This past Friday, Nintendo released the latest game in The Legend of Zelda franchise: Breath of the Wild. This entry departs from most games in the series, featuring an open-world environment that is massive in scale, allowing the player to freely explore and experiment with little very little instruction. I have yet to actually play Breath of the Wild, but I’m very close to selling a kidney to get my hands on it.
Not one of my own kidneys, of course. I need those to do stuff.
Back onto topics that don’t involve the theft of body parts to be sold on the black market so I can purchase a video game, Breath of the Wild got me thinking about sandbox campaigns.
The term “sandbox” is generally used to describe a type of campaign where the players are presented with an environment they can freely explore, doing what they to do when they want to do it. The narrative of the campaign is driven by the actions of the players, not a prescribed storyline. This doesn’t mean the campaign lacks a plot of some kind, it’s just another aspect of the surrounding setting, giving reason to why certain things are the way they are within the fictional world.
These kind of campaigns can look somewhat daunting to those who are new to the concept, especially if you usually sit behind the GM screen. They require some amount of planning before-hand and you have to be okay with your party having more control over the flow of the narrative then they usually would, but they can be a blast to play, especially if you enjoy exploration and emergent storytelling.
Keeping that in mind, I decided I’d give a few pieces of advice to those looking to give a sandbox campaign a try. I’m just going to hit the broad strokes with this post, presenting you with some tips to help you with the building blocks, letting you create a foundation to build upon.
The first piece of advice is pretty simple: create an environment that is begging to be explored. This might sound incredibly obvious, but it is incredibly important for this kind of campaign. The environment should inspire the party to leave the safety of civilization to explore the surrounding wilderness, finding the secrets lurking within this uncharted land.
To make things easier for you, I suggest breaking down locations into two categories: Major Locations and Minor Locations. Major Locations will be the most important sites within the setting, the places that are known by most inhabitants and usually have legends built around them. These will be the places that parties will work towards, usually taking the form of mega-dungeons. These will also be the most detailed due to their notoriety and you will likely have a few sessions to tinker on them before a party arrives at one of them.
Minor Locations will be the smaller sites spread throughout the wilderness, giving the party spots to stumble upon during their travels or possibly hear whispers about in the local tavern. These will be stuff like an abandoned shrine once dedicated to a lesser deity who’s name has been lost to the annuals of time, or maybe a cave tucked away within the nearby hills rumored to be the tomb of an ancient warrior and his vast fortune.
You can create these locations from scratch, but don’t be afraid to steal stuff from published material. The less work you have to do, the better.
The second piece of advice: random encounters are your friend. The random encounter has gotten a bad ramp in recent years, but I think it is a useful tool for any GM, especially those running a sandbox campaign. Sandbox campaigns require the party to do a lot of travel to function, which can become boring if nothing exciting happens. Random encounters allow you to inject some liveliness every so often.
The key is to make sure to add some set dressing in with the random encounter. For example, let’s say my party is currently traveling along an old road that cuts through small forest. I decide this would be the perfect time for an random encounter, so I roll on the table and get a result of “2d6 goblins”. I could just throw 2d6 goblins at the party, having them jump out of the trees and attack, but that wouldn’t be fun.
Instead, I decide to add a little bit of flavor to the encounter. The party stumbles upon an over-turned wagon sitting at the center of the road, produce and other items scattered across the ground, with the body of a horse laying a few feet before them. They party investigates, quickly discovering this is a trap laid by a gang of goblins, who ambush them when they realize what is occurring.
I could also alter things slightly, maybe the wagon wasn’t a trap after all. Maybe the party finds a merchant who is still alive underneath the wagon, who was just attacked by that gang of goblins, who kidnapped his son after stealing his stuff. Maybe he’s willing to pay the party to track down these goblins to rescue his son. It’s still a random encounter, but one that doesn’t feel so random.
The third, and final, piece of advice: make the environment a living, dynamic place. This is an important piece of advice for just about any campaign, but it’s especially true for a sandbox campaign. The world needs to feel like a real place, one that reacts and changes based upon the character’s actions, both in a positive or negative way. This also means things will happen, whether the players interact with it or not.
For example, the party has heard rumors of a local band of highwaymen kidnapping travelers, but leaving their possessions behind. They also hear whispers of a crumbling wizard’s tower that has mysteriously appeared within the nearby hinterlands, shrouded in mist. They can decide to investigate the highwaymen, discovering they are actually cultists kidnapping people to sacrifice to perform a profane cult, or they can investigate the tower, learning that it exists within two planes of existence, routinely phasing in and out of each realm every couple of decades.
Going after the cultists means they will probably not be able to reach the tower before it phases out again, and visiting the tower will probably mean the cultists will succeed at their ritual, which might result in them hearing reports of a demonic creature terrorizing the countryside. These situations make the world feel dynamic, that it exists agnostic to the party, and will make the choices they make all the more important.
Like I previously mentioned, this is just me scratching the surface of sandbox gaming. I hope these tips will help those of you considering giving this type of campaign a try. Everyone else who has ran or played within a sandbox campaign, feel free to leave your own bits of advice in the comments below!