Welcome back to “Working in the Sandbox!” This is a series of articles about creating a home brew campaign setting that has an intuitive sandbox feel that will allow your players a great deal of freedom. If you’re new to the site, make sure to check out “Part One” here!
In our last installment we covered the concept of what it meant to work inside of a sandbox, how to start fleshing out your world on a macro scale so you’d have the broad strokes of your universe and where your characters fit inside of it. Today we’re going tackle how that works directly with the sandbox concept, dealing with player innovations, and how to make the most outrageous detours seem like it’s all going according to plan.
One of the hardest parts of dealing with the Sandbox is the idea of letting your players do anything they can come up with. After all, as a DM, isn’t it your job to facilitate the narrative and associated story beats? How can you effectively work within any kind of structure if it’s constantly being compromised by the players? Well the easy answer is: you can’t. Players will constantly throw you curve balls, not because they are intentionally trying to mess with your game, but because their own thoughts and experiences allow them to come to different conclusions than you. That is what makes the roleplaying one of the most unique experiences in gaming, ever.
To that end, you have to decide the kind of DM you want to be. Are you a “by the numbers DM” that has rigid moments that can’t be messed with or are you more flexible? Will you make a creative place that encourages players to experiment or do you want them to simply follow the track you’ve laid out? For the sake of this series we’re going to assume you want to be more flexible or at least a good mixture of the two. If you’re more of the super rigid type, I highly suggest you invest in pre-constructed modules as they will save you a ton of headaches in the long run. For those who feel the custom route is more your speed, let’s focus on how to establish that open world feel.
4) Deal with the Immediate Story. So we’ve established the broad strokes. Our working example has been a setting based after the elemental plane Arianus from the Death Gate Cycle. Of course you’re encouraged to create your own setting but in this world, there are no oceans nor continents, just an endless sky with floating islands that dot the horizon. We discussed the idea of how this would affect the world and made a list of ten memorable traits such as species, customs and organizations that you can use as a framework. With these items in place it’s time to focus on your immediate story. This is where a lot of DMs get hung up as they begin to dream of vast, epic-in-scope stories that can take years to play out. Here’s the problem with that. Unless you have a very dedicated group of players, the chance of seeing that story through to the end becomes highly unlikely. Even if the group does stick together, it can be difficult to maintain a sustained interest in such a story over the span of years: details are forgotten, plot points are left to dangle and excitement for what happens next can wane. It’s not impossible though and if you think you can do it, just apply these suggestions to your storyline. For everyone else though, let’s keep it simple.
In this case, that means developing a story that has a beginning, middle and end, also know as a “three-act” tale which allows you to establish the story elements involved in the first act, increase the danger in the second and finally bring the story to a resolution in the third. As the DM, you can also go ahead and plan for each act of a story to equal one character levels worth of experience. In the case of my current D&D 5e campaign, I have developed a tale that will take the characters from levels 1-3. At the end of this story the characters should be at least 3rd level PCs on the cusp of hitting 4th. How you decide this plays out is purely up to you, but I like to add in character moments, combat, rewards for creative thinking and plain old good roleplaying. As the director of the world, you get to be as generous or stingy as you want, but I always tend to err on the side of generous because my encounters can be brutal.
When you’re developing the narrative side of the adventure, create minimal notes. While you may be tempted to flesh out exactly what happens at every single turn, don’t. Resist this temptation. You’re just making work you’ll have to undo on the fly. Why spend that extra energy when you’re going to have ad-lib later on? Instead, focus on the characters and their motivations. Why are the bad guys being bad (this assumes your players are the heroes, flip it if otherwise)? What are their goals and how will they reach them? What are their resources at hand and what tricks do they have up their sleeves? Who are your player’s allies? Do the players have any resources to call on? What is the town/dungeon/surrounding areas like? Once you’ve figured these questions out, you’ll have a far better understanding of what your story is. At this point, you should write out the plot as you predict it will unfold. Create your encounters. Make stats for your monsters, character sheets for your major antagonists and basically flesh out the combat/trap/treasure situation. This is your story bible. It gives you all the pertinent facts for your game. That is of course until the players chime in, which brings us to our next rule:
5) Players WILL destroy your plans. It’s said that no plan survives contact with the enemy…boy howdy. This is something I’ll bring up time and again when talking about being the Dungeon Master and it cannot be overstated: players will destroy your plans. I like to call it “player innovation”. Nine times out of ten, your players will come up with a unique and inventive solution to a problem you thought was straightforward, inescapable or foolproof. It’s unavoidable but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During your game, players will hypothesize scenarios, problems, and solutions that are way better than what you have devised. While it can be humbling to see well laid plans destroyed with a stroke of brilliance, why fight it? This is a resource and as such should be exploited for the betterment of the game.
For instance about a year back, at the pinnacle of my 4e game, the players were in a survivor-esque competition where they were trying to complete certain tasks before the bad guys in order to gain entrance into The Macguffin. Whilst the details of the plot aren’t important for the story, what does matter is that the players had to travel to the top of a mountain that overlooked the entire island. With no transportation spells on their person the players had to decide if they were going to climb back down the mountain face, which was littered with all sorts of monsters, or find a faster way to descend the lonely peak. Surveying the area, the players remembered they had slain a King Roc (basically a gigantic bird) that was more than large enough to carry all of the adventuring party. Originally, I had expected them to befriend the Roc and gain an ally that would fly them around the island giving them a substantial advantage over their enemies, but these are gamers, so they killed it. In my back pocket I had created a few brutal encounters that punish the players if this situation occurred. The goal was to encourage them to make friends versus piles of bodies and to intimate that the climb down would be far more hazardous than the ascent.
A consensus was quickly reached: find another way down. After exhausting the magical front, which was limited as their spell caster was primarily an offensively powered Warlock, the players turned back to the dead Roc. After a few minutes of nature checks of the surrounding trees and plant life the party had a plan. Take the Roc and build a harness that would allow them to glide the dead creature to the surface using a system of pulleys and ropes to control the wings and tail. I was, simply, flabbergasted. Here I was, entertaining the idea of allowing the players to fly a dead animal off the side of a mountain, a plan that had echoes to my original concept, but with a far more grizzly overtones. If I had said no, the players would have most likely asked for reasons why or simply accepted it and moved on, thus making my life easier. On the other hand if I took this player innovation, which had an opportunity to become a memorable moment, we could have a great story to recount later on. Of course I took the latter, which brings us to:
6) Turn into the Wave. If players are a resource that you can exploit and they are going to change the dynamic of your plans, why try to fight it? Instead, turn into the wave. Risk saying yes to see what happens. This doesn’t every player idea should be accepted but if they ask to attempt something, seriously consider why you should say no. If the answer comes back to “I didn’t plan for it”, let them try. Not only will it make the players feel like they are influencing the game, it will keep you on your toes and that’s the secret to being a good DM. It’s a well known fact that once you become a decent DM, you tend to stay in that role because it’s really difficult to find people willing to take on that much responsibility. If you take this approach though, that responsibility melts away. You’re no longer the director of a scene, you’re ad-libbing as quickly as your players, trying to stay one step ahead. It’s why your story bible can be so helpful. What happens if the players take an entirely different approach? How would your villain react to this? It’s all laid out in black and white, you just have to fill in the gaps.
Players are talkers. They tend to voice their opinions and ideas at the table so others can help them figure out the plot. As they do this players will hypothesize about motivations, other bad guys, or even cool new traps or monsters that may be seen. If it sounds particularly interesting: Write. It. Down. You never know when you might be able to incorporate an idea from the table which makes the player feel as if they were smart enough to see your plan in advance even though they might be responsible for the nugget that got you there. In fact, when I first started out, people would ask me how much of the game I planned out in advance. When I said, “very little” they would always be amazed and really it’s really just a magic trick.
For instance back at the Roc, I had a chance to let the players do something they admitted could be very stupid. They could ride a dead bird like a giant hand glider off the side of a mountain to shave off approximately 2 days travel which would ensure a sizable lead over their enemies, if they didn’t die in the process. So I let them. The players made a plan, rolled skill checks and did their best to capitalize upon their strengths. After a few hours of work, they were ready to try. The bird was positioned at the slope of the mountain edge with some very hastily constructed skids attached to it’s belly to help with take off and landing. The strongest characters were in charge with keeping the wings buoyant and the Warlock constructed an explosive spell that would give them a significant boost. Now, by the book, this is outside the rules and I’m ad libbing a lot as we go along, but the players are engaged. They’re excited and more than a little anxious to see if this works. When the moment of truth finally came and the Warlock asked if everyone was ready, the players debated. Did they think of everything? What if they missed something? What if they all die in the process? In the end, they agreed they had planned for everything they could think of and the Warlock detonated her spell.
In an instant, the players were on the other side of the coin. Now it was my turn to mess with their plan. I created a series of rolls each member of the party would have to perform in order to stay aloft. It was all BS, but that didn’t matter. It felt real in the moment. Who cared if it reflected the game mechanics or physics or anything close to reality? It felt challenging and that’s all that matters. I had quickly devised some math about how far they could travel in a “round”, which in this case was longer than the standard 6 seconds. With a default number of turns they could stay aloft (2) I figured that if the players could successfully perform 4 of the 5 required checks per round, they could earn an extra set of rolls, thereby getting them closer to their goal. Sure enough, they stayed aloft for 5 rounds. Speeding along, I described how the side of the mountain had torn open the Roc as they became airborne, depositing entrails and gore across the countryside. The fallout being that this was also a trail their enemies could follow, but one issue at a time. After the fifth round, I told them the Roc was encountering turbulence which and they were getting knocked off course, which allowed me to raise the difficulty as they were no longer gliding but actually adjusting the flight path. That’s when it all fell apart. One of the wing harnesses snapped and the bird began to go into a spin. With some quick reflexes from the players, the party was able to yank the wing back out into a flying position but they had already lost too much altitude and speed. Within a round they had to prep for a crash landing. Considering they did not have airbags or harnesses beyond lashing their waists to the Roc’s frame, the players were forced to make physical checks to ensure they held their place as long as possible.
As the Roc reached the tree line, they heard the snapping of giant ribs and the makeshift landing skids. The rope snapped as the bird caught on the tips of the massive tree tops. The animal jerked down and veered into a nearby field where the Roc’s head finally dipped down low enough to make contact with the earth. Sheering off, it was thrown wide and took one of the players with it. The wings popped and the torso bent in a sickening wrench as the bloody fowl came to a rest. Amazingly the only character that took any serious damage was the one thrown when the Roc’s head was sheered off. The other characters were no worse for wear. A few HP lost in the turbulence but otherwise right as rain and nearly a day ahead of their enemies. It was a tremendous feat and quickly became their favorite scene in the entire adventure. If I had said no, I would have denied them a wonderful anecdote about how sometimes the stupid are rewarded and the dumb can overcome great odds. By simply turning into the wave, I was able to create something amazing from nothing and that’s the beauty of it. Sometimes it will not work out so well, sometimes it will become the moment of your game, but regardless it puts the players in the driver seat and changes your story from a pre-determined series of encounters to that of players choosing their destiny. It’s risky, but as they say: “the risk always lives.”
Alright, that’s it for this installment. In our next entry I’ll talk about how to challenge your players appropriately and how to create interesting plot hooks for future stories without making them obvious.