D&D General Let's talk about sandboxes, open worlds and hexcrawling

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I am just beginning the process of building a new sandbox. We won't play in it for some time (I am currently running Avernus) but I want to get a jump start on building all the interesting elements that make sandbox/open world/hexcrawl games fun.

So, as a free roaming thread, let's discuss that style of play -- from theory to concrete examples, advice and tales from the table, and products that are useful in that context.

As a starting point, a long time ago I wrote an ENWorld blog post Called seven Sandbox Essentials, which has since migrated to my personal blog.

One thing I want to do differently this time is make sure I bake in lots of things to do during downtime. I want leveling to be slower with options for characters to build things, rather than constantly delving dungeons, killing bandits and hunting monsters.

So -- what's your take on sandbox D&D campaigns?
 

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It depends...

Ok, now for something useful :) I'm not a fan of random setting generation. Weather that is random 'what's in the next hex' or random encounter or random plots. I like starting with a regional map, outline the current faction and power brokers. Then put a motivation and current set of what each is working on/towards. Detail out a little more of this info for the starting area, some low level plots/stories that are unfolding around the characters that they might get involved in. And let things develop as they go.

I use random tables as inspiration, not for determining what happens next.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I am just beginning the process of building a new sandbox. We won't play in it for some time (I am currently running Avernus) but I want to get a jump start on building all the interesting elements that make sandbox/open world/hexcrawl games fun.

So, as a free roaming thread, let's discuss that style of play -- from theory to concrete examples, advice and tales from the table, and products that are useful in that context.

As a starting point, a long time ago I wrote an ENWorld blog post Called seven Sandbox Essentials, which has since migrated to my personal blog.

One thing I want to do differently this time is make sure I bake in lots of things to do during downtime. I want leveling to be slower with options for characters to build things, rather than constantly delving dungeons, killing bandits and hunting monsters.

So -- what's your take on sandbox D&D campaigns?

Do your players like free roaming sandboxy worlds?
 


Fanaelialae

Legend
I'm only on my third sandbox so I'm still experimenting with different methodologies.

The first sandbox was very ad hoc because I wasn't really ready to run when my players asked me to start the campaign. (The campaign the other DM was running ended abruptly and I was forced to improvise.) I sketched out the starting area, came up with ideas for the area around it, and came up with a basic premise to get them out the door. Most of my energy was spent on coming up with what was unusual about the world, which was that it was filled with a strange mist that transformed most people into monsters. However, the PCs were part of an exclusive elite group known as Mistwalkers, who for unknown reasons were actually empowered by the mists. So when the town's water source began to dry up, they were asked to find the cause, and forced to venture farther than anyone had ever gone since the arrival of the mists. I perpetually felt like I was behind the 8 ball in that campaign, so I focused on coming up with interesting ideas and seeded them into the world, not really worrying about how they'd be pertinent to adventure per se. It actually worked out much better than I would have ever expected.

The second campaign started with a map. It was a group of islands that resembled the ying yang. I then started erasing and roughing up the land masses until I had a group of islands I was happy with. The history and background grew out of that. Each island was given a rough level range as well as a theme, which then helped me define who and what was on the island. The factions were much less active in this campaign, with most inwardly focused on their own islands. The PCs, having been recently exiled from their homeland alongside other outcasts, were tasked as road wardens due to the acclaim each had achieved in the war that had ended with their banishment. I started giving players a handout each session with jobs that they had heard about as well as rumors. They were free to ignore both, and sometimes they did, but the jobs and rumors were designed to point them in directions from where they could continue discovering things on their own.

With my most recent campaign I did far more prep than I ever had before, and explored a lot of new tools and methods that could help me. I used hexographer to generate a map (basically, I laid out my hexes in continent view and then had it auto generate the kingdom view from that at 6 kingdom hexes for each continent hex). I then used the random tables from the Oldskull Adventure Generator to give every few hexes a theme. Something like Ashen Strath, Howling Orchard, or Chthonic Woodland. These hexes "bled" into the hexes around them to create differentiation. I used Fantasy Calendar to generate a calendar that tracked lunar cycles and weather. And I use the procedures from Into the Unknown to generate gameplay. I've seeded in NPCs and factions that are much more active and will do things on their own, whether the PCs interact with them or not. I've kept doing the handout from the previous campaign, as that was well received.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I've found the trick with sandboxes is to make them fairly limited in scope (regional or smaller) with a mix of maybe three terrains tops (e.g. forest, mountain, swamp). Then make the density of challenges fairly high with a variety of great tables that can generate fun situations as you go. Towns are safe havens where you can rest and do downtime activities, but they aren't places for adventure. I'd also use some sort of variant resting rules and encumbrance rules. XP is awarded by finding gold and spending it on a trainer.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I do think that the "recent arrivals" schtick is the best way to go. In my new sandbox it's because it is a "new world" colonial situation, but there are plenty of other options. I just think that having players and their characters discover setting elements simultaneously is much easier that constantly trying to figure out what natives of the starter village might know.

Do others feel differently about this?
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
One thing I want to do differently this time is make sure I bake in lots of things to do during downtime.

So, this comment may not really be sandbox specific, but it came to mind anyway...

If you have a lot of hooks for things to do, how you you get them to take downtime at all?

I have players who are hero, white-hat types. If there's currently an unresolved plot hook that looks like a problem that needs solving with any urgency, they are going to follow that rather than take downtime. I am currently playing an Artificer, a class with some very cool and specific uses for downtime - but there's a bunch of plot hooks out there that see pretty time-critical, so I myself don't want to stop to brew potions or whatever, because... someone gets eaten by something nasty if we do that.

So, in your sandbox, how do you make space for downtime?
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
The following elements are more conducive to sandbox play - kitchen sink, low level, money and personal power as motivations, antagonists' plots are limited in scope (no take over/blow up the world stuff).

1) Kitchen sink means it's easier for the GM to generate content, which means there's more for the PCs to do.
2) Low level means a larger amount of challenges. If the PCs are high level, there's very little in the world that can oppose them. If they're low level, then almost everything is a threat.
3) Money and personal power as motivations, combined with many different potential sources of money and power (typically dungeons in D&D) means more options for the PCs. By contrast if the PCs are altruists they may feel duty bound to oppose whatever is currently causing the most harm.
4) End-the-world plots likewise force the PCs to take action (even if they aren't altruistic).
 

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