So what exactly is a sandbox? And how does it relate to RPGs? ‘Sandboxing’ is where you let your players loose in the world to do whatever they want. Give them a map and they decide where they go and what they do. Consequently, the world is built around their actions.
It’s a bit like computer games such as Skyrim and GTA—if you don’t follow the main story quest you can literally play in an open world sandbox, and do almost anything you want. But computer games are limited by their code, system memory and processing power. TRPG sandboxing is not.
For new DMs, sandboxing can be scary. With the players left to do what they want, go anywhere and do anything, it’s up to you to respond and create interesting NPCs, story, sidebars, and world building while they do it. Obviously you’ll have a little something pre-prepared, but it might not get used as the players may decide on a different course of action. You have to constantly think on your feet and improvise, and this can be daunting for some.
So how do you prep for and run a sandbox campaign?
- Learn to improvise. Let the PCs make the decisions and let your logic and creativity respond to their decisions.
- Let the players help design the world. Your players are a source of joint creativity here—use them!
- Use random tables. Random names, random towns, random locations, random quests – there are loads of supplements and online tools out there for generating content on the fly. Have them on hand to use during the game. Shotglass Adventures volume 1 has a bunch of useful tables in the back – shameless plug.
- Keep lots of notes – as you create stuff with your players, keep notes so you know what you did in that session (this is a given in any DMing session, but it’s even more important with sandboxing as you don’t want the PCs going back to a town you created on the fly only to find you’ve forgotten all about it.
- Have some one-shot adventures on hand to slot into the campaign and save some prep time. The party might not take the bait but you’ll feel happier knowing you had them (this feels like a great time for another shameless plug – Shotglass Adventures volume 1 and 2 are ideal for this).
- Have a few random maps on hand, for towns and dungeons (hark! Time for yet another shameless plug – my own Connectable Fantasy Town Maps and Old School Maps for RPGs are perfect for this).
- Don’t panic! Your players are going to do unexpected things. That’s what they do. Don’t stress—just go with the flow.
- Creativity unleashed!
- Everyone is fully involved in creation
- Will take your campaign in directions you never expected
- Can be difficult to plan for
- Often more resources are required at the gaming table
- Some players prefer more structured gaming approaches
- Pacing may be an issue
- May be stressful if you’re not used to improvising on the fly
It may be that sandbox gaming is not for you. That’s okay. There are plenty of other options for your game. And your players will have fun, no matter what.
Sandboxing is one of those things you might want to try out sometime. And who knows? You and your players may just love it. Then there’s no going back.
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2 thoughts on “Laidback DM: Playing in the Sandbox”
This is a really good explanation. Concise, good examples, and from your pros and cons I’m guessing you’ve run at least a couple sandbox campaigns. I also like the conversational tone, which is hard to do.
Also, your tips are right on. Love me some random tables, which make improvising much easier. And using player creativity is *such* a huge part of it–and an *extremely’ valuable skill gaming in general.
Getting into a sandboxy game for the first time in a while myself. Looks like I might have to check out these here Shotglass Adventures…
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Thanks, Buvlo! Glad you liked the article. Yeah, sandbox campaigns are cool and they sure keep you on your toes. They’d be easier if you didn’t need players lol. The challenge of running them and the way the world comes together cooperatively is awesome. There’s nothing like a bunch of people working together at the game table to make something great and having fun at the same time. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but that’s all part of the fun.
If you’re interested in checking out other games that are good for sandboxing, Fate Core is an excellent RPG that encourages collective world building and is easy to improvise with. Thoroughly recommended and I wrote a review on it a year or so ago 😊