Recently, I posted a question on X/Twitter asking why sandbox worlds were so popular in the video game space, and quite frequently resisted or derided in the TTRPG space.
A lot of the comments I received were saying that it was too hard to create a sandbox campaign, it would take years, it would require a GM to dedicate months and years to creating the world, and so on.
But this is all incorrect.
(And, if you read on, you will find you can put in as much or as little effort as you want by using self-created or already published material).
The thing to remember about sandbox games is you don’t need a complete world to start.
You can, as in a pre-published world, like Forgotten Realms, but if you are making up your own world (which I highly recommend), you only need a few things to get you started.
It can take months and years to get a complete world, but you are playing during that time, adding bits to the world as you need it, and letting the PCs actions drive not only the stories that are derived by playing, but also help you build the world.
But first, let us define what a sandbox campaign is (as there were a lot of people in the comments who didn’t seem to know, or misunderstood, what it really is).
What is a Sandbox Campaign?
A sandbox Dungeons & Dragons campaign is a style of gameplay where the Gamesmaster (GM) provides players with a detailed and dynamic game world, but rather than following a strict linear plot, the players are encouraged to make choices and pursue their own goals within this open-ended environment.
While this is a pretty apt description, there are certain aspects within a sandbox campaign, which help make it work, that some in the comments of the original tweet, didn’t quite understand.
I will define these below, and then show you how they all fit together, and how you can easily create a sandbox campaign within an hour or so.
Once you start running a sandbox (correctly), you will also realise it’s a lot easier and quicker (and more fun!) than prepping for a linear campaign.
Plot Hooks: are not story plots. These are just very short hooks to get your players interested in a part of the world you have developed. They aren’t pre-determined linear threads, and they can be as simple as a farmer’s daughter went missing, some cattle have been stolen, a group of loggers haven’t been heard from in a week, moaning is heard from the old ruin on top of the hill, and so on.
Random Encounters: are not always about monsters attacking the PCs. They can be, but they can just as easily be about NPCs, weather, terrain conditions, events, and much more. And they can, if you want them to, tie into current events – they don’t need to be isolated encounters.
Advantages of a Sandbox
Before I jump into the how-tos, I want to list some advantages to a sandbox campaign, which might help you understand it a little better, and get you interested in running one (as they are a heap of fun).
The game world is expansive and open, often with multiple regions, cities, and dungeons for players to explore. These locations are typically richly detailed, providing a sense of immersion and realism.
Again, remember that these expansive worlds don’t need to be built overnight – they can start small and grow over time.
Players have a significant say in what their characters do and how they interact with the world. They can choose their own quests, make alliances, explore dungeons, and affect the course of the narrative through their decisions.
Unlike linear campaigns that follow a predetermined plot, sandbox campaigns have no fixed path. The DM adapts to the players’ choices and actions, allowing the story to emerge organically based on those choices.
Freedom to Explore
Players are free to go wherever they wish within the game world, within the limits set by the DM. This can lead to unexpected encounters and discoveries, making the world feel alive and full of surprises.
In a sandbox campaign, the characters often have personal goals and motivations that they pursue. These goals might be related to character backgrounds, class features, or personal quests, and they can serve as driving forces for the story.
Dynamic NPCs and Factions
The game world is populated with diverse non-player characters (NPCs) and factions, each with their own agendas, beliefs, and relationships. Players can choose to interact with these entities, forming alliances, rivalries, or even toppling power structures.
The narrative in a sandbox campaign emerges from the interactions and decisions of the players and the consequences of those actions. This can lead to complex and unpredictable storylines.
Flexibility for the DM
Running a sandbox campaign does require the DM to be adaptable and responsive to player choices. They must also be skilled at improvisation and world-building, but these are all core GM skills, which can be learned and mastered.
Sandbox campaigns often encourage players to collaborate and communicate with each other to set common goals and make group decisions about where to go and what to do next.
Exploration and Discovery
Exploration and discovery are key elements of a sandbox campaign. Players are rewarded for delving into the unknown and uncovering hidden secrets, which can include powerful artefacts, legendary creatures, or forgotten lore.
Overall, a sandbox D&D campaign offers a more player-driven and open-ended style of gameplay, where the emphasis is on exploration, choice, and the collaborative creation of a unique and evolving story within a richly detailed game world.
How to Sandbox
Now we get to the meaty part: the how-to.
There are two ways of approaching a sandbox: using a pre-made campaign world (like Forgotten Realms or Eberron), or creating your own world.
If you decide to use a pre-published world, then get reading. Read as much as you can about the setting so you understand it.
Understanding the world you are playing in is key to running a sandbox. The more you know about the world you are playing in, the easier it will be to improvise, and run the game.
If you are creating your own world, then you need to create it, but not all at once.
First, have an idea or concept of what the world is basically like: is it more like Forgotten Realms or more like Eberron, or something else entirely? You can write down what the world is like in a simple paragraph, or even just use dot points.
Just make sure however you write it, it is easy to communicate to your players.
Then, all you need to start a D&D sandbox campaign are the following:
- A town or village where the PCs can meet and recuperate
- One small dungeon nearby, preferably within a day’s journey of the town (and by “dungeon”, it could be an actual dungeon, or it could be a ruin, a cave system, an abandoned tower, and so on)
- A list of hooks and rumours
And that’s it!
It doesn’t take months of prep, or years of world building. Just an hour or two fleshing out the above.
Let’s go through each of these one by one, and add in some quick and easy details.
A Town or Village
You can easily make up a small town from scratch: draw a few dozen buildings around a central main road or river. Hell, you don’t even need a map! Just list out some typical town locations that the PCs may want to visit: inn, tavern, blacksmith, apothecary, wizard’s tower, and so on.
If you really don’t want to create one, simply steal from the hundred and thousands that are in modules, sourcebooks, or on the internet (many for free).
I provide a few towns you can use in Issues of my free d12 Monthly zine. Have a look at Issue 0, Issue 1, and Issue 2 for information on a town called Dolfar, Issue 3 on a town called Woodhove, and Issue 4 & Issue 5 on a town called Riverbend.
To this you can add some NPCs that run the various establishments that the PCs may visit. Again, you don’t need to create them, but it can be fun to do so.
I outline a very quick method for creating NPCs in Issue 0 of d12 Monthly called the MAP Method.
You simply create three parts to an NPC: Motivation, Appearance, and Personality.
You can use single words or short sentences. Do this a dozen times (in about 10 minutes) and you will have more than enough NPCs to start.
For example, the PC fighter visits the blacksmith (Dorik, blacksmith; to get out of this town, bald with a goatee and stained apron, curt but all smiles for paying customers).
Or you can use one of the many NPC generators online.
Once the PCs interact with them, you can add more details about the NPC, building a profile as you go.
Create a quick 5-room dungeon, or something a bit bigger, and you are set for those early dungeon crawls. You can even expand it later if you want to have something larger.
Again, if you don’t want to create one, there are literally thousands you could use (for free) from modules, adventures, or on the internet.
You can use these “as is”, or just use the map and fill it with something else.
I even offer up a 5-room dungeon creator in Issue 1 of my d12 Monthly zine.
Of course, you don’t even need the “dungeon” to be a dungeon. You can make it whatever you want: a ruin, a tower, an ancient graveyard, and so on.
Rumours and Hooks
As mentioned above, these are not story arcs or anything pre-defined. They are simply created by the GM to interest players. And you can generate these yourselves or, again, go online to find some generators.
What’s the difference between rumours and hooks?
Rumours don’t need to be true. They can be false leads to keep players on their toes or to surprise them with something they didn’t expect, or prepare for.
An example of this would be the ancient graveyard. The rumour is that locals have heard moaning coming from the graveyard. The PCs would assume undead, but why not make it goblins, or wolves, or anything else but undead.
Hooks are more concrete, and are usually something related to some threads the GM has in mind. The barkeep has an issue with some bandits intercepting his shipments, the local cleric has a necromancer to deal with, a new dungeon was just discovered and is yet to be explored, and so on.
I would look at creating half-a-dozen of each, and you are good to go. You can always add more later, especially as the PCs explore further afield.
Also, think about tying some of the hooks to the PCs, if you can.
This could be a simple as have the party cleric tied to the local temple (maybe they were sent there to help the local priest). This instantly gives the player of the cleric some motivation.
Tools That Can Help
To run a sandbox campaign comfortably you do need to have some tools at your disposal.
The more the better, but you can just start with a few. And again, you can create your own (see Issue 27 of my d12 Monthly zine, as I devote the whole issue to random encounters), or just use the hundreds of tables in modules, DMGs, sourcebooks, or online.
Use these for random encounters when the PCs travel to create engaging encounters, remembering that not all random encounters need to be with monsters and end with combat.
This is also a great way to come up with side quests for the PCs.
Did the PCs just have an encounter with some travelling merchants? Maybe the merchants encountered some orcs along the road some way back, or they spotted a giant lumbering in the distance, or perhaps one of the merchants sees an opportunity, and asks the PCs to help in a “private matter.”
List of NPCs
Having a list of NPCs (see above on how to do this quickly) to use at the table is a good idea.
A list of names for NPCs also comes in handy. Create (or generate online) a list of 10 male and 10 female names for each common race in your campaign world (or, at least the area the PCs are in) in case the PCs talk to someone you haven’t created.
Encounter Reaction Rolls
This is super important as it will help you understand how the NPCs and monsters react to the PCs. Instead of deciding this yourself, let the dice decide for you, and then roll with the outcome (pun intended).
Encounter reaction rolls are made on a table which indicates whether an NPC or monster is friendly, neutral, or aggressive towards the PCs. You can then interpret the result depending on the situation.
Below are some general tips to help boost your GM skills in this format of the game.
Ask Your Players
Ask players what they are going to do at the end of each session. If they are going to visit the Raven clan of barbarians, then you can spend some time fleshing them out more between sessions.
This way you won’t have to make up everything on the fly.
Have Tables at the Ready
Have some random tables with you in case you need some inspiration. You can always roll when the PCs are talking among themselves or planning.
And these are not just encounter tables, but tables for NPCs, interesting locations, names, businesses – you name it.
There are plenty of books full of random tables, and even more resources (usually for free) online.
Running a sandbox campaign is just about learning a new skill. It’s no harder than running a regular linear campaign – it just takes a different skill set.
The more you do it, the better you will be. To get better at improv, do it. To get better at creating tables, make some tables. There is plenty of guidance on the interwebs if you get stuck.
If you solo roleplay, you can use this to flesh out your world in a fun and unique way. I do this and it works a treat!
I have gotten to the stage now I don’t even need to prep any more – I just know my world well enough that I can wing it with ease.
And don’t let people tell you you cannot do it too. Just try it, and if you like it, it will be something you pick up pretty quickly, and master over time.
Over to You
That’s all there is to starting a sandbox campaign. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
While You’re Here…
Since 2021 I have been publishing d12 Monthly, a monthly zine, which has a ton of articles for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
I will also be releasing some more products in the near future.
Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter any time.