words written on parchment detailing the legend of an ancient lost city

When running a story-campaign, the plot of your story is very important. However, if you’re running a more player driven-experience, they you need to give your players options. The setting needs to be well thought out and present opportunities for the players. So here’s how we can fill that sandbox with some interesting things.

Assuming a fantasy setting, there are 5 key components you need to fill a sandbox: politics, nature, magic, religion, and history. For other genres, you might substitute one or two of these with something more thematically appropriate, such as technology for a sci-fi setting instead of magic.

Politics is first in my mind, because it’s the most obvious. What nations exist in your world? Where are they? What are they like? Having this information on hand gives your players to look at. If you say “one nation is a city state of bird-people, with their town built into the side of a mountain that reaches high into the skies.” then a player could latch onto that and go explore it. It gives them something to do. Explore. Or they can go and interact with the people there. Talk to them for social interactions. Kill them for combat interactions, and so on. Note, it doesn’t have to all be kingdoms and nations and the like. Any organization will do. It could be a group of raiders in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or any number of other things that fill the same role of a place and people under some overarching structure.

Nature comes next. The places and things that exist without human (or other races’) influence. This could be interesting plant and animal species, mountain ranges, forests, islands. Anything of that…nature. Again, these exist to give the PCs something to do. They can go explore these natural places, collect or observe these plants and animals. Or go hunt and kill them, if that’s their thing. Because by the way, this includes monsters.

Now magic. This is just to say, add an element of weird to your game. Something unpredictable and mysterious. People will seek it out to understand its secrets or to master it for themselves. It gives the PCs a goal, and a tool to work with. Finding ancient libraries of spellbooks, or a rare magical item can make for a great activity for people trying to enjoy that sandbox.

Next we have religion. Note here that if your world doesn’t have any gods, you can either exclude this or modify it heavily, but I recommend having it in some capacity. By religion, I’m referring mostly to the gods as opposed to organized churches. Have something in your world that is all powerful and world-influencing. The PCs will have to deal with the effects of that, and finding ways to cope with or utilize that influence can take a lot of effort on the part of the PCs. So it’s more for them to do. Players who take an interest in worship will have gods to learn about, and to pray to. Plus, most belief systems have some form of dogma or moral direction. Direct guidance from a religious authority can set sandbox PCs on the path to adventure. “God wills it.” Has led many people to go and do many crazy things.

Next, I include history. Now, some players won’t want to go poking through dusty old tomes. But I’m sure more than a few wouldn’t mind checking out that crumbling ruin. If your world has history, it shows it’s been lived in. Some players will want to explore the richness of the world. Other will just seek to profit off of the past and find things lost to time. Either way, great opportunities for exploration arise if you think about the history of your world, and what site there might be to see that arose from the world’s checkered past.

At the end of the day, content is key. Even if you’re not sure your party will like a particular thing or not, include it anyway (within reason.) The things they don’t like, they won’t engage with. What they do like, they’ll hone in on and pursue. When playing a sandbox game, it’s all about giving options. The more options the players have, the better the odds of them finding something that will staisfy their interests.

How do you populate your sandbox?

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