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  • Dastardly DM: How to DM a Sandbox Campaign

    A recent conversation over on Candlekeep prompted me to post some suggestions for running a sandbox game. Definitionally speaking, this is a campaign in which the players—not the DM—determine the course of the campaign, through their decisions. The DM’s role becomes mostly reactionary or anticipatory: adjusting the game to suit player’s needs and sometimes unexpected decisions.

    Some of us already do this to some extent in our games—basing things on PC decisions, motivations, and goals. In a full-on sandbox game, you take things to the next level: let the PCs rule, and just run with it.

    Here are some thoughts to keep in mind:

    1) Keep open a clear line of communication with your players. If they're going to direct the course of the campaign, you need to know where they're interested in going so you can react and build things ahead of time. Maybe you're really good at improvisational DMing (some of us are), but it never hurts to be able to know about character decisions ahead of time and make plans.

    2) Though the PCs are going to guide the game, you need to have a list of plot elements to throw in if your characters don't offer clear guidance. The last thing you want is the heroes wandering aimlessly and thinking "man, this is boring!" You want an exciting story that they mainly direct, but that you step in sometimes to keep things on track.

    Keep this list adaptable. Write down connections that MIGHT be between enemies, but might not, depending on the needs of the story at the time. Improvise as you go along, because the flexible nature of this campaign only allows so much before planning.

    You should plan a series of major plot events that will take place "in some form" as you go. For instance, there is a conspiracy of people who are after one or more PCs for some reason as yet unidentified--they launch a major attack on the PCs every five levels or so, and each foiled attack gets the PCs closer to puzzling out who's after them. At the same time, a particular priesthood is going through a major schism that could be fixed or worsened by the PCs, and several things happen at set points in the game. Etc.

    Plan on a major plot point every 2-3 levels, is what I would suggest.

    3) NPCs have their own lives and pursuits. If the PCs are going to be going about their business, you have to have NPCs who are doing the same thing. This is really the only way to give the PCs the choice of whether to support a given NPC or work against him--this is what's happening, take it or leave it, do what you want with it.

    Some of the NPC action takes place off-stage, and the PCs can get involved if they want. For instance, to expand on the example in #2, a priestess might be speaking out against the patriarchical establishment in the church of Lathander; left unchecked, she might incite a movement in the church, or she might be captured/imprisoned/executed as a heretic. The PCs can support her or move against her--they shouldn't feel obligated to follow either course.

    4) This sort of game lends itself very well to tying plot elements, villains, treasures, and destinations into the character's backgrounds, motivations, and goals. Your players need to do more work than usual to pull off a game like this: have them craft detailed backstories along with friends, family, enemies, and nemeses for their characters, then use these with abandon in the game. Make some of them what the players might expect, and invert their expectations sometimes. Also, tie some of the characters together in ways they didn't necessarily see coming.

    5) D&D is a very swingy game, level-wise, and different places in the campaign are bound to have enemies of different levels. In a normal campaign, you feel justified in railroading the 1st level PCs toward the dungeon with the kobolds, rather than the haunted castle with the epic level lich. But in a sandbox, your tendency is going to be to let the heroes go where they want, and let them suffer the consequences. You need to avoid this, lest you freak your players out and make them too hesitant/timid to do anything, for fear of getting ruthlessly annihilated. You want your PCs to be brave and bold and take chances.

    Have a definite "upper-limit" to where your game is going to go. Make a commitment to yourself and your players that you're going to guide the PCs on an adventure, not send them into the jaws of death. Do not send low-level PCs against epic level threats--don't involve those threats at all in the PCs' direct business.

    This is not to say, however, that you should not feel free to send them up against overwhelming threats from time to time, to put the fear of the DM in them. This is just a staple of good DMing, albeit sometimes tricky to pull off: heroes should run away sometimes, and PCs who never have to run away may conceive the irrational belief that they can always handle what the DM throws at them. This attitude must be stamped out.

    All I'm warning against is sending the PCs *consistently* against threats that are too powerful for them, and/or making it impossible to retreat. Big bads should just let them go sometimes, particularly seeing as they're low-level and weak and not terribly useful for the bad guy. YET.

    6) Have an endgame--or rather, several endgames. You don't necessarily need to know how the campaign's going to end, but you should know roughly where it's going before you even start it. Knowing who the ultimate villains are will help you make the story coherent and keep the characters engaged in unraveling the mystery.

    Those are just some of my ideas, which come from having run two long-running FR sandbox campaigns, and played in another one (which tragically fizzled from too much story damage thanks to a violation of #5). I am currently also in a sandbox-style game set in the paragon tier, hopping the planes, courtesy of your very own Farcaster. (So seriously, blame him.)

    Good Gaming!

    About the Author: Erik Scott de Bie is a professional author, game designer, and DM. His fourth novel (Shadowbane, a Forgotten Realms novel) is due out Fall 2011. Dastardly DM is his occasionally updated article series on the ins-and-outs of DMing, from someone who has been doing it ENTIRELY too long.
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. HowwwwL's Avatar
      HowwwwL -
      This is a great article.

      I've DM'd my campaigns in a sandbox style for almost 20 years, and have played RPGs since 1979. I find with this style, the DM is just as entertained, or even more so than running modules or extremely structured campaigns where the DM is leading the players by the nose. It keeps you thinking and on your toes. You will find with this style that the players do most of your work for you...

      There are some things that help me be more prepared for the unexpected decisions made by the Players:

      1. Have a good selection of the various monsters/NPCs stat blocks and treasure ready (by level) that you intend to use in the area (does not take very long)
      2. If the Players want to go to a different area of the world suddenly and want to travel to it right away, delay them during the session with a few combats, or side plot, to buy you time to plan, research or build stat blocks for the things found in the new area. This may involve roleplaying the negotiation of securing a boat, or something which might create a small subplot. Like, "I can take you, but you need to do something for me..." Money doesn't buy everything... Move things along at a nice steady pace. Some of the best sessions are unexpected improvised ones, and they tend to really promote fun roleplaying.
      3. Before the campaign begins I ensure the players have developed or I have developed for them a rich character background, and I tie a plotline into the background. Sometimes I tie multiple players' backgrounds together. In doing so you make the player feel like they are a part of the world, and over time, just like a novel, I will pull pieces of that plotline into the story depending where they are. The pre-planning helps a LOT and makes for some very interesting sessions. It helps pull everything together, and makes it feels like they are writing their OWN story.
      4. The Players can be very unpredictable. I usually have a generic town, dungeon, or wilderness (depending on where they are) sub plot in my back pocket to use if they are headed that way, and I will fill the dungeon on the fly with the NPC/monsters I chose (previously in point 1).
      5. I always document what happened in previous sessions to ensure I keep the consistency and flow. If you do not do this it is easy to mess up when the Players refer to previous sessions. I built a program which can generate a custom calendar with weather, etc., to assist with this. I also can ensure I do not miss birthdays, or other events that might happen simultaneously with PC travel. It is also easy to make a calendar shell in Excel or OpenOffice if you don't have a fancy one like me. It only takes a few minutes to format it.
      6. Borrow from other modules/Adventure Paths. It is okay to integrate parts of a module into your sandbox. I might like a battle area, map or cool idea, and will pull it in. Don't feel restricted.

      I just started a sandbox campaign recently and have posted the session history (and will continue to do so) on the Obsidian Portal.

      Here is the link for those interested.
    1. J-Hazen's Avatar
      J-Hazen -
      Great article and Im going to borrow it to offer another pov for the on going GM roundtable discussion series I am co hosting.

      Personally I have been running an open style game like this since March of 92, that meets every week. We have moved through generations of characters in the game world and quite a long time has passed with a large number of players having come and gone.

      A couple tips from my experience:

      1) Keep the world alive around the PCs, drop in bits of events that are and have happened that the PCs have nothing to do with.

      2) keep the politics of the world alive. Kingdoms change from time to time, in particular if the PCs have been away for a long while, things may be different when they return to a particular part of the world.

      3) Keep the temporal aspect of the world running. Few games have built in mechanics for keeping the passage of time relevant to the characters (older Pendragon was one of the few I can think of off the top of my head). But PCs should be aware of time and the years passing. This will aid in point #2 above. If PCs are from a particular kingdom/area and take a travel across the world and are gone for ten years, things will likely have changed by the time they return. This also gets PCs out of the module type of thinking, when they have been gone adventuring for a year or two and return home to their favorite inn to find the innkeep has passed and his eldest son is now running things, etc. Oddly enough sometime death keeps the game alive.

      4) The endgame is the one thing I think I do differently than the above article. I have no real endgame, generations of character play out and when they do we move on to the next, but there is little to no set plan for that. One particularly long stretch was the life of an adventuring company that spanned the carreers of multiple characters. It was interesting because when the company finally retired, none were of the original lineup.

      5) On the above, plan for PCs to change, not just through death but through retirement, etc. This can lead to having to deal with introducing new characters to existing groups but it will allow for a living game. The aforementioned group would regularly have get togethers on holidays in the game world where retired characters were brought back to interact with those on the active roster. Also adventurers that retire and pass their legacy down to their children (who often against their parants chagrin) take up the adventuring mantel, is another element that adds to the living feel of the world.

      6) Another thing to try, from time to time, bring back retired characters to active rosters once the balance allows, or start a group off at a higher level with the background of retired adventurers coming back. Again this adds to the sense of the world being alive around the pcs.
    1. BeZurKur's Avatar
      BeZurKur -
      "But in a sandbox, your tendency is going to be to let the heroes go where they want, and let them suffer the consequences. You need to avoid..."

      I'm working on a sandbox campaign now. It is currently in the planning process, and it is the first time I am planning one. My style is usually very improvisational. The above quote grabbed my attention because it was exactly what I intended on doing.

      However, I am considering of taking an old school convention: the deeper you go into a dungeon, the more dangerous it is. Because my sandbox operates on a kingdom map, it would translate, the further you travel from civilization the more dangerous (higher level encounters) it becomes.

      There are variables that affect those values. Roads are a negative modifier to the number. Drastic changes in terrain are indications that encounter levels will change as well: hill and forests +1-2, swamps +3-4. Plains adjust closer to base level. There are exceptions to these rules, but those would have rumors strongly associated with them. The players would be aware of the logic (although not the exact modifiers) so they have some control of what they'd encounter. Sites begin at the base level of the area, but as they progress deeper into the dungeons, the levels adjust accordingly.

      My theory is that this would avoid players unknowingly going in too far over their head without the promise that they never will. This is just a theory, but we all know what happens when theories hit actual play.
    1. Farcaster's Avatar
      Farcaster -
      Quote Originally Posted by BeZurKur View Post
      Roads are a negative modifier to the number. Drastic changes in terrain are indications that encounter levels will change as well: hill and forests +1-2, swamps +3-4. Plains adjust closer to base level. There are exceptions to these rules, but those would have rumors strongly associated with them. The players would be aware of the logic (although not the exact modifiers) so they have some control of what they'd encounter. Sites begin at the base level of the area, but as they progress deeper into the dungeons, the levels adjust accordingly.

      My theory is that this would avoid players unknowingly going in too far over their head without the promise that they never will. This is just a theory, but we all know what happens when theories hit actual play.
      I think you can accomplish what you are setting out to do without creating this artificial meta layer for "randomized" encounters -- something I have grown to abhor. Don't be afraid to just decide what lurks out in the wilderness and what the dangers are that the party will face if they go against their better judgment. As far as making them aware of the level of danger, I'd plant the seeds through rumor and discovery. People in the nearby town are going to talk about how dangerous the swamp is, for instance. And, if the group still continues recklessly down the same path, have them find signs of the extremely dangerous predators that lurk in the area. And if they still persist, then they reap what they have sown.
    1. BeZurKur's Avatar
      BeZurKur -
      Farcaster, I am interested in why you abhor meta aspect of the rule. I am not arguing: just curious. Allow me to offer my explanation (not to argue -- just to elucidate.)

      The article mentioned a campaign ending danger: the referee did not protect them from encounters too far over their ability. The early editions of D&D, as well as 3rd to 4th, already have a meta-mechanic built in to help the DM adjudicate what to throw at the players. For the early game, the wandering encounter chart with the level of the dungeon helps determine the type of monsters. Third and Fourth have encounter levels.

      As an old school player, I'm not a fan of holding back against the players. Based off your post, I don't think you are either. However, the meta-mechanic that controls the level of encounter does not protect them from going tougher; it just leaves the choice up to them. Rumors are still valuable, but even without them, there is a game logic that operates on a mechanical level and transfers over to something the players can understand. That is: hills, forests, and especially swamps are more dangerous than the surrounding area. It also gets more dangerous as you travel away from civilization.

      What I'm wondering is if something like that could have prevented the campaign mentioned in the article from ending.
    1. Farcaster's Avatar
      Farcaster -

      My distaste for random encounters isn't about how tough they are but rather about their purpose. I want my encounters to enrich the game in some way and be meaningful. For that reason, I wouldn't have a purely "random" encounter as the characters made their way from one town to another. If I want something to happen while they traveled, I decide what that is and add it to the game. I don't rely on chance to fill gaps in my game.

      Now, if the party is going to explore an area you weren't prepared for, and you want to use a random generator to give you some ideas about what they stumble across, I suppose I'm okay with that.

      What I think Erik is describing though is that the players wandered. into an extremely dangerous area, and the DM didn't hold back. To be honest, I might not either unless the characters had an amazing strategy. I would, however, make sure that the players understood how far out of their league they were before they went wandering into the wrong place.
    1. BeZurKur's Avatar
      BeZurKur -
      Got it.

      The wandering encounter chart is definitely an old school convention. When I run D&D, it is usually the early editions, so I use them. However, I understand your criticism.