Let's talk about sandboxes, open worlds and hexcrawling

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
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)?
tl;dr the duration of the rest is unchanged, but 4 hours per day is spent in trance instead of 8 in sleep

Breather
A breather is a period of downtime, at least 1 hour long, during which a character performs no more than lowkey activity such as reading, talking, eating, drinking or standing watch. If it is interrupted by adventuring activity—fighting, casting spells, marching, or similar—characters must start the rest over to gain any benefit from it. At the end of a breather, characters can spend Hit Dice to regain hit points.

Short Rest
A breather in which characters go on to sleep or trance may be extended into a short rest of about a day. At the end of that rest, characters who prepare spells can change their lists, and features that can refresh at the end of a short rest, do so. Those who rest in comfort and eat and drink, recover one level of exhaustion.

Long Rest
A short rest can be extended into a long rest of around three days. A character must have at least 1 hit point at the start of such a rest to gain its benefits, and must sleep or trance each day. At the end of that rest, characters regain all lost hit points, and they regain spent Hit Dice up to half their total number of them (at least 1); any features they have that can refresh at the end of a long rest, do so. Those who rest in comfort and eat and drink, recover completely from exhaustion.

Between Rests
When characters finish a rest incorporating a given type, they can’t benefit from another rest of that type until time equal to its duration has passed, e.g. characters finishing a short rest can’t benefit from a breather for an hour.

Sleeping and Trancing, and Armor
Characters who sleep need 8 hours to do so, while those who trance need only 4. Warlocks benefiting from Aspect of the Moon can spend 4 hours reading their Book of Shadows instead of sleeping. Characters sleeping or trancing in medium or heavy armor aren’t comfortable. At the end of an uncomfortable rest, characters don’t reduce exhaustion and regain a quarter of their spent Hit Dice instead of half.
 

GlassJaw

Adventurer
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.
This! A thousand times this!

This is how the sandbox comes to life. I would always err on the side too many hooks as opposed to not enough. Players will pick and choose and fill in the details on their own, which you can use to your advantage!
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
I approach a sandbox campaign like I do any other campaign. I create a map of the region (not the world), with all the known locations. I then write a brief description of each location, and its local ruler. I also create a basic timeline for the history of the setting. This helps with answering complicated questions, and it ensures that various events line up correctly. I also do a fair bit of research for any campaign. It helps with making the campaign feel realistic. Where my prep differs from prepping a normal campaign, is in all the extra work I do:

Prepping a location

I only fully prepare a location if I think the players will be going there in the next session. Now of course the nature of a sandbox is that the players can go anywhere they want. But I make sure that the campaign is confined to a particular region of the world, and I always ask my players to give me a headsup at the end of a session regarding where they intend to go next.

When I prep a location, it is like prepping a regular campaign. However, I make sure there are many interconnected plothooks and questhooks that the players can chase. I know that the players won't chase every hint I throw at them, so I make sure there are multiple roads to the same plot beats. Rather than writing everything out, I create a web of situations that are connected, fueled by characters with clear motivations. The players are like a spider in the web, gently pulling at these plot threads, and affecting where the plot goes next.

Exploration and random encounters

Most of my work goes into prepping random content. I create random encounter tables for exploration on land and at sea. I even make random encounter tables for specific environments. On the map a single square on the grid represents 1 hour of unexplored terrain. Several cities and settlements will be known, and so their location is already fixed on the map. But in between them are vast areas of uncharted land, which the players are free to explore. These can contain anything from hostile encounters, simple obstacles, buildings, settlements and even dungeons. I update the map according to what they discover.

To explore uncharted areas, the players indicate the direction they wish to travel. They must then make a navigation check, to see if they actually go in the desired direction. I allow my players to pick which party member will make that check. If they fail, I roll to determine the direction randomly. I then roll for the encounter, from 6 categories which I also roll for.

These categories include: Npc/creature encounters, landscape features, terrain obstacles, human settlements, major land features and landmarks. On a 20, any of these can also spawn an exotic encounter, which has its own table.

When I roll for these, I always check if the encounter makes narrative, gameplay and logical sense. I give myself the freedom to reroll anything that I feel does not fit.

Random weather

Whenever a new day dawns, I roll for the weather for that day. I use the random weather table from the 3.5 book Stormwrack, which also includes random wind directions. Since I am running a pirate campaign, weather and wind direction can have drastic effects on how the players travel by sea, and on any naval combat that could arise from random encounters.

World building

I have a tendency to go into exceedingly precise details, when it comes to creating the world for my players. I prepare a history for the setting, which may come up at some point. I also create lists of food and drinks that the players may encounter on their travels. I also research important setting information, especially when the campaign is set in the real world, or has simularities with the real world. This helps with improvizing stuff when the players venture off into areas I have not fully prepared yet.

I find that I feel most comfortable as a DM, when I have overprepared for a sandbox campaign. I do not have to worry too much about players doing unexpected things, since I have all the information I need. All I need to do is improvize some of the details.
 
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I love sandboxes even though I have only a limited experience running them. I am not even sure if what I call 'sandbox' is the same thing everyone has in mind... for me a sandbox campaign is characterized by the following elements:

1- A regional map: large enough so that the players have the feeling they can seek adventures for a fairly long time, but definitely not a whole continent which may feel too dispersive. A good reference could be one single region in the Forgotten Realms, as in past editions books (e.g. "The Shining South" or "The Silver Marches"). Unlike story-driven campaign, I think it's important to show the region's map to the players at the beginning, maybe even get a poster and make it visible all the time when playing. A great map has a variety of "points of interest" which corresponds to possible adventures: anything like a haunted forest, an abandoned castle, a rumoured tomb that are the topics of local folklore, and therefore PCs from the region already know about and can visit.

2- Level range: the starting region must feature adventures and encounters of a variety of levels in order to deliver the feeling that the world is not designed for the PCs. However it doesn't have to be without a range, the DM can decide for example that everything within the starting region is in fact 1st-5th level. Yes, there can be also the lost tomb of the 20th-level lich somewhere if you want, the general idea is not to blow all your weapons in the starting region, so that the players get the feeling that other regions farther away will feature even more dangerous adventures. It is a good idea to highlight "level zones" within your sandbox e.g. the haunted forest might be as a whole notoriously more dangerous than everywhere else, but also whole regions beyond the starting one (think World of Warcraft); if you don't mind a bit of metagaming, you can make the levels known to the players to make sure they know where they're going, and assume the characters are capable of knowing the general degree of danger even if they have no concept of 'level'.

3- Impossible encounters: once again, for me it is quite essential for a 'sandbox' to carry the feeling that the PCs aren't special (yet), and impossible encounters are possible (pun intended). How should the DM handle them? First of all, remind the players that impossible doesn't mean unavoidable. Second, that killing a monster doesn't always have to be an encounter's goal, things such as stealing an item or a prisoner from it, or even simply fleeing from it are perfectly viable goals; just don't put the PCs into a "Kobayashi Maru". But consider also being open about an encounter's difficulty: you can keep it within the narrative by telling the players what their characters know about monsters or with good description of what happens during combat, or you can flat-out tell the players if they still don't get it (don't be afraid to break OoC, I'd rather metagame with them a bit than cause a TPK and tell them "you should have figured it out").

4- The network of quests: the premise of a sandbox is that the PCs are actively searching for adventures, but blank freedom can lead to paralysis. Having lots of quests interconnected by clues, hooks, NPC's requests, found maps etc. keeps the party moving. Ideally, I wish to have at least always 3 leads available, so that they never have to wander blindly but they also always have some choice on what to follow up next.

5- Slow large-scale events: things such as a war with a neighboring kingdom, a villain's plot to take over the world, shifts in deities' affairs and general world-scale threats are better left in the background. Sudden changes and threats immediately remove attention from local errands, and that's when the sandbox feel is compromised. Take advantage of your sandbox campaign to avoid for once the cliche of saving the world with a bunch of combats, and instead try to deliver a sense that dread things grow slowly in the dark. Maybe the orcs army never really invades, but it's always there on the other side of the mountain. And have the big villains escape often, and come back every time.

6- Slow level advancement: if not really slow, at least not too fast... the sandbox feel implies you don't get quickly so powerful that you have to move out of the sandbox itself to get some challenge.

Other things are typical but perhaps not strictly necessary. Random encounters are quite a staple in sandbox campaigns, but you can in fact always plan instead of rolling. I think randomness is a tool for the DM who doesn't want to always make decisions, but instead enjoys herself seeing the fantasy world 'come alive' on its own. Just make sure that the encounters make sense within the location, i.e. if you're in a jungle region then have jungle-appropriate encounters (unless you occasionally want to purposefully make the players jump: "what the heck is a yeti doing in a tropical jungle? someone must be behind this!").

Resource management (food, water, money...) and assets management (place of residence, family ties, social roles and obligations...) are great additions, but somehow I don't feel they have to be a must. You can fade them to the background if the players aren't interested, and still not lose the general sandbox feel.

The other thing I don't find necessary is the idea of a gridded (hex or square) map. There's a certain nostalgic charm in a hex regional map, with possibly a different surprise to discover under each hex, but IMHO it's very optional, and I feel more at ease with a gridless map.
 
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clearstream

Be just and fear not...
5- Slow large-scale events: things such as a war with a neighboring kingdom, a villain's plot to take over the world, shifts in deities' affairs and general world-scale threats are better left in the background. Sudden changes and threats immediately remove attention from local errands, and that's when the sandbox feel is compromised. Take advantage of your sandbox campaign to avoid for once the cliche of saving the world with a bunch of combats, and instead try to deliver a sense that dread things grow slowly in the dark. Maybe the orcs army never really invades, but it's always there on the other side of the mountain. And have the big villains escape often, and come back every time.

6- Slow level advancement: if not really slow, at least not too fast... the sandbox feel implies you don't get quickly so powerful that you have to move out of the sandbox itself to get some challenge.
I think pacing, and as you say slowing down the game, are important elements to a sandbox. They give things time to happen, players time to form connections, including by spending downtime to form bonds with the world.
 

Reynard

Legend
One thing a friend and I were discussing is using triggered events as a way to make the setting feel reactive and alive.

Maybe there's a dragon in the setting, but it has been resting on its hoard for a decades -- long enough that it is a legend and a rumor but not an active threat. But there's an ancient vault full of treasure, a separate dungeon leftover from some long lost civilization. And maybe the dragon left an alarm on the door to the vault. It could not get in itself for whatever reason, but it wanted to know if anyone ever opens the vault so it can add the treasure to its hoard.

Well, when the PCs inevitably delve that dungeon and break the seal, they inadvertently wake the dragon, who would very much like its gold now, thankyouverymuch.
 

Derren

Adventurer
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.

Not everything should be connected. If they are then you are in the end just running a railroad with multiple tracks running in parallel. Some things are connected if they make sense to be, but some don't.

Also its disappointing that so many seem to confuse sandbock with hexcrawl. A hexcrawl fits a very specific setting, players exploring an unknown region, and can be as much a railroad as any other campaign.
On the other hand you can run a sandbox and never leave the city.
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Not everything should be connected. If they are then you are in the end just running a railroad with bultiple tracks running in parallel. Some things are connected if they make sense to be, but some don't.

Also its disappointing that so many seem to confuse sandbock with hexcrawl. A hexcrawl fits a very specific setting, players exploring an unknown region, and can be as much a railroad as any other campaign.
On the other hand you can run a sandbox and never leave the city.

Hexcrawl should also not be confused with pubcrawl, which also happens in a city.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I don't remember the last time I did a hexcrawl even though I have a very open sandbox campaign.

In my campaigns I establish the setting, organizations and NPCs. I then decide what possible conflicts are and what type of challenge is available to the PCs - usually 3-6 options are open.

Then I just let the players decide. If we've wrapped up the current thread at the end of a session I ask what they want to do next, reminding them of current options. They can also suggest an option if they want.

That does mean that some threads I thought would be cool never get pulled, but that just means that the conflict plays out without the PCs intervention. In my current campaign, they don't realize but if they don't start paying attention to X then Y will happen which could even lead to Z. Most likely they'll choose to deal with Y before it gets out of hand, but it would have been a lot easier to deal with it earlier.

But hex crawls? Just never been my style, people usually have a goal which I'll resolve some way other than just picking a random direction.
 

JeffB

Legend
Go download a copy of Relics and Ruins- its a free OSR game on drive Thru. It has the neatest little randomized hexcrawl sandbox/adventure in the back. I'm totally swiping it.

That said, not normally a fan of the Hex crawl-but the above sounds super fun to me.
 

timbannock

Explorer
If you all like hexcrawls or sandbox play, check out the Populated Hexes patreon. It's OSR (using Old School Essentials), but the gist of it and the ease of swapping out stat blocks for 5e equivalents makes it an extremely useful series. It shows how to do the interconnectedness thing very well, by having random encounter tables that draw from surrounding hexes to populate them.
 

Reynard

Legend
As I have been building my sandbox, I have realized I want the action to be largely player driven primarily by want of treasure (because I want a decent amount of dungeon and lair raiding). The things, it is really hard to find stuff for players to spend money on in 5E.

Does anyone know of any DMGuild or other 3rd party resources that develop a good economy for 5E -- from downtime business investment to training costs to benefits from carousing and so on? What I do not want is the primary money sink to be powering up (especially in the form of buying or making magic items).
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
As I have been building my sandbox, I have realized I want the action to be largely player driven primarily by want of treasure (because I want a decent amount of dungeon and lair raiding). The things, it is really hard to find stuff for players to spend money on in 5E.

Does anyone know of any DMGuild or other 3rd party resources that develop a good economy for 5E -- from downtime business investment to training costs to benefits from carousing and so on? What I do not want is the primary money sink to be powering up (especially in the form of buying or making magic items).
Strongholds and Followers is a place to start. "good economy"? Not so sure, but at least it gives your players something to finally spend money on.

BTW, 5e doesn't quite have the magic item economy that pathfinder and 4e had. Magic items are supposed to be pretty rare, except for expendable ones (scrolls, potions). That's why there's a limit on how many MIs you can have attuned...

 

Reynard

Legend
I was thinking about how I wanted to do rests -- I think I am going to try long rests require 24 hours unless you are both safe and comfortable, such as in an inn, an ally's secure residence or a Tiny Hut or whatever -- and it got me thinking about something I haven't considered before: different encounter tables based on whether the characters are sedentary versus traveling.

It is probably more effort than it is worth, but since we often try and include more than simply "Monsters Attack!" on hexcrawl encounter charts, does it make sense to create a different table for when the party isn't moving? For example, you aren't going to "run into" an "Impassable cleft; the PCs must go around and lose 2d6 hours of travel time" on their third encounter check of a day long rest. But a group camping for an extended period might get investigated by bears looking for trash to eat or even a couple helpful faeries that have noticed how hurt the PCs are.

Has anyone created for themselves or seen in a published product encounter tables with this level of granularity. The most I can say I have seen is different ones for night and day.
 

timbannock

Explorer
As I have been building my sandbox, I have realized I want the action to be largely player driven primarily by want of treasure (because I want a decent amount of dungeon and lair raiding). The things, it is really hard to find stuff for players to spend money on in 5E.

Does anyone know of any DMGuild or other 3rd party resources that develop a good economy for 5E -- from downtime business investment to training costs to benefits from carousing and so on? What I do not want is the primary money sink to be powering up (especially in the form of buying or making magic items).
There's a great article here: The Gold Problem, and Solving it with Rest Variants

It doesn't fully flesh out things, but it's a great start, and includes some ideas on switches and dials so you can concentrate on the stuff relevant to your campaign. So if you don't want to focus on strongholds, for instance, it goes into depth about spending money on training and basic "support staff" for an adventuring party.
 

Reynard

Legend
There's a great article here: The Gold Problem, and Solving it with Rest Variants

It doesn't fully flesh out things, but it's a great start, and includes some ideas on switches and dials so you can concentrate on the stuff relevant to your campaign. So if you don't want to focus on strongholds, for instance, it goes into depth about spending money on training and basic "support staff" for an adventuring party.
Nice article. Thanks.
 

dave2008

Legend
tl;dr the duration of the rest is unchanged, but 4 hours per day is spent in trance instead of 8 in sleep

Breather
A breather is a period of downtime, at least 1 hour long, ...

Short Rest
A breather in which characters go on to sleep or trance may be extended into a short rest...

Long Rest
A short rest can be extended into a long rest of around three days.
Why not just use the standard terms short rest (breather), long rest (short rest), and one new term for the new rest: extend rest (long rest). It seems like your just making things more confusing.
 
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