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How to create a freeform (aka. open world, sandbox) campaigns and keep your players entertained for years?

Chapter 1: Why would you want such a campaign?

The loud regards of slower things

How to create a narrative-driven campaign and keep your players entertained for years?

Chapter 1: Why would you want such a campaign?

Well, we’ve all been there. We DM’d the awesome official adventures and have our players defeat Tiamat, Strahd, Acererak, Ras Nsi and Zariel. As DMs, we’ve taken our party from level 1 to level 15+ five times already. But was it really satisfying? I mean these are great adventures! We’ve been through them, we even enjoyed them – but then what? Create another 1st level character and jump into another official adventure?

It can be hard to find motivation again and again as a DM or player to jump right back to square one after spending a lot of sessions with our beloved character. It almost feels like a boardgame, doesn’t it? A long and enjoyable one, but one not concentrating on the narrative of the characters, but on the adventure itself. I’m not talking about railroading here, as these adventures do their best to offer a great number of choices – but they are certainly bound by the limits of the adventure.

My favorite campaigns are the “open-world” or “freeform” or “sandbox” ones. I create a homebrew world, or heavily modify an existing one, create places, events, memorable NPCs, politics, economics, and so on. It also needs a large amount of adventure hooks, preferably the majority of them following a grand story arc, which is ultimately shaping the world. I would happily share my current campaign with you, but as I know my players are reading this, I’m not going to do that. 

Your main job as a DM in this scenario is to consistently run the universe and present choices to the players. It also involves lots of improvisation, fast reactions and a deep knowledge of the party and the characters. Let the game run at its own pace.

This playing style heavily involves downtimes as well. Months, seasons pass between notable events or biting on adventure hooks. You need to take care of time not spent participating those events: create rules, organize sessions around them and so on. It will be very rewarding as you’ll see your players getting more and more attached to their characters, to the world, to the story you’re telling and to the game itself.

Session starter

Let me share my favorite session starter. I’m using this since 1994 I think, whenever I start such a “life-story” campaign for players.

The characters are all from the same village. They’ve all been the best in something (fighting, singing, had sorcerous talents, whatever) so the village elders decided to educate them on higher levels. So they’ve sent the characters to “the city” and paid for their education. This was 6 years ago and now they just graduated (ie. became level 1 characters) and now returning to the village. It’s been 6 years, so much has changed: childhood friends are now adults, some old people left this world, and village grew, and so on.

Arriving home involves some heavy roleplaying: reconnect with their family, their friends, mourn the dead, share stories with other characters and so on. So as you can see, you need to spend a LOT OF TIME with your players before such a campaign is started. You need to figure out a detailed background story for the character: why was it selected? Where was it educated? Did it have a family? What happened to them? What adventures did the character see during its education – and so on, and so on.

So after the reconnect, let them spend a few weeks with doing whatever they want. Then I used to throw in this adventure hook: a farmer bought a few seeds from a traveling merchant a few years ago, around when the party left the village. The farmer planted the seed and one of them grew into an apple tree and this year for the first time, it has apples on it. Four days ago there were 10, but now there are only 6 of them. By each morning a single apple was stolen. After the first night, the farmer and his son stayed with the tree for the night, but around midnight, some mysterious fog rose and they fell asleep. Since the party is back, they want them to guard the trees until the apples are ripe. In return, they can keep one.

* * *

This is a very simple hook, taking inspiration from our childhood stories about the magic tree. You can throw in whatever you want. An imp. A pixie. A whatever. It doesn’t matter. They’ll guard the apple tree and receive an apple – which again, can do whatever you want, though I suggest to keep it on moderate magical levels. Then: why was it important for the imp/pixie/…. ? Will they come again? Can we bargain with them? And so on.

But it is their choice to bite on this hook or another one. What I used to do is to create 2 or 3 detailed adventure hooks for every party level in advance, and write a few events that’s going to happen nearby.

Coming soon: Chapter 2.: Design guidelines for freeform (sandbox) campaigns.

Want to chime in? Join our Discord channel at https://discord.com/invite/skMcbgv or the Facebook group about Sandbox campaigns at https://www.facebook.com/groups/dnddowntime

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