My dad got me into Dungeons and Dragons when I was around 8 years old. Granted I did stupid stuff like played a Ranger like a fighter and used just really dumb spells on my Wizard, but I had a lot of fun with my Dad and sister during our weekly D&D session.
I learned a lot during those sessions and other sessions he DM’d for my friends and I, but one major difference in how we DM our respective games is that I enjoy having the world be a sandbox and he allows it, but tries to steer the party towards specific goals and adventures.
This post also contains a lot of my personal opinions and experiences so do take it with a grain of salt.
Obviously, there are pros and cons for running a sandbox game and not running an entirely sandbox game. Just for reference, when I say a sandbox game I’m saying that the players have a large country, territory, or world that they can explore in without any boundaries. A regular game still allows the players plenty of choices in their game play, but generally tries to keep them in a specific area for a period of time based on the adventure. Sandbox games can absolutely have quests and a big main quest for the players to embark on.
For my sandbox games I tend to put the players in a large continent or landmass for them to explore. The key to this is that I don’t always completely finish the continent when I’m writing up the campaign ahead of time. I’ll come up with a basic idea and then fill it in as the party gets the urge to move to a different section of the map.
For instance: here’s the continent that I’ve decided my roommates and I will play on next semester. I used this same continent in our last game, but I’m going to be bringing it into 5e and setting it a few years after the events of their last campaign happened.
Super, super basic map. I also need to add quite a few more towns and cities to it for this next campaign. In fact, I did not actually run a sandbox game at all last semester hence why it seems a bit light. This is a good time to bring up the cons of sandbox game.
Everyone in my last campaign was new to playing any kind of pen and paper RPG. It would’ve been very difficult for me to let them all do whatever they’d like to do every session. It was necessary to provide huge incentives and push them towards specific goals in order to showcase the game and teach them some of the more basic mechanics of D&D and these types of games in general.
Another problem with sandbox games is when a party wants to split up and explore on their own. This can get hectic. It’s fine when they’re in the same town or city and whatnot, but if they split up to go to different towns the game becomes an absolute mess. One example is that it becomes difficult to keep a consistent time between the new groups of party members because it takes travel time to get where they’re going. This can destroy the game if not kept track of well. To counter this I usually ask the party to stay together before leaving a zone.
Lastly, it can be a hell of a lot more work DURING the game for the DM to run a sandbox game (in general). While you do not have to be as thorough with your town and city creation, you have to be consistent with the events of the world. You also have to make a lot more towns and cities and landscapes. Even worse is that sometimes you can put a LOT of work into a certain city or town and the party will just blow past it. You basically have to just have outlines of your areas in the game instead of grandiose plans.
Anyways, enough with the negatives, what are the positives of playing a sandbox game?
For parties that like to immerse themselves in the world it’s a great way to show them that the world is truly alive. All of those towns and cities on the map have different cultures and traditions. Parties can also see that some of the problems of the world can affect everywhere else.
It also allows for an easy change of scenery as you’ve already jotted down what each town and city consists of. If the party grows bored of their current location and there’s no impending doom on the town/city/village they are currently in, they can simply move on and find a new place to make a name for themselves. Sometimes the party has simply outgrown the small village they are in and they have to move on in regular games anyways. However, in sandbox games, the decision is generally made by the party sooner than the DM.
Your average D&D game whether you like it or not, will always have a bit of sandbox in it. That’s really the fun part of D&D to me since the player always has a decision and millions of ways to solve any given problem. Their actions will always affect the world in a unique way. However, in a non sandbox game, the DM tends to have a few different locations for the party to explore and they are a bit more detailed when they are being originally planned.
Let’s start with the benefits of this method of play this time.
For the DM there is a lot less “improv” work to be done in a regular game. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of thinking on the fly for the DM, but you are generally able to plan out the locations and people a lot more in this type of game. For instance, I had my party start in the town of Trost. I planned it out quite thoroughly as they stayed here for a few sessions.
For the players there’s plenty of choices to be made still, but the world generally has a lot more details in them. So, for a group that loves to focus on the little things and enjoy a more fleshed out experience this is probably the better way to play. It allows the DM to plan a bit more and build up specific parts of the world for you to explore during your campaign.
There is a lot less “macro” exploration of the world. The party won’t be able to constantly explore new towns and cities on the fly as you most likely haven’t entirely planned for them to do so. In this mode the DM purposely wouldn’t include a plethora of areas for the party to explore and would limit it to a few well thought out areas.
It can be easy to “railroad” the session unintentionally if you’re constantly keeping the party int he same area regardless of what they want. Railroading is when the DM forces the party to do whatever they want them to regardless of their desires. Now this can be fixed easily, just communicate with your party and if they feel like they aren’t making their own decisions in the game lay off a bit. Note that this goes for ANY type of session.
Regardless, I tend to steer more towards the sandbox modes because that’s what my players tend to enjoy. My buddies at college really love games like Fallout and the Elder Scrolls series and really enjoy just exploring the world and affecting it in their own way. I’ve also had groups that just love going on a big quest and saving the world and really focusing on one specific area of the map. Just talk to your players before you begin planning and you’ll be able to make a perfect play style for that game.
In reality, there is no right or wrong way to play the game. In fact, I feel like the best way to play the game is to mix a little bit of both methods of play into your campaign.