Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 30, 2021
I don’t want to call it a sandbox

Can you write an essay or short story by next week? You probably can, because you have been given assignments like that since middle school. Could you write the same essay or short story right now, within the next 10 minutes? Most people either can’t, or they’ll try and the result will be much inferior to the one with the longer deadline. Now in Dungeons & Dragons one job of the Dungeon Master is to tell a story which binds together the smaller scale stories that the players tell about the actions of their characters. And one of the big differences between different Dungeon Masters is in how far they prepare for that. Now over the past years I have been mostly playing adventure campaigns published by Wizards of the Coast themselves, currently Curse of Strahd. And, initially due to the pandemic, but now also because people moved, we are playing on a virtual tabletop, in our case Roll20. I bought the Curse of Strahd module on Roll20, so now I have already all the maps, tokens, and handouts premade in there. But more importantly, Curse of Strahd is a campaign with a defined story, with a defined end. At the end of the campaign, the players will have become strong enough to enter Castle Ravenloft, and fight the archvillain of the campaign, the vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich. I don’t know what the players will do in detail during each session, but I can prepare the larger story; and the moment the players step into Castle Ravenloft, I will already have the battle maps and tokens prepared, and probably have familiarized myself with the content of the castle from the campaign book.

Now it is perfectly possible to play D&D without preparation. You can improvise everything and play a completely “sandbox” campaign, with no preplanned story at all. But there is an obvious price to pay: The story the DM had to invent on the fly is probably not as epic, and the world not as consistent, as something prepared. It makes for pretty stressful playing sessions for the DM, because not only does he need to invent the world and story in a short time, he also needs to take notes, so that what he tells the players in the next session doesn’t contradict whatever he is saying now. And this sandbox style of play works best for “theater of the mind” gameplay, without tokens or maps. Or you play with a blank map, the terrain being quickly handdrawn, and the enemies represented by generic tokens. On Roll20 at least the tokens can be pulled quickly from the compendium, but any nice maps need preparation. As a DM, I don’t like totally improvised play.

However, there is a middle way: The DM can prepare a world, and fill it with location maps, story snippets, and NPCs. Think of it as a sandbox which doesn’t start with just a flat surface of sand, but there are already some sand castles and structures preplanned. The DM doesn’t need to invent the name of the kingdom and the name of the king on the fly, he has them prepared in tools like Roll20 or World Anvil. The players still enjoy great freedom, they can decide whether they want to ignore that king, work for him, or assasinate him and take over the kingdom. But at least, when the players ask how the kingdom looks geographically, the DM has a map he can pull out. The campaign can still be player-driven, open-ended, without a predefined archvillain at the end.

This is what I want to do for my next campaign, after Curse of Strahd. After some initial discussion with my players, we decided on a campaign of naval and aquatic adventures, with a pirate theme. I’ll be using source material from Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but not necessarily all the adventures from that book. And certainly not all the maps, because there are a lot of low quality black & white maps in that book. I will not prepare more than one adventure ahead, and use player input to select or create adventures. This will require me to encourage the players to give me more input; but it should be easy enough to ask them what they would like to see in such a campaign, and then create stuff in response to that. Everybody has ideas on pirate stories, whether that is a treasure hunt, or naval combat against a ghost ship. I don’t want to call it a sandox campaign, but rather a “player-driven campaign”.


Sounds a bit like the westmarches campaigns of old. Fun times :-)
Angry GM has been sharing in the last months his approach for this type of game. As I am also planning to run my next campaign with this approach begining of next year, I find it very interesting to see what he has to share. Warning : his style of writing is quite agressive, but the information shared show that he in fact care for his player and reader.
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