When the first Dungeons & Dragons players wanted a break from the dungeon, their characters could explore the wilderness “in search of some legendary treasure.” In original D&D, a quarter of finds on the magical treasure tables consisted of treasure maps. Surely some led to those legendary treasures available in the wild.
For wilderness adventures, Gary Gygax recommended adopting the hex map from the Outdoor Survival board game and replacing the catch basins with castles. “The terrain beyond the immediate surroundings of the dungeon area should be unknown to all but the referee.” Players started with a blank map, and charted the terrain as they moved. Mainly, they met wandering monsters, but castles worked as penalty squares. Lords and Patriarchs demanded tolls and tithes. Magic users would cast Geas to compel trespassers to bring treasure.
Back then, even aimless wandering and senseless fights felt bold and fresh. Now, computer games can deliver random monsters with better graphics. At the table, exploration-based D&D sessions need maps stocked with potential adventure.
In How to Start a Sandbox Campaign, I explained how a dungeon master must arm new characters with enough knowledge for players to chose a direction that suits their goals. In his influential West Marches campaign, Ben Robbins never started players empty handed. “Every time I introduced a batch of new players, I gave them a very basic treasure map that vaguely pointed to somewhere in the West Marches and then let them go look for it.”
As exploration continues, characters must keep finding things that suggest their next destination.
“A good sandbox has scenario hooks hanging all over the place,” Justin Alexander explains. “The successful sandbox will not only be festooned with scenario hooks, it will also feature some form of default action that can be used to deliver more hooks if the players find themselves bereft of interesting options.” Players should know that something like buying a round of drinks at the inn will lead to rumors, and that patrons always seek adventurers for hire.
In the original game, all those treasure maps worked as hooks for every character. In a modern campaign, characters can adopt many goals, so the hooks either help players toward the campaign’s ultimate goal or to appeal to characters’ individual interests.
Here, the sandbox portion of Storm King’s Thunder fell flat. Once the adventure showed the menace of the giants, it left characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters could only run errands until they reached the adventure’s true start. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either needed to completely rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expected it.
Open worlds offer freedom, but if players only ever face one hook at a time, they never feel that liberty. During each session, characters need to uncover more than one possibility for their next foray.
Connect the dots
In an open world, the connections between locations, non-player characters, and factions become as important as their place on the map. Characters rarely just wander. Rumors and other bits of information draw them from place to place. When players need information to guide them toward their characters’ aims, the secrets they learn can prove as rewarding as gold.
To start exploring, players need some information to make their choices interesting. By the time they learn the fate of the last doomed expedition and find that lost city on the plateau, they need new clues to investigate and new mysteries to unravel.
When you devise an open world, spend more time inventing connections than drawing terrain. The connections could range from alliances and rivalries, to rumors and clues that link locations on a map to others. Chris Kutalik makes such connections a big focus of his Hill Cantons campaign. “Each site’s mystery or theme has to have a connection with either another site’s or a larger setting one.”
Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea offers advice for sowing information that helps players “build out the story as they choose courses of actions.” He calls these tidbits secrets.
“A secret is a piece of information previously unknown to the PCs that, when revealed, gives them a tweet-sized bit of useful and interesting information. Secrets aren’t an entire story. They’re not complete pictures. They’re a single point of data in a large pool of undiscovered information.” Before a game session, Mike creates a pool of 10 secrets. During the game, characters uncover some of the secrets. He improvises the details of when and how characters uncover the secrets.
Secrets enhance an exploration game’s strength: the joy of freedom and discovery.
Secrets reward players with something more interesting than learning that the next hex contains forest.
Unlike full hooks, secrets give players more latitude to follow the threads that spark interest. “We don’t use secrets to steer the direction of the PCs. We use secrets to give them interesting information that helps them come up with their own directions.”
Include many chances for interaction
In D&D’s original rules for wilderness adventure, most encounters ended in fight or flight. Today, wilderness adventures still tend to emphasize D&D’s combat and exploration pillars, even though 60% of D&D players enjoy interaction the most.
In Game of Thrones, the lands beyond the wall give George R.R. Martin plenty of chances for exciting battles and exploration. But when members of the Night’s Watch range beyond the wall, Martin devotes as much attention to visits to Craster’s Keep. The keep offers chances for interaction and to explore character.
Your sandbox needs non-player characters that run the gamut from friend to foe. Friends rarely challenge characters and foes tend to die, so NPCs in the middle foster the most interesting interaction. For example, Craster offers an indispensable ally who happens to be morally offensive. Plus his daughter-wives present a dangerous temptation to the men in black.
Perfect opportunities for interaction come from NPCs or groups either too dangerous or too useful to murder, who pursue goals that don’t always align with the players’ aims.