My 7 Keys to a Great Sandbox Game

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1145

New RPT GM Eddie asked for advice on homebrewing adventures:

I love that a campaign can be going strong that long. The one I’m running is like 6 months old.

Even though I’m pretty new to the game (less than a year) I’ve been looking more into old school revival and alternative materials because although Storm King’s Thunder is still very fun, some elements are kind of badly written (long-winded writing, plot holes, weak motivations and red herrings hooray).

So I’m gonna try out more of a west marches/exploration/hexcrawl thing next, just go bit by bit…

I found The Dark of Hot Springs Island which seems awesome.

Any advice regarding any of that is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the tip request, Eddie.

I call this the new way of GMing, but really it’s the old way.

Early Lessons Learned the Hard Way

When I started GMing during Christmas of 1980 I had two modules in-hand on loan from my friend Eric because I hadn’t saved enough yet to buy my own books.The first module was B1 In Search of the Unknown, written by Mike Carr.

It’s a dungeon crawl you have to finish creating yourself.

Entries looked like this:

The GM was responsible for adding the monster and treasure, and fitting those game elements into the encounter and adventure while making it as interesting as possible.

I was so fortunate this module landed in my lap!

Frustrated at first because everything wasn’t done for me, it forced me to use my agency as GM to finish building a wondrous adventure (thus teaching me I had such agency).

It gave me permission to modify a published book, which was an alien concept to me.

And it kickstarted ye ol’ noggin to get creative, learn the rules, and design stuff. The second module was B2 Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax.

It’s a sandbox adventure though I did not know it at the time.

It came with an awesome map of a valley filled with monster caves and lairs:

With no clear dungeon paths to follow, the module told me my job was to let players choose their own paths and react accordingly.

This taught me about life beyond the dungeon and how to serve up player choices and GM the consequences.

If it weren’t for these two modules, I might never have learned how much fun it was to hexcrawl and sandbox games and build my own stuff.

My Keys to a Great Sandbox Game

Today I worry GMs stay trapped running 265 page expensive adventures with all the warts and railroading and catering to generic, lowest common denominator gaming instead of serving you and your players specifically.

As GMs, it’s our world, our adventure, and our friends we want to treat with amazing stories.

So, Eddie, I love that you want to exercise those GMing muscles and want to homebrew and offer sandbox style play.

In my email response to Eddie, I laid out my keys to such a game.

Below is my pasted response to him.

Hey Eddie,

You hit on exactly why I don’t buy and run expensive D&D adventures any more.

Plus, creativity is a muscle.

The stronger that muscle the better our GMing.

And nothing helps build that muscle more than homebrewing our own adventures and campaigns.

I’ve got a ton of stuff that lays out how to create and run sandbox and hexcrawl campaigns, but unfortunately it’s mostly taught in my Adventure Building Master Game Plan and Adventure Building Workshop.

I do have a draft article from my business partner, Jochen, on starting a West Marches campaign and will announce in my GM tips newsletter that you’re now subscribed to when it’s been published.

But to lay out my key tips at a high level:

1. Create Villains and Factions

They not only give your players focus, they are your active agents within the milieu that can respond to character actions.

They also make your campaign dynamic, without need for a script.

2. Invest Heavily in Character Development

Ensure every character has a problem, and ensure every PC has a strong reason to stick with the party.

Go beyond session zero and generate their history, enemies, and weaknesses, plus many other pieces of their backstory.

A strong backstory anchors them to your world and campaign so players don’t feel like they’re “floating” in some random setting being strung along adventure-to-adventure by the GM.

Character motivation must be as high as player motivation.

3. Prepare to Improv

The better your improvisation skills, the less likely you’ll need to lean on straitjacket plans.

Prep for your GMing weaknesses, and improvise to your strengths.

That might mean finding random tables or building generators, becoming a rules master, or putting lots of thought into what drives your players and characters to tailor hooks, NPCs, treasure, and plots around.

4. Be Agile

Have a lightweight and flexible future planned to give you confidence and direction when making the 1,000 decisions you must judge every session that allows you to bend easily with player actions.

I call this Campaign Plotline and Adventure Plotline, which I build using specific Mad Libs.

These tools guide me while being super easy and quick to update between sessions based on actual gameplay and player intentions.

They also help me find and squash plot holes, which I call the 6 Logic Bombs.

5. Focus on the Most Effective Between-Session Prep

Build Legos, not scripts.

Build your Milieu, not the entire world.

Build tools and aids, not reams of notes.

Get your game information and session notes well organized into a Source of Truth so you have all your campaign’s information at your fingertips for easier improv and ideation.

6. Think Conflicts, Constraints, Costs, and Consequences

I call these the 4Cs in my adventure building course.

Don’t plot manuscripts.

Characters in every great story you’ve read or watched are bound by these four storytelling laws of physics.

Keep an eye out for them next show you watch or book you read, and structure your Plotlines and encounters using these fantastic GM tools.

7. Know Yourself

I refer to this as the GM Triangle: do you lean more towards game, story, or world?

Figure this out and you’ll find your bliss by building campaigns that cater to your strengths and interests.

For example, I’m more story / game, so I focus on that.

But I also realize I need to invest in my milieu because I’ll otherwise leave it anemic.

I hope these pillars of my own GMing helped answer Eddie’s question a bit.

The best part of this approach is you learn to GM and GM to learn.

Years of study are not necessary.

Just by doing you’ll become a Wizard of Adventure, though good tips and tutorials at the right time can shave the learning curve tremendously and improve sessions faster. Keep at it, Eddie. You are on the right path to wondrous adventure!