The Architect DM series has covered a lot of different aspects or tabletop RPGs ranging from details of a single encounter to the much larger task of planning out an entire game world. I’ve found myself tending to progress through that range from post to post instead of staying to one end or another for more than one or two posts in a row. With this in mind, today’s post comes from some of my more recent thoughts on campaign planning and how to build towards running a mostly sandbox style game.
It’s Tough to Start in the Sandbox
One of the biggest reasons there is so much material written about sandbox games, and why people look so hard for it, is because running a sandbox game is not easy. Many people may offer you advice and provide tricks to help make it easier, but in my opinion attempting to run a sandbox game takes a difficult task (running a tabletop RPG) and makes it much more of a challenge. With this in mind I’ve been brainstorming what kind of advice I would give to people who know the difficulties of running such a game but still want to try it out.
Now that I’ve been running an ongoing campaign for the last three years, I’ve started to realize that my options for running a sandbox game in my game world have expanded. My number one advice for running a sandbox game would be to not worry about it and start running your game as soon as possible. You can plan as much as you want, but the best way to help the players feel more comfortable exploring the sandbox that is your game is to start introducing the players to locations and NPCs. It’s perfectly fine for you to start out with one or more railroading plots/adventures because the more plot seeds you plant and the more familiar the players become with your game world the easier it’s going to be to run an effective sandbox game.
The Players are a Key Element
Something that I haven’t heard discussed very often is how important it can be to a sandbox campaign that the players have a fairly intimate involvement with it. Beyond the players simply buying in to the premise of your campaign, I feel that the players experiencing the game through play is the absolute best way to prepare them for a sandbox game. A great example of this is what happens when a DM runs a campaign and then returns to the same campaign elements in a different game, the players are the key to connections between games like this and because of that they can be one of the best motivators in your game.
For instance, my game world features a collection of nations which over the last few years have become familiar to the players and one or two of the nations have clearly become favorites for many of the players. In the future, or in a subsequent campaign, if I decide to include those nations and introduce a series of plot elements around them the players will already be familiar with the major elements and can make decisions to steer the campaign based on that familiarity.
Should a Good Sandbox Campaign start at the Train Station?
As you can probably guess by now, my answer to the above question is “absolutely yes”. In much the same way as a typical D&D campaign will start in the heroic tier and progress up through the paragon and epic levels of play, I feel that the best way to run a sandbox game is to start it out without worrying about all of the details and allow it to grow. With this advice in mind, I imagine that a lot of the other advice you can find for running sandbox campaigns may be easier to implement after you’ve run a handful of adventures in your game.
I will probably be adding more to this topic in the next few weeks, since I haven’t really touched on it since back in December in my post titled World Building Basics. That post was also where I started discussing mixing and alternating between railroading and sandbox play in your adventures/campaigns. I also have to mention my slightly more detailed post about World Building by Process, which went through a lot of the processes I’ve used in designing my current campaign world.
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.