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Structuring a Quest Based Sandbox

Reynard

Legend
Forward: I am putting this in General because it applies broadly, but is definitely something commonly found in D&D and similar games. I am actually building mine for use with Pathfinder 2E.

Anyway, I want to build a smallish sandbox based around a central location (a village) filled with quests both in the village and in its environs. I am not interested in hex crawling, nor am I interested in a major storyline or plot. It is basically going to look a lot like a typical CRPG town and adventure zone.

I think the best way to build it is by way of NPCs and their issues. Old Lady Filligree needs someone to recover her jewelry box from the now abandoned family home outside town. The baker's daughter ran off with a faun and he wants her brought home. Etc.

What other sorts of quest starters work in such a circumstance? Have you built a "questbox" before? How did you do it? How did it go?
 

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Reynard

Legend
Video game rpgs would be a good resource. Just don’t make your players come back with 10 bear pelts.
But Mrs. Dorren needs to bake a pie for Mr. Stabler and only 10 rare gooey-fruits will do!

Lol. No, I definitely want to steer clear of MMORPG style fetch quests.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Leaning on NPCs is a smart place to start. You could weave something a little more interesting than that out of ihe idea if you wanted. Just to spitball, lets say there are families in the villages, families who have been there for a long time. There are legends that get told, and there's the retired mayor, and his father before him, who have made a hobby of writing these legends down. Old Dunbarr, the priest of Torm who tends the shrine on the fells, has some strange tales to tell as well, and he's been in the village since before the last King. You could dole bits and pieces of clues to a larger mystery, a little each adventure. Some from NPCs, some from legends written down, and some from things found on expeditions. The odd disappearance, some odd behavior from some known NPCs. Everyone said there was something wrong with the village....

A slow burner creepfest really. This sort of thing only really works in a small village setting with really regular NPCs that the party can really get to know. If the players don't bite you haven't lost anything, but if they do you have a pretty killer game on your hands.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I think it would be interesting to have one or at most 2 hidden factions in the town. Whatever they are. Maybe the baker is also a member of some sort of wider cult; or the woodcutter is also a member of the thieves guild (why is his house so nice?). And if those factions are potentially at cross purposes...?
 

aco175

Hero
You could structure it a bit on the Essentials box. There are a few quests to start and a few more that come in every few levels. It would be good to see if things happen once the PCs choose one adventure over another.

Say the PCs skip the necromancer and skeletons at early levels. You can still use the map and basic layout but level the bad guys who now threaten the town several levels later. This may save some work designing multiple adventures for each level depending on where the PCs want to go.
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
Maybe pick out 2-3 good low-level adventures and use them to write the backstory of your village. Tie each adventure in so it makes sense that several NPCs would know pieces of the stories, and can relate them in logical ways; ie if there is a ruined, haunted castle up on the hill, who knows the story of the evil warlord who lived there 3 generations ago, and was slain by adventurers, who left before his ghost began to haunt the place? Does the elderly priest in the temple know why the OLD graveyard is off-limits? Is there a really old battle-field on the edge of the forest not far from the village, and the guard-captain often goes out there to hunt for arrowheads and such? Does he know if it is true that the elves of the forest lost their Queen in this battle and have never dealt with their human "allies" again?

Find your adventures FIRST, then create your village/town, and be sure to add the things that the adventures need to make them work, rather than the other way round...
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
The OSR game Beyond the Wall has a book called Further Afield, which is focused on running a campaign growing out of a single village and expanding to the environs around it. The campaign rules are pretty system-agnostic, and has some example campaign packs around quests revolving around a single campaign specific looming threat.
 

Odysseus

Explorer
where i've done this I don't really structure it. I keep 3 or 4 vague quests ready at any one time , and constantly throw chum in the water for the players to follow. And just make up everything up as I go.
 

I did something like this as a West Marches style game for D&D. Rather than a village, I eventually had to move it to a nearby city for it to continue to make sense ("why is all this happening in such a small area?!?"). There's two approaches, depending on how you work best: quest based or location based.

If you want to design your quests first, focus on the NPCs of your village/town/city. They're the ones who need the PCs to do stuff, for the most part, so after coming up with about a dozen or two rough ideas, you can then design the region around the base (as well as the base itself) on the needs of the quests you have. The advantage to this is that if you have a specific location required for a quest (such as a mountain, desert, sea) you can just make sure it happens to be there. The downside is that your regional map may make very little sense geographically, which may or may not matter to you and your players.

The other method, which I prefer, is to design the region and home base first. In general you want to try and have as many different terrain types you reasonably can, but some are just not going to be possible depending on how large your regional map is. Once you have the everything designed, you can look at it and think about what might be happening there. This then leads to the inspiration for the quests. The advantage is that the world should make a logical sense, and in theory your quests can be somewhat integrated without having an overarching plot. The downside is that once you design the region, you'll lock yourself out of certain adventure types without a LOT of work moving the players outside of the region (which can be very problematic if the players like the new region instead).

As for the general layout of the campaign, I'd have the players hear about several things happening about town (quests), letting them choose what they want to investigate. Ideally, session 0/1 introduces them to the town and the various quests, which they will decide which to follow up on at the end of the session. This gives you the time between to fully flesh out the adventure for the next session, rather than having to design a bunch all at once. I would also periodically have quest not chosen to resolve without the PCs, either being done by other adventurers (possibly a rival party) or reaching their natural conclusion (failed adventure). This allows you to introduce new quests, while removing old quests the party obviously has no interest in. This also gives the feeling of a living, breathing campaign world that exists beyond the PCs.
 

Lem23

Adventurer
I'm going to second Beyond the Wall, especially the several scenario packs and threat packs. Threat fronts are similar to what was described above - some group that has a plan, you can try to thwart them early on, but if you leave it too late and do nothing to investigate or hinder them, they'll grow more powerful and closer to their goal.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
But Mrs. Dorren needs to bake a pie for Mr. Stabler and only 10 rare gooey-fruits will do!

Lol. No, I definitely want to steer clear of MMORPG style fetch quests.
To be fair, the bear-pelt quest isn't just a fetch quest; it requires some good killin' too. And info gathering (where is that bear den, anyway?). And shopping (what kind of armor is best used for fighting bears, or maybe we should invest in poison for arrows?). And drama (oh Nardgar, you took a mortal wound from the bear! Is it too late for us to consummate our love?). Not to mention the broader implications of getting into Temba Wide-Arm's good graces, who can now saw lumber properly since those bears are thinned out, and incorporate the party into the sinister machinations of the lumber-milling guild...
 

Personally before you worry about quests, I would setup some events and factions (groups). Maybe the Harpers and the Black Network are active in the area. Maybe you have some elf / gnome tensions in business. Perhaps it's the old families and the recent newcomers. Perhaps its all of them. Then give yourself a paragraph of what each group wants (status quo, land rights, money, etc)

Once you have that, your quests will flow pretty easily as well as you will be able to have each faction dynamic and affected by the results of each quest. And it allows quests to not have to be things the party "wins", you can have degrees of success as well as no right/wrong solutions.
 

THEMNGMNT

Adventurer
I've been brainstorming how to run a similar campaign. My approach involves stealing from 13th Age and Dungeon World to co-author the sandbox elements with the players.

First, I create multiple factions.

Second, I instruct players to select a faction with which they have a positive relationship. Then select a faction for a negative relationship. And finally a faction with which they have a conflicted relationship.

Third, I use the factions selected by the players to fill in the sandbox with allies, enemies, locations, artifacts, conflict, and adventure. As a result, I don't need to sell players on engaging with quests because the quests are composed of elements that the players selected or even created.

Finally, I create fronts for each faction to show how their plans advance and change the world if the players don't take action.

Hope that's helpful.
 


Big Bucky

Explorer
@DMMike thats a good point. Quests are what you make of them. Even a long campaign may ultimately boil down to ”go there and do that”. And a seemingly simple quest could fill many sessions. Any quest can be fun if the consequences of success or failure are interesting.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There's a disconnect here.

You say...
I think the best way to build it is by way of NPCs and their issues. Old Lady Filligree needs someone to recover her jewelry box from the now abandoned family home outside town. The baker's daughter ran off with a faun and he wants her brought home. Etc.
...but then in your next post you say...
Lol. No, I definitely want to steer clear of MMORPG style fetch quests.
...this.

Both the examples in the first post are fetch quests: the first, to fetch the jewelry box; the second, to fetch the daughter.

The challenge will be to come up with adventures that are neither fetch quests nor tied to a bigger plot; and in that I wish you well.

The only thing I can suggest is that somehow adventure comes to them, but you can only do that a very few times before it gets stale.
 

Reynard

Legend
There's a disconnect here.

You say...
...but then in your next post you say...
...this.

Both the examples in the first post are fetch quests: the first, to fetch the jewelry box; the second, to fetch the daughter.

The challenge will be to come up with adventures that are neither fetch quests nor tied to a bigger plot; and in that I wish you well.

The only thing I can suggest is that somehow adventure comes to them, but you can only do that a very few times before it gets stale.
I was refering specifically to the kind of mundane, tedious quests you find in bad MMOs. Every quest is a fetch quest or a kill quest or a accomp0any quest. It's how you package it. See: Witcher 3 versus WoW.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Non-fetch quests - draw a map of an area for the local commander; investigate an unexplained phenomena in the woods, find the source of the rot in the woods and eliminate it, guard a caravan of precious macguffins to the big city, explain why the sign of the black goat is being scrawled on doors all over town, test the veracity of a local legend that says a strange tower appears in the hills every 10 years on a particular night, clear out some monsters and reclaim a manor house that has been overrun by the woods - you clean you own it, engage in a battle of wits with another party of adventurers that are in town for unknown reasons.

That's what I have off the top of my head anyway. It's no more immersion breaking than an episodic show IMO. You can do the long arcs with NPCs and village happenings - pepper the game with disputes, marriages, feuds, elections, divorces and all that jazz to bring the village to life. The more engaged the players are in the village, the less prompting they'll need to work to solve the villages problems when they come up.
 

Razjah

Explorer
Have you seen Matt Colville's advice on sandboxing?

The biggest thing I have done in past games set up like this is to apply pressure. Let player know there are consequences. The faun may take the daughter into the feywild and if she eats there, she will remained trapped by the faerie courts. The abandoned house won't remain abandoned and the box is used by a necromancer or cult to summon and bind the spirit of Lady Filigree's ancestor. The bears attack a goblin warren and now the area has roving bands of the remnants of the goblin tribe.

If you want to have a good sandbox the players need choices that matter. What things need the highest priority, what can they do now? Then everything they didn't tackle ratchets up a bit in danger. The clock is always ticking.
 

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