yeah, it’s different strokes and all that. I do an initial burst of prep of the starting locations, but couldn’t imagine fully prepping everything else ahead of time!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Yeah, it’s different strokes and all that. I do an initial burst of prep of the starting locations, but couldn’t imagine fully prepping everything else ahead of time!
I guess it comes down to scale and how much you outsource to random generation. My current hex crawl campaign has only 20 keyed location in 150 hexes. I believe this will be about twenty 4-hour sessions for the whole campaign. A lot of the content will come from roll tables which are pretty easy to prep in my experience. WotC even does some of that work for us in D&D 5e (XGtE).
 

I guess it comes down to scale and how much you outsource to random generation. My current hex crawl campaign has only 20 keyed location in 150 hexes. I believe this will be about twenty 4-hour sessions for the whole campaign. A lot of the content will come from roll tables which are pretty easy to prep in my experience. WotC even does some of that work for us in D&D 5e (XGtE).
Oh yeah, I use plenty of tables. But I also like to use those as starting points. Let’s see, for this hex, I’ve rolled a ruined village, an abandoned mine and a pack of ghouls. What happened here? Let’s build something cool. So it always takes a bit longer.
 

payn

Adventurer
The Traveller map is pretty great for sci-fi sandboxes. I dont know how many star systems are on the map, but its a butt load. 9/10 systems have basic wiki entries that just indicate what type of planets, people, and resources can be found in each system. It gives the GM and players a nice foundation to build on.
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
Since campaign length been mentioned a few times, I wanted to add that there my sandbox game doesn’t have a planned length. The core conceit (members of an expedition) allows us to have a cast of characters, so the active adventuring party can change based on who is available to play that session as well as if anyone is bored of their character and wants to try something new. This also helped facilitate a system switch from PF2 to OSE because the old characters were able to step back into leadership roles.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Since campaign length been mentioned a few times, I wanted to add that there my sandbox game doesn’t have a planned length. The core conceit (members of an expedition) allows us to have a cast of characters, so the active adventuring party can change based on who is available to play that session as well as if anyone is bored of their character and wants to try something new. This also helped facilitate a system switch from PF2 to OSE because the old characters were able to step back into leadership roles.
I also have a pool of players who each have multiple characters. So there's a lot of switching that goes on.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
I guess it comes down to scale and how much you outsource to random generation. My current hex crawl campaign has only 20 keyed location in 150 hexes. I believe this will be about twenty 4-hour sessions for the whole campaign. A lot of the content will come from roll tables which are pretty easy to prep in my experience. WotC even does some of that work for us in D&D 5e (XGtE).
Scale definitely makes a difference, although I think it's complicated by the resolution of the preparation. From my standpoint, just-in-time creation lets a DM run a much (geographically) larger sandbox without the prohibitive levels of advanced prep required to create sufficient detail to run the game in such a large sandbox. Instead, the early prep can be all high-level, with the time spent making details on the fly limited to only those areas that ultimately show up in the campaign.

For illustration/comparison, the last sandbox campaign I prepared covered a substantial portion of a continent. There were dozens of major items of interest (e.g. cities, settlements, named geographical features) on the full map that the characters had (although that map was IC known to be outdated) and dozens more in my notes. Given that the areas of interest were days or weeks of travel from each other, each would have been surrounded by its own set of hundreds of hexes (at one-hex-per-day scale).

But my total up-front prep was probably less involved than what you're describing, as each point of interest only had a couple sentences in my notes, or a bulleted list. If/when the PCs actually decided to head for any of these points, that's when the just-in-time creation would take place, expanding my high-level notes into low-level detail. Based on previous campaigns, only a small fraction of the high-level areas of interest would actually be visited, so this method avoids wasting low-level prep time on areas that are never seen up-close.

It sounds like in your game, a much higher percentage of the original map will likely be visited, so maybe the need to avoid wasted prep is less pressing? What fraction of the map do your PCs typically visit?

Also, I never use random tables for content generation, so just-in-time creation lets me limit myself to what is in a given location now instead of spending even more time in advance having to figure out a schedule of what would be in that location at any arbitrary time.
 

I know I differ from many about the definition of sandbox, but in my mind, it is literally just a series of adventures on a single map.

An example would be something like this:
Sovereign Lake Region.jpg

You write everything out for the civilizations that exist. Have that thoroughly planned and plotted and remembered. Then, just like an adventure board in a video game, have a bunch of "adventures" tied to the map. They might be tied to people in the city, rural people, specific locales, random encounter tables, items, etc.
Then, in true sandbox fashion, the PC's decide where to go. Who to talk to. And what they encounter is a direct result of their actions and/or decisions. There is no large overarching plot, and more important, specific motive driving the story. There might be several locales tied together to complete one of the adventures. But, it is not a pathway adventure where everything is written out with several different ending and the absolute endgame of the players.
 

aco175

Legend
I like the idea of starting with NPC goals and motivations. Not sure how many, may depend on how long the campaign is lasting. Prep phase may only need 4-5 NPC bad guys and a few NPC good guys. Maybe loosely outline their goals such as goblin chief wants X, and giant living in the mountain wants Y, but goblin chief may contact the giant after a while to make Z happen. The PCs can have the option of stopping the goblin threat at lower levels, but they will develop to a larger threat if the giant becomes involved after level 5ish. The whole concept of the world going on without the PCs.

Good people have their own designs as well. Saruman started off with good intentions and aided the PCs for a while before being being corrupted to evil by the Eye.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Scale definitely makes a difference, although I think it's complicated by the resolution of the preparation. From my standpoint, just-in-time creation lets a DM run a much (geographically) larger sandbox without the prohibitive levels of advanced prep required to create sufficient detail to run the game in such a large sandbox. Instead, the early prep can be all high-level, with the time spent making details on the fly limited to only those areas that ultimately show up in the campaign.

For illustration/comparison, the last sandbox campaign I prepared covered a substantial portion of a continent. There were dozens of major items of interest (e.g. cities, settlements, named geographical features) on the full map that the characters had (although that map was IC known to be outdated) and dozens more in my notes. Given that the areas of interest were days or weeks of travel from each other, each would have been surrounded by its own set of hundreds of hexes (at one-hex-per-day scale).

But my total up-front prep was probably less involved than what you're describing, as each point of interest only had a couple sentences in my notes, or a bulleted list. If/when the PCs actually decided to head for any of these points, that's when the just-in-time creation would take place, expanding my high-level notes into low-level detail. Based on previous campaigns, only a small fraction of the high-level areas of interest would actually be visited, so this method avoids wasting low-level prep time on areas that are never seen up-close.

It sounds like in your game, a much higher percentage of the original map will likely be visited, so maybe the need to avoid wasted prep is less pressing? What fraction of the map do your PCs typically visit?

Also, I never use random tables for content generation, so just-in-time creation lets me limit myself to what is in a given location now instead of spending even more time in advance having to figure out a schedule of what would be in that location at any arbitrary time.
My hexcrawls are smaller in scale and the PCs visit every hex or nearly so before we're done, often backtracking or retracing steps more than once. I prefer smaller, fully-prepped hex crawls with 20 to 30 sessions of content rather than larger ones where I'm having to keep up with the players every week or two weeks.
 

nevin

Adventurer
Ideally you define the starting area well, if youve git tume the big stories going on across the world, to guve you a bigger structure. Then turn the players loose and throw stuff at them till they start getting defined plans, enemies etc. Then they'll be driving and youll be filling in the story.
 

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