Sandbox Adventures – 5 Essential Ingredients

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0842

I got my first taste of sandbox play in B2: Keep on the Borderlands. The PCs based themselves in The Keep and forayed into the Wild. A crazy hermit shared the location of several caves nearby, confirmed dangerous, rumoured with riches.

As the party crested a hill, a horseshoe valley stretched before them, rings of caves beckoning adventure. The PCs explored caves of choice, discovered a deeper plot, and eventually confronted a great evil.

I’ve run B2 eight times over the years. Sandbox to me means replayable with different situations and endings every time.

Sandbox to me also means a cool home base. Something more than a refuelling station. At times I’ve made The Keep a snake bed of politics, a hoard of alternative adventure hooks, a dire siege, a victim of plague, and the actual core and climax of the story arc.

So that’s ingredient #1. A great home base.

Sandbox to me also means the world goes on. The PCs make choices that have consequences. The Primary Plot Agents are not frozen in time waiting for the PCs to thaw them out. Instead, the world reacts. It even reacts to the PCs doing nothing or failing.

After the first couple of plays, I started giving the evil cult grander plans, Potion Factories, and different leader and faction dynamics.

Speaking of factions, my sandboxes have those, too. Ingredient #2 for sandboxes would be a living world, and ingredient #3 would be cunning factions and a large cast of NPCs.

Ingredient #4 is a plot arc. While this might seem to conflict with the idea of sandbox, where the players make all the choices and you just present an interesting milieu, I’ve found through trial and error that a great plot helps you think better, even if the plot just runs in the background.

Ingredient #5 is great rewards. In addition to standard loot and items players want to acquire, let them earn status, respect, and a stake in the world. Let the PCs make roots, champion the weak, and build something they can call their own whether it’s the Sword & Board Ranch, noble titles, or families.

What Are Your Sandbox Ingredients?

Have you run a sandbox campaign before?

My ingredients are:

  • A great home base
  • A living world
  • Cunning factions and large of cast NPCs
  • A plot arc
  • Great rewards

What are yours?