An Introduction to the Sandbox
The sandbox style of gaming gives your players greater agency over the world. Sometimes players feel like they are riding a train through their campaign with the DM as conductor. They feel powerless, which is sad, because we play RPG’s to feel powerful and to escape a world we feel unable to control.
I will be the first to admit that the sandbox style of gaming is more work upfront for the DM. You need have every angle covered in case your players go there, unlike a normal rail-style campaign were you know the players are going to the vampire’s castle and that is where you can focus your scheming for the week.
Here are a few tips for creating your first sandbox:
Don’t Scale Encounters
The idea of the sandbox is that players may get in over their head and be forced to run for their lives. I’m not saying but a dragon in the area next to the starting town, but don’t be afraid to place higher CR encounters in your area than you normally would. There should be a real sense of danger in the sandbox, the players should know that they run a real risk of death if they’re not careful.
Don’t Scale Treasure
This goes along with the last rule, if your players decide to take a big risk and attempt a challenge that is over their head, they should be rewarded with great treasure. Also, the sandbox is about going out into the wilds and the ruins and the dungeons, there won’t (shouldn’t be a lot of places to spend coin, so increase the items and decrease the coinage when rolling up your treasure)
Don’t Plan Every Hex
There shouldn’t be a monster every step of the way in your sand box, reason being, that isn’t a believable ecosystem and it will make travel sluggish and tedious. Try making encounter tables or use the existing ones in the DMG.
Not Too Small, Not Too Big
If you make your sandbox too small your players will explore it in no time, but if you make it too big you as the DM will have to plan for a million years to plot it all out.
I think every DM should try to run at least one sandbox. It stills allows you to flex your creative muscle but it also has a different feel to a standard game. In a rail style game the DM is seen as an adversary that the players must work against, while in the sandbox the DM takes on a new role entirely. The players choose their own path and this allows the DM to shrug some of the responsibility and just enjoy the ride. I find myself cheering for the players as they fight and I don’t feel like I have to win a battle. I have no investment in the npcs and monsters that I might feel in a rail-style campaign (I have read article by other DM that feel the same way, so I know I’m not alone on this).
Below are two links to other sand boxes, the first being the blog, ars ludi, where the author walks you through his sandbox campaign. The second link leads to Gabe’s (from Penny Arcade) sandbox game inspired by the West March campaign.