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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Flexible Sandbox Style

OSR style dungeons and dragons boasts frequently about something called the sandbox style campaign.  In this style the DM has created a world, the surrounding area and perhaps some details of a starting village or city and dungeon and it is left to the players to decide what to do with it.

True sandbox style gaming requires what I like to technically call an "ass ton" of prep work.  Sure some guys can off the cuff the whole thing pretty well, especially if they have lots of experience.  Even the best off the cuff DM (in my humble experience) falls short of sitting down at the table with a DM who has actually gone through the trouble to create maps, dungeons, plots, NPC's all in advance and who offers a true sandbox experience.

This year I have experimented with what I call a flexible sandbox style.  I create more abstract color coded maps where a hex or square of terrain reflects a location in broad strokes. In the case of an overland area the squares or hexes might represent a one to three mile area of light woods or hills while a square on an abstract city map might represent about a three block by three block area of slums, merchant quarter or some other city neighborhood.

From there I begin to create a library of notecards for each broad area.  These I organize as encounters, descriptions, NPC's and other interesting elements.  Instead of detailing out every possible location on my more abstract maps I might create ten light woods encounters, ten light woods descriptions without encounters, ten light woods region NPC's and ten light woods locations.  I still write up the most important locations in detail.  The estate of the Duke I might map and key / describe in some detail.  The local dungeon or two I will map and describe in some detail but I will not attach all these more generic slum or merchant quarter or light woods or hills or swamps locations to a specific locale on the map.  Why?  Because once you decide Will Turner the Ranger lives at this exact square on the game map then in a sandbox campaign the chances of the players encountering Will Turner drops dramatically.  Indeed much of what you create in a static sandbox style entertains only the DM because the players never get around to exploring much of the map even after weeks and months of adventure.

The flexible sandbox style lets you either pick a specific type of card as the characters pass through a square or roll randomly to see what they encounter.  This, I find, is an excellent mix of both the off the cuff improvisational style and game play with lots of advanced preparation.  As the DM you never exactly know when Will Turner will wander out of the woods but likely he will at some point.  I find as the DM this more flexible sandbox style gives the players (and me too) a feeling that the world is more alive.  NPC's show up, wander off and might reappear in another part of town or the woods later doing something else.

Now for the minor location cards and certain types of encounters once I draw the card I make a notation on my map that card X is now found at map location Y from here forward.

Still with ten cards covering say ten types of terrain or city districts on a map (a total of 100 notecards) I can run a group of players for a four or five hour evening of play and never run out of fresh material.  Also the note cards can be fairly quick to crib up with a pencil or pen in between doing other things and dropping another ten or twenty into the card box between games is never much of a challenge.  Over four or five sessions you can easily expand your initial fifty or sixty notecards to a library containing hundreds of cards detailing a great number of well thought out and detailed encounters, treasures, location descriptions, fun and well described NPC's, etc...


  1. You might call it Schrödinger's Sandbox: You know there's a cat, but you don't know where it is until the players observe it.

  2. Hey that is very clever. Five points to Griffindor!