Sandbox campaigns for newbies

As I mentioned in my last post, I have just started GMing a Numenera campaign and I have aimed to make it fairly sandboxy (if that’s a word… it is now anyway). This is fairly ambitious on my part, as previously I’ve only ever run short, light-hearted campaigns or simple one-shots. However, I’ve made a fairly successful start (hopefully!) and I thought I’d share a few of my techniques for anyone else who is also trying sandboxing for the first time and is a little intimidated.

1) Have some sort of overarching plot
It sounds like almost the opposite of a sandbox, but done carefully, it shouldn’t ruin the sandbox feel. The plot in my campaign is a really basic “locate 3 items” plot, but crucially it doesn’t have a time limit. If the players want to go off and do their own stuff then that’s great and there will be no significant repercussions. However, if they’re stuck for something to do at any point then there’s always that broad plot to pull them in the direction of something interesting. It also means that I will hopefully build up to some sort of climax and a satisfying end to the campaign. Again, if the players go in another direction and the climax is something completely different to what I planned, that’s not a problem, but at least I know we’re guaranteed to end up with something.

2) Don’t try and come up with your own map/world from scratch
For experienced GMs, coming up with your own world and mapping it out from scratch is a great option, I’m sure. However, for a first timer, it’s a lot of effort and is something that’s very easy to mess up. My recommendation would be to run something in the real world (past, present or future) or in a setting with a reasonably decent world already mapped out. I’m certainly not saying you can’t add stuff on top – in my Numenera campaign, I’ve added a bunch of my own locations for a variety of reasons – but working from an existing source means that you at least have a baseline world that is populated and makes sense… because you know that if you don’t, your players will try and visit all the places you’ve not thought about.

3) Make sure you have some individual adventures planned out, but don’t put them everywhere
Unless you (and to some extent your group) are superb at making stuff up on the fly, you’re going to want to have some plots/events/adventures in place for your players to encounter. This ensures that your players don’t just spend their time wandering around the map; instead they have places to explore, stuff to find, monsters to fight, etc…
The reason I suggest not putting these things everywhere is that the world starts to feel very crowded if the PCs are accosted upon visiting every town, find a dungeon under every hill, are the last hope of every beleaguered village. In my campaign, every location falls into one of three categories:
A) Contains a plot that will actively involve the players – Pretty much as soon as the players arrive, they will be thrown into whatever plotline I have planned for that location and will have to actively extract themselves if they don’t want to go along with it.
B) Contains a plot that the players must seek out – I’ve got something planned that the players will stumble on with minimal investigation, but that they could easily ignore if they show no interest.
3) No planned adventure – Not everywhere has something going on, that’s just how it is. These are really the most sandboxy areas, as the players are quite welcome to make their own fun (and I’ll support whatever they come up with), but they’ll need to take the lead if they want to do anything other than pass through.

4) Steal, steal, steal
Finally, as I’m quickly discovering, setting up a sandbox campaign takes a lot of work, as you have to be prepared for whatever your players want to do. Again, I’m sure experienced GMs enjoy doing everything from scratch, but if you’re just starting out, pull in stuff from anywhere you can and tweak it to fit your sandbox; I would say that my campaign will probably work out at about 50% original material and 50% taken from published adventures (either inserted directly or heavily pulled apart and re-worked).

What I have described above is not the purest sandbox campaign ever created, but it should maintain the basic elements and the feel of an open sandbox, while having enough structure to support a relatively new GM. Any advice from those who have gone before me is, of course, welcome in the comments section.

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One Response to Sandbox campaigns for newbies

  1. Niall says:

    I have to second your point on the xp there. I’ve rolled pretty well so far, and have maintained a balance of 4 “re-roll XP” for the last couple of sessions. Rules as written – I would be able to advance my PC faster than the other two, just because I’ve rolled better in game, which isn’t really fair on the others.

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