Let's talk about sandboxes, open worlds and hexcrawling

Reynard

Legend
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?
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
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.
 
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?
 
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
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
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?
 
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).
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
I think I appreciate sandboxes more than my players, probably because I like worldbuilding. Fact is tho, my players work better with a medium-to-heavy railroad. I may add more sidequest for them to do if I have the time, but they wont come up with ''wants and needs'' for their own character. But, they are ok with that, so so I'm I.
 

Reynard

Legend
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?
I think treating problems more realistically with long timelines is a good way to go. Maybe the Baron Darke is an evil bastard, but he is still the rightful ruler of the Barony. The PCs can't just kick down his door and kill him. They might need to engage in long term intelligence gathering and espionage in order to prove he is evil. Or, sure, there are bandits on the Forest Road, but they are there because they have been ejected from their land by a corrupt official. Wiping them out is not only not justifiable, it won't solve the problem.

In other words, if you want the players to take their time, not every plot Hook can demand immediacy.
 

the Jester

Legend
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?
One thing I rarely see mentioned in this context is wintering. If winter is harsh, wandering around in the wilderness is likely hazardous and very uncomfortable. Most winters are instead used for downtime in my campaign.

Also, you can have stretches of adventure that take long periods. Simply having months pass on the road can encourage the pcs to spend some time between adventures, because it doesn't feel like important stuff is happening every single game day.
 

ninjayeti

Explorer
I am thinking about running a hexcrawl as my next campaign and have put together some thoughts on how I will run it. Obviously this is all theorycrafting, so I welcome any input.

Long Rests
I don’t like one encounter adventuring days, so my idea is to have short rests take 8 hours and long rests to require 72 hours (+24 hours for each additional HD recovered) in a SAFE location. This mechanic will require the party to return to civilization with some frequency and hopefully give the campaign a feel of distinct expeditions rather than randomly wandering around in the wilds. A “day” should still be (very roughly) 6-8 encounters, but it might be two weeks of random encounters while exploring or it might be a targeted expedition to clear out a dungeon with 5 or 6 encounters over a short span. Ideally, this will balance the utility of long rest and short rest classes.

The PCs will also have the opportunity to clear some locations as a “base camp” for further exploration. This will be an important objective later in the game.

Mix of Random Encounters, Locations of Interest, and Dungeons
My plan is to have 3 or so proper “dungeons,” 6-8 points of interest (some combat, some noncombat) plus random encounters within the sandbox to give it variety. It is fairly limited in scope, but once the PCs finish the area they can move on to a deeper region.

Breadcrumbs
Encounter areas will have clues pointing to additional areas. I don’t want the campaign to feel like methodical hex clearing so I want finding points of note to lead to other important areas.

Travel vs. Exploration
Exploring a hex takes twice as long as just traveling through it so once PC’s have explored an area they can move through it more quickly to new areas.

XP is for XPloration (see what I did there?)
You level up from finding stuff and achieving objectives instead of killing and looting stuff. I am still working on rules for avoiding encounters, but I would like it to be an important strategy.
 

THEMNGMNT

Explorer
I've never run or played in a sandbox, so there's that. But I recently started outlining two sandbox campaigns. Mostly for my own amusement...

...but also because I'm running Dragon of Icespire Keep from the Essentials Kit, which is a sort of quest-driven mini-sandbox set in Phandalin. And I'm honestly finding Phandalin somewhat dull. I like my fantasy clearly fantastical, and Phandalin is very quotidian in it's details. So to help inspire me, I started compiling all the adventure locations from Essentials Kit, Starter Set, and the 4E Neverwinter Campaign Setting. When you put all the pieces together, the Neverwinter region is chock full of exciting adventure.

I'm doing something similar for Daggerford. Mike Schley created a Daggerford regional map (which you can buy from his website) for use in the 5E Dungeon Master's Guide, but it was apparently cut before publication. I've taken that, the D&D Next adventures Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle and Scourge of the Sword Coast, plus the 1E adventure Under Illefarn and the 3.5E camapign Under Illefarn Anew (an amazing resource; Google it), mixed them all together, and then advanced the timeline to be contemporaneous with the current 5E adventure paths. It's an embarrassment of riches.

As I thought about how to turn those sandboxes into playable campaigns, a few common elements emerged:
  • Rumors that lead to adventure sites filled with treasure and magic are the primary hook. I think part of the fun of sandbox play is that it's player-driven. But players shouldn't be stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight. It's our job to provide adventure around every corner.
  • Villains and villainous factions get fronts in the style of Dungeon World, so if left unchecked they dynamically change the world and the peril grows.
  • Downtime as a regular part of play. There's a great series of articles on alphastream.org on how to make better use of the downtime rules.
  • Details are left blank in the style of 13th Age so they can be customized for the players. For example, I might have bandits raiding the Trade Way, but I only decide that they're in the employ of the Zhentarim when the rogue PC tells me he's on the run from the Zhents.
  • A central theme that's stated upfront to the players. For example, in the above Neverwinter sandbox, it's clear that civilization is in great peril, and so the theme that emerged is civilization vs savagery. Daggerford is more about civilized factions vying for control of the region. I use those themes to select monsters, quests, and NPCs which reinforce it.
 
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toucanbuzz

Adventurer
I ran Paizo's Kingmaker during my "skip 4E" phase, and found it to be my go-to model for free-form exploration (here's a hex map with some hidden dungeons and adventure zones) with some focus (conquer the frontier and build a kingdom). I've never truly run a "here's a map, go f-around for a bit" campaign.

So when I run "sandbox," I gravitate to things like Curse of Strahd (open map, underlying objectives) and my remake of Pool of Radiance (here's the ruins of Phlan and surrounding areas, liberate them) as both fit a limited scope map + free form exploration + underlying campaign focus.
 

Reynard

Legend
Another thing to keep in mind is that level/power does not necessarily translate to influence or political power. Just because the PCs have wandered around raiding tombs and hunting monsters for a year and are 9th level doesn't necessarily mean they have any say in the running of the government. Unless, of course, they have geared their advancement toward such a goal.

Old versions of the game assumed a transition to leadership and political involvement as the PCs leveled up. 5E does not. As such, NPCs won't automatically kowtow to the PCs just because they have hit 9th level.
 

the Jester

Legend
XP is for XPloration (see what I did there?)
You level up from finding stuff and achieving objectives instead of killing and looting stuff. I am still working on rules for avoiding encounters, but I would like it to be an important strategy.
If pcs in my game overcome a dangerous encounter without combat, they still gain xp for it. They have gotten xp for outrunning a migration of digesters, for parlaying with innumerable potential deadly foes, and even for romancing slaadi. In some cases, they might get more or less xp for one type of solution or another, if one is especially easy to achieve, but basically, if you 'defeat' a CR 5 monster by making friends with it, you earn the xp for defeating a CR 5 monster.

That said, if there's no danger involved, there's no xp. You don't get xp for the merchant and his guards simply by buying his wares.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
I find that making sure the PCs have a base or stronghold of their own is fantastically helpful in a sandbox game. For one thing, it anchors the sandbox around a fixed point, providing a soft constraint on the size of the sandbox. For another, it provides built-in motivation for the PCs as they seek to protect and upgrade their home, increasing the variety of adventure types beyond just "which plot hook should we bite on this week?" It can also provide more strategic depth to the campaign by forcing the PCs to weigh the risk of leaving their stronghold undefended if they venture far afield in pursuit of other goals. And activies such as overseeing new construction, training new hirelings, or taking advantage of stronghold facilities (e.g. research in the library, gear upgrades at the forge, spell development in the lab) gives the PCs a reason to stay put occasionally, which naturally weaves downtime into the game.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
So -- what's your take on sandbox D&D campaigns?
My take is that sandbox campaigns are helped hugely by increasing the duration of rests. I'm using 3-days long, 1-day short, and 1-hour breather (spend HP), which can be repeated only after an amount of time equal to the rest duration has lapsed (so one long rest per 6-days, in effect).

Consequences include
  1. High-level spells such as Resurrection are far less available, which has a lot of positive ramifications as well as making them feel appropriately rare and powerful;
  2. When travelling long distances, every night's rest is not a long rest;
  3. The durations are long enough that I find it easy to plausibly advance the plot if characters are resting egregiously often;
  4. Attritional encounters can at times matter (character resources are not always so easily recovered).
Aside from that, distinctive NPCs with interesting motives seem key. Players should remember them, fear them or relate to them; and their motives should allow them to flexibly respond to whatever gambits the characters attempt. It helps to have a sense of what resources they can call on.
 

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