Sandbox campaigns – How much prep?

One of the debates when running a sandbox campaign is how much preparation you should put in up front. I personally prefer to do lots of prep (and have just discovered that WikiTouch is a very nice app for getting it all down, if you’re using an iPad). I enjoy being creative, so when an idea pops into my head, I’ll expand upon it and place it somewhere for my players to find. This has the advantage that I already know what my players are going to find when they head to a particular location, but also carries the disadvantage that some of the stuff may be missed or dismissed by the players and never get used.
 
For some people, the idea of wasted prep is enough to turn them off from going down that route. However, I would argue that there’s really no such thing as wasted prep. For example, in last night’s session, my players ignored two potential plot threads:
1) They found a rather nasty doomsday weapon in a smuggler’s hideout, considered trying to track down its intended purpose, but ultimately passed on the idea.
2) They found some orphans in a sewer, who they gave some immediate assistance to, but they didn’t really press them about why they were living in the sewer in the first place.
 
Both of these plot threads were at least partially developed:
I knew exactly where the doomsday weapon was headed and why, though the players wouldn’t have been able to follow the thread right to its end at this point in the campaign. However, even though they ignored the thread for now, it’s still there… they may come across it some way down the line or they may simply be able to make an educated guess once certain events take place. Finally, even if they never follow the thread to its conclusion, having a couple of loose ends helps the players feel that they are part of a larger world where not everything wraps up perfectly.
 
In contrast, the orphans had a short backstory that would have pointed the PCs to an interesting location, but they never discovered that backstory. In this instance there is no wastage at all, as I can simply shift the location to somewhere else (in TVTropes terminology, it’s a Schrodinger’s Gun that doesn’t exist until it is observed).
 
Clearly the amount of prep a GM does is always going to be a personal decision, based on whether they enjoy it, whether they need it, whether they have time for it… but I would discourage anyone from being concerned about wasted prep; everything can be used one way or another if you’re flexible.

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