Survival Sandbox Worldbuilding


My big homebrew setting I've been using for almost 10 years was tailored from the ground up for dungeon crawling and treasure hunting. A world set up to have lots of large dungeons, and where the history made sense for most of these dungeons not having been looted centuries ago and for people actually going down into those hellish deathtraps. And it worked out really well,

But now I am much more interested in campaigns about players setting up a base in the wilderness, trying to survive and at the same time improving their future chances by neutralizing threats, making allies, and controlling useful resources.
Mechanically, games like Forbidden Lands or Pathfinder's Kingmaker rules already exist to cover the how. But now that I am sitting down to start working on a new setting for such a campaign, I find myself asking what kind of environmental and social conditions actively support and encourage such a mode of play?

Ideally, a campaign should let the players freely chose whatever path of action they feel like, go wherever their feet take them, and do whatever seems right at the moment. But in a campaign with a great setup, the things that seem the most interesting and logical to do for the players strongly nudge them to mostly stay within a general mode of play. Let the players do whatever they want, but set things up in subtly manipulative ways so that certain behaviors look much more attractive than others.

The biggest thing I've been thinking about yet is that such a setting should probably have a strong reason for why people choose to put up with the hardships of living on the edge of the wilderness and not simply go looking for a better live in the civilized lands. As bad as it is to deal with bandits and monsters and having to carve out any convenience and comfort for yourself, it's worth it when living in the nearby kingdoms is even worse. People don't usually choose to give up the comforts and security of civilization unless they feel they have to.
First thing I would do when starting on a map is to designate one edge as the border of a kingdom that is either under rule of a brutal tyrant or in a long state of bitter civil war. People have had enough and fled into the forests and hills to get away from it. This provides a nice reason for why the frontier settlements are still new and the land not fully developed and explored, and why there are still new people coming to keep pushing the frontier out even further.

The other main thing I see as being really important is factions. When you try to establish yourself as a new stronghold in the wilderness and don't want the whole campaign revolve around resource management, making allies and dealing with hostile rivals is where I see most of the adventures for the PCs having their start.

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