Crash’s Course Ep 04: Sandboxing

Hello and welcome to Crash’s Course, a short form podcast where I share my thoughts and advice on playing and running tabletop role playing games in roughly about 5 minutes.

Last time we talked about railroading, so in this episode I want to cover the other extreme: Sandboxing.

You’ve likely seen the old joke: a pet or child is given a new toy, but they find the box to be far more enjoyable. Such is the pain of many a DM or GM, where they worked really hard on a campaign only to have the players adopt the first monster they encounter, then – if you’re in my campaign – retire from adventuring and start a children’s theater.

My friends, I have a suggestion that I never would have made before I had 2 decades of teaching under my belt: What if you just … let them do that?

TTRPGs are collaborative, aren’t they? So why not let them have their fun? Sure, you still need to add things to the game as you’re controlling the whole world except for the players, but with them making all the big choices you’ll need a lot less time to prep things … with some caveats.

Sly Fourish (of ) has some great ideas about this. I’ve borrowed some, changed others, and added some new things, but here’s the basics I follow:

  1. You still need a hook to get going. Something, anything, to prevent the dreaded moment when you ask “So what do you do?” and get nothing but silence in return.A supersaturated solution will stay that way until there’s something for all the crystals to form around.

    Are the party seeking revenge for their home town being burned to the ground? Are they trainees in a Grand Company of adventurers? Are they shipwrecked and just trying to survive?

    That story hook might be abandoned early on or continue to be the driving motivation for the characters, but its main usefulness is in its role as a catalyst.

    I talk more about this in the last episode, so I’m just going to move on now.

  2. Before each session, write down six to ten “secrets.” I’m using quotes because you aren’t required to keep these from your group at all costs. These will be things for you to keep in mind as you are deciding how the world reacts to the players’ choices.Some of them will be very local and specific, like the driving motivation of a specific NPC friend of the party. Others might be more world-event-ish, like an army marching from one city to the next. The party might never encounter the army, but armies send out foragers and take from local farms. They scare away game animals and potentially drive more dangerous monsters towards (or away from) the party. The effects are felt even if you never see the troop formations.

    Some of your secrets will carry over from one session to the next. Some will change or become irrelevant very quickly. Their usefulness is in the moment, where there’s a pause in the action. A plot point is getting resolved? Look over your “secrets” to see what you can toss their way.

    As the campaign goes on, your “secrets” for each session should be direct or indirect results of player choices more and more often. If done right, it should be a mix of “you’re powerful enough to make a difference in the world” and “this is all your fault,” but how you mix those two moods is up to your group dynamic.

    I like to keep all of my campaign secrets in a spreadsheet sorted by session date, but a notebook works just as well. If I’m ever hunting for inspiration, I think about what the party has done in previous sessions. We haven’t seen that NPC in months, what have they been up to? The party cleared out that haunted mansion last year. Has anyone or anything moved in since then? Is that better or worse?

  3. Browse for creature features. Go old school with the Monster Manual, 3rd party with Kobold Press, or anything in-between, but whatever your sources, you should scan through to find a handful of level-appropriate encounters. It’s possible that most will never be used, but a truly unusual one might wind up as part of one of your secrets.Don’t be afraid to “re-skin” a monster, either. The party opened a candy shop? Well, what if a rival shop owner hired a wizard to curse the party’s shop? Cursed candy isn’t a thing, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch to say the earth elemental is made of rock candy or that mud mephit is actually marzipan. The stats remain the same, but now the flavor is based on what the players chose.

That’s all for this episode, subscribe to just this podcast at or all my D&D podcasts at for future episodes.

Music is Deadly Windmills by JAM from, used with permission, as it’s public domain.

This podcast is distributed under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

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