Sandbox adventures are pretty awesome! The border of the sandbox keeps your players (somewhat) contained to where the action is and they have free reign to roam anywhere within those walls to find adventure! Running a sandbox is a win-win, giving you enough freedom to improv with enough parameters to keep the adventure contained. Setting up a sandbox, on the other hand, is a pain. You need to fill up the box up with adventures and tie those adventures together, which is far easier said than done. Then you need to keep all the details of the sandbox straight!
Well guess what? I’m here to tell you that you can build a rich, amazing sandbox on the fly and use a bunch of books that are sitting on your shelf that you’ve only read.
Draw from What You Have
When you sit down to assemble your sandbox, draw from resources you already have. Do you own every hardcover fifth edition D&D adventure, but haven’t run them all? Do you have adventures and settings you’ve never used, from older editions of the game you’re running, or from a system you’ve never run that you love? Do you have hoards of Kickstarter goodies waiting to be unleashed on your players? NOW IS THE TIME TO BUST THOSE OUT, FRIEND-O!
If you’re building a sandbox on the fly, you don’t need to use every single book on your shelf, but you can pick a few to start and get to work. Maybe your sandbox has the town of Red Larch from Princes of the Apocalypse with a misty forest that holds Castle Ravenloft and the village of Barovia from Curse of Strahd to the east and the pirate city of Freeport sitting on the ocean to the west. South of Red Larch is a desert from the Southlands Campaign Setting and to the north is the Desolation from Shadow of the Demon Lord. Bam! Sandbox campaign set in two sentences.
The key is to drop in adventures, cities, dungeons, and other elements from books you love, but haven’t run with your players that excite you and would also excite your players. You’ve already done the work reading these books, so you’re halfway there!
You could be in a position where you’ve run every book you have on your shelf and you’re not sure what to put into your sandbox. Have no fear! Rather than read a lot of campaign settings, I’ve got some easy reading suggestions for you below to help you make an amazing sandbox. Most of these supplements are designed to be read for the first time or just moments before you run the adventure, so you don’t even need to do that much prep!
- Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations. This book from the brilliant Mike Shea gives you many amazing locations that you can drop into any system. The locations are modular, so you can make them as large or as small as you like.
- Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Adventures. This incredible book of ten short fifth edition adventures in and around the town of Whitesparrow is super easy to run on the fly. As a bonus, it can also tie-in with Fantastic Locations if you want to flesh the adventures out! Combining Fantastic Adventures and Fantastic Locations actually creates a lush, ready-to-go sandbox! Thanks, Mike!
- Prepared! and Prepared 2. From Kobold Press and incredible designer John Sawatsky comes two books of ready to play short adventures for fifth edition meant to be run without any preparation. This is a great book to keep handy for any sandbox adventure, especially if you have a bunch of settlements for you sandbox, but not a lot of adventure.
- Book of Lairs. Also from Kobold Press, many a monster lair for fifth edition mean to go hand-in-hand with the Tome of Beasts (one of the greatest monster books ever published). The Book of Lairs is perfect for populating your sandbox with amazing dungeons that need minimal preparation and can be run in a single session.
- Tome of Adventures. Some of the best and best-selling DMs Guild authors got together to bring you this collection of 19 great fifth edition adventures! Easy to drop these bad boys into ANY setting.
- Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Random encounter tables for sandboxes of any environment lie at the back of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything!
Reskin, Restat, and Tie Together as You Go
As your players explore your sandbox, remember that you can change anything you like in these adventures! Converting systems is pretty easy (a goblin in Pathfinder is close enough to the same strength mechanically as a goblin in fifth edition), so no need to worry about doing lots of conversion preparation. You can reskin and change names to make a location seem unique and original. Don’t want your players to recognize the Mournland from Eberron? Well instead of a place covered in mist and eternal twilight, now its a scorching desert called the Dead Salt Flats. Gender bend NPCs, change names, remove, and add details to your heart’s content to make the sandbox your own!
Remember that you can change your own plans on the fly too. Have your players reached a high enough level that creepy dungeon in the mountains would no longer challenge them if you left it as the dungeon from the Forge of Fury? Guess what? Now it’s the Tomb of Horrors.
If you want to tie together all your plot lines, you may find that’s easier than you think too. Sit back, listen to the theories your players come up with, and use their own paranoid chatter as truth. Pick your favorite big bad, and have that being behind all of the sandbox’s evil-doings, slowly revealing the villain one clue at a time. Just don’t rush to tie it all together! If you wait and see what most about the sandbox most interests your players, you’ll find ways to easily tie together the stories of Out of the Abyss and Storm King’s Thunder. Let it be a mystery you uncover with you players. Note that you don’t HAVE to tie together every adventure if you don’t want to. In sex and RPGs as long as everyone’s having fun you’re doing it right.
How to Track it All
When it comes to sandboxes, a little bit of paperwork goes a long way. Open up your handy Google Doc (or whatever you take notes in) and write down the name of every published adventure or campaign setting you’re using. Under each, put a list of bullet points to remind yourself of the changes you’ve made. These can be very simple. For instance, if you were replacing all of the goblins in Lost Mines of Phandelver with kobolds, you might write the “goblins = kobolds” bullet point. If you’re not going to tie the adventures together, you’re done!
If you are planning on tying the adventures in your sandbox together, create one more heading in your notes called “Overall” and simply list bullet points there about how you’re tying each adventure together. Easy!
Have you ever done this? Do you plan to do so? If so, let me know what resources and adventures you’ve used in the comments below!
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