Running a sandbox TTRPG campaign: Planning the campaign

It’s an open world

If you’re unsure about how to start a sandbox campaign with your TTRPG group, here are some tips for you. This post is about planning the campaign’s starting points, and it’s actually simpler than you might think.

First, let’s define “sandbox”. To me, it’s a character-driven game style where the characters have almost infinite possibilities to do whatever they want in the world. Of course, there have to be some boundaries and structure, but “sandbox” to me means “characters lead the story”.

Step 1: Pick a suitable game for a sandbox campaign

Not all TTRPGs are meant to be played in sandbox style. Investigatory games, for instance, aren’t a good fit for a sandbox because they tend to lean towards a “here is your case, now solve it” game style, which has strict boundaries. I’m not saying these games are worse than other games, they’re just not meant to be played in a sandbox style. The have more linear approach.

Good games for sandbox campaigns include anything from Free League, good old Dungeons and Dragons, or pretty much anything that has a huge map for exploring and doesn’t have strict structures for adventures. I can recommend Twilight 2000 and The One Ring, two games that I have most of my sandbox experience with.

Step 2: Decide what is happening in the world

Don’t spend too much time on this step because most of the work you do here will probably never be used. So, be quick and use very broad brush strokes here.

Take out the map of your world and start creating ideas about what is happening and where. Use a maximum of 2-3 sentences for each “happening” and attach them all to a certain location.

For example, in my The One Ring campaign, I had the map of Eriador in front of me and I made two “happenings” for each of the compass points. In the North, I had 1) orcs gathering at Mt. Gram and 2) undead appearing en masse in the ruins in Angmar. That’s it. You don’t have to write any more prose.

The main idea is to make your world a living, breathing place. There are things happening everywhere in the world, and the world is not passively waiting for the characters to do something.

Step 3: Create rumors

Based on the things happening in your world, write some rumors that act as hooks for the player characters. These should be a bit more prosaic than your own notes about what is happening in the world because these are meant for your players.

Remember, they’re rumors, so they can be weird, inaccurate, vague… Just make sure they’re interesting enough that they pique your players’ (and your own!) interest.

Here’s an example: You, as the game master, know that orcs are gathering a huge war host somewhere in the North. But this is kind of a boring rumor. So, your job is to spice things up. Maybe the rumor based on the orc host goes something like this: “Refugees from the North are fleeing their villages, and they’re whispering about a giant that is leading the group of orcs, people, and undead that is terrorizing the North.” Then you can decide how accurate these rumors are if your players decide to pursue this hook.

You don’t have to know what’s behind the rumors at this point. In fact, it’s really good if they excite your imagination as well, and you want to know what the truth is behind them. Play to find out!

Conclusion of planning the campaign

Now you should have an idea about what game you want to use and a world that is alive, and things are happening everywhere in it. Next step and blog post: creating player characters and session zero for sandbox campaign!