D&D 5E Sandbox Campaign (Feedback and Ideas welcomed!)


Hail, fellow adventurers!

I was looking for feedback (and potential ideas) for a Sandbox D&D Campaign I'm running. (The players seems to have really gelled as a group, and are really enjoy the game thus far, but I think I might actually have TOO MANY potential storyhooks/plotlines in the wings, so could use some help in maybe narrowing the focus a bit...)

The main premise was "Ghosts of Saltmarsh" to start, with Saltmarsh as the players home-base in the early going, leading/tying into "Call from the Deep" (from DM's Guild), since the stories seem to tie together decently. Currently, the party has completed "Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh", and beaten the pirate cell. (Though I had Captain Sigurd Snake Eyes escape.), and have been asked to go to Neverwinter to ask Lord Neverember for help in the form of Naval or Militia Resources.

The party is currently 4th level, and consists of:
  1. Lizard Man Wizard
  2. Kobold Monk of Serenity
  3. Variant Human Barbarian
  4. Human Artificer
  5. Kenku Warlock (Raven Queen)

There's been a number of subplots I've introduced, including, but not limited to:
  1. The Rod of 7 Parts: This started as a personal nod, since I've always been fasicnated by it, but one particualr player really seems to have latched into this aspect of the campaign...) I have tnetative plans to expand this more fully, including adapting a (slightly higher level) version on Paizos "Whispering Cairn", whcih has ties to the Rod. (If anyone else has ideas about this aspect, I could defintiely use someone to bounce ideas off!!)
  2. The Darque Carnival: This was another nod, since I've also been a fan of Ravenloft since the beginning. I envisoned this as a "Mobile Domain of Darkness", and another of the players seems to really gel with this story, as I linked them to the disapperance of Gellan Primewater from Saltmarsh.
So, I'm in OK shape, but I guess I just need an objective opinions on:
  1. What is "too much" in a sandbox? In Neverwinter, there are MULTIPLE avenues for them to explore; should I just toss plothooks at the group, see what interests them? Or stick to a more narrow few ideas? (I was intrigued by the "Lost Crown of Neverwinter module", but not sure how interested the PC's would be in Neverwinter politics?) My initial idea was to have them segue into the "Call from the Deep" part of the story, where the PC's are asked to go to Gundarlud and investigate a downed Spelljamer ship, which will lead them into the larger story of the Ilithid plots, which I would tie into the main Saltmarsh story.)
  2. How to give equal time to the disparate storylines.
Sorry if this is a bit rambly, but would appreciate any outside thoughts and opinions! :)

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In a way, sandbox games are a series of branching paths, as story is concerned. At any moment, the players can decide if they want to pursue this thing or that thing. One of them goes on to continue to further adventure, the other remains a possibility that did not come to be.
I would not bother too much about bringing back things that the players passed on in the past, unless they decide they really want to get back and see if they can still pick up that track again. The idea is that the party is basically stumbling through the world, running into whatever happens to cross their way. Despite the terminology, it's not like Skyrim where there are a hundred quests lying around, waiting for the players to do them in whatever order they want.
If the party manages to tie up most loose ends of something they've been really busy with recently, and some players say they now really want to take the opportunity of some free time to start researching the Rod of Seven Parts and its current whereabouts, that's fantastic. Then you absolutely should come up with material to let them have an adventure that goes into that direction. But you don't need to have an NPC appear from nowhere at an oddly conveniently moment in the action to ask them to go on an adventure for the rod. The players pursue their interests, not quests that are dropped into their lap because they mentioned interest in the subject. Quest NPCs showing up are useful when the players don't really have any ideas where they could go next, but if they already have plans on their own, then there's no need for that. Let them take the initiative on how they want to go forward whenever the opportunity for that arises.


What I do is think of overarching developments and mini arcs. In the grand scheme, things are in motion that the PCs may or may not care and interact with. May shift or change over the course of the campaign, but I keep it in mind.

Then there are mini arcs. A somewhat self contained arc that typically lasts 2-6 sessions. At certain breaking points (usually the end of a mini arc) I ask the players what they want to pursue next. I'll propose ideas and they can always propose their own. We'll either vote at the end of a session or I'll use one of free survey sites to set up a ranked choice poll. That gives me time to prep, and the group pursues what they find interesting.

So it's kind of like a TV series that goes back and forth between creature of the week and a bigger story they keep returning to.

Hope that helps!


Thanks! Both those posts help give me some additional perspective.

I think "Call from the Deep" and "Saltmarsh" tie in together pretty decently. (I've been hinting at the idea of a larger force controlling things in the Sword Coast; since I personally think the second adventure in the Saltmarsh trilogy is a bit weak, I may have the Saltmarsh council do the leg-work on that while the PC's are away, and find out that the lizard-men are working defense rather than preparing for an assault. [Having a LizardMan PC also helps to put that race in a better light with the Council].)

I think I'll move into "Call from the Deep" next and have the PC's move to investigate Gundarbad island next; there's a few neat naval encounters in that chapter prior to arrival, so the PC's can test out the upgraded "Sea Ghost". (They added some artillery, but didn't bother changing out the really visible figurehead!!)


DMing a sandbox is like fishing. You got to keep throwing out hooks. The more hooks you throw out, the more likely you are to catch a PC!

I think in mine there are over a dozen "open" hooks, and that's not counting the ones they haven't picked up on yet, or all the PCs personal goals.

Keep a list of all of your hooks, so you can keep an eye on all of them. If you have "too many" hooks, let them play out naturally if the players ignore them. This could mean nothing happens, but it could also mean a threat grows more dangerous if it's ignored. Or even better, a rival adventuring party takes on these quests, and starts gaining some renown!

Don't forget players backstories and families. Find ways to weave all of them in. They are much more likely to do a quest if Uncle Larry is their quest giver, or the local blacksmith is a PC's father.


Thanks for the continued feedback and info!
I feel like I'm getting more of a handle from reading all the replies, as I'm trying to implement most of what is being said! :)

Don't forget players backstories and families. Find ways to weave all of them in. They are much more likely to do a quest if Uncle Larry is their quest giver, or the local blacksmith is a PC's father.

I have potential hooks for each player. The Warlock (via his Patron) is interested in the Rod. The Lizard Man has had his supposedly dead mentor return as a sentient undead. The Barbarian is worried about his family [Who is still in the Jungles of Chult]. And the Monk has taken an interest in looking into the Darque Carnival.

Keep a list of all of your hooks, so you can keep an eye on all of them.

I have a running list available to the PC's in a log in Roll20. One of the plots I hope for them to follow at some point is the investigation into the "Wizard of Wines" winery, which I placed on the Sword Coast. (I cribbed the name from Curse of Strahd, but have mostly revamped the actual facility and backstory.) During the first adventure the PC's found the 2 bottles of "Drunken Unicorn" wine under the Old Manor, and immediately became intrigued, so I built up a whole backstory about the winery being shut down years ago, and now an "imposter" brewery seems to have popped up recently.....

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