Sandboxing is HARD

The first thing I wrote for DMs Guild was a stream-of-consciousness brain dump of DM-centric advice and trivia. It must not suck too badly, because it became a Copper Best Seller. (You can find it here, if you’re interested.)

Periodically I get correspondence from that. Some of it has to do with clarification. Some is just praise. Some is just snark. Sometimes, I get something completely new. I want to tell you about that.

Recently, Bryan wrote me an email:

“I am currently running my group of 6 work friends/family through the Curse of Strahd campaign with a little homebrew elements incorporated into it. I’ve been seeking feedback from my friends and they say they are having fun and all, but one guy says he feels like he is being forced into situations rather than making choices that are meaningful. So, my questions to you as an experienced DM is:

“How do I make the content that I develop and work on less of a railroad that they follow and more of a choice between characters?

“Should I create random maps for random encounters that they may have when they go off the rail?”

I found that incredibly interesting, and it really made me think. I chewed on it for a bit, marshaled my thoughts, and sent this reply:

I understand your predicament. I’ve been there. That’s the trouble with published adventure materials – it’s pretty railroad. It HAS to be, or it’ll be a huge $50+ book like the Giants thing that dropped a while back. That was the first thing I’ve seen from WizKids that *wasn’t* chuggachugga railroad.

The trouble is it’s really hard to give the players the ability to “sandbox” while trying to maintain a story arc. I’ve found you have to give them the *feeling* of sandboxing while actually putting them on the Express to Plotville. See, that’s the thing – they can’t see behind your screen. They don’t know what you have in store for them. If your plan is to have them defeat Bad Guy X in the Castle In The Mountains, and they decide to go be pirates 500 miles away from that Castle, put the bad guy on another boat and have him attack their boat. Change the flavor, change the location, let them *think* they’re screwing up your plans, hit them with what you want to hit them with anyway, then eat their Cheetos.

Anyway, that doesn’t help you with CoS. Unfortunately, your player isn’t going to be satisfied. Barovia is the Demiplane of Dread. Used to be really hard to get out of that place. Once you were there, you were pretty much stuck; even Strahd can’t get out, and he runs the damn place. So it’s not like your players can be all, “Screw you and your Neverwinter bullcrap, we’re going to Waterdeep.” It isn’t that simple. Barovia *is* a railroad. CoS *is* a “choose your own adventure” plan with limited choices.

Practically, I don’t think it’s on you to make the adjustment. I think your player needs to adjust his expectations. For the following reasons:

1. He’s the odd man out. The rest of you are satisfied with what’s happening.
2. CoS is what it is. If he *really* wants to sandbox you’ll have to abandon the campaign and start something from scratch.
3. You’re new. It’s a learned skill to be able to react to sandboxing and provide a high-quality experience for your players. You’re working toward that by working in more than the material in the book.

I think you need to make it clear.

Now, into the future: Developing your own sandbox. My advice is…

…don’t. There’s so much content out there. Play through published stuff. In terms of “it’ll work really well out of the box,” go with Official D&D, converted Old School modules, and highly-rated 3rd party content, in that order. You will learn SOOOO MUCH about running games AND designing your own adventures from that experience.

Designing adventures is *hard.* Sit at the feet of masters and osmosis some wisdom before you set out to do it yourself.

Now, if they go off the rails, and they will, let ’em. They’re reacting to what you’re telling them, after all. This is your chance to be creative. Be honest with them, though – tell them they’re going off the reservation, into the Land of I’m Not Prepared, and ask them for five minutes to come up with something interesting. Send ’em out for a smoke break. That’ll give you enough time to figure something out.

Let’s say they fixate on the barmaid, who doesn’t even have a name, much less anything to do with the Evil Sorceror of Evil whom they’re supposed to be taking on. Ask them for a few minutes. While they’re drinking Coke and stuffing themselves with pizza, make her into Bandera, a distant relation of one of the characters. This gives them a reason to care about her. If they don’t, role-play about how she got a letter from the character’s mother, why doesn’t he write, she worries about him, that sort of thing. Then have them notice a strange inky stamp on the back of her hand: The mark of the Cult of Extreme Badness. Turns out she’s not really a convert; she’s romantically involved with a True Believer, though, and GOSH, he’s so DREAMY, and they don’t *actually* sacrifice innocent maidens, no not at all. That night, she’s not there. The tavern owner, who’s run ragged because he’s short-staffed, said Bandera said she was going to a church service with her boyfriend and she should have been back an hour ago.

Boom. Now they need to develop a daring and complicated rescue op, which should be very exciting. They have to find the cult’s lair – and you’ll have to create the circumstances of finding the lair and the lair itself, which is exciting and creative, even though you can use any old house map and put it a block away. HINT: Get a supply of those link-em-together map tiles. I like these:

This is classic sandboxing. I hatched that in less than three minutes. The trouble is it has nothing to do with the main adventure other than impacting tactical resources (like spell slots). So tie it in. Chances are the Evil Sorceror of Evil has a plan. He’s not just waiting for adventurer’s to come kill him. Oh, no. He has his own plans, which have a schedule. The PCs taking the evening “off” the main adventure to rescue Bandera mean he’s a leg up on them. They need to realize this. Maybe put their patron in their way as they go to the cult base, berating them for not immediately rushing off to Evil S’s tower to turn him to paste. Put that tension, that drama, into it. Make them realize their sandboxing might have consequences they cannot anticipate.

I hope that makes sense to you. It did to Bryan (or at least he said it did). Let’s hope his game goes well!

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