How to Make Players Hustle in Your Sandbox Campaign
Today I’d like to talk about how to prod our players into action in campaigns that might not have a baked-in deadline.
But first, as December is now upon us, if you are thinking about running a season-themed adventure this month, please check out my GM Cheat Sheet: Christmas Room 5 Room Dungeon Generator:
If you’ve already grabbed this GM Cheat Sheet from DTRPG, could you do me a favour and leave a rating or review? GMs like to hear from other GMs on their thoughts about something before buying, and it would be fantastic if there were a few honest reviews for them to check out. Thank you!
Back to our sandbox topic. Upon reading an email from RPT GM TB this morning asking about sandbox campaigns, a phrase popped into my head: authentic urgency.
To me, that means how do we create realistic or organic reasons for the PCs not to dawdle? We want carpe diem, not manyana!
Sure, we could trap the party on a bus that must stay moving at no less than 50 MPH. But…that’s pretty heavy handed. Unless you’re after a campy campaign.
Instead, we want the players to kind of do it to themselves. If the fire under their hobnailed boots is of their own making, we earn delicious urgency. We no longer have to poke characters with a sharp stick to take action. And drama and excitement instantly infuse a session without any manipulation on our parts.
So, how do we create a strong sense of urgency that doesn’t feel artificial or break immersion? Here are….
d6 Ways to Make Players Hustle in Your Sandbox Campaign
1. I Want My Treasure Back
After the looting comes the pursuit. Chase the party with foes who seek the treasure just stolen from them or their faction.
2. You Said What?
Another type of flee-chase mini-game. When the party inevitably insults the king, guard captain, sorcerer, or vain bard, the NPC retaliates. “Off with their heads!”
On a side note, a bard is one of my favourite villains. Why? Well, if I were a bard and a party of thugs just threatened me to give up my secrets, I’d immediately step up on my propaganda soapbox. I’d yell to the village, the world, and the gods how evil and nasty the PCs are, to get a hungry mob frothing for a PC BBQ.
3. Lose Lips Sink Ships
That failed diplomacy check? Or botched roleplay that just came out wrong? Failure results in the tables turning (pun intended!). Instead of the party gleaning valuable intel, it’s the NPC who steals a secret from the PCs.
And that NPC now has options, the best probably being selling the secret to the highest bidder with the buyer often being an enemy or rival who will try to act before the characters do.
4. Did We Start That Fire?
A past campaign resulted in the party burning down the entire village. Who knew fireballs were hot? Well, it’s a tight-knit world out there. And the entire clan raised their pitchforks from communities all around and chased us…er, I mean, chased the party. I had nothing to do with it! Honest. It’s what my wizard would do, right?
5. The War of Spoils
Nothing’s permanent. Except Cthulhu. But everything else…spoils, breaks, gets used up, times out, erodes. Pretty much anything in our campaigns can be turned into an authentic deadline because of time windows, opportunity windows, or scarcity of some kind. Entropy is our friend in a sandbox environment.
6. The Horns of a Dilemma
Let’s help the party face the consequences of their actions — a type of &Infinite Game as the party’s attempts to remedy things just results in more consequences.
However, let’s also try to provide at least two consequences for every important decision and action. Now the party is in an urgent mess.
7. Bonus Action: Leaving Loose Ends
Sloppy operations is bad news for the players but great news for us! While we don’t want to condition our group to explore every dungeon corner or whack every evil critter for fear of reprisal, we do want to attack from every dungeon corner and retaliate with every evil critter left standing. Haha.
The secret for actually doing this, though, is to layer one or more of the above & GM Moves onto the current scenario. This diverts the party’s focus, consumes their resources, and disrupts their meticulous and thorough approach.
Consequently, they might need to retreat to recuperate. Or they could discover an urgent threat to their base, a result of their previous actions, necessitating immediate attention. Or, they might be lured away by an enticing new lead.
Meanwhile, this respite allows the adversaries to regroup, reset traps, and strategically prepare for the party’s eventual return, potentially even taking the initiative to strike first (consequences within consequences).
Creating authentic urgency in a sandbox campaign is all about making the world feel alive and dynamic, where actions (or inactions) have real consequences.
The key is to make urgency a natural part of the world, not something that feels imposed from the outside. This approach keeps players engaged and makes their choices meaningful. As a seasoned GM and entrepreneur, you know that keeping players invested is crucial, and these techniques can help maintain a gripping, dynamic sandbox campaign.
Have more fun at every game!