How to run a sandbox game in D&D

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In our last blog, we talked about building a sandbox-style world for your Dungeons & Dragons games.

Now, we’ll talk about running those games.

Whether you built your own world or are running a published adventure — D&D 5e has some sandbox adventures including Curse of Strahd, Out of the Abyss, and Princes of the Apocalypse — these tips will help keep your open-world game going.

Give them something to do. A true sandbox sets players in a world and lets them, well, do whatever they want. That’s why it’s called a sandbox. There are no rules, structure, or plotline. But a game without a quest or a story is pretty boring. The best sandbox adventures have an open world with a grand plot or long-term aim. So, set the scene with some sort of quest, adventure, or encounter that pulls the adventurers into the overarching story.

Provide information. Open-world games can die quickly if the players feel lost or don’t know what to do next. Keep them plied with information about other places, new quests to undertake, or NPCs that need their help. Pull them into the next part of the story.

Introduce hooks. A good sandbox world is a connected world, so new adventure hooks should be popping up naturally. But make sure to dangle a few hooks in front of them whenever possible. When they’re done with the current adventure, they’ll be pulled toward the next one.

Use your NPCs. Non-player characters can serve all sorts of functions in any kind of game, but they’re most important in a sandbox game. They provide information, hand out quests, and can be there to guide players when they get stuck. Even after you’ve provided plenty of hints, sometimes players still can’t figure out their next step. That’s when an NPC shows up at the tavern and whispers some inside information, pushing them to the next place.

Keep in mind what could come next. Since they’re open worlds, these kinds of adventures tend to be able to go in any direction. Do your best to anticipate what the players could do next, so you’re prepared with a different dungeon or encounter if directions switch.

Remember it’s OK to break from the game for a second. If your players do something totally out of left field, pause the game to address them. “Hey, you guys can go into this cave or you can go to the town, but I honestly don’t have the cave prepared right now. It’s fine if you decide to do that, but we’ll have to break now and pick back up there at the next session.” They should be cool with it.

Tie the characters’ backgrounds into the game, if you can. The open nature of this kind of game lets you build elements of the player characters’ backstories into the game, which will lead to more investment in the plot and more excitement, too.

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