Home » RPG in the Time of Plague – How did I start to run a sandbox campaign? 7-item to-do list

RPG in the Time of Plague – How did I start to run a sandbox campaign? 7-item to-do list

Sandbox RPG campaign in the time of plague
This sandbox campaign was mean to the characters. But it all started out of the mean time for myself. Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Little time for preparing sessions, having to schedule them to late hours and simultaneous drive to play something exciting – it’s all made me run my first sandbox RPG campaign. The concept appeared to me from time to time on the Internet, but I wasn’t very familiar with it. But when I read in the Forbidden Lands GM’s Guide that “15–30 minutes of preparation is plenty most of the time”, I was sold on it immediately. So why and how I did actually start my first sandbox campaign?

It suddenly felt like living in the Ravenland in the Age of the Blood Mist. No going out, no help from the outside world, no way to travel over a daily distance. Last year – yep, that year – my then-ongoing campaign could start only when my players and I put our kids to sleep – around 9 p.m. at best. In addition, complex homebrew setting and adventures with a broad cast of NPCs were all very satisfying but required a lot of work. Especially while working from home with a toddler on my laps, it was just too much. To be honest, it was a slog and not an enjoyable hobby anymore. At that dark hour, the idea to run a sandbox RPG campaign came to me as a great solution to all these problems.

7 things to prepare before you run the first sadbox RPG campaign

So, I’ve heard that sandbox RPG requires minimum prep work to be run. Great! But how did I make it work in practice? I delved a bit deeper (but not too deep!) and ended up writing down just a few bullet points. If you’d like to run a sandbox RPG, here’s my rough to-do list before launching your campaign. Don’t treat it as an exhaustive guide. It’s just my experience, but I think that it could help you make your first steps in the realm of sandbox.

1. What do you actually hope for while running a sandbox RPG?

Why do you want to run this thing? Maybe you, like me from the last year, have too little time or energy to read dozens of pages and take notes before each session? But perhaps you just want to try a different approach? Or maybe you’d like the idea of an open world with the initiative on the players? The answer may point toward other aspects you will need to look closer at before starting the campaign.

If you want your players to delve deep and interact on their own with the setting, then you may need to focus on the relationships between factions and have a clear idea of what could be going on in the setting and why. If you’re rather interested in having less prep-work each week, then you should probably come up with some more complex random tables or even create a few modules that could be run right out of the box. And suppose you like the idea of the sandbox RPG being a challenge for the characters. In that case, the rules’ section may be especially interesting to allow you to tune the challenge level while using random generators.

2. Talk to the players about your ideas, give them an example

The chances are that if you read this, you and your players have never played a sandbox-type RPG campaign. Your group may be used to a more plot-driven style of game. This playstyle may be a bit hard to grasp for them at the beginning. Of course, you’ve probably talked with them about how you want to run the next campaign. But from my experience, the players may nod to the “open world, freedom to do as you want” pitch while having an image of a “classical” scenario still stuck in their heads. I found out that presenting some example gameplay to them helps a lot. You may find a ton of actual play podcasts or streams on the web, so pick one close to your prospective game and showcase a few moments. That could really help the group to start off smoothly.

3. The setting pt. I: An Uncertain World

The sandbox setting requires a few underlying details to work well. First, you’ll need it to put some pressure on the characters. If the world is idyllic like the Shire or the Coruscant, the characters won’t have the drive to act. I’m not talking about presenting a quest to the characters – that is not a crucial element in the sandbox campaign*. But the world itself should present some challenges to the characters. Survival, travel or sustaining resources shouldn’t be easy. In such context, even the most straightforward story hook like “get from location A to B” may turn into an adventure. The Wilderness (with capital “W”) is one of the critical aspects of a sandbox RPG. A dangerous world needs some exceptional characters, whereas a civilised one, with well-maintained roads and plentiful harvests – doesn’t.

4. The setting pt. II: The Forces Behind the Scene

A dangerous world may be enough for some. You and your players may find exploration and travel with survival elements and resources management entertaining. But if you’d like to have more complex interactions with the world of your sandbox RPG, then you’ll need to ask who or what acts in the background. Is it a guild of thieves versus the guards or competing noble houses? Or maybe a powerful deity gathering worshippers? You may put as much as you feel comfortable with into your setting.

However, the idea of doing this is to make any actions or decisions made by the characters meaningful. Thus, if they find some lost artefact, it will really matter who they will deliver it to. A disguised cult leader, merchant prince with an ambition to carve her own kingdom or a righteous heir of the diminished royal house – they all may use some ancient for different purposes. And if you put some forces’ agendas against one another, you have very little to add to achieve a very vivid and engaging world. FrDave wrote an excellent text on how to make this work.

5. The setting pt. III: The Rules

When you run an RPG as a sandbox, you need to be very familiar with the rules. But GM has to know the rules anyway, so why am I making a point about this? Because if you’re going to generate the story world spontaneously, you’ll need to know what you’re doing. When you run a typical premade scenario, the difficulty levels are more or less adjusted. Thus, you won’t face your players with something way beyond their capabilities. In the sandbox campaign, on the other hand, if you roll a random encounter with a proverbial dragon, you’d better know whether it is or not a deadly adversary. Some on the web would say that the sandbox is just that – unpredictable and unforgiving. But you may like to know what you’re dealing with. Even if you’re going to leave your players to themselves as they (brutally) find out that in that specific RPG you’re playing, a pack of goblins is just as murderous as a medium-sized dragon from D&D. On the contrary, you may like to raise a challenge a bit from time to time, so it’s also helpful to know the numbers well.

6. Random Tables – As Written

While playing an open-world campaign, you don’t prepare everything that happens beforehand – that’s your scenario-based game. In the sandbox, most things are being randomly generated. If you’re using some sandbox-friendly system, you’ll probably find a couple (or a ton) of random tables in the book. Go through them all a few times. Imagine what you would do if the dice yielded X or Y. Try rolling random NPCs, villages or rumours. Write all the results down and expand them into more fleshed-out descriptions that would fit into an ongoing session. That’ll give a feel of how the game looks and how you handle improvising the random rolls. Also, you’ll see what the ready-made tables may lack to fit your idea.

7. Create Your Own Random Tables

While the rulebook may include a wide range of generators, you’ll probably need something to reflect your specific intention. There’s a handful of tables that may be especially useful for running a sandbox campaign. Mine included:

  • Expanded exploration events table (including the original table from the gamemaster’s book)
  • Factions table – for rolling for NPCs’ allegiance
  • Reaction table – for defining their initial disposition towards the party
  • Abstract table – d66 by d6 table of nouns/adjectives I wrote down randomly for rolling more specific while otherwise hard to categorize things
  • “Oracle table” – for getting the answer to a yes-no questions

Using those, I was able to quickly generate and flesh out any new zones, encounters etc. You may want to add or change something on this list. Please, let me know in the comments what you think about it. But the content here isn’t the most important thing. Ask yourself how do you and your players want the campaign to look like. Do you want more survival or resource management? Add a detailed weather generator, then. Or are you up for a complicated intrigue? (This is easily doable in a game with everything left to random rolls – more on this further into Forbidden Lands series.) Then expand the allegiance table into a more complex motivation generator, like what a given NPC(s) wants to do, why and how.

So, if you want to run your first sandbox RPG campaign, start with the expectations – yours and your players’. Then, get to know the setting you choose – and adjust it to your preferences. Finally, prepare the system for creating an open world of your game. You’re now ready to set out into the unknown, good luck and have fun! And please, let me know how you fare.


If you liked this post, you’ll also want to check out my random sandbox tables – the very same I’ve written about in the pt. 7. They’re really useful and… I’ll attach the bonus of weather pattern generator. Check out the link below!

2 thoughts on “RPG in the Time of Plague – How did I start to run a sandbox campaign? 7-item to-do list”

  1. Some RPG systems are introducing mixed approach. You have plot driven main story line and additional lines which are sandbox driven. I am not sure if this approach is common one – I have seen it in TOR 2E.

    Tables that you listed are just a starting point for GM. To present players immersive world GM needs to use his imagination a lot to expand results from tables.

    1. That’s right. The tables give you just a seed from which you grow the whole world. In this series, I will show and reflect on my experience with trying improvising based on such random ingredients.
      The other thing is that after the players make some significant decisions, the game starts to revolve around their choices. Technically, it’s still “fully open”, but the main plot begins to emerge due to the characters’ actions.

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