Creating Your First Sandbox

As promised in Running Your First Sandbox, this blog post will provide a demonstration of creating a sandbox using the guidelines outlined in the previous post. The sandbox we will be creating here is very simple, meant to be used for the very first session of a campaign. Our goal will be to create a sandbox that can be used right away, and expanded upon as the campaign continues.

As a refresher from the last post, the crucial elements we will need in our sandbox are: NPCs and Factions, problems (not plots), and a reason for the players to care. While the sandbox we are creating won’t be location/exploration focused, it will still need a few notes on the location, as well as a general idea of the larger world beyond the sandbox. Personally, the background context is where I prefer to begin, although you can start this process on any of the key pillars.

When creating a small sandbox, particularly for a one-shot or other short campaign or adventure, I prefer to set it within an existing world that I am already familiar with. This saves a lot of time on the big picture elements, like genre (fantasy, sci-fi, etc.), major factions, magic, gods, and so forth, which would be overkill to develop for a sandbox that may last only a session or two. I’ll be setting this example sandbox in Teia’s Realm, my magical Bronze Age world. For your mini-sandbox, choose a setting you are familiar with, such as a world you’ve already created or a published setting.

A summary of the sandbox will be included in italics, to help keep track of what we’ve done. First, we’ll be setting our sandbox in the larger context of Teia’s realm, a world in the bronze age, with powerful gods and magic suffusing everything.

Some people prefer to skip this step entirely, ignoring the larger context of the world to hyper-focus on the specific sandbox you are creating. I prefer to have some context, particularly in a fantasy setting where things like gods and the basis of magic can have a major impact even on small scales, but you are welcome to skip this step if you desire.

With our background now established (Teia’s Realm), we can move on to the specific location of our sandbox. For this example, I’m going to be keeping things small: a single village and the countryside immediately surrounding it. We’ll say the village has around 100 people, is located in a temperate environment, and is primarily focused on farming and fishing. The village is bounded on one side by a river, and by farmland otherwise, with a thick forest surrounding the farmland, cut by a small trail going North-South. The river serves as a minor trade route for the area.

The sandbox takes place in a small village of 100 people and the farm, river, and forest around it.

That is all we will need for our location for now. We have our basics out of the way, and now we can focus on the things that will really bring our sandbox to life. At this point, I like to think about the central problem that will be defining the sandbox. For our example village, I would like to keep the problem small and local. This problem should provide a hook, that will draw the players into engaging with the sandbox. We’ve decided that our village is primarily focused on farming and fishing, so lets work with that. A simple problem could be that the crops are failing, despite good weather.

Failing crops would be a major issue for this village, but we will need to make sure it is a problem that the players are capable of solving. For that, we need to know why the crops are failing, and this is where our larger context comes in to play. In Teia’s Realm, crop failure would likely signify godly displeasure, an angry spirit, or both. If this were a sci-fi sandbox instead, perhaps the crops would be failing to do the lack of an important nutrient, or the presence of a toxin if the sci-fi had a more post-apocalyptic flavor. Problem causes are a great way to exemplify the themes of the setting you are playing in.

There is one major problem afflicting the village: the crops are failing due to the displeasure of a god.

To keep things local, we’ll say this is a minor god, present only in the region of this village, and that they are a god of agriculture (hence the crop failure). The next logical questions are, why is the god displeased, and how can they be appeased? At this point, we can start thinking about NPCs and Factions.

For our simple sandbox, we’ll limit ourselves to two factions, represented by two named NPCs each (four NPCs total). These factions should be in conflict, and that conflict should tie into the core problem of our sandbox. Using these guidelines, and keeping our problem in mind, we can create two factions representing a religious schism. Our first faction will be Reformists, who have ceased worship of the agriculture god in favor of the god of the local river. Their abandonment has angered and weakened the agriculture god, leading to the crop failure. As a natural counterpoint to the Reformists, we’ll have the Traditionalists, who wish to continue worshiping the agriculture god.

There are two factions in the village, the Reformists and Traditionalists. The Reformists triggered the crop failure of the village by turning their back on the local agriculture god that the Traditionalists are still loyal to.

When creating NPCs to represent the factions, we should focus on representing diverse perspectives to enforce the idea that no faction is a monolith. Because we are limiting ourselves to two NPCs per faction, we should also choose the two most influential NPCs within each faction.

Starting with the Reformists, we should consider what would cause someone to turn their back on the agriculture god. The obvious choice is a Fisherman, who seeks to raise their haul from the river by worshiping that god. They should be influential, so we’ll make our Fisherman experienced, and a respected voice within that profession in the village. To present another perspective amongst the Reformists, we should choose someone who is young, and of a different profession. In a village of this size, there would likely be one full time disciple to the cult of the agriculture god, as well as a few youths apprenticing to that disciple. Perhaps, one of these youths has had a bad time, and forsworn the agriculture god, and their religious hierarchy, as a result. They are now the River Cult Disciple. They swore to serve the river god as revenge for their mistreatment, and they provide the perspective of many of the youths in the village, who are seeking a path other than that of their parents.

Two influential NPCs in the Reformists are the wise Fisherman and the young disciple of the cult of a river god.

With the River Cult Disciple, we already established that there must also be an Agriculture Cult Disciple, the older person who taught the River Cult Disciple and represents the Traditionalist point of view within the local religious structure. This disciple is afraid of the new religion popping up, because it will mean the loss of the small amount of power they possess. We now have 3 out of our 4 NPCs, and we have yet to touch on any leadership of the village. For our last NPC then, it would make sense for the Traditionalists to have the village Headperson within their ranks. The Headperson has been elected by the villagers to make lead and decisions for the benefit of all, and represent the village to outsiders. They wish to keep the agriculture god appeased for the safety and prosperity of the village.

Two influential NPCs in the Traditionalists are the elderly disciple of the agriculture god and the village headperson who leads the village.

We now have four NPCs, and the two factions they represent. The motivations and tropes of both the NPCs and the factions are clear enough to help us improvise their reaction to any situation the party puts them in. We can always come back to further develop these characters and groups, but we won’t need that for our first session of play.

Lastly, we need to give our players a reason to care about this conflict. The most effective way to do that is to make the problem personal to their characters. In this case, the player characters should be native to the village our sandbox is set in. They care about the problem, because it’s them and their families who will starve if the problem is not resolved. In this case, the characters would likely have personal connections with the gods involved, and their own opinions about which side to take in the conflict.

The players care about this conflict because they are from this village, and they and their families and friends risk starving if the conflict is not solved.

Alternatively, if the players do not want to be from this village, or this small sandbox is part of a larger campaign, we have a few options. First, we can give the player characters connections to the village. Perhaps a religious character also worships one of these local gods, or another character has family in this village, even if they aren’t from here. If that doesn’t work, look to the player characters’ motivations to determine what would cause them to care about a conflict, and incorporate that into this one. A character trying to make the world a better place will naturally want to get involved, while someone looking to make money might need some incentive from either faction. The best reasons to care always tie closely into the player characters’ backstories and motivations.

With that, we have everything we need to run the first session of our sandbox! We have just enough information to guide any improvisation that might be necessary, without so much prepared that it might cut into the freedom of the players to solve problems in whatever manner they wish. If this campaign continues after the first session, it will be easy to add in additional NPCs or expand upon the ones we already have, until this problem has been resolved.

When running a sandbox like we have developed here, it can be helpful as a GM to use a system that works with you, and eases the job of sandbox creation and management. For example, here at Archstone Press we are developing The Years of Adventure, which contains plenty of advice and optional systems for managing sandbox campaigns in a fantasy setting. Alternatively, Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number and Worlds Without Number (both available for free!) provide a massive toolbox to simplify creating sandbox campaigns in sci-fi and fantasy settings respectively. Regardless of the system you choose, making sure that it can support and enable sandbox play will go a long way towards making your sandbox creation and campaigns run smoothly.