The many types of Sandboxes and Open-World Campaigns

hawkeyefan

Legend
But the big question is how to give the campaign a structure. Telling the players they have a million square miles to do what they want and there's a some 20 prepared dungeons in it won't work. I guess they could still be treasure hunters, looking for old Narfell dungeons whose locations are known to local villages, but that nobody has ever dared going far into. Even when your village does have a 3rd level barbarian and six 2nd level fighters, that doesn't mean they can simply stroll in and claim all the treasures for themselves. But would that be enough? I think people interested in a 5th edition campaign in an established setting might be hoping for a bit more than that.

I would suggest doing character generation together, and to come up with some connections for the PCs to be together. Have them provide actual choices for their Bonds and use those as the focus of play. Hopefully, they'll come up with their own goals, and offer you ideas you can use to prompt them. Use the ideas and elements they come up with and incorporate them into the world, meshing them with the ones in the book or the ones you want to include.

If you don't want to come up with all the adventures yourself, then you're going to need to have the players contribute.
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
Two thousand years ago, most of the region was part of the Narfell Empire that summoned and controlled many powerful demons, and some smaller sections belong to the Raumathar Empire ruled by evil sorcerers. Eventually the two wiped each other out with their dark magic, the surviving Nars becoming horse nomads and new people slowly moving into the area. It specifically states that Nar citadels where usually small bulky keeps on the surface with massive underground tunnels beneath them and that there are still many demons trapped inside the subterranean ruins. I also see this is a great region to have lots of old burrial mounds haunted by the wights of ancient sorcerers. So plenty of opportunity to open up ancient ruins not disturbed for over a thousand years with all kinds of horrors and treasure's inside them. There's also Nar and Rashemi barbarian tribes, and Red Wizards of Thay and Witches of Rashemen to interact and tangle with.
Sounds like a great setting for an open-world game.
However, I really don't want to do the whole Quest-Giver-of-the-Week thing ever again. I'm done with writing stories about villains that need to be stopped for the players. I still want it to be a much more open ended thing where the players have a 1000x1000 miles area to romp around in. And I don't have any clue how to start.
Start small. You only need an immediate concern to get the party together and cause them to go walkabout and start exploring. You can start with three or four locations. Their starting town, a Nar citadel, a burial mound, and some other point of interest. Have something go wrong at one or all and the start is the PCs dealing with it. The local or regional leaders are so impressed they task the group with exploring and delving these ancient sites. Throw in some reclaiming our lost heritage and/or outsiders desecrating our heritage, say one of those other factions, and you’ve got more than enough. Keep the factions working away in the background delving and causing problems and it should run on its own.
But the big question is how to give the campaign a structure. Telling the players they have a million square miles to do what they want and there's a some 20 prepared dungeons in it won't work. I guess they could still be treasure hunters, looking for old Narfell dungeons whose locations are known to local villages, but that nobody has ever dared going far into. Even when your village does have a 3rd level barbarian and six 2nd level fighters, that doesn't mean they can simply stroll in and claim all the treasures for themselves. But would that be enough? I think people interested in a 5th edition campaign in an established setting might be hoping for a bit more than that.
If you’re running an open-world game, generally that is enough. Players attracted to that style want to be able to just poke around and explore. Unless you structure it in a way where delving the citadels is important be prepared to have the PCs ignore them. That’s why I mentioned the other faction mucking about and the heritage angle.

Hope it pans out.
 

Yora

Legend
That does give me some kind of general idea:

A wizard in Impiltur is in correspondence with a scholar on Thesk, whose information provides some clues that point towards a stash of valuable scrolls in ruins in his area. The scholar says he's not going down into any ancient dungeons to look for scrolls, and if he wizard wants them translated he has to get them himself. The whole thing doesn't sound too difficult, so the wizard hires a group of upcoming treasure hunters to take a ship over to Telflamm, meet the scholar, and let him guide them towards the ruins the scrolls might be in. The players start getting off the boat and have to prepare their expedition. There's more than one ruin the scrolls could be in (but it's a specific one, not whichever the players check last), but they might have hints about the location of their target, and the scholar might now other people who could know more specifics. But once the players have found what they are looking for and delivered them to the scholar to translate, they can still check out the others for more valuables to grab or tomes they could sell to the scholar. Or go wherever else they please, making use of clues and hints they've come across during their first explorations. And they already know a scholar in the area knowledgeable about the local ruins they can ask for information.
 

But the big question is how to give the campaign a structure. Telling the players they have a million square miles to do what they want and there's a some 20 prepared dungeons in it won't work. I guess they could still be treasure hunters, looking for old Narfell dungeons whose locations are known to local villages, but that nobody has ever dared going far into. Even when your village does have a 3rd level barbarian and six 2nd level fighters, that doesn't mean they can simply stroll in and claim all the treasures for themselves. But would that be enough? I think people interested in a 5th edition campaign in an established setting might be hoping for a bit more than that.

What if the PCs start at one edge of this great expanse, and have a reason to cross it to get to the other side in a caravan? Along the way, they come across locations and get themselves into mini-adventures in an episodic style.

This idea is taken from Ultraviolet Grasslands, which is set up as a "pointcrawl." The PCs have a caravan, and they can trade, do adventures, meet factions, etc.

 

payn

Legend
What if the PCs start at one edge of this great expanse, and have a reason to cross it to get to the other side in a caravan? Along the way, they come across locations and get themselves into mini-adventures in an episodic style.

This idea is taken from Ultraviolet Grasslands, which is set up as a "pointcrawl." The PCs have a caravan, and they can trade, do adventures, meet factions, etc.

Sounds a lot like Jade Regent the Paizo adventure path too.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
That does give me some kind of general idea:

A wizard in Impiltur is in correspondence with a scholar on Thesk, whose information provides some clues that point towards a stash of valuable scrolls in ruins in his area. The scholar says he's not going down into any ancient dungeons to look for scrolls, and if he wizard wants them translated he has to get them himself. The whole thing doesn't sound too difficult, so the wizard hires a group of upcoming treasure hunters to take a ship over to Telflamm, meet the scholar, and let him guide them towards the ruins the scrolls might be in. The players start getting off the boat and have to prepare their expedition. There's more than one ruin the scrolls could be in (but it's a specific one, not whichever the players check last), but they might have hints about the location of their target, and the scholar might now other people who could know more specifics. But once the players have found what they are looking for and delivered them to the scholar to translate, they can still check out the others for more valuables to grab or tomes they could sell to the scholar. Or go wherever else they please, making use of clues and hints they've come across during their first explorations. And they already know a scholar in the area knowledgeable about the local ruins they can ask for information.
Yeah. That works. And you already spotted the problem with having a fixed end point. Maybe instead of specific scrolls in a specific place it’s as many scrolls from as many places as they can manage? The NPC is trying to piece together the history of the place and they need as many primary sources as possible. Keeps the premise but removes the risk of the PCs just stopping once they find the plot token.

This video might be helpful. It points out some pitfalls and best practices.

 
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Yora

Legend
Well, that's the implication. The players would know about some places they can still go search right now, and they also know an NPC who would be interested in anything they find. That gives them something to work once the first task is completed.
But I think it's better to keep it implied and not have an NPC give the players a quest to do so. Eventually they are meant to take initiative on their own, and I think the earlier the better. Once you've led the horses to the water, they have to start drinking by themselves.

I had thought about the first starting adventure taking place relatively close to the starting point of the campaign. But having them travel a longer distance and encounter a bunch of things that they can note down as things to come back to later once they are done with their current thing also sounds really good.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Well, that's the implication. The players would know about some places they can still go search right now, and they also know an NPC who would be interested in anything they find. That gives them something to work once the first task is completed.

But I think it's better to keep it implied and not have an NPC give the players a quest to do so.
In my experience, unless you bash players over the head, and sometimes even when you do, they still won't "get it". But it's your game and you know your players better than I ever will.
Eventually they are meant to take initiative on their own, and I think the earlier the better.
Absolutely. That's why I mentioned you needing to be okay with the players simply skipping the citadels. Some open-world players will treat it like a hexcrawl no matter what you do. Some will treat it like a linear railroad no matter how many choices you give them. But the point is to give them agency and to let them use that agency no matter what. If they end up holed up in the first citadel and turn that into their homebase from which to take over the region...then you have to be willing to roll with it.
Once you've led the horses to the water, they have to start drinking by themselves.
Or they refuse to drink and die of dehydration. I've had players in my West Marches game simply park it in the starting town and never leave. It's a safe place with zero adventure. And the player just wanted to be a shopkeeper. So I retired that character and asked the player to make an adventurer, they declined, so that was that. Kept the character around as an NPC and they occasionally pop up, but they're not out adventuring.
I had thought about the first starting adventure taking place relatively close to the starting point of the campaign. But having them travel a longer distance and encounter a bunch of things that they can note down as things to come back to later once they are done with their current thing also sounds really good.
In my experience, they're more likely to get sidetracked on those things and ignore the "mission," especially if it's not time sensitive...and adding a time element to the "mission" is another can of worms. This is all part of the inherent tension of running an open world with a story or mission. That's literally the topic of the video I linked above. It might be really helpful.
 

niklinna

Legend
Or they refuse to drink and die of dehydration. I've had players in my West Marches game simply park it in the starting town and never leave. It's a safe place with zero adventure. And the player just wanted to be a shopkeeper. So I retired that character and asked the player to make an adventurer, they declined, so that was that. Kept the character around as an NPC and they occasionally pop up, but they're not out adventuring.
You know, I once played in a larp, and after enough weekends of being dragged hither and yon by plot events (which invariably involved what I termed the "Saturday night hack monster cheese fest" because somebody had it up their butt that Saturday nights were no fun without literally dragging the ENTIRE TOWN into a single giant fight against some invading force), I decided to make up a character named Milo, assign no skill points, and just sit in the tavern chatting with people. The larp fell apart before I could do it, though. :)
 

Yora

Legend
Or they refuse to drink and die of dehydration. I've had players in my West Marches game simply park it in the starting town and never leave. It's a safe place with zero adventure. And the player just wanted to be a shopkeeper. So I retired that character and asked the player to make an adventurer, they declined, so that was that. Kept the character around as an NPC and they occasionally pop up, but they're not out adventuring.
That is why I think a sandbox game needs continuous resource depletion even when there's no obstacles. If the players are undecided and treading water trying to find new opportunities, tell them another month has passed and their purses are now considerably lighter.
Characters having no in-game motivation to leave safety and face danger is a big problem I used to struggle with for many years. Inaction must have a price.
In my experience, they're more likely to get sidetracked on those things and ignore the "mission," especially if it's not time sensitive...and adding a time element to the "mission" is another can of worms. This is all part of the inherent tension of running an open world with a story or mission.
Yeah, that's the point. Key to running an open world campaign is to be disinterested in what the players do, what they accomplish, and what they finish. As I see it, the role of the GM as facilitator of the world and moderator of the group is to provide the players with help to get them going. Once they are going, they should be following their whims, not be expected to do whatever the GM things would make for a great story.
I think that's an error that a huge number of GMs are making. I so often see GMs complaining that their players are wandering off and spending ages on stuff that isn't supposed to be relevant to the campaign. But unless the players are endlessly debating in circles and never deciding on any course of action, that's exactly what a GM should want to see. Of all the terms for GMs, "Storyteller" is by far the worst one I've seen. That's a completely backwards approach to what the medium of RPGs is all about.
 

payn

Legend
That is why I think a sandbox game needs continuous resource depletion even when there's no obstacles. If the players are undecided and treading water trying to find new opportunities, tell them another month has passed and their purses are now considerably lighter.
Characters having no in-game motivation to leave safety and face danger is a big problem I used to struggle with for many years. Inaction must have a price.
I think having a campaign goal that requires action (and will decline with inaction) really helps. Something a little more sophisticated than a light purse. Though, I get you have been reluctant to look into political intrigue style games, so maybe the old ways are the best ways for you.
Yeah, that's the point. Key to running an open world campaign is to be disinterested in what the players do, what they accomplish, and what they finish. As I see it, the role of the GM as facilitator of the world and moderator of the group is to provide the players with help to get them going. Once they are going, they should be following their whims, not be expected to do whatever the GM things would make for a great story.
I think that's an error that a huge number of GMs are making. I so often see GMs complaining that their players are wandering off and spending ages on stuff that isn't supposed to be relevant to the campaign. But unless the players are endlessly debating in circles and never deciding on any course of action, that's exactly what a GM should want to see. Of all the terms for GMs, "Storyteller" is by far the worst one I've seen. That's a completely backwards approach to what the medium of RPGs is all about.
See above. Also, I think the world should absolutely care what the players do and accomplish. If they are gaining things, then someone is losing. Eventually, they will make enemies (and allies) which will support future encounters and adventures.
 

Yora

Legend
Something I think fantasy RPGs are routinely underestimating or completely ignoring is that any time the PCs kill anybody, there are some people somewhere out there who are really mad about it. Chances are usually high they will never learn who did it, and even if they do they might be in no position to do anythig about it.
But I feel any campaign is greatly elevated when it's something the players always have to remember. Even if they think they've always been completely justified and would always do it again. There should always be a chance that perhaps right now there is someone not far away, who the players have never seen or heard of, who is plotting revenge against them.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
But the big question is how to give the campaign a structure. Telling the players they have a million square miles to do what they want and there's a some 20 prepared dungeons in it won't work. I guess they could still be treasure hunters, looking for old Narfell dungeons whose locations are known to local villages, but that nobody has ever dared going far into. Even when your village does have a 3rd level barbarian and six 2nd level fighters, that doesn't mean they can simply stroll in and claim all the treasures for themselves. But would that be enough? I think people interested in a 5th edition campaign in an established setting might be hoping for a bit more than that.
Check out the chapters on running a campaign in Worlds Without Number (particularly the stuff starting on page 228). It gives decent advice on running an adventure-driven sandbox game. It’s all system-neutral, so it should be applicable to 5e.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Check out the chapters on running a campaign in Worlds Without Number (particularly the stuff starting on page 228). It gives decent advice on running an adventure-driven sandbox game. It’s all system-neutral, so it should be applicable to 5e.
WWN is an absolute beast of a book for open-world games. It's the single most useful book a DM could pick up to run these style games.
 

aramis erak

Legend
@Yora : I'm going to give you the best single piece of advice I've found for open-world, and it's not even mine:
Marc W. Miller said:
Map Only As Really Necessary.
It's enough to have a space with a handful of meaningful towns (where you've got factions), and general "This way to City X →" around it. Add on as it becomes important. And keep notes of what you've filled in. A sandbox need not be detailed to be useful.

If you're players set out for the edge in a given direction, add that section next.

Note that (Classic) Traveller's Alien Module 1: Aslan has a whole adventure built around trying to cross 100 parsecs of unmapped space, procedurally generated during travel....
 

Reynard

Legend
Something I think fantasy RPGs are routinely underestimating or completely ignoring is that any time the PCs kill anybody, there are some people somewhere out there who are really mad about it. Chances are usually high they will never learn who did it, and even if they do they might be in no position to do anythig about it.
But I feel any campaign is greatly elevated when it's something the players always have to remember. Even if they think they've always been completely justified and would always do it again. There should always be a chance that perhaps right now there is someone not far away, who the players have never seen or heard of, who is plotting revenge against them.
Like Bargle.

Good. Come get it you murdering bastard.
 

bloodtide

Adventurer
I got a specific question about a problem I am currently facing.
Well...you have a typical problem, one I know well. You want an amazing epic fun interesting exciting immersive detailed campaign. And many players want little more then endless mindless combat and some ego stroking.

So the real answer your looking for is you need to get a couple players, deprogram them from their common popular way of D&D thinking. Then bulid them back up as amazing D&D gamers. Once you do this a couple times, you will have a pool of good players to pick from.

The big thing to get players to understand is that they can do anything. They don't have to go on a mindless "quest". They don't have to pick from the DMs adventure seeds. They don't have to pick a simple direct all combat thing. Once you can get players over this big hump, they might do other things to make a great game.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Well...you have a typical problem, one I know well. You want an amazing epic fun interesting exciting immersive detailed campaign. And many players want little more then endless mindless combat and some ego stroking.

So the real answer your looking for is you need to get a couple players, deprogram them from their common popular way of D&D thinking. Then bulid them back up as amazing D&D gamers. Once you do this a couple times, you will have a pool of good players to pick from.

The big thing to get players to understand is that they can do anything. They don't have to go on a mindless "quest". They don't have to pick from the DMs adventure seeds. They don't have to pick a simple direct all combat thing. Once you can get players over this big hump, they might do other things to make a great game.

So how do you handle this as a GM? How do they “do anything”?
 

aramis erak

Legend
So how do you handle this as a GM? How do they “do anything”?
Step 1: Get them to write attainable goals as part of character gen.
Step 2: provide enough hooks for them to pursue same.
Step 3: have them write new goals as they accomplish existing ones.

I've used this with Arabian Sea Tales, D&D, Burning Wheel, Blood & Honor, Firefly, Mouse Guard, Burning Empires. For Burning Empires, Burning Wheel, and Mouse Guard, it's actually part of the rules, and the point where I finally grasped the process. (And I should thank my BW players, especially Justice, for buying in.)
 

Committed Hero

Explorer
Over on rpg.net someone recently noted that
Worldbuilding is like doing push-ups. It's a strength-building exercise. It's you as a GM internalizing the ideas of conflicts and resources and setting details so that you can come up with them as responses to questions. It's developing the brainmeats that allow you to roll with ideas that you hadn't thought of instead of vetoing them.
and I can't stop thinking about the implications.
 

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