DMs Corner: Telling a Linear Story in a Sandbox World
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
You’ve finished it! Your magnum opus!
This is not only the single greatest story you’ve ever written, but an unparalleled adventure the likes of which your players have never dreamed of! You meticulously set the stage, making sure every last piece is in order. Finally, the last domino is in place, every machination set, every surprise turn ready to reveal! The story to end all stories begins! With this Feast spread before your players you remove the blindfold, unveiling your creation!
Then your players promptly run in five different directions.
This is a problem every Game Master or Dungeon Master has had to endure, and one we have a great deal of empathy for. Nothing kills a campaign quicker, nothing drains a DM’s will to orchestrate, nothing saps the life out of a campaign more quickly than uncooperative party dynamics. What are we to do when a player decides to ignore the town’s mayor’s plea? How do we save the story when the party would burn the orphanage rather than fund it? How will the Kingdom survive when their only hope turns to wander fields of lilies, taking a sideline view to the advancing armies? What can a GM hope to accomplish when ever baited hook is ignored for an odd piece of nearby rubbish?
Fear not! We are here to help! Combining the experience of a dozen DMs, GMs, Referees and Story Tellers, we’ve compiled a series of guidelines that should help you keep your story on track, despite your players! We call this method The Sand Castle, it is our way of putting a rigid, purposeful, detailed structure into a free form so-called Sandbox world.
But before we begin, a note on what this article is not: We offer no advice here on how to write your plot lines. Tools to aid in composing your story, setting the stage, populating your world, developing Empire wide dynamics, these are topics for future articles. What we hope to accomplish here is offer advice on how to tell your story successfully while still leaving a long enough leash for your players to roam more-or-less without restriction. We do not claim this to be a definitive text, but rather a starting point for equipping yourself to lead your players through the endless desert that is the great RPG Sandbox!
Before we can even attempt to weave a story into a world, we need the world! Depending on the story you wish to tell, the scope of your Sandbox can take many forms. It could be a simple side-quest in a city, a feudalistic fiefdom, a warring states kingdom, a bloated empire, an entire realm, a planet, a star system, even a plane of existence! The first thing you need to determine is the scope your story is going to encompass, or needs to encompass, so that you can appropriately fill the Sandbox.
Let us begin by setting the stage. First you’ll want to define the limits the players have as their initial boundaries. It is advisable to ease your campaign into an open Sandbox world, rather than throwing the party in with little or no direction. This can be done in a number of ways. Generally a good starting point would be for the players to have some sort of previous experience linking their party. Perhaps they’re a company of Veteran explorers whose ship is about to dock in a new realm. Perhaps they all grew up in the same small village and have been called to journey a much larger world. Perhaps the party are prisoners in a far away and strange land, or conscripts fighting an unwanted war far from home.
The key here is to give a firm starting point. Having an endless sea of stars or vast expanse of empires to explore is all well and good, but there needs to be some kind of grounding for any player investment to begin. Further, the last thing you want to do is give up your best chance of focus by putting the reins fully in player hands too early. Examine the story you wish to tell and determine where a good starting point would be, and have the story begin there.
Wait a second! My party is already exploring a Sandbox world, I can’t just drop them into the ideal spot to start an adventure. They have to have a reason to go there.
Okay then, let’s give them a reason! If we’re looking at an already established party of adventurers voyaging the sea of sands before them, give them a reason to come to your plot relevant location. Typically this involves some variety of Baiting a Hook. Rather than rattle off a dozen ways to entice your players, go with what you know about their characters. Play on their flaws, their vices, their pride, and when all else fails, bring the story to them!
Let’s suppose your story hinges on finding a certain NPC, a specific item, or witnessing a specific event. This is your X Factor. The easiest way to bring this to the party’s attention is to place the X directly in front of them. You run a very real risk here of removing their ability to choose, so be mindful. If the party feels the bait is being forced down their throat, you have virtually zero chance of them taking a bite. Put the options reasonably before them, lead them to the water, then let the players decide whether or not to drink labeled with an ominous looming X.
Now here’s the hardest part for you as a story teller: If the party is not interested in following your story, if your X Factor goes ignored or brushed aside, let them leave! Absolutely let them turn around and seek for an alternative adventure path, and have several side quests ready for them. Then, they’ve been allowed to choose, the world is open to them. Now you can use those side quests as means to introduce additional plot ties or information, or as opportunities to find plot relevant items that tie back to your X. Further, you should build in a consequence for ignoring a quest. Make certain in game events Time Sensitive. An easy example: A kidnapping has occurred! Bring a Hundred Gold Coins to the Docks by Midnight or the girl Dies!
The quest was never taken, so, have some fun on your own. You could kill the victim, have her sold into slavery, have her returned by a group of now competitive NPC explorers, have her escape with new information, even have her turn out to be in on the plot and not happy the party didn’t come after her! The take away here is have something, Anything, happen! The world will feel so much more alive if quests come and go around the party.
But let’s suppose the quest is story centric and must happen, a pivotal point in the story telling. In this case imagine your story is a brand new sports car. The players don’t like the color. So, repaint it! They don’t like the spoiler? Add a new one! They don’t need a new car? Give them a reason to want a new car!
Never give up on a plot centric quest, rather, try dressing it up, presenting it in a new light. If your players have no benevolence, repose the quest later by someone wealthy. If your players aren’t greedy, appeal to their emotions. Find the angle that will make your fish bite, even if it isn’t the angle you originally had in mind. Do whatever you have to in order to make that fish bite, and meet the fish where it is. Then, no matter where you snagged the party, it is a simple matter of reeling them in. The end destination is always the same, your waiting frying pan, so let the fish choose what to swim through to get there.
Once the ball gets rolling in the story telling it becomes a matter of keeping it moving without getting bogged down. So how do we do that?
The Pail and Shovel
Let’s face it, staring at sand can be incredibly boring! You need to breathe life into your world or your story will never flourish. The most engaging adventure means nothing if the stage is set blandly and populated by uninteresting bit roles. We need to take up our Pail and Shovel and start forming this Sandbox!
Fill your world with interesting tidbits to tease the explorers. Landmarks with vague rumors are an easy way to start an adventure, or to lure a party in a particular direction. News travels quickly in the form of gossip, so create unique NPCs that can quickly be built up into legends by word of mouth. After five sessions of rumors have the party finally meet this character they’ve heard so much about, and then begin to discover what it really true or embellished.
The easiest way to fill your world and make it feel real is to have a Random Name Generator handy. Before the game starts pull up a list of a dozen generic sounding names and keep them handy. Whenever the party enters a building, tell them the name of the building. If a party member talks to a merchant, introduce the merchant by name. Give each location and individual a single quirk, a sort of one note character, that will stick in the minds of the Players. Let’s look at two scenarios and compare the immersion;
A) You enter town, there’s an Inn to the side. Inside the Barmaid tells you about bandits in the woods down the path. What do you do?
B) Strolling down the bustling Main Street of Brighton you’re drawn to the Blue Steel Tavern, a silver shield hanging over the door, blazing from the sun’s rays. Inside the door you’re met with Lynn’s smile, the fairest maiden to ever pour a tankard for a thirsty traveler. Twirling her braided hair she remarks with concern that James Fulton, a former Guardsman, has raised a group of brigands now threatening her hometown. What do you do?
See the difference? It may seem obvious, but all too often Dungeon and Game Masters alike leave much to be desired in filling out the more trivial bits of their world. This is both the easiest thing to correct, and the easiest way to add immersion to your world.
The most crucial thing you can do is remove every generic dune of sand in your sandbox. You don’t have to have all of this information prepared in advance, use templates and random generators. Have some ideas for engaging characters to sprinkle about. That’s not just a merchant, that’s Mary Storms who grows prize winning Cabbages every year. That’s not just a roadside barracks, that’s the battered Westfall Readout, where stalwart and ever vigilant guards keep their border secure. That’s not just some noble’s horse tied out front, it is a regal breed of Northern Longmane, a breed known for their valor and loyalty to the one who can tame such a steed.
Essentially, you need to become good at making things up, or be very ready to pull a fabrication together from your resources. It can even be the first thing that comes to your mind, those can be the most memorable sort of player experiences! We once played a game where a spoiled Noble child hadn’t been named yet, so the DM quickly said his name was Carb. The name came from the word “Carbonated,” printed on the Mountain Dew can the DM was currently holding. Another time the same DM named a ship “The Dry Canadian,” from the Ginger Ale he was drinking. Both times, that DM was our own @DonaldTheDM.
Years later, campaigns later, players will still reference those absurdly named places, people and objects. When asked what form of currency a particular Kingdom used, we made up the word “Diplons”, a nonsense sound that was cobbled together in the moment. This has evolved into the Medieval Realm of Diplonia, the use of plastic gold coins in game sessions as currency, and even references in later Star Wars campaigns of NPCs hunting for the lost planet of Diplonia and the vast hordes of plastic based treasure there. Is it stupid? Oh most certainly! Did it make the world come to life? Do the players remember it years later? You bet they do!
You don’t have to do anything quite so ridiculous, just be ready to make your world come to life at the drop of a hat. Once your party begins exploring the sandbox they will undoubtedly go somewhere or meet someone you never even thought of. So be ready, and find a way to make your NPCs engaging. Maybe everyone in this town has a Boston accent and wears shades of violet. If the party asks why, offhandedly mention the lucrative overseas silk trade. Suddenly you have an interesting path they might very well pursue. Use it, and lead them right to your waiting X Factor!
The Sand Castle
The party is on the hook, and swimming toward your ultimate goal. What next? Now you have to play the trickiest balancing act you may ever perform, so make sure you’re prepared!
Remember that your players are becoming invested in your world, which means that nothing you’ve mentioned can be a complete throw away experience. The players will want to return to their favorite locations and NPCs, will want to see their investments pay off. You already know the story you want to tell, now the trick is weaving it into the sandbox. Now you have to build your Sand Castle.
Even the most engaging, exciting adventure will fall flat or ring hollow if you fail to keep players invested in the world around them. What does it matter if the corrupt King has been dethroned if the players are unable to see the ramifications in the Kingdom they entered. It isn’t enough to tell your story, you mustn’t stop at your quest line’s big twist or final reveal. Now you must make it echo in every hall of the realm!
While this may seem intimidating it can be done with ease after some practice. Take simple notes about who the party has met, where they’ve been, and then when the players ask give a reasonable follow up answer. How did the King’s Abdication effect our good friend James Fitzpatrick and his shipping business? Take a moment, glance at your notes, and give a reasonable answer. James is seeing a boom in profits now that the King’s taxes have been repealed, and he’s more than willing to share the spoils with his good friends who made it possible! Conversely, maybe now the tariffs that kept his family fed are void and he’s destitute, looking to call on the party for aid.
You still got to tell your grand story, now let the party make it even grander by witnessing the fallout. Don’t let the plot line end with a Happily Ever After, or an All Is Lost moment, let the party continue to explore, revisit areas, and see what their actions sewed. Maybe the next new area they explore they’ll meet an NPC directly impacted by their last quest. Maybe the next village they enter resents the party for what they’ve caused, or lauds them as heroes. Again little bits like this, simple measures such as making the scenery change with the story, will give your story an untold new life, even a life of its own.
Also be mindful of time lapses as the party goes about exploring your Sand Castle. They’ve finally made it to the climax of their tale, the Dragon is slain, the Princess saved, the Kingdom rejoices, but what does any of that matter if the party never made time to address the army encroaching from the North? What if they never followed those rumors about spies in the city? How will the Kingdom react when they discover the Dragon’s death has caused Winter to arrive before the Harvest? As much as you want to tell your story, Remember! It is just as important to make the story resonate in the world. Let locations change and grow, let opinions shift or fade. Otherwise you might as well have never told your story at all, no matter the grandeur.
The Sahara Desert
On the extreme end of any Sandbox adventure is the very real possibility of becoming Lost In The Desert. Your players could become lost in a never ending sea of side quests, so it is important to set some limits. Perhaps a township has two or three tasks on hand, but afterward it becomes a boring country hamlet. That’s okay! The town has been given character, a name, and has had plot lines resolved there. It is alive now, and the party has a badge of success in helping the now very real NPCs that inhabit it. Players can always return here later when you set the bait for a plot centric adventure, an even more enticing bait given the chance to return to their familiar surroundings.
Take a moment when putting your world together to set some reasonable Borders. No one can cross the Northern Mountains, no known trail exists. The forests to the South are far too dense and populated by hostile creatures of all varieties. If the parties become increasingly interested in these sort of borders, give them some token quests that allow them to probe their surroundings while also grasping the sheer impossibility of pursuing them. Two sessions on the avalanche plagued slopes of the Northern Mountains, tempered by having saved a lost Mage exploring the phenomenon, can reinforce that there is a sort of edge to the world that cannot as of yet be surmounted.
You can also put limits on the number of encounters any one location holds, or limits on the hospitality of certain NPCs. You can limit resources, forcing the party to keep moving. You can limit the party’s safety, or limit their notoriety, each with a very unique set of problems. There is even merit to limiting the party’s chance of completing the story line if they spend too much time exploring. We have played in, and run games, where these is a very real chance of failing! This is a good thing, though a thing any story teller would surely want to avoid.
However, the players should believe they have a chance at failure, a Bad Ending Screen, a moment they can Fail. If this is only an illusion the whole masquerade falls apart, the play collapses, all suspension of disbelief is lost. Emphasize that the world can, and will, burn around them if the fire is not quenched! If the players do nothing, set the world ablaze. Let it burn to the ground around them. You will be amazed how quickly this stirs them to action, and now in scenarios you’ve been able to let grow and mature due to their earlier inaction.
The party must feel there are repercussions to their actions. This must be equally true for what the players do, as well as what they choose not to do, or what they allow to go unchecked. The world around them must ebb and flow, must breathe and sigh, and most importantly must be able to Die. Yet even when the players are faced with countless consequences, the threat of failure and death looming in a real way, a grim specter over their campaign, there are moments when the party Still refuses to take your bait. When all efforts made to entice your players to meet the X Factor fail, it becomes necessary for the players to hop aboard the DM Train.
The DM Train
We must pause here to emphasize that the DM Train should never be the default in a Sandbox world. It can be an incredibly useful and effective tool when employed correctly, but also can hammer the last nail into the coffin lid of a floundering open world campaign. Yet like the Wild West of the American Plains, sometimes it is necessary to tame the wilderness with beasts of smoke and iron. When push comes to shove, sound the whistle and pass out your tickets. Its time to board the DM Train across the sea of sand!
We often speak in terms of Railroading as a negative aspect of gaming, a means by which the Story Teller completely removes choice and decision to make a plot point occur. It is true that this can be a dangerous route to take, one that shatters many illusions of fluidity the world has, and truthfully should be avoided whenever possible. That being said, sending a DM Train down the rigid Railway Lines can be done both tastefully and artistically, making for incredibly memorable moments. The revelation of Revan in Knights Of The Old Republic comes to mind as a prime example. Rather than setting your party firmly on immobile tracks for the breath of a story, take them short hops between Train Depots. You can do this with Scripted Scenarios, often referred to as Cut Scenes.
It is advisable to plot in advance certain scripted scenarios the party cannot avoid. Generally you want three of these moments for any plot line or quest, first at the Beginning, then at the Bridge, then finally at the Climax. For example, you can have a scripted event of a girl pickpocket framing an adventurer in the market. Another scripted scene when the judge comes out to read the verdict an a sudden witness bursts into the room, followed at the climax by a scripted description of the epic confrontation between villain and hero on a sun scorched plain. How they get to each of these three points can be free form, while still allowing you to convey your story as you desire. This is the easiest way to direct your train, little stops in the desert to keep things grounded and moving along.
However, unless absolutely necessary, the party should be allowed limited means by which to derail the DM Train. None of the enemies they face should be unkillable, a mechanic often referred to as a Character Shield. Have your scripted confrontation occur, and have every reason the main villain should slip away. Then, if the party comes up with an insane plan that could possibly work, ending the threat now, let them try. Even let them succeed! At the very worst you can reintroduce the plot with an apprentice taking up the master’s mantle, while letting the party revel in an unwarranted or unprecedented success they’ll retell for years to come. Story lines can be rewritten, plot lines redrawn, NPCs reintroduced under a new name, you’ll have every opportunity to recycle as of yet unused ideas. For now, let your party have the chance to change the story. They’ll be back on the railroad soon enough.
We can’t emphasize this point enough, let the story be rewritten! Let your players participate in the writing by playing! Yes, this is your story and you want to tell it, but your audience is comprised of actors, so be mindful of how forcefully you are Railroading the plot from A to B. The players want to leave their mark, feel that their decisions matter, so let them. Unless absolutely necessary you should never remove the player’s chance to make a decision, nor remove their ability to alter the course of the story. If you must, force the players onto the DM Train and down the straight Railroad Tracks, make certain events unfold in Cinematic Style, but Never take the controller from the player’s hand! They’re here to play as much as you are here to tell a story, so find the compromise between these two extremes where everyone wins.
Next, to truly ensure the party does not get lost in the endless sand ocean, reward their actions in such a way that benefits the story you wish to tell. No matter what your players do, reward them! Make sure they feel that their exploration, questioning, NPC interactions and battles have merit, have weight, have reward. Then, lace the rewards with even more of your bait. Great job slaying that Hobgoblin, now the local Sheriff wants to talk to you about a much more important job.
That NPC broke under your Intimidation, giving up his gold and an important letter he was supposed to deliver to the Villain. Not only will your players appreciate that their efforts are not wasted, now you have a means by which to guide them right back to the Train Depot. Never should a player’s attempt to find information be unrewarded, never their actions without some positive reinforcement. Rather than punish them for not picking the bait you so carefully laid, move the bait to them. Place it in front of them wherever they go. Change the bait if necessary. This is not to say you should make every single road lead to Rome, let the party wander. However, you should have every road give a Reason to head for Rome!
Refilling The Sandbox
So your story has been told, the whole Sandbox explored, the limits fully experienced. What next?
First, expand your Sandbox! Add new locations, new NPCs, new threats. Connect another Sandbox to this one and intermingle their stories. Let the party find a new path thru those previously impassible Mountains, you can even make it so their triumph in the campaign directly led to it. The story can continue as long as the party is engaged and there is somewhere to explore. You might have to buy some time on side quests while preparing your next adventure, or you may even hand the reins of Game Master to another Player to have a turn, connecting their own Sandbox to yours.
Conversely, you could do what every child ultimately does when playing in the sand. Reset it! Smooth everything out and begin reshaping the world from square one. Kick over that old Sand Castle and start a new one! This could be explained as sailing to a new previously unknown continent, discovering a long forgotten ancient temple, meeting a long thought extinct race in your world. Let them depart to a new unformed area to be molded fresh with every forthcoming experience.
You also should remember that sometimes we all need a break from playing in the sand, time to clean ourselves off and experience other games. Take a few months off to try a module for a new rule set. Take a week off and enjoy some board games. Take a three week hiatus while everyone comes up with new characters. It is good to take a step back, levy a change of pace, then approach an area with new conviction. It is also worth exploring more structured adventurers, both to broaden player experiences and also to add to the appreciation of the strengths of traveling in a Sandbox world. This gives time for reflection of the weaknesses of being in a Sandbox. It can be very refreshing not to have the Players burdened by choosing their path and try some more casual and rigid adventures.
Lastly, and this is unarguably the most crucial point, remember that this is a Game! The whole point here is for everyone, players, spectators and game master alike to Have Fun! You should make every concession you can to keep the game entertaining as well as engaging. Inject lively events, fun characters, funny asides. Add comic relief during a heavy drama laced tale. Put some gravity into the lighthearted lilt of the fey. Keep the players engaged, but also make sure you’re all enjoying your time together. If at the end of the day your party didn’t have fun it doesn’t matter how detailed or excellent your story was. Let the party explore, let them gain rewards, never take their accomplishments from them and let them find their own way to your Sand Castle. You’ll all enjoy the very real and unexpected twists that lie ahead!
What did you think of this guide? Have you had success in the past running Sandbox RPGs, or have you hit stumbling blocks we haven’t covered? Do you prefer more linear stories, or the kind of tale that can be abandoned completely? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Need more Random Names? Check out Seventh Sanctum!
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Originally published by Donald