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.
This is really useful! I’m running a Traveller sandbox at the moment, and I think most if not all of this applies. Will enjoy following the links… THANKS!
Totally agree about SKT. A decent adventure suffered from ill-defined or just plain lame hooks. Step and fetch quests are the worst, especially at 5th+ level when the PCs should be past “errand boy” hooks.
Actually, following the battle in one of the three cities (which itself is a cool, almost never used idea), the people of the city that faught alongside you, having witnessed your merit, ask various favors related to the events surrounding the fall of the Ordning. To solidify that this is really what the PCs should do, Zelphyros uses Contact Other Plane and informs the party that helping the people of the city is the best way to correct the Ordning. In fact, Z is starting to go insane from his overuse of three spell (another cool addition).
As for the errands themselves, they are anything but ordinary. Stealing a wagon from secret priests of Asmodeous on the streets of Silverymoon, captaining a crew of dragon cultists on a flying ship given to you by a legendary dragon, utilizing a secret harper network of teleportation circles to track a wanted murderer to the edge of the world…good stuff. But best of all, while crisscrossing the North, your party will gain valuable allies for the upcoming confrontation with the giants, learn about the giants plans to unleash devastating artifacts upon the world, and meet powerful enemies that await them at the end of the adventure.
I have been playing for 32 years and my favorite session of all time was played fairly recently, during the open world part of SKT. Confused uthgardt barbarians leaping to their death, fairy powder confounding a dragon’s allies, and an airship engine opened to reveal its elemental power source, all while traitors from within unleashed their betrayal…an amazing encounter amongst many.
I’ll grant you, SKT should have a better layout, and should not have had so many encounters where the characters were completely outclassed and were expected to know combat wasn’t an option. But get around those minor issues, and you have a great, climactic, and unique adventure. C’mon Boss Haug requires a wagon pulled by stolen husbands to move and wears a well for a hat!!
I own the Outdoor Survival game. I’ve never used it for D&D but I have used the ideas in the rules. It really helps understand how to make that style of game work, I can’t recommend it enough!
Very good post 🙂
I hav been doing the same in each sandbox campaign I ran these last 25 years.
I prepare before the first game many hints (treasure maps, text fragments, hints given by NPCs, etc.), some are only red herrings but the majority are links, direct or indirect, to locations where there might be something of interest for the players. They may find them anywhere, often in places not directly tied to the adventure we are playing right now.
At the same time while playing I keep tracks of all the interactions the players have with the world (NPCs, monsters, places, etc.) to create backstories that may (or not) become important in future games.
I also uses random events/encounters that sometimes might become real plots. For these I prepare small encounters that I can use, either randomly or chosen depending of the situation, to spice time where nothing else happens. For these the old 2nd edition “Deck of Encounters” cards are a good base, I always keep a set of a dozen or so preselected cards at hand and these small events frequently became real hooks for adventures to come.
Of course there is also always a main plot that is advancing with or without interactions of the players, some of the adventures are tied with this big plot, some are not.
Another big point is listening to your players while they are talking, they will probably imagine things that you haven’t imagined by yourself and sometimes this is so good that you need to incorporate it in your world.
All of this makes a sandbox game alive, the PCs have their landmarks and there is always a lot of “old” stuff that may resurface.
No need to railroad the players, they always have enough stuff to do by themselves !
Great comment that reinforces davids post. Thanks treps