How to build a sandbox world in D&D

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Adventure can take you anywhere.

And if you’re playing in a sandbox world, the adventure can go literally anywhere.

While some adventures follow a distinct plotline, sandbox adventures let the players dictate the direction of the story. 

Not every gaming group likes a sandbox — some want more structure — but many players enjoy the freedom to explore a world the way they want rather than be railroaded through the story. 

If you’re creating a sandbox adventure during your RPG games, we have some ways to help forge your world.
Start small and expand. Your game is going to start in one location with a small group of people, so start there and work outwards. For example, it’s better to know what’s going on in the town where your adventurers will begin their game than to know what system of government operates the kingdom. 

But also craft a larger conflict. There definitely should be something pushing your adventurers to, well, adventure. This can be small-scale at first, but it should connect to a larger happening in the world. It doesn’t have to be world-altering, universe-saving adventure, but something should be happening.

Populate your world with places. Start in the place where your campaign will begin and add onto it. If it’s a small town, add a tavern, the mayor’s house, a general store, a trade outpost, or whatever might be in that town. Then add features around the town, other towns, and geographical features (forests, rivers, mountains, lakes, etc.). Keep expanding outward, adding cities and adjacent kingdoms and more. This is a sandbox. By its very nature, your players will be exploring. You need to give them somewhere to go. 

Now add people. While we often think of fantasy worlds being populated with dark forests, ruined castles, and underground dungeons, the adventurers will more often interact with the people who live there than they will the places themselves. So, start putting people — NPCs and monsters, too — in the places your players will visit. Give them names and quick back stories — the goblin war chief who led his people from the mountains, the tavern keeper who used to be an adventurer — so that you can describe them when they’re eventually encountered.

Connect your people and places. This is where your world will stop being some random mishmash of ideas and start feeling like a real world. It will also start creating plot threads and adventure ideas. Two NPCs in a town could be having an affair. The tavern keeper used to work for the king. Two brothers operate trade posts in towns far away. Two adjacent kingdoms aren’t at war, but one is poor, and one is rich. These sorts of connections will also help push the adventurers from one place to another.

Give everyone something to do. The real world is rarely stationary. People come and go. They live their lives. Every NPC and monster should have some reason for existing. They’ll be far more interesting if they have a story — even a short one!

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