D&D General Sandbox Campaigns should have a Default Action.


New DM's have been there before, they make a sandbox campaign, you drop them in the village, you ask them what do they want to do, and...they have no idea. This is an issue a lot of DM's have when they run the sandbox campaign for the first time, you prep a bunch of content the players have no idea how to interact with it, nor what to even do. This is how bad sandbox campaigns start, and gives sandbox campaigns this "Aimless" reputation when in reality, this is caused by bad sandbox campaigns, that lack a default action.

A default action means, something the player will default to get content or information on content by simply doing something there. This is important in a sandbox campaign, because it gives them a direction, and gives them a way to interact with the world, and get hooks to various activities, it gives them the sand to actually play with and make stuff in the sandbox. Now note, these default actions shouldn't just give them one or two things, but give them tons of options that the players get to pick and choose from, and as they do those adventures those hooks lead them on, the adventures themselves will lead them to more adventures and hooks as well, and whenever they get bored of going down that questline, they can go do the default action again and find something entirely new.

Without this default action, sandbox campaigns will always falter as you either have to drop or force players into hooks/scenarios with no choice, or hope they wander around a featureless void until they just run into whatever content you have prepped, which makes them feel aimless, and kinda lost, and they will just ignore any other content outside of what you put in front of them.

Types of Default Actions

So what are these Default actions? What can they do? Well, the first Default Action should be obvious.

Tavern Rumors. Dont know what to do? Go to a tavern, and get the local rumors, this works in any type of campaign, simply just go to the tavern make some NPCs, and let the players interact and learn about whats going on in town, give them hooks, NPC's to meet, connections and let them build the story about what they are interested from there. Its why sandbox campaigns are best start in a tavern.

How to make this interesting, is making a variety of taverns about different topics and interests. For example a fancy tavern made by higher class merchants, and nobles, with spread rumors about what the upper class is doing, trade deals, plots against each other, social connections, gaining rich patrons who are looking for rare things.

Taverns piloted by traditional Adventurers, will know about the Local Dungeons, Ruins, Monster Hunts, Beasts, and giant legends, of the region to look into.

Taverns made by the typical residents, will go over residences usual problems, monsters attacking crops, strange creatures in wells, or just local issues going around, like how hunters are getting killed during their usual trips, or haunted houses.

Having a variety of Taverns with different central topics seems like a good way to offer variety to your players in a unique and more social way, introduce Key NPCs, Patrons, interests, and getting people engaged in local ongoings immediately.

Dungeons. Having a Big Dungeon nearby with an ancient history that tells them about more hooks and information around. The classic DnD method, tried and true is an immediate and more action-packed default action, if the players don't know what to do? Go to to dungeon, and get some loot, heck make the central hook of the sandbox about this dungeon, this gets to the heart of what DnD is all about, dungeon-crawling.

But what if this is a bit boring? To make it interesting is simple, use the dungeon to key hooks about other locations and adventures, what if there is an empty tomb of an ancient lich down there, and you unveil the mystery of where this lich went, showing possible locations around the world of where he went, or want something more socially involved, have patrons looking for specific treasures in certain parts of a dungeon, or have a secret society of people who are down there looking to rebuild their lost civilization, get your players backstories involved, what if they are looking for something down there, or what if they funds they got from exploring the dungeon, and renown allows them to accomplish their goals, like building a castle, or establishing their kingdom. Something as simple as multiple factions conflicting over the treasures in the dungeon, or living in the dungeon can generate tons of hooks, both in and outside of it, and as time goes on let the game evolve to outside of the dungeon itself. This is the classic DnD adventure lines here.

Hex/Pointcrawling. Don't know what to do? Explore the Map. Simple and classic as well, Hex/Pointcrawling is a classic structure of running sandbox campaigns, due to their exploration player movement-based exploration where the players can really drive it, separate each part of map into different regions with its own conflicts and issues, and locations to discover and let it grow into larger adventures. To the north is a strange haunted forest with ancients ruins to a lost civilization there, who people haunt the place, key each key and point with stuff about the history of this place, or have a evil overlord control a part of the map, and let the players get into this region, and discover rebel camps, outposts of his military, let them make connections and find and defeat parts of the evil overlords controlled areas, and push back against them eventually taking him out. Let them stumble across settlements with conflicts of their own from monster raids, to faction wars, let them find hidden lairs of great beasts and their minions(use regional effects to convey this, and hint at all.). Heck a simple questline of exploring a uncharted region at the behest of a nation can go far.Hex/Point crawling can go a long way to get the breath of the wild like, open world RPG experience people do want from DnD, put questlines with clear hooks to the next location they need to go, there with NPCs they care about, and storylines that are fun and you got yourself a wild open world.

Patrons/Faction. Dont know what to do? Talk to your Patron, giving the PC's a patron/faction, to give them missions, is a classic, let this fuel intrigue and conflict in your game. Working for a Assassins guild? Let the patron gives the players multiple choice of Assassination marks, to go up in the ranks? A Noble looking for ancient treasures? Let it give them quests to lost dungeons, and give them information about the treasure they are looking for? A Hidden Society of spies for good? Let them get missions for investigating criminal factions, corrupt nobles, and foul villains, dont get me start on criminal syndicates and heists. Dont let these just be one off missions either, let some missions branch off into greater questlines, that go to dramatic and greater places, multiple locations. Lets say killing one mark for assassination uncovers that the person you killed was a part of a network of Rebels trying to overthrow the kingdom, let them decide if they wanna join those rebels and do jobs for them, or try to wipe them out.

Evolving the Campaign beyond the Hook.

Having these actions, gives the players choices on what should they do during a campaign, and presents them hooks, options, missions, and questlines. And also do not let this be stagnant, the point is these hooks and questlines are a starting point, let them evolve and your PC's evolve the sandbox campaign beyond just the initial mission, let their quests, stories and histories affect the course of the campaign, that is the point of the sandbox campaign, give the players options, and let them decide what they wanna do and how far they want them to go, let each hook themselves lead to a questline, a whole storyline even, that presents other options adventures tied to it. And if the players wish to use this hooks in a unique way, or built their own story from it? Let them, and prep ways for them to do that, let the game evolve, and become something special. Do not reset the actions of the PC's nor do not let certain hooks and threads stagnate, let the world evolve too, let the players own choices change the world and scenarios they encounter.

A Sandbox campaign is not a campaign where players have to sit through a featureless void trying to find content or fun, no, a sandbox campaign is where players are empowered and giving choices on what the next scenario is, and can always dictate what they wish to do with their scenarios and the hooks, and to do this you need to give them choices, and more importantly, a way to get choices. Try to make these hooks nonlinear as well, have multiple scenarios that all hint to each other, to give them a multiple options that lead to the all of the choices, until they hit the conclusion, this makes the game feel way more open with tons of options to get to places.

What are they interested in?

The hardest part from here is getting them interested how do you know what they are engaged with, what type of content you should prep beforehand, well thats easy! What do you think their backstory is for, Its just them outright telling you what they are interested in doing, and what do their characters care about, prep storylines and plotlines out there with it, sandbox campaign isnt them just making up stuff and following their backstories out of nothing, its you MAKING that by putting hooks, storylines, and scenarios, about their backstory, and using the default action to give that to them. This leads me to the next Default action.

Following their backstory. Don't know what to do? Follow their backstory, try tying they backstory to a particular hook, and let that backstory give them tons of adventures, link their backstories as well using this hook too, what if the fighter who is searching for his fathers killer is looking for him in a town where the Cleric, is investigating the Cult of the Murder god, and that killer is a member of that cult. Simple stuff like this can go a long way. What if their backstory isnt that story-driven something more simple like them being a farmboy looking for adventure, people who make backstories like this usually want their past to be their past, and are just along for the ride, so just let them be along for the ride, and they usually will bite on any hook in general, if you really wish them to be invested, try dragging their past to them, like their families farm being attacked due to their actions, dramatic stuff like that. If the character's background choice is being an Artisan, give them hooks about rare materials, or Guild missions, if their backstory is being a Charlatan, give them hooks about con jobs, and people to fool and stuff like that. The hard part is tying this together but this is handled at session 0, but using their backstories for hooks is the point. Use it to generate big epic dramatic Questlines, that engage them, because they made these quests and content themselves.

If they still aren't interested?

Well this usually comes from two problems, one your scenarios hooks aren't interesting enough, a lot of DM's make their hooks really bland, usually "there is an event at a fair" or something thats is just why they are at the location of the adventure, not the dramatic pull "there are monsters attacking the fair", "there are people being murdered in the bilges", "A evil tyrant and his army are talking over the outer lands", you have to make your hooks exciting, and make them say "I wanna do that", Get them excited, and if you bring out all the stops, and they still arent biting. Simply ask them directly, what they are interested in doing, and then prep stuff for them to do it,(or improv on the spot.) Sometimes direct communication is needed as a misunderstanding may be the issue, than give them hooks based on what they were interested in doing, Sandbox campaigns can have a specific goal and them, as long as their is multiple options and questlines, with no set "main" path, it is a sandbox campaign.

Choose the right Default Action

Think about your default action too, picking the right one informs expectations of the story, sometimes pubcrawl around for rumors isnt that exciting, and they wanna kick down the door and get loot, this is where you make the default action "The Dungeon", or they want something more direct, giving them a Patron who makes quests and hooks/content for them to do is good as well, especially if it directly relates to what they want to do. If they want heists, let their patron be a theives guild, if they wish to explore a island, let their Default action, be a Hex/Point crawl, think about this and ask your players what type of adventures they want out of the campaign and make the default actions around that.


This sounds like a lot of prep? Because it is kinda, but not as much as you think, to prep sandbox campaigns, all you need to do is basically just make "Content", "Content" meaning, Dungeons, Encounters(Social/Combat), Locations, Mysteries, just make about 2-4 ways to inform the PC's about this content, that is all it really takes, you can inform them using? The Default Action, or Random encounters, or tying it to another hook they are interested in(this is how you get questlines).

You just need to Locations keyed and NPCs really. Trying to figure out exactly what choices or scenes, the PC's will have to do to is a fool errand, and wasted prep on choices that wont happen, just focus on NPC's their personality/motivations, and the Locations and Goals involved in whats in those locations, and where they lead too, this can be a few sentences. Also steal from adventures, one shots, and ideas from stories you love, and games you read, throw as much in there as you can and you will can bust out content in no time.


And thats really all i have to say about this, this is how you run a sandbox campaign, and what is needed, sandbox campaigns are not empty voids where the players have the aimlessly wander around nothing to get content, or entertain themselves, Sandbox campaigns are just empowering the PC's to choose what content they wish to do in the world, and giving them multiple choices of that content, and letting them decide the scenario presented, or make new scenarios with what they are interested, its just a matter of making the content they wish to play in, and having a default action to deliver information about whats around to them, or outright get them to that content.

Remember, even in sandbox games, like Skyrim, GTA or Elden Ring. If you don't know what to do, you can always just do the main quest/Dungeon, the "Default Action" which will give you more stuff to do, and will open you to more options outside of the main one along the way, via clues, NPCs, or hooks.

The difference, that makes TTRPGs special, is that there is no true main quest, and any hook, or things the PC's are interested in or want to do, can become the big epic main quest instead, you just need a way to inform them about their options, that is all.

TL;DR. Your sandbox campaigns need a default action to give them meaningful options on how to engage with the campaign if they don't know what options are available, or are not interested in the current options on what to do.

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I disagree with the premise.ike ALL D&D campaigns, a sandbox campaign requires an understanding between the players and the GM regarding what the game is about and what drives it. Players should never be dropped into an open field with no direction. That's not a sandbox campaign, that's a failure of GMing.
Absolutely agree, the default action imo, is basically how that understanding is came too, by having an means to get a variety of content to them, and a default action to get more hooks to a variety of content.


Why session zero so important. I like sandboxes, don't ever recall one not having a First Quest ready to roll.
Absolutely agreed, utmost important, to have a starter hook or questline, ready to engage, but you also need a method of deliver of other content, far and way, a way to get the players to have lots of options to choose from, to get the most out of a sandbox campaign.

Absolutely agreed, utmost important, to have a starter hook or questline, ready to engage, but you also need a method of deliver of other content, far and way, a way to get the players to have lots of options to choose from, to get the most out of a sandbox campaign.
Absolutely. Both Kingmaker and The Enchanted Wood both have a strong first quest, but as with all good sandboxes lots pointers to possible stuff out there , plus your session zero should give each PC at least one hook/quest of their own.

The only downside to sandboxes, in the modern days, is if using VTT and the players do something very unexpected!


IMCs, I started every session with a sheet distributed to each player that covers a few basics. Rumors that they've overheard since the last session, what special items vendors have available, and so on. Occasionally the sheets were customized to each character, but generally they were the same (to keep things simple). They were free to use the sheet or ignore it, as they saw fit. Some of the most unexpected adventures arose out of them trying to chase down a rumor from the sheet. Those handouts have proven quite popular in my games, and the players really seem to enjoy them.


IME most sandbox campaigns fail because of the players. It's a player driven style, and most players prefer to react, rather than act. If it fails because of the DM, it's usually because they didn't answer the questions "why?"
  1. Why are the PCs in this town?
    1. Knowing PCs motivations can help setup hooks they care about.
  2. Why are the PCs together?
    1. Random people getting together to do a quest is a trope. Random people getting together to do random things is more of a gang, so there needs to be a logical in-game reason.
Typically most sandboxes start with a preset adventure, since the DM has designed stuff well in advance without knowing the answer to these questions. This adventure is designed to pull the PCs together and answer the 2nd Why. After the 1st adventure, the DM should be aware of character motivations enough to answer the 1st Why, allow them to use it for adventure hooks.

A less common method is to have the players answer the 2nd Why at session 0 during character creation. The DM then gives each character a bunch of rumors that lead to various plot hooks, based on the answer to the 1st Why, which is learned during session 0. The players will start play with enough information to choose which hook to follow up on.


I like the Matt Colville video on sandboxing. He likes to have a few low-level modules as starters and they lead to a few more printed adventures. Offering the players a few choices and see where they go. This makes the other choices not taken still run in the background and they get harder, i.e. for higher level PCs to solve. So the PCs blew off the threat of orcs massing in the mountain pass to deal with the necromancer- well now the ogres arrived to aid the orcs and they are attacking the outer towns. Still do not want to deal with them, well in a few more levels a dragon will join them and they attack the home base.

One thing I have learned is there are different kinds of sandboxes and different ways to approach sandbox (and much of that is going to depend on how your brain works as a gm and what your players do, how they think; as well as the overall chemistry of your group).

I would distinguish between more focused sandboxes (where there is a premise: i.e. we are all going to be bank robbers!) and a more open one (drop the players in a village and see what happens, letting them drive the direction of the campaign). The latter can easily become the former but it is usually just more organic and can change more easily over time. But the former is usually a little easy to flow into because expectations are all pretty similar whereas the latter is a discovery of expectations. For the more open approach, I think a key thing that is very important for it to work is having players who feel they can take initiative (which might just be their style but might be something the GM needs to convey to them if they are more accustomed to receiving quests from NPCs). The other part of that is being comfortable adapting to the players actions as a GM (which I think can be tricky and I would liken it to being able to truly listen in a conversation rather than just waiting for your turn to speak).

What works for folks is going to vary. What has worked for me is the idea of the living adventure (not so much the living world concept but the living adventure concept outlined in Feast of Goblyns, where you treat NPCs as active forces in the adventure itself, pieces that move around of their own volition and respond to the PCs, have clear goals, etc). Essentially treating them like PCs or living characters, then extending this thought to things like the organizations they belong to.

So having a good sense of what conflicts and situations exist in the setting can be very useful here. I don't need an adventure so much as parts of the setting with enough tension and conflict that once the players insert themselves there they find there are a lot of options, and their actions open up further options on my side.

Dungeons and monstrous threats are also something I find useful. Those are things that can come up in play in a variety of ways but I like linking them to the social fabric of the setting. So in my wuxia campaigns many of the dungeons will be things like tombs related to an ancient sect, or a temple that was destroyed and is now haunted. They may house key martial arts manuals or relics, and players might choose to seek them out because they want a particular technique, they want to stop a foe from finding that technique, they need an important relic to raise their own prestige in the martial world or assist a sect they are part of.

Personal preference for starting a campaign is I like to just drop the players in and see what happens, then do my prep around that between sessions. I tend to take the attitude of "I don't care where the campaign goes, and I don't care when the 'adventure' stops or starts".

Some of their exploration will be them finding things I have put in the setting, but some of it will be things I haven't thought of that they suggest. If I drop them in a village and I've only planned out things like the headman, local wine shops, a couple of relevant sects to the area, a local tomb, encounter tables, and some monstrous threats that hunt people in the nearby wilderness; but the players ask if there are any cults in the area because they want to join one (perhaps with the aim of taking it over), I will have to consider that and say yes if it sounds reasonable: then quickly sketch details for them on the fly. Same if they ask if there is a merchant shipping operation between the village and the nearest city along the river. Ideally you have a lot of this stuff thought out before hand but there are so many in between places on the map that stuff will need to grow organically through Q&A too

Now I don't always run sandbox campaigns. Sometimes I want a more monster of the week game or just want there to be a campaign with more regular adventures. But this is a style I find quite rewarding because as a GM you are surprised just as much as the players


I get a general idea from a session 0 and rhe very first session or so is typically predetermined, at least in a broad way.

For example fo my current campaign, everyone lives in a dangerous area. Every family can pay taxes to pay for mercenaries or be part of the defensive forces for a period of time. So the PCs got assigned to the same unit and were given slightly more risky tasks because they showed potential.

I've done similar things before, the intro sessions have them all trapped somewhere, defending against invaders or guards for a caravan. In all cases, there are a handful of encounters, some info dumps as they interact with NPCs and so on. The goal is to throw them head first into action as a way to get to know the other PCs without doing the tired "You meet in a tavern." Unless of course, the tavern was just a refuge from the zombie horde that's invading the town.. ;)

Then I give the group multiple threads and options. They may be introduced by someone they interacted with during the game or things they heard about. They can also suggest things I didn't think of.

The important thing is that at the end of the session or between sessions they decide where they're going next so I have time to prep. These mini-arcs may last for a single session or a dozen.

Meanwhile I'll also set up potential meta plots, bigger events that are happening in the background and rough outlines of potential future opportunities.


What's the default action in a dungeon?
Crawl it, find treasure, mysteries secrets, even plotlines, or even a whole mystical underground world.

I like the Matt Colville video on sandboxing. He likes to have a few low-level modules as starters and they lead to a few more printed adventures. Offering the players a few choices and see where they go. This makes the other choices not taken still run in the background and they get harder, i.e. for higher level PCs to solve. So the PCs blew off the threat of orcs massing in the mountain pass to deal with the necromancer- well now the ogres arrived to aid the orcs and they are attacking the outer towns. Still do not want to deal with them, well in a few more levels a dragon will join them and they attack the home base.
The best sandboxes take from their favorite modules, and key it around the sandbox, that is a great way of doing it.


I like the idea of "Fronts" from PbtA; keep things progressing when the PCs don't pay attention to them.
A videogame and not really an RPG in the conventional sense, but Kenshi manages to create an amazing party-based sandbox full of great adventures with the simple hunger mechanic. The game world is a desert with no naturally growing edible plants, and pretty much all animals are evolved to defend themselves against the many huge predators, which makes them really dangerous to hunt. Because the hunger bar of the characters in the party is constantly going down, you are permanently forced to ensure a steady supply of food. You just can not sit on your butt and let time pass, you have to be active to keep food coming in. You need to mine resources to trade for food, train and equip your characters to be able to hunt for food, or build a base to grow your food. The first option is very slow and gets boring quickly, and the last option means you're setting up a giant beacon for all the raiders in the surrounding desert because they also need your food. And you can have absolutely amazing adventures exploring the desert to search for new resources that allow you to improve your food production or strengthen your defenses in your base or better equip your characters to fight off raiders and predators. Entirely with basically just random encounters and no meaningful dialogs, and no kinds of quests of any kind. Trying to find a way through a pass occupied by bandits to avoid a giant detour through monster territory. Trying to get your severely injured and bleeding characters carried to a village where they can recover before the beasts of the desert catch the last ones that can still walk. Trying to retake your base after you've been thrown out by bandits. Sending a rescue team to get captured allies out of prison cages in a hostile town, or race from your base through the desert with a backpack full of bandages to save your bleeding and unconscious friends who were away to deliver your goods to the market.

The really important lesson I've taken from this game is that default actions and incentives come in both the form of pull and push factors. Typically in a dungeon crawling sandbox campaign, we are dealing with the search for treasure and XP as pull factors. There are things out in the wilderness that are desirable to reach if the players can get past the obstacles, but the players don't have to pursue a specific source and can instead choose to go after another source where the risks don't seem as high compared to the rewards.
But push factors can be just as powerful, and even feel much more appropriate and interesting for some campaign premises. The hunger mechanic of Kenshi mentioned above is one such push. Water requirements in Dark Sun are another one. When you're only dealing with pull factors such as rewards waiting for those who overcome the obstacles standing in the way, there's always an option for players to decline and instead keep looking for other opportunities that seem more promising with better rewards for the involved risks, or which just seem more thematically and narratively appropriate for the personalities of their characters. This can lead to the situation where the players don't really want to pursue any of the options known to them and the game drags on as they wait for new opportunities to present themselves. That's the very important difference with push factors. When you motivate players with push factors, then they are on a clock. Water is running out. Food is running. If the PCs don't get off their asses and do something, they will die! Don't like any of the options presented to you? Tough luck. You're now forced to pursue something that doesn't seem that great to you simply to buy yourself more time to find an interesting pull to grab on to. And just because the characters don't like the activity they are doing doesn't mean the activity isn't fun to play for the players. That's where drama and desperation comes from. Being forced to do things that are unpleasant because you're being forced to by circumstances outside your control.
This is one of the reason why many space exploration games have the ships of the PCs come with regular maintenance cost, and frequently have the party start out with a large debt to some dangerous people. Any time the players find a job opportunity for their party and decline, have the clock tick forward increase the push by one increment.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Great OP, not much to add. I can give a story about a recent experience I had.

Last year a friend wanted to run a cyberpunk game. Do to covid it was just three of us, which was fine. The GM decided to use Carbon 2185 which is a 5E reskin to cyberpunk. I dont like 5E reskins, but it was easy to jump into and get going. System has never been the issue for this GM though. He told us it was going to be a sandbox and we could do whatever we wanted.

So, we had a session zero and I made a former megacorp security officer. He was a former fixer, in that he got corp execs out of trouble and dealt with the slums and gangs on the down low to keep the corp clean. He tired of doing all the dirty work and getting non of the credit, so he quit. Now he is looking to put to use his skills on the street with those from the office. The other PC was a 19 year old gutter punk. She had some skills and wanted help folks on the street, but wanted to avoid joining a gang. They work together as he is the face and she is the tech.

After starting, the two PCs wanted to open their own detective agency. Work cases for whoever had the cash. GM thwarted us at every attempt. We kept asking him what he wanted us to do, since he wasn't really willing to entertain our ideas. "cyberpunks dont work with corpos, cyberpunks join gangs, the plan was to have a gang war, etc..." Turns out the GM didn't really want to run a sandbox. They wanted a specific experience and had the odd notion that the players would just fall into it.

I think its important to be straight with your campaigns. If you expect your players to be a genre template to a T, then you really need to communicate that. Pretending to entertain their notions and dead ending all their efforts is awful. Once the illusion that the sandbox isnt really open at all, it will burn good will the players have for the campaign and the GM.


Absolutely agree, the default action imo, is basically how that understanding is came too, by having an means to get a variety of content to them, and a default action to get more hooks to a variety of content.
My point was I don't think you need a formal procedure if everyone at the table is on the same page.


My point was I don't think you need a formal procedure if everyone at the table is on the same page.
Its not a formal procedure, its quite literally just a way for them to do what they wanna do, and get content about what they wanna do.
For example, we agree on running a heist sandbox campaign, the default action for them to get options of heists is what? Investigate towns for Heists targets, or try to hit up a contact who has heist jobs for them, this is just kinda basic design lol.

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