The Sandbox Campaign (Part 3 of the “Low-Prep, Reusable Scenarios” Series)

The Sandbox Campaign

The Scenario in a Nutshell: Instead of using random location generators, you could grab an existing dungeon map, a published setting, or even a map or guide to a real historic setting, and then let the PCs loose in it to explore, fight, negotiate, or anything else they feel like doing there. A sandbox campaign is characterized by a lack of DM direction in terms of plot, and this means you don’t have to plan so much.

Put simply: The DM provides the setting; the PCs provide the direction.

An old map of my sandbox city, here called Brimstone (but in play called Cinder -- a last-minute change). The idea behind it was that the city was a bit like Cold War-divided Berlin, with each ward being controlled by a different powerful race -- but in this case, they were almost all evil and extraplanar. The PCs each started as slaves to various powers, and though they were initially put together for a short joint operation, what they conspired to do afterward was entirely their own sandbox play. Feel free to use and abuse this idea, changing whatever you like, if you wish.
Above is an old map of a sandbox city I created back during 3rd edition. Here it is called Brimstone, though just before play began I decided to call it Cinder. Located on a layer of an evil Outer Plane, Cinder was a bit like Cold War-divided Berlin, with each ward being controlled by a different powerful race — but in this case, those factions were almost all evil. The PCs each started as slaves to various powers. Although the party was initially assembled for a short joint operation (see Goblin Recon below), what they conspired to do afterward was entirely their own sandbox decision.

The classic example of this approach from famous adventure modules is Keep on the Borderlandswhich Wizards of the Coast re-released in updated format when playtesting the current edition. Another classic example is Castle Greyhawk, which had an update back in edition 3.5 and a fan conversion by Grodog that might be worth exploring. But you can do the same thing with a city setting like Waterdeep (or the City of Greyhawk proper), or with a wilderness setting. Another great resource is DM David’s staggering online collection of previously published battle maps and dungeon tiles, which not only can help a time-strapped DM with the Sandbox Campaign, but which can also help you with the Goblin Recon and Arena scenarios that follow in this series.

Personally, I like combining a sandbox dungeon with a sandbox city: the PCs are in a city, where recently someone found a long-lost, unexplored opening into an ancient underground complex. Perhaps the entrance’s location is …

  • being kept secret,
  • or it’s under guard,
  • or the savvy city treasurers are auctioning off the rights to explore it, with the five highest bidders each getting a week to get whatever they can out of it, in order from highest bid to lowest.

Naturally, the PCs will want to go, but the combination of dungeon, city, and possible rival adventurers means there’s a lot of wiggle room for the players to take the scenario in unpredictable directions. And that’s the charm of this approach.

Making It Work: As with the Nostalgia Campaign, this mode works best if you communicate: Let the players know you’re running this as a sandbox game. Otherwise, they’ll sit around waiting for the “plot” to happen. Even then, they may need a quick spur to get them teamed up and thinking about their options. A good sandbox opening has the following qualities:

  1. It’s short.
  2. It seeds possible adventures by letting players know about things they might do.
  3. It drops multiple seeds, so the players have choices.

You can shorten an opening (guideline #1) by using the Classical epic strategy of opening in the middle of the action (in media res, they called it). Open up immediately with the PCs in a dangerous situation, with arrows whizzing by their heads, or in a moment of decision, with someone addressing them. Here’s a brief list of openings you might use:

  1. Open with an alarm. The party is in the middle of sneaking into (or out of) a well-guarded complex when alarms are sounded. Reasons for being there might include 1) Theft; 2) Reconnaissance; 3) Recovery [good theft]; 4) Rescue; 5) Escape; 6) Tracking something dangerous and the trail leads into the complex. For the complex, reuse a map from one of the above sources or find a floorplan for a manor. For stat blocks, use the Guard or the Thug from the Monster Manual or its free equivalent. You don’t need to kill yourself with a lot of work setting this up; the only real goal of the scene is to put the PCs together. This opening might present any of the following seeds:
    1. The party’s intrusion creates an enemy in whoever owns the property. The enemy need not be epic. It could be a really annoying government bureaucrat who then pesters the party with nuisance legal actions whenever it’s in town.
    2. The scene may include a revelation that the party has been set-up or betrayed by an informant, employer, client, or NPC team member. It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering revelation. They might simply learn that they weren’t given all of the information they should have had.
    3. The intrusion may result in a PC stumbling across a clue or object that opens up an entire other realm of possibilities. Maybe it’s a bit of treasure that could only have come from a long-lost tomb–meaning that the owner of the item may know the tomb’s location.
    4. If the party is captured, they may learn interesting things from other prisoners — or even from their captor.
  2. Open with an auction. The adventurers are milling about in a marketplace or fair when an official announces that he’s opening bidding for a license to explore a recently uncovered ruin (a sandbox dungeon) in the area — and only teams of five or more people will be permitted to bid.
    1. The auction obviously leads to a dungeon exploration.
    2. But it might also lead to rivalry with another bidding adventurer group. (Use the NPC stat blocks to fill out the ranks of the rivals.)
    3. It also might lead to intrigue as other parties who didn’t win the bid attempt to replace the PC party. (Or else, if the PCs were out-bid, they might angle to displace another group.)
    4. Finally, a whole community now knows the PCs might be carting treasure from the dungeon and might plan cons or thefts accordingly.
  3. Open with an assassination. The PCs are present for a negotiation between rival organizations when someone attempts to assassinate an official.
    1. They can pursue the assassin or the organization it represents. (Or they might decide they don’t care about that. It’s a sandbox game. Don’t spend hours prepping a story based on an assumption they’ll go after this seed.)
    2. They can get involved in intrigues between the two meeting factions (neither of which might be behind the attempted killing). Don’t worry about mapping out a complex web of intrigue. Start simple, with each organization having simple goals. See what the PCs do, and then react to it. One game we ran involved rival merchant houses in the weeks before a major city wine competition — a contest for which most participants were willing to fight dirty, just out of pride. The PCs beefed up security for their house, so I had thieves take more interest in what they must be guarding…
    3. They can discover an unrelated (or tangentially related) clue or object at the scene, amid the chaos — perhaps as an unintended target falls dead.
    4. They can meet a magistrate, intelligence advisor, or similar investigator who suspects them of collusion with the assassin and becomes a long-term foil or minor villain.
  4. Open with an ambush. The PCs are transporting or escorting someone or something that is targeted for theft or murder.
    1. The ambushers might lead one direction.
    2. The target of the ambush might be hiding something, offering the PCs a clue about a lost treasure in order to divert their attention from what is really going on.
    3. A third party might intervene and then ask the PCs to return the favor somehow.
    4. The object (or another object at the scene) has markings or clues leading in a new direction.
  5. Open with a rescue. The party has ventured into an already-well-explored dungeon to rescue the foolhardy son of a local noble and, in doing so, stumbles on clues of a whole area that has never been explored — along with signs that someone else has been concealing it.
    1. The rescued party may resent it — or simply keep trying to get into trouble.
    2. The family might be impressed with the group’s abilities and offer it other opportunities.
    3. The party might have run-ins with the people hiding the secret complex.
    4. The party might explore the secret complex.
  6. Open with an interrupted lecture. A historian of the region is attacked and the PCs are there to witness (or stop) it. The opportunities emerge as the PCs try to figure out what the scholar knows that made her a target. She might know quite a lot, with clues leading in multiple directions.

After the party is working together and hooked with some options, your role is to be as responsive and open to new directions as you can be–and that means resisting the urge to railroad the party. Instead, keep an eye out for whatever they might be planning, so you can get out ahead of it a little.

For this sort of operation, you will need a published or open-source setting or dungeon, or else you will need to make one yourself while resisting the urge to start plotting. (This site has a bunch of existing maps licensed for free use by Creative Commons. You can also use Google Images to find layouts, floor plans, and maps of historic cities or sites.)

I also highly recommend the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which has random tables for pretty much everything you will ever need. The whole book is a sandbox tool kit. In fact, if you want to run a sandbox game but have to save money, I’d recommend buying the Dungeon Master’s Guide ahead of the Monster Manual, since the DMG’s tables are infinitely useful but you can obtain stat blocks for the most commonly encountered creatures for free here. They won’t have pictures and some of the more popular critters aren’t in that free version, but it’s enough to play with.

A final recommendation: Resist the urge to start creating brand new NPCs with detailed stat blocks.

It’s tempting, I know. You see them all the time in published adventures, after all. But you very rarely need them. Instead, just re-use an existing stat block, even if the picture doesn’t match your NPC at all. If the evil mastermind behind the Thieves’ Guild is supposed to have mental powers, use the Mind Flayer stat block, describe her as human, and ignore the tentacles. Her sneaky agent who can mimic anything she hears? Use the kenku stat block. In particular, liberally re-use the NPC stat blocks in the back of the Monster Manual (also in the back of the Basic Rules version I linked to earlier). The players never see the stat blocks. As long as the creatures are of the right Challenge Rating for the party and the abilities seem appropriate for how you’re describing them, your players will never know if you’re using the minotaur stat block for your hulking gladiator. If you want to hide your work better, describe its weapon as a flail or say it’s wearing platemail — you don’t even have to change the stats, just the description. “Reskinning” of monsters is an easy skill to pick up quickly. Change up the descriptions on the fly, and be lazy when it comes to stat blocks. You shouldn’t have to create any.

Variations on the Theme: With the right kind of group, you might try having the players create the sandbox city. Maybe each one represents a faction, sewing in potential plot points, setting up NPCs, mapping out a ward or quarter. You’re the only one who knows all of it, and you can warn them ahead of time you plan to roll randomly to see whether the idea they remember setting up is still relevant. Perhaps the tomb entrance they put on the map is under guard when their character approaches it. The benefit of such an approach is that each player ends up invested in the environment and knowledgeable about at least part of the community. That sort of investment and background can help set up a lot of the plot threads that the players will then begin to weave into a story once play begins.

Quick Links to Other Parts of this Series

1. The Nostalgia Crawl
2. The Tarterian Highway
3. The Sandbox Campaign
4. Glen Cook’s Goblin Recon
5. The Arena
6. Blending Scenarios & Reading Recommendations

♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content. 

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