An Example Sandbox Campaign With Tips To Avoid GM Burnout

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0942

RPT Game Master Mark A shared with me some great ideas after reading my Musing on sandbox campaigns:

Hi Johnn,

I’ve been running my “grand” sandbox experiment now for ±3 years, and it all started with a single index card (3?x5?) with on the front the name of the town (Sorø) and some hints about plants attacking the town and two distant locations — a fort in the woods and a mine in the plains that had in the last month become incommunicado.

Players told me why they are migrating to this new continent and included a reason why they would continue to adventure if their party would all be killed. Basically, they needed motivation to keep the story moving forward and would need a reason not to run back to their own continent with their tails between their legs if things went belly-up.

Sandbox Toolbox & Guidelines

The only other things I had in my toolbox on day one of the adventure (besides the single 3×5 index card) were:

  • Some random tables for stuff they encounter in the wilds — be that a monster encounter, random dungeon entrance, or non-hostile NPC.
  • An upfront notification to players the entire game would not be level compliant.
  • A randomly generated continent with a single point of interest marked on it.
  • Roll all dice openly in front of the players.
  • No DM screen. I sat in a circle (no table) with the players.
  • Any world building of their “old” continent was purely in the hands of the players.
  • Deaths of characters would be resolved by a irregular ships filled with immigrants coming to their shore.

The reason for the above was based on careful thinking on how to change things that hadn’t worked well for us in the past when playing D&D. Things like DM vs Player, unfair or biased monsters, DM pre-game preparation, and DM burn-out.

With these guidelines in place, the atmosphere of our games became far less hostile and adversarial, and much more collaborative.

The players are far more invested in what is happening in the world than ever before. And because I don’t know what is around the corner I am both more engaged in the story and less likely to railroad the players in a particular direction. I am also much more able to be impartial in my role as DM and at the same time be the group’s cheerleader when things turn out okay for them.

Avoiding GM Burnout

Some things that have worked really well for me to avoid DM burnout have also been to not plan too far ahead.

For this campaign, I knew something about plant monsters and two distant locations — but the why of what is going wrong I left purposely blank. As long as the players didn’t have to know, I too could remain vague in what was going on there.

For example, the fort in the woods.

When players started asking questions about why communication had dropped to it I invented a mysterious green fog that was making people sick there. I figured once they got there I could invent a plausible cause for that fog.

And when they did get around to exploring the forest, I made up three plausible reasons for the fog.

Once the players needed to know more about their “enemy” I asked them to roll a dice to “choose” their enemy. (Turned out to be a green dragon setting up shop there and some mystery box that enhanced his lair affects.)

Set Up Quest Tracking

The players are also responsible for declaring their quests to me. So if they are interested in discovering why the mine was abandoned, then they write it down on a card. When they believe they have completed the quest, they hand me the card and I give them experience points and provide a new complication if necessary.

So far the group has been having plenty of fun, both in exploring their new continent and building Sorø into a bustling and prosperous frontier town. They are committed to their characters and have developed meaningful relationships with the NPCs in town.

My players actually care about what happens in town and develop their own ideas for improving the area and making it safer (making roads, building walls, regular scouting missions).

In this regard the 5e “downtime” technique does wonders in moving things forward. Every now and then when there is no big bad rampaging through their area they take a year off to develop the town so it has more resources for them, or they engage in diplomacy with the nearby “civilized” gnolls.