Struggling in a Sandbox


Advice


Looking back at a recent session, I realised that I struggle with guiding a group through a sandbox environment. The campaign is an urban adventure. After they rescued someone from abduction by one of the operating gangs in the region, they got some time to freely explore the city, with some minor quests to get to know the immediate neighbours.

The biggest hook, I thought (I was wrong) was that they received a deed to a manor that they could renovate into a functioning tavern. Good for generating income, I thought. Not sure if they are going for the bait.

The things I struggle with are structure: how to keep things moving forward while engaging all players and their separate choices, and time progression: when do you zoom out from the action and how do you keep track of time?

What are some of your approaches when giving the players free reign in a sandbox environment?

Sovereign Court

It's an interesting question, but rather a huge one. "Sandbox" is a bit of a trendy term these days and can mean a lot of different things.

Can you describe more about your campaign, your players and their style, and what has happened so far?


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What I did for an Ebberon 3.5 game that was very time consuming, but effective, was every so often give them the front page of the local newpaper (because that was a thing in Ebberon), with some adventure hooks, and headlines that might reflect their actions or lack thereof. Something similar could be done with something of a town crier, either an actual person or a bulletin board.

Present some hooks. If they follow up on one give a future headline about being heroes. If they ignore one update it later; either the situation has gotten worse, or another rival party has completed it in their stead. Ignore things too long, and that line might in failure, with whatever repercussions that entail. Ignored the den of thieves in the sewers for three months? Congratulations, you now have a wererat infestation to deal with instead. Never followed up on the odd noises reported in a warehouse? Here comes an enraged golem. Etc.


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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

So I run all my games with a fairly light hand. My main area of focus is making sure all the players are interested in what the group is doing. If I have to bend the story to hook in some players backstory to events then so be it.

Example: the players are mostly interested in over turning a gang that has taken over the city's underbelly. One player isnt invested but has a long lost sister in their backstory. I give a description of one of the lieutenant that fits the sister near perfectly.

If players are pulling in separate directions I spend sometime focussing on the individual stories, and I let other players control pivotal NPCs so they have a part in this. I get all my players to write out the following for me in order to help with this: a friend, a rival, a favour they are owed and a favour they owe.

The other thing I do is make a hard distinction between low and high resolution planning. I have encounters and events mapped out in a bubble around the groups last set of actions. Anything outside of this is low resolution, just a few lines of notes enough to cobble something on the fly if I need to.


Sounds like you are running waterdeep dragon heist ;)

For sandbox games I use 5e or another system. But with more helpful advice.

I do it day by day and insert events for players to handle, skipping through weeks if appropriate. It is harder to run in PF2e and any system with such wide power gaps between low level capabilities and high level ones. But if you give your players a few options and let them explore with light guidance to one of a few options you preprepare it should be fine.


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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

I dont think level gaps make it particularly difficult to run sandbox in pf2. Gms absolutely make the same consideration in 5e, you dont throw balor at your level 1 pcs in either system. You setup your world in such a way that the types of action the pcs get themselves into are likely to be level ish appropriate. If they are silly and punch way above their weight there may be repercussions but that is true of all systems.


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There’s a lot to unpack when talking about sandbox play. In the last 5-6 years I’ve introduced a lot of new players to RPGs and while I didn’t assume a sandbox-style of play as the starting position with those groups all of my campaigns have evolved into sandbox campaigns. These are approaches that ultimately helped my games:

Set expectations out of gate. This may be obvious to you and you may have already done this, but I was focused on teaching the game and overlooked this step. My new players were often embracing the “we can do/try anything” aspect of TTRPG and trying to get them to stay “on task” in a adventure/module was difficult. When I threw the switch fully over to sandbox self-directed play, they spun their wheels waiting for something to come to them. I finally had a come-to-Jesus with them and said that they can do one of the following:
1. Come up with goals & objectives for the characters in-world and pursue hooks that they think will help them reach those objectives. (self-directed play)
2. Bite on the hook in front of them. (GM-directed hook/story/adventure)
3. Sit around the table being bored because they won’t do option 1 or 2 and I’m not a mind reader.

Things went much more smoothly after that. But it took having the conversation to clear that hurdle. Otherwise, they just assumed I’d have “stuff” and hadn’t really thought about how/where it came from or what happened if they didn’t bite the hook.

Regular out-of-game check-ins. Your players didn’t take the deed/tavern hook. Ask them why it didn’t interest them. It’s less about how to make your failed hook interesting and more about identifying what does interest them.

Embrace the chaos. You commented that you “struggle with guiding a group through a sandbox”. Respectfully, that’s a problem right there. If you’re running a sandbox, you’ve got enough to do creating content and managing it at the table. You shouldn’t be “guiding” the players anywhere. That’s their job. Yes, you’ll want to lean heavily into the hooks/seeds/stories that you have ready to go but the minute you start pushing a path, you’re putting things that the players need to be responsible for back on your shoulders.

Show consequences This does involve a bit of extra work, but any story/hook should have an answer to “what happens if the players ignore this or fail?” Then, you need to present that consequence in-game/in-world. The players don’t follow the hook where someone gets rescued --> that person is killed. They don’t stop the gang from extorting business owners --> a merchant they know gets robbed, assaulted, or killed. You get the idea. The moment that a player connects the dots between “that’s the guy we ran into…that’s the job we turned down…crap, someone’s dead because we turned it down” you’ll often see a big upswing in player self-direction. Plus, it makes the world more believable and reinforces that what the players do – or don’t do in this case – matters.

This isn’t a punishment, btw. Once the sandbox is in full swing, it’s likely that the players can’t do everything even if they want to. And that’s a beautiful thing. Choices matter and it changes the stakes.

An example from my own campaign: Among the smaller quests/hooks, there were three significant threats encroaching on the home base town of the campaign. Each threat has a timetable of goals they will meet if the players don’t interfere. The players can’t physically be in 3 places at once and they’re far enough apart that at least one of the threats will achieve some objectives while another threat is being dealt with. This shows A) that the world isn’t static; B) the players choices have consequences; C) threats evolve. Once the initial threat progression is defined, I find it actually saves me prep as I’m just adjusting the villains influence, scope, or power (i.e. level) as they implement their plans rather than having to develop a new hook/story from scratch.

Zooming the lens and time. This one can be tough but here’s what’s worked for me. The challenge that I had was that if I played “day-by-day”, the players often didn’t care about downtime activities as they never shifted out of “adventuring mode” mindset. So I adopted a “Time Flies” rule (props to Kobold Press & Midgard) where weeks or months pass between game sessions. Suddenly, the players had all kinds of downtime things that they wanted to do rather than “it’s a month later and you’ve just been hanging out in a bar”. Again, this is out-of-game communication along the lines of “For next session, two weeks will have passed. Let me know what downtime activities you want to have been doing during that time, if any.”

I hope at least some of this helps. There’s more that I could weigh in on but this reply is already on the long side. Bottom line, sandbox & episodic play is the only campaign structure that has had long-term viability for my groups and campaigns and they absolutely can work well. In my experience, though, it requires two things: a GM who is willing to shelve and recycle content that isn’t used and players that understand that they have to engage with the sandbox.


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Pathfinder Pathfinder Accessories Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

It sounds like you're running a city adventure. Great stuff, I've loved city adventures ever since the Judge's Guild pulbished the City State of the Invincible Overlord in '76.

BPorter has some great advice. I would add:

- Know your city and its power structure: whether its the lords of the city, the major merchants, the rival thieves guilds and gangs or something even more sinister, a large population will inevitably lead to lots of groups and individuals trying to take advantage of that population. As soon as the PCs run afoul of a nasty group or two, they're going to have a lot of stuff on their plate, whether it's fending off assassins or invading an evil cultist base.

- Every session, bring a few more NPCs to life. Get the players involved with the NPCs, saving them or terrorising them, depending on their inclination.

-Keep track of locations and NPCs that you whip up on the fly. When you reintroduce something that the players ran into a few sessions ago, you're enhancing the feeling of continuity.

There are tons of online resources for city adventures. Poke around, and you'll find lists of random encounters or events that you can use almost out of the box.

Sovereign Court

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Grivenger wrote:
Looking back at a recent session, I realised that I struggle with guiding a group through a sandbox environment.

There's a lot to unpack so we can help you, but let's start here.

Nowadays it's popular to call any adventure that isn't a highly linear railroad a sandbox. But a sandbox in the classic D&D sense of the word doesn't involve much "guiding" at all. There isn't a destination you set. In a sandbox, the players set the goals and you show the things they run into when they go after those goals.

Now, that isn't a playstyle everyone enjoys. It only works with highly self-propelled players that together set a goal to go after. Otherwise, as BPorter describes, there's a lot of sitting around waiting for the GM to do something and waiting for the players to do something.

A lot of things sold as "sandbox" are more what I'd describe as "dirt road". There's a major goal set out, and some rough idea of how you could get there, but you can wander off the road for a while and do some stuff on the side. It's not like a railroad where no divergence is allowed. There's often a lot of room for players to come up with their own solutions, but there's a lot more main goal than in a classic sandbox. And for most groups, "dirt road" works a lot better than the extremes of sandbox or railroad.

Grivenger wrote:
The campaign is an urban adventure. After they rescued someone from abduction by one of the operating gangs in the region, they got some time to freely explore the city, with some minor quests to get to know the immediate neighbours.

For example, "time off" doesn't really make sense in a true sandbox. In a true sandbox the players are the ones who set the time table.

Grivenger wrote:

The things I struggle with are structure: how to keep things moving forward while engaging all players and their separate choices, and time progression: when do you zoom out from the action and how do you keep track of time?

What are some of your approaches when giving the players free reign in a sandbox environment?

It sounds like your players have a tendency to go off on their own. That's a thing that actually has fairly little to do with sandbox. Campaigns with a strong major plotline can still have individual side stories while a sandbox campaign could have a party that stays together most of the time.

One of the things that can cause trouble is when players get the worry that their character is wasting time if they're doing nothing while another character is doing stuff. So now instead of one PC having a quick side trek that only takes 10m of OOC time to resolve, you have four people each wanting their 10m while the others have to sit back and wait. Ironically, by trying to optimally use IC time, you use OOC time very poorly.


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Advice from experience:

-Have a default backup adventure.
Have a map and story hook on hand, waiting for when the PCs are in a lull or running in circles. Maybe have several of these that when you're making adjustments on the fly, half of your job's already done. Plug in the appropriate names, guards, and such to match your players' storyline.

-Make a faction list.
In my most extreme example of this, I pored through the Bestiaries and made a list of all the critters I wanted to use in my sandbox and how many would be available. Ex. 1 Medusa, 2 Hill Giants, unlimited Giant Rats, unlimited 1st level mercenaries, a next of Ankhegs, etc. Many worked solo or with their kin, but many others were put into factions, i.e. the Hill Giants were the strongest mercenaries for a military group and the Medusa was teamed with blind humanoids.
Then I designated which portions of a necropolis they controlled, including the cliffs above and tunnels underneath. I designated a relatively safe area for the low-level PCs to begin with and placed a river and dead zones between them and the more serious threats (even though PCs often caught sight of them!).
The overarching story had the military faction searching for ancient artifacts to release their demon-god, but the day-to-day story went wherever the PCs wanted. And if they carved out a niche, that drew attention. If they left a gap, that gave room for other factions to expand into to gain resources.

After that prep,the ebb and flow was easy to admin. The players could tell that their PCs' exploits had an effect and that the NPCs were actively responding (as well as pursuing their own agendas).

Such a style could be adapted to a city. A city campaign would lean a lot more toward humanoids so you'll need to do more stat prep than in a monstrous campaign. I'm running a city campaign now that makes use of many of the same techniques, and the only difficult part is having so many stats easily on hand (especially as the named NPCs balloon in number). As the PCs whittle down some factions and ally with others, the ignored ones gain in power as their offscreen machinations come to fruition (the better to match up with the improving PCs!).
Meanwhile forces from outside the city attempt to corrupt the whole infrastructure so as better to conquer it.

Which is to say, keep your NPCs busy too and your PCs will likely want to aid or thwart them. Having a bar is a great opportunity, but if they let it pass, have an NPC buy it...and flourish! Doh!
Since they're the heroes, they'll get the lion's share of opportunities, but that doesn't mean they won't miss some. And in missing some and getting no freebies, maybe they'll key in on missing no more.

-Have a calendar
Key holidays, rituals, arrivals and departures, wars, or business deals. Maybe when negotiations begin and end, or research comes to fruition. It doesn't need to be more than a sparse outline, but it helps animate the setting. My players like having their PCs celebrate or go to temple on special days, and it's led to several important contacts and story lines.


Uchuujin wrote:

What I did for an Ebberon 3.5 game that was very time consuming, but effective, was every so often give them the front page of the local newpaper (because that was a thing in Ebberon), with some adventure hooks, and headlines that might reflect their actions or lack thereof. Something similar could be done with something of a town crier, either an actual person or a bulletin board.

Present some hooks. If they follow up on one give a future headline about being heroes. If they ignore one update it later; either the situation has gotten worse, or another rival party has completed it in their stead. Ignore things too long, and that line might in failure, with whatever repercussions that entail. Ignored the den of thieves in the sewers for three months? Congratulations, you now have a wererat infestation to deal with instead. Never followed up on the odd noises reported in a warehouse? Here comes an enraged golem. Etc.

To expand on this: other systems use the idea of "countdown clocks." Any particular plot hook or quest line has an in game timer ticking down on it. If the players don't deal with it and the clock runs to zero, something happens.

Of note, all the clocks advance at the same time, which may mean that sometimes your players just can't get them all done in time. Given they probably shouldn't see the clocks themselves, this is to be expected.


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Everytime people talk about sandboxes, I get more confused about how they really work.

Now we're here talking about plot hooks and quest lines on timers and consequences for ignoring plots or not addressing them fast enough and I don't see how this meshes with the usual selling feature of the sandbox - being able to pick and choose what you do and have to plan to avoid jobs or encounters that are too tough and all that.


Lots of good advice. Three things I would add, have several things that are going to happen with there being only time to deal with 1 or 2 of them. Most of the time these are things that the pc's would be intrested in but not their set goals. Yes it benefits the party to get involved, but it stings just a little to not get involved. 2nd, I do exp by goals, the party has an overarching goal that they earn exp for working towards. They pick the goal and it gives you an idea where they are heading. 3rd during downtime or as part of info given, have one pc gain the knowledge or item that would help a different pc.
One pc looking for a secretive organization that hunts demons, the rogue finds a safe house with silver items during one of his random robberies. I love having pcs finding clues for other pc goals.


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber
thejeff wrote:

Everytime people talk about sandboxes, I get more confused about how they really work.

Now we're here talking about plot hooks and quest lines on timers and consequences for ignoring plots or not addressing them fast enough and I don't see how this meshes with the usual selling feature of the sandbox - being able to pick and choose what you do and have to plan to avoid jobs or encounters that are too tough and all that.

The point of a sandbox is to have the feel of a living breathing world in which all choices are available, though not advisable. If you have a static world that only reacts to direct pc inputs then players lose that immersion when they look somewhere else in the world.

E.g it's rather disappointing when as a player you remember about how Gragner the Destroyer got away but you forgot to do anything about it to discover that a year later he has done nothing.

Sovereign Court

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One technique I like from Stars Without Number (a much more hardcore sandbox than any Pathfinder variant I've ever seen) is this.

At the end of each session, the GM asks the players "what do you plan to do next session?"

This saves you from a lot of work on content that won't be used because the party was planning to go the other way. It also helps you find out what they actually want to do. And it also tends to result in game sessions that are more conclusive: accomplish something specific each session, instead of slowly grinding through an interminable dungeon.


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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber
Ascalaphus wrote:

One technique I like from Stars Without Number (a much more hardcore sandbox than any Pathfinder variant I've ever seen) is this.

At the end of each session, the GM asks the players "what do you plan to do next session?"

This saves you from a lot of work on content that won't be used because the party was planning to go the other way. It also helps you find out what they actually want to do. And it also tends to result in game sessions that are more conclusive: accomplish something specific each session, instead of slowly grinding through an interminable dungeon.

Oh this is absolutely part of what I do, it really helps with my low vs high resolution approach to planning.


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@BPorter,

You've hit a few nails on their head, I reckon. In hindsight, I should've set expectations rather than wait for the session to hit and give them the new manor. You've offered a lot of advice that'll leave me thinking. Especially the out-of-game check-ins! It's something I intended, but I've been apprehensive about bombarding my players with questions outside of the established play-time.

Perhaps sandbox was an overstatement. There's an overall arch the players are supposed to follow, but the second part was supposed to be more about getting familiar with nearby NPCs and the city's factions next to fixing up the tavern.

@The Gleeful Grognard,

Busted! You're absolutely correct. I'm using the Waterdeep Dragonheist's framework as an overall narrative but dressed in my own world's coat.

@Ascalaphus

I don't know why I considered asking the players beforehand what their plan was next session based on parameters I could offer them. It also echoes BPorters advice on zooming lens and time.

@Kennethray

It seems so obvious, but I often find it hard to combine different players ' goals. This is something I have to practice. It's really clever to have them indirectly further the goals of the rest of the group.

All in all, everyone chipped in with fantastic advice and I can't express how grateful I am. If I manage to incorporate some ideas that fit my playstyle best, I'm sure my sessions will experience an improvement.

Castilliano, Wheldrake your advice has been fantastic too. I should leave myself more time to prepare sessions in advance.


My advice for a sandbox is to learn to be flexible and able to improvise, to zoom out whenever players are doing something uninteresting, and instead of planning the story, have a world with interesting places and characters and things happening. The players will do stuff, and you will have a vague idea of what important things are happening, and those things will interact organically. The players might stumble across the Liches Minions, and because you know what tools the Lich has, and what she cares about, what happens next follows logically from that instead of being a prewritten event.

and most of all, don't overprepare a bunch of things that the players might never investigate. You don't need a custom floorplan for the 12 bonus dungeons in a region - just use pre-made ones or improvise that stuff on the fly.


I whole heartedly agree with tendrils comment on being able to improvise. I am doing AoA and already ran plaguestone just to get the rules down. I made some changes to a few encounters in AoA to see what happens and OMG there is less room for error in pf2. For my homebrewed game I am going to have to be more proactive on have basic encounters created for the parties level until I gain a mastery on the monsters/NPCs power.


Kennethray wrote:
there is less room for error in pf2.

Can you elaborate? I'm not sure what this means.

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