Prepping for Sandbox Gaming

I’ve been laid out sick for several days so I have only a small update today. My favorite way to run games is as a sandbox-style game where players can head off in the direction they like and create the trouble that comes back at them later. This is simply a preference thing and you need players you are into it as much as a GM who can pull it off, but with a little planning you can make it easier.

Lists, Lists, Lists

Make tons of lists of everything (or get them from other folks) to take care of the fine details so that you can come up with the creative stuff. Make lists of names (my favorite site is Behind the Name), companies, knightly orders, and whatever else your world might need so that you can concentrate on the narrative.

You should also make up lists for all the different areas of your world so that it seems as seamless as possible. For instance, in an Eberron sandbox make a list of Karrnathi names, Brelish names, and Thranish names as well as Brelish military units, Karrnathi awards, and demons in the Lords of Dust. That way it doesn’t seem like you’re pulling things out of a hat since every area sounds unique.

Think About Threads

In a linear game you can have set pieces and sites that you’re directing your players towards. These have their place in sandbox games (just look at the pinnacle of sandbox-dom, the Dracula Dossier) but you should think about the narrative in terms of threads. Just like the players, you aren’t especially sure where a particular thread goes when they start pulling it but you can think about it.

One tool for this is Dave Chalker’s 5×5 method of campaign design, a way to build multiple storylines that intersect (literally if you use a chart). Dave outlines this as a way to do all of your campaign prep ahead of time but you can use it on the fly by filling out the top of the chart as soon as your players pursue some hook and then fill in the column one at a time.

Make Connections

This is also something to do as you go. When players pull on a thread fill in the next steps (as described above) but also think of other connections. Make another 5×5 grid with each of the threads as both a column and a row. If your players head somewhere that you think could involve two different threads, put it down on the grid at the intersection between the two threads.

A quick glance shows that there would be two different spots where each pair of threads meets. There would also be one spot where each thread intersects itself. This is the scene where the thread comes to fruition. When you want a climactic scene (or when you reach the end of the list you generated above) you can write that scene there and then dismiss the column and the row for that “finished” thread.

Alternatively, you can leave the options open for reminders of the thread after its done. For instance, one of the local crime bosses from the street gang thread could be the son of the warlock your players killed in the necromancer’s thread. This makes it an especially memorable fight, even though the necromancer is dead and gone.

Listen to Your Players

This is probably the biggest one. Listen to what your players were interested in, even if it isn’t what you planned on. That’s the point of a sandbox campaign, after all, and it will get more buy-in from your players.

At the same time, this isn’t advice to do whatever your players want. Sometimes they’ll want to pursue something because of expectations (“Ooo, let’s do the caravan job, I bet that’s a dragon adventure”) that you can then turn on their heads. After they think they know what they’re getting into you can suddenly throw in a twist (“Surprise! It’s a sphinx!”). Just don’t this too often or they’ll feel like you’re purposefully messing with them.

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