Let's talk about sandboxes, open worlds and hexcrawling

Building in a mystery is good too. Not in the Sherlock Holmes way, but more in the something to get the players brains itching into putting it all together.

Such as, for example, all the ruins around are part of a lost civilsation that was destroyed 1000 years ago and through exploration they slowly begin to piece together the events that led to the fall of that civilsation. Something like this can slowly turn into the emergence of a big campaign ending climactic threat if you want it too, but it can also just be something to discover (although ideally the players should be able to do something to take advantage of what they learn in a game relevant way).
 
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I reward xp for exploration, social encounters, as well as overcoming potential combat encounters.

For my second campaign, I created my own leveling system. Each level required 100 * current level xp. I would typically award from 1 to 10 * the level of the challenge in xp. Essentially, 1 to 10% of a level. I added in a different system for combat, to discourage resting. Combats earned from 1 (easy) to 5 (above deadly) times level. However, a combat also granted a rolling bonus between 1 and 3. The rolling bonus would be added to the multiplier of the next encounter, meaning that successive combats could become very lucrative. However, a short rest would reduce the rolling bonus by 1, and a long rest would reset it to 0. Obviously, I allowed the players to opt out of a long rest when sleeping (which was explained in game as the characters not getting a great night's rest).

It worked fairly well, although my experienced group engaged with the rolling bonus more than my newbie group. The latter group prefers to play it safe rather than sorry, so it applies to them much less frequently.
 

GlassJaw

Adventurer
I love sandboxes. That said, my view of what a sandbox is - or at least what is fun - has changed over the years.

Unless it's a video game, the traditional hexcrawl isn't fun. Players need hooks (and remember kids, create hooks, not plot). Hooks give player's choice, when then creates emotional investment.

The hexcrawl map is fine but it can't stand alone. The map needs to have context. Players need to have the "why" so they can created a semi-informed choice.

LMoP and CoS do this extremely well. These adventures aren't just maps with a hodgepodge of random locations that exist in a vacuum. The hooks, leads, and rumors create a lattice that links all the locations together. That's what makes a good sandbox.

I also HIGHLY recommend checking out The Beast of Graenseskov (now only $3 on DMs Guild!) written by EN World's own @Quickleaf . It is an absolutely amazing showcase of how to create a mystery sandbox within a relatively small geographic area. A sandbox doesn't just have to be locations; the NPCs the players interact with also have their own motivations, goals, and secrets. These provide way more fuel for the players' motivation than which hex to go to next.
 
The best game I've ever played in - Paul Mackintosh's Dream Game campaign - was a sandbox. It had a contemporary setting where the PCs entered dreams in order to investigate and drive out Externals - spiritual entities that resembled demons or ghosts. Dreams in the DGC worked rather like D&D dungeons tho imo they were a lot more interesting, and weirder, than old school dungeons. We had some degree of freedom regarding which dreams we entered due to our team's developing ability to "dream wander", and the dreams themselves were non-linear, location based 'adventures'.
 
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TwoSix

The hero you deserve
My next campaign is going to be a sandbox, with some fairly aggressive ways to emphasize downtime and the passage of time.

1) Rests are "breathers" (5 minutes, spend 1 Hit Die), short rest (6 hours, spend as many Hit Die as needed), and long rest (72 hours in civilization, regain all Hit Die). A lot of magic recharge moved to time dependency (recharge at dawn, dusk, midnight, etc.)

2) Training times to level are long, and can be from anywhere to a season (1/4 year) to multiple years depending on the training.

3) The campaign itself starts on a small island half a year after a World Shaking Event (tm, patent pending). Since the WSE, no one who has left the island has returned. During the course of the introductory adventure, the PCs meet and bond with an ancient tree spirit who allows them to leave the island through a series of portals underneath the tree's roots. When the leave the island, they discover that their home island is unmoored in time; for every day that passes on their home island, a season (1/4 year) passes in the rest of the world.

4) The tree also gives them 2 boons. The first is an hour-long ritual that allows the party to return to the tree as long as they are outside and can see the moon. The second is a packet of seeds (roughly 3 per PC), if a dead body is buried in the ground with one of the seeds placed under their tongue, they will wake up at sunrise back on the island, fully restored.
 

Reynard

Legend
One of my goals is to build longevity into the sandbox setting -- not just for a campaign that runs a long time, but a setting that can be used to run multiple campaigns. In other words, not every plot thread needs to be (or should be) tied up by the first set of PCs to run around the place, and what those PCs do should create plot threads for future sets of PCs.
 

timbannock

Explorer
Thanks!

Well, I can say that if you're specifically talking 5e, I've published Hexcrawling: Wilderness Survival and Random Encounters on DMsGuild. I saw a need for it because 5e specifically doesn't worry about what "getting lost" means: you just wander around for 1d6 hours (maybe trigger an encounter or two), and then you're back on course.

Hexcrawling and open world play doesn't have to worry about getting lost if the map is especially small, or there are some really obvious landmarks (mountains, gigantic trees or pillars or floating castles), but I think part of the beauty of sandboxes is that mixture of rumors/legends about what you might face in a particular direction, plus the chance of blundering into something wholly unexpected.

My biggest piece of advice for any edition, and spelled out in a lot of words and examples in Hexcrawling, is that you should build encounter tables that hint at the world. "1d6 kobolds" isn't enough. "1d6 kobolds; a scouting party for a lair of 10d8 kobolds, 1d6 krenshar, and 1d4 dire weasels in Hex 16.23" is more interesting. Depending on how you write them, you'll want to seed clues about what's nearby, drop in minor lairs, and put in things that the players will want to explore but may have no or limited purpose. That really confounds them!
 

Monayuris

Explorer
I love hexcrawls. The feeling of discovery and exploration and finding cool things in the world is why I play the game.

I use a lot of hex crawl elements in my current campaign (which is a mix of dungeon delving, some focused adventures and hex crawling... lots of variety).

My basic approach is to have thematically defined regions or areas. These areas should be unique and evocative and present a strong choice. I have each region focus on a set of typical denizens and locations. Players can (by exploring and becoming exposed to the encounter tables) start learning about a region and prepare for it. I have set piece locations placed in hexes to be discovered. These are either small interesting points of interest or smallish dungeons (maybe 4-6 rooms).

In addition to placed locations, I've been developing a procedural content generation system for hex crawl locations. The purpose of which is to fill in the blanks with unexpected and interesting features and situations.

My procedure works like this:
1. Roll per hex for Encounter, Special Location, Special Hazard. Each region will have its own chance in d6 for each (some regions will have more encounters than Locations; others will be more hazardous). It will be possible to have both an Encounter and a Special Location occur at the same time (improvise to figure out the situation).

2. Encounters are rolled on a bell-curve encounter table for the region. There will be a set of 'common' monsters that will give the region character. The extremes of the curve are for important or powerful beings in the area. I try to add beneficial encounters at the top end. That way, if the players start clearing out the area, I can start rolling encounters with a bonus to the roll.

3. I use Retired Adventurer's encounter rules. When an encounter is rolled, I roll for creature, lair, tracks, spoor, or traces. Creature means they encounter the actual creature. Lair means they encounter the creature in its lair. Spoor means the creature is close by (the players can encounter it or avoid). Tracks mean the creature was close by (the players can track it to its lair, or avoid). Traces mean the creature was close by some time ago (the players can learn of the existence of the creature). This gives players more choices and information without every encounter being a fight.

4. Reaction rolls (borrowed from B/X and OSR games) are used when there is an encounter. Not all encounters are fights. Sometimes players encounter helpful creatures or at least can negotiate with competing intelligent factions.

5. If there is a placed feature in a hex they enter, they encounter it (unless it is particularly well hidden). I'll generally have each hex have anywhere from 1 to 6 features (I use 6mi hexes). Other features can be searched for and will have an assigned search DC. Players can also survey a hex with Survival and get a count of number of features.

I have a library of locations and encounters saved up (great resources: One Page Dungeons, Hex Crawl Chronicles, d30 Sandbox Companion ) that I can draw from. If I generate a Location, I'll roll or pick something. Once the location has been rolled up, I place it in the hex and there it stays.

The point of this procedure is to try to create meaningful choices. Hazards can be avoided if they take the long way around (lose valuable time), monster encounters offer choices to avoid, track, or parley. Locations can be explored or sometimes they can just note it on the map and keep going.

Usually the players will have some goal in mind, but sometimes I've seen them abandon that goal when they encounter an interesting thing in the hills. Sometimes, an unexpected adversity weakens them and they have to abandon a mission.

I've been running and tweaking this with 5E and Basic B/X. I've been able to run entire sessions improvised based on the results of the procedure.
 

Monayuris

Explorer
Thanks!

Well, I can say that if you're specifically talking 5e, I've published Hexcrawling: Wilderness Survival and Random Encounters on DMsGuild. I saw a need for it because 5e specifically doesn't worry about what "getting lost" means: you just wander around for 1d6 hours (maybe trigger an encounter or two), and then you're back on course.

Hexcrawling and open world play doesn't have to worry about getting lost if the map is especially small, or there are some really obvious landmarks (mountains, gigantic trees or pillars or floating castles), but I think part of the beauty of sandboxes is that mixture of rumors/legends about what you might face in a particular direction, plus the chance of blundering into something wholly unexpected.

My biggest piece of advice for any edition, and spelled out in a lot of words and examples in Hexcrawling, is that you should build encounter tables that hint at the world. "1d6 kobolds" isn't enough. "1d6 kobolds; a scouting party for a lair of 10d8 kobolds, 1d6 krenshar, and 1d4 dire weasels in Hex 16.23" is more interesting. Depending on how you write them, you'll want to seed clues about what's nearby, drop in minor lairs, and put in things that the players will want to explore but may have no or limited purpose. That really confounds them!
Your Hexcrawling: Wilderness Survival and Encounters product is very instrumental and inspirational in helping me figure out my own procedure.

Thank you for publishing it. I highly recommend it.
 
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Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
For those of you who extend the time of rests; how do you square the Elf's Trance ability (they mediate 4 hours a night and get full long rest)?
 

Monayuris

Explorer
For those of you who extend the time of rests; how do you square the Elf's Trance ability (they mediate 4 hours a night and get full long rest)?
The need for sleep and time for a Long Rest are distinct by rules anyway. Default rules is a Long Rest is a period of time at least 8 hours. If an Elf Trances for 4 hours, they still need 8 hours of downtime in order to take a Long Rest.

So, when extending Long Rest times, the time for a Long Rest requirement changes, but it does not otherwise interact with sleep requirements.
 

Tonguez

Hero
I like to run my sandboxes as 'zones' rather than pre populated maps with each zone given a d20 list of possible encounters. For instance an island might feature


6 coral reef5 cliff upland desert4 swamp lands zone,
7 Geothermal pools9 mountain zone3 forest
8 volcanic badlands1 Village zone,2 deep cove -

As the PCs enter a zone Ill roll to see what they find 'in zone' which might include sites of interest, wandering monsters, plothooks, NPCs and resources.

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.
and absolutely support this, PCs need to be tied to something they have to unvest time and effort into while not robbing tombs and murdering goblins
 

Monayuris

Explorer
@Reynard

I totally agree with you on downtime.

Having downtime activities and actions can really make a sandbox campaign come alive. Especially, when downtime activities can be used to inject exposition or provide information about the world. Downtime can also create hooks and interactions between factions and NPCs. I also find it imparts a sort of 'realness' to the campaign. Player's can form connections and invest in the settlement. It helps transition from murderhobo to productive member of society.

I have recently backed On Downtime and Demenses on Kickstarter. I just gave my players a copy of the pdf. The idea is they can pick something they want their characters to do and the book has guidance on how their downtime activities can impact the world and provide them benefits in an objective and tangible way.
 

aco175

Adventurer
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.
My group seems to have gotten in this rut of being led around with whatever adventure is presented. I think some of this is my fault and that I can only write so fast and they are fine with playing what I wrote. I would think I'm open to moving to what the group is investigating, but they are fine waiting to see what opens.

My next campaign should be the Essentials box with more options and most written already. I think I will change some things and may add some more personal quests. Hopefully this will start getting them to have more personal ideas on where to go.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Elves don't get a long rest after trancing, they get this: "After resting in this way, you gain the same benefit that a human does from 8 hours of sleep."
A long rest is "a period of extended downtime, at least 8 hours long, during which a character sleeps or performs light activity: reading, talking, eating, or standing watch for no more than 2 hours. "

So, for a human, the benefit of 8 hours of sleep is.. a long rest. Ergo...
 
One sandbox principle I've heard about but never really put into practice is that everything is connected in multiple ways. So if there's a group of gorbel bandits called The Rolling Raiders, one of them will secretly be a member of the loathsome Cult of the Empty Orbit, and the leader will have a map showing the location of The Concentric Catacombs. The Rolling Raiders are opposed by The Globular Militia, a force of rogue modrons. Etc.
 

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