My Simple Sandbox GM Tool – The 5 Actions

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1183

Sandbox games often challenge you to fabricate encounters on the spot.

I take a simple approach for this.

It’s kind of cheap, when you think about it. lol.

But it works.

When RPT GM Scott K. emailed me, he said something that made me think about this aspect of sandbox games today:

I am really interested in this book because I write all my modules as a “sandbox” approach – which means the PCs often go in a completely unexpected direction.

The book Scott’s referring to is my Thinking Faster On Your Feet PDF.

I used to get surprised a lot by player choices.

I’d be GMing and doing ok. I’d be smug behind my screen,  confidently providing descriptions, adjudicating the action, and rolling dice.

Suddenly the players would catch me by surprise.

“We use the magic claws to bypass your magically locked portals trapped up the wazoo and head straight into the sarcophagus through the wall.”


From confidence to panic in less than a second.

Now I’m on my back foot, scrambling.

It’s fight, flight, or freeze.

Fake It & Make It

Before I share with you what I wrote back to Scott, let’s talk about the cheap hack I perform now when I get sideswiped by players:

I fake it.

Without parachute or brakes, I pivot and keep rolling, pun intended, without any plan on what’ll happen next.

I start with one idea — a seed.

I get this seed from the players.

They just told me something that derailed my plans or momentum.

So I use that for my seed.

It’s almost always a character or group action.

In my example, the hobos were digging through living rock to Coolaid-man into my BBEG lair.

Ohhhh yeah!

So that was my seed…

…The situation of one character clawing through living rock and the party breaking into the vampire’s bedroom.

Then I start adding details in real-time.

As I add details, an encounter or deeper situation begins to form.

I keep gameplay going and add stuff in as I go.

So before, I’d sit there and stew, trying to come up with a solution.

I’d want to:

  • Build a quick encounter to keep going
  • Drag & drop a back pocket encounter to stall
  • Pause and try to invent something solid under the hot stares of my expectant players

But now I keep the game rolling and use emerging gameplay like a strong wind I can tack into to build out my situation.

It’s a leap of faith.

Like starting a sentence without knowing first what point you want to make.

So it’s a bit scary the first few times.

But in this way, I’m actually buying time as I work up the next chunk of gameplay for my waylaid encounter.

It’s much easier to begin with a seed and build it out as gameplay progresses — by actually building onto the gameplay as it progresses.

The trick is, how can we do that without wrecking the adventure, offering up something lame, or killing the moment?

And that’s what I shared with Scott, which I’ll share with you right now, copied & pasted from my email to him:

The 5 Actions

Hey Scott,

I’m doing a tutorial on that topic right now for Platinum Patrons, in fact.

I call it the 5 Actions.

In my experience, all players will usually take one of five actions in an encounter or just prior:

  1. Parley
  2. Trick
  3. Discover
  4. Combat
  5. Avoid

If you run each encounter against each action and decide what you might do, it makes your plans so much more robust.

And that extra time, even if it’s in the form of noodling on it once in a while, gives you space to think up interesting gameplay.

I hope Patrons like the tutorial. I find this an essential tool in my GM Toolbox now.

For sandbox play, you might have a few back pocket encounters.

But mostly it’s about giving shape and substance to player decisions and character actions.

For example, if the players say they want to investigate the strange lights in the swamp, out of habit I’d think:

  • [Parley] What kind of roleplaying opportunity can I add? (Who can I pull from my Cast of Characters?)
  • [Trick] How could I try deceiving or tricking the party?
  • [Discover] What’s a clue or secret on my Knowledge Table that might fit here?
  • [Combat] What’s the conflict? What could impede, deplete, alert, delay, attack?
  • [Avoid] What can I do if the players bail too early here?

By asking those types of questions a lot, I find you build a mental library of responses.

Some responses work better than others. I’ll remember those to use again.

And so, over time, the 5 Actions — to me at least — are an ultimate sandbox GM Tool.

My Process to Thinking Faster On Your Feet

Players will always surprise us with their choices and character actions.

The secret to handling this with aplomb is to respond and keep playing, instead of to react and slow down.

Start with the gameplay seed already provided.

Then let the situation evolve, populating it with any ideas triggered by cycling through the 5 Actions.

What’s an NPC I could introduce in this moment?

What could I place here that might trick the characters?

What clue and hook for upcoming encounters could I place here?

What conflict could I stir up here?

What could I do if the players bail on this situation and choose another direction?

Answers to those questions, and ones like them, provide ideas for people, places, things, and events you can add to gameplay on-the-fly.

As you GM and these questions cycle, which they will as they become second nature, encounters build themselves.

In my experience, just memorizing the 5 Actions will trigger this effect.

They become like a mental checklist to give inspiration and guidance as you run by the seat of your pants.

Platinum Wizards of Adventure, you can watch the full tutorial here in the Adventure Building Master Game Plan lessons 5.02 – 5.05. If you are not a Wizard of Adventure, you can get all the details here, it’s just $10/month.

Discuss these game master tips in this thread at the official Roleplaying Tips community forum.