Sandbox boundaries

When speaking of a sandbox campaign I mean one where the DM doesn’t provide any direction. There are rumors, scraps of maps, occasional bounties or proclaimations. But the players shouldn’t feel like there’s any “next part” to the campaign. They decide what comes next. Interesting stories are a consequence of their decisions rather than the other way around.

But the DM needs to do a lot of preparation beforehand for a sandbox to work. That preparation is well rewarded, though, as the same information can be used many times during the same campaign, and the enriched campaign can be used again with another group later to excellent effect.

(Of course, with all the adventure and treasure reset and little if any presence of old powerful characters as cameo NPCs)

This means that the campaign is really still with boundaries – after all, without wooden slats all the sand would fall out and nobody would have any fun. So how do you design your wooden slats without making the players feel cramped?

First off, the sandbox area must be very large and contain far more than sufficient interesting decisions to sustain the players.

Second, impartial boundaries are more fitting than ones the DM “role-plays”. In a sandbox campaign the DM acts as the referee, the arbiter of the rules, the creator of people and places, and the decision-maker for NPCs. The DM is absolutely not an adversary. If players want to push against a boundary its resistance should be obvious and expected, and outside the supposed agency of the DM.

Imagine this. The civilized world is to the south. This isn’t a barrier – this is where the PCs came from. But that way lies little opportunity, the journey is far, and PCs who go back do so to retire.

To the north and west are great mountain ranges with peaks so high you need breathing magic just to get past the first stage, and cold-resistance magic for the next. If you need an image, think of the part of Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is trying to go over the mountains instead of through Moria.

To the east is an ancient and decadent civilization with mind-control towers scattered throughout. White-frocked Shepherds form an army of spies that ensure obediance in their own people. Anyone who enters will soon fall under the sway of those malevolent stone spires, under the onslaught of their brain-warping emanations. The country is insular and does not go to war or explore – the army and explorers would be free from the state’s mind control and that’s something they aren’t willing to risk. They can’t expand the country because the secret of building the towers is lost. They are an inheritor civilization.

But in the center is a verdant and wild land. There are dark goblin fortresses clinging to the sheer cliff walls of the mountains. Nixies frolic in the forest pools below, playing mean-spirited pranks. A deer wanders among the ruins of an ancient human city, the stones covered by the moss it munches, while a cougar in the undergrowth licks its chops. Bear cubs play in the mouldering ruins of a village inn as a waterfall splashes down the road, falling as it passes under an old sturdy bridge of Dwarven stone. Standing on that bridge you see a river valley spread before you, thickly wooded hills on either side, draining toward a great broad river beyond.

A single tear, man.

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2 Responses to “Sandbox boundaries”

  1. Greg Says:

    Oh, I can dig it. In fact I was thinking of transferring the Greyhawk campaign to something like what you’ve described. The mind-control civilization is a stroke of genius, I might add. And I think the perilously tall mountains are a perfect opportunity for a Moria-like dungeon, if the PCs should ever need to cross that border into a new sandbox. Great ideas, as usual. You’ve read the West Marches stuff at Ars Ludi?

  2. 1d30 Says:

    Yeah, not all of it probably. But the main stuff the blogger wrote, yeah. I’m stealing a lot of his ideas outright and I’m expecting that my players won’t be familiar enough with it to notice.

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