I have a very significant problem whenever I try GMing any given game; I try to provide a world with a lot of wiggle room for the characters as well as factions/NPCs they interact with. Oftentimes my campaigns are single session affairs with the players doing various things around the location with little interest displayed in them afterwards. Generally, when I ask for criticism about my campaigns, the number one thing that pops up is that my players feel like they have a lack of direction.

My question is this: How do I give my players direction, have them make their own direction, and make them involved while keeping a sandbox style game? How do I make this style of game fun for my players?


9 Answers 9

  1. Make the players invested in the history of the world. This depends on the system you're using. However, generally, you want the players to come up with a backstory, yes? Well, nudge them to tie their character's backstory in with the rest of the world. That way, when something happens in the world, they'll be emotionally invested in its outcome. Hence, direction.
  2. Design the world so that things happen. What it sounds like to me is that your worlds have a lot happening, but not much that directly concerns the players. If an optimally lazy person wouldn't be motivated to do something about it, you can't expect your (motivated) players to respond to it, either. There are a couple tricks to this, and I'm going to go into more detail below.

In order to create a world that engages the characters, Things Need to Happen. But even then, players probably won't respond to much unless they need to, so the Right Things Need to Happen. What constitutes a Right Thing?

  1. The Things have tangible, immediate impacts on the players. If they're motivated people, and they hear about a mysterious ghoul in the town next over who might enter their town, they probably won't do anything about it. They'll defer to that town to handle it, at least until the players absolutely need to respond to it. In this way, if the effect isn't tangible ("some of the peasants might get ill") or immediate ("if you don't head this off now, there will be serious problems in, oh, a decade or two"), they won't be engaged.
  2. The Things must be something the player characters are invested in. If Matilda the Barkeep's husband has been captured the The Allthing of Evil, are you really going to care enough to venture to the Veil of Certain Peril and retrieve him from the Claws of Destiny? Probably not. Especially if you don't know Matilda, her husband, or don't really care about the town.

    It is your responsibility to write the game for the players, as much as it is the players' responsibility to play your game in a motivated fashion. It sounds as if your players are definitely motivated, and they're looking for something engaging to do, but also that the game tasks that exist aren't really planned. Even though this is a sandbox game, the things that happen still need to affect your players.

"So, I've thought of something(s) relatively open-ended that their characters would be interested in tackling. What next?"

Think about it some more. Then think about it again. Then continue to think about it while you're playing the game. You need to consider in particular what the NPCs are motivated by, who they know, what they know, and what they plan to do about it.

Now, you don't need to know this for every NPC. However, the Special NPCs (SNPC, I call them, but that's a LARP habit), who drive the plot forward, create new twists, and are the NPCs who truly engage the players, need to have well-defined short-term and long-term goals, as well as basic personality sketches. Every NPC should have something(s) they can, with some difficulty, overcome, that prevents them from reaching these goals. These things should tie in to other players/NPCs/SNPCs.*

Throll has a long-term goal: he wants the Axe of Beldor, but unfortunately, it's buried beneath the Tombs of King Calthor. That wouldn't normally be a problem, except the Tombs of King Calthor happen to be underneath the city; in order to get to them, he must destroy several houses. Maybe of some people your PCs know.

He wants to use its magical power to destroy the peasants' rebellion. He has no qualms doing this.

When I say every NPC, I mean (pretty much) every NPC (though regular NPCs don't necessarily need to tie into the characters).

Matilda the Barkeep has a long term goal: She wants to build a second inn across the city. Unfortunately, she doesn't have the funds for it currently, as she was robbed by a mysterious bandit two days ago! Oh no!

Your players may or may not be engaged by this. If they're not, more options are needed. In a sandbox game, more options should pretty much already be there.

There aren't many SNPCs in a short game. Their motives are thick, and they are often (but not always) weak people. You only need a handful to make an interesting conflict. Give a bunch of twisted people power, and their scheming will stretch across cities.

The other type of NPC is the regular NPC, who don't get a fancy title or anything. They're just NPCs. These people need to have plans and know others as well, but theirs can be more abstract or simple. Your barkeep Matilda, for instance, could have a short-term goal of "I need to get more liquor." and a long-term goal of "This place needs some expansion." This alone will give your NPC more flavor, as they will be where they are for a concrete reason.

Just these two things will drastically improve your campaigns. To summarize:

  1. Get your characters to build a solid character background.
  2. Design the world so that Things happen.
  3. Make said Things concern the players, in a way which allows them to engage the world.
  4. Give your SNPCs complex and concrete motives. Give NPCs some minor motives on the fly. Some minor NPCs might know someone helpful.
  5. Let your players guide themselves through your story, and be free to modify it on the fly to match what they appear to follow.

This approach does make the game less of a pure sandbox, but will make it a more engaging sandbox, if a sandbox truly is the style of game your players appreciate.

*Side note: The difficulty and length of the game is often very closely related to how difficult the goals of the NPCs are to attain. Goals which are complex and will take a while to implement will result in a longer game; shorter goals, like Throll's, will make the game significantly shorter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I can only +1 this. This is exactly the answer I was writing. Engage the players. \$\endgroup\$
    – user4000
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a nice breakdown of specific techniques for dealing with this. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:50

Sandbox - to - Railroad is a spectrum, not either or.

Games are not either sandbox or railroaded, rather they exist on a spectrum between heavily railroaded where players mostly handle tactics and the GM handles the story over to wide open sandboxes where players drive most of the story and (especially in narrativists games) perhaps even create large sections of the environments themselves.

It sounds like your players are asking for you to move over on the spectrum. Perhaps not to tight railroading, but perhaps to the point where you are providing some very obvious plot hooks and fully expecting them to take the bait. As it stands now, it sounds like you are providing more places and plot opportunities, but not providing big obvious bait, perhaps if need be holding a sign that says "PCs would benefit from coming here".

Consider providing "Calls to Adventure"

In fiction, and in particular in fiction that follows a "monomyth", there is a concept of a call to adventure. This is something that causes the character to abandon their current path and take up some great quest.

How you do this depends on the story, but a gm can have plots chase players down. If they are moderately high level people, kings and queens may well seek them out to ask them to take on a quest. This moves slightly away from sandbox and into railroading, but only slightly. This is a natural reaction of the environment to them entering it with powerful characters, and they can still accept or decline.

If you are willing/want to move further towards railroading, you can have adventure come hit them over the head, literally. Perhaps someone hates them for something they have done already, either in game or in their backstory. Now they have an enemy that can come and harrass them and all of their loved ones over and over until they successfully deal with the enemy.

Consider making them more responsible for the type of adventure

You can flat out ask the players for broad story ideas. Do they want to rescue a princess? Save a village? Fight a dragon? Conquer a village? Ok, they decided the goal, now you as the gm add that to the environment in a realistic way. Then they as players decide how to overcome to the obstacles you added along wtih it.

In some narrativists style games this is baked in and they just doing it. In a more traditional one, you can ask them at the end of one session what type of goal they want and then add in the necessary elements between sessions and introduce the "in-game" hooks to that goal next session.

This in one sense can be railroading in that you are now putting them on a very specific path, but it is a path they asked you to create.

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    \$\begingroup\$ And +1 for great insight on the spectrum of how to run this type of game. So many great answers to this question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tridus
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree. When I run games, the plots have s central stem, which could be considered the rails but I have no problem with the players walking from station to station instead of riding the express. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 3:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good points, mentioning the spectrum of sandbox and calls to adventure. That's better stated than in my answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 7:10

Either they simply don't like sandboxes, or they have trained themselves to wait for GM Plot to railroad them.

Consequently, you either give up on playing sandboxes with this group, or (in the case they do like sandboxes) you help them by training them out of their inertia. Giving up is easy, but sad-making. Training is harder, but provides the hope it'll eventually work out.

Try giving them more plot hooks. If there are hooks that they can "recognise" as saying the Plot Is This Way (scare quotes because that's a false recognition, but one you can leverage), they'll get moving and doing things. This may be enough to get them to engage, and once the campaign is going they'll develop more interest in it.

If they complain that now you're giving them too many plot hooks, that they don't know which is the "right one", then these players are too far stuck in GM Storytime mode and there's nothing you can do to fix this. They would each individually need to decide for themselves that reform is necessary before you'll get anywhere in a sandbox with them. If they don't want to change how they play, then you're back to option 1: they just don't want to play in a sandbox.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 Often when players say there's no direction, it means the plot hooks aren't being noticed. Making them more recognizable ones is often a great nudge, especially for players who are used to being directed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tridus
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with everything, but if you plan on training the players, make sure they want to be trained. Some people prefer more railroad-y games for several reasons. Some want to focus on the tactics and combat and don't want to bother much with what is between. Some just think that a more directed game generally windws up with a better plot. And some just like guidance and don't want the responsibility of choosing the hook. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman Right. That's on the "they do like sandboxes" decision branch, but that wasn't clear the way I'd written it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 0:40

Make Building Motivation Part of Campaign Setup

The easiest way to make sure the PCs have things to do in the setting is to create the characters and the setting together. That way you know there'll be relevant stuff for the PCs to do, since you are creating both elements together with the express purpose of making them interlock.

A great time to do this is right after Same Page Tool: the answers about party cohesion and player/GM roles will guide what choices for situation and PC goals are appropriate for what you want to get out of your game. (Some examples: if the characters are 100% working together, it's important to give them shared goals and make their personalities compatible; if you want the game to be mostly PC-driven, then characters need strong — maybe even slightly ridiculous — goals to consistently spur them to action.)

Note that this doesn't mean the players have to write large chunks of the setting themselves (though it's fine if they do). It's more like you're making sure the characters are primed to be the protagonist of the story. For example, if someone wants to play an impoverished knight trying to reclaim his birthright, it's certainly helpful to establish what his birthright actually is and how he intends to go about reclaiming it, so that you can actually incorporate those elements into the game. Where this differs from just "writing a backstory" is that you're explicitly establishing the focus of play. It's completely fine — I'd argue good, even — if the characters don't have actual backstories; what matters is their present and their path forward.

If your players can't figure out how to write self-motivated characters, ask them questions about what they want to see in the game and use that to guide them in writing their characters to pursue those things.

If your players having trouble processing the idea of their characters having their own "proactive" goals, it may be a sign they really want strong guidance from the GM during play. If that's the case, straight-up "sandbox" play won't work for them.

Then, Start in Motion

Imagine the pilot of a TV show: bringing the main characters together, introducing some antagonists, establishing the big issues and struggles of the show, et cetera. Now, don't play that.

Instead, make your first session more like the second episode of that show. Everyone already knows each other (how is established during character creation). They're pursuing some common purpose (also established during character creation).


Even a sandbox needs railroads. I've just answered a related question here; basically, I feel that you need to apply 'the railroad' when the players are stuck or not self-motivated.

It's much easier for humans to improvise when there are some constraints.

What do you want to do now?

is really hard to answer for the players when they are stuck, or not fully engaged, or just paralysed by possibilities. Much better to guide them,

Do you want to confront and stop the orks before they reach the village, or will you help the villagers to prepare a battle plan and build defenses?

I used to think that the perfect game was a complete sandbox. But boundaries are actually inspiring creativity and helping the players, so now I feel that it's best to railroad them (a bit) until or unless the players or characters own motivations carry the game. Give them freedom when they want it, but provide guidance (railroad, more structured scenes) when the game needs it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree strongly with this answer on principle. I believe there are ways to motivate players to participate in the game without strictly forcing them to. I believe that forcing players to make a choice between two actions will decrease their psychological "ownership" over that action, thus decreasing overall emotional investment. Additionally, I think this answer runs somewhat counter to the sandbox-style play that the OP requested. \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 0:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. Most human-beings are paralyzed by infinite choice. By providing options and limits, human creativity is bolstered and decisions can be more easily made. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cypher
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 0:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, on ad hoc game sessions I have fallen into the "what do you guys want to do" trap. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 3:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Emrakuhl In theory, it would be nice to never have to resort to railroading, but in my experience it has shown to be very helpful. Hats off to you and your players if you can run games completely without it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mala
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 0:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd consider this better if it said "every sandbox needs roads". You're talking about guides they can follow, but voluntarily: railroads they can choose to get onto, or get off of (i.e., "roads"). Strong indicators of interesting direction, which lead to tightly-wound situations (which may be hard for the party to extricate themselves from without making a mess, even), are good. I think this is a good answer that just falls afoul of loaded terminology. Having one "main road" can give you the benefit of railroading too, in that a party not self-motivated will take it by default. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 19:35

First of all, know your players. Know what excites them in the game. Some players love the thrill of combat, others enjoy exploring, others like tinkering with rules and min/maxing equipment to making their character more powerful. Others prefer interactive roleplaying, some like problem solving, and still others could be characterized as builders. Many players will be combinations of some of those.

As a GM you may have your own ideas about what type of play is "best", but for purposes of your problem, set those preferences aside, and try to think of what aspects each of your players is really into. Or even just ask them directly; most players I've known were happy to share.

Hopefully there are one or two dominant aspects amongst your players, or if not consider the players that tend to push the group to action the most. Once you know the dominant aspects, you can slant your sandbox game to present those types of opportunities.

For instance, if most of your players simply enjoy the thrill of combat, consider downplaying roleplaying, puzzles, and so on, and give them a simple straightforward game - maybe they're members of the city guard charged with clearing out sewers; maybe they've been recruited by the king for some quest or task; maybe they're the last survivors of a mercenary band trying to re-establish their fighting reputation.

Perhaps one fellow in this group of fighters is a roleplayer. Toss him a few bones to stave off the boredom of combat, by including a smattering of interactions with the big boss, freed captives, and the occasional henchman.

If you have a player group made up entirely of roleplayers, you'd slant the game accordingly, with combat being the occasional spice and play dominated by political intrigue, questioning witnesses and suspects, and the like. I'm guessing your group is not of this sort though; they tend to need little direction.

Builders need a malleable gameworld and opportunities to assemble objects, recruit armies, build fortifications, and so on. If you have one or two builders in your group, consider hanging the campaign on them - give them some loose strategic goals and let them drive the plot based on what they want to do. For instance, the player has inherited an untamed borderland from his distant uncle, with tax obligations to match; the player must lead his compatriots to secure the domain and extract the requisite wealth from it, hopefully with some profit left to divvy between them.


You don't need to give the players direction. You need to take the direction they provide and give them the chance to run with it.

I do this in two ways.

The first is with backstory. I've long ago given up on requiring backstory, but I do strongly encourage it. When the players give me their character's history I read over it with a highlighter and mark anything that could come back into the game. Named NPCs, unfinished plots, etc. Whenever convenient I put these things in the game.

The reason for that is that players almost always react enthusiastically to things they wrote. They're used to the GM being the master story teller. To suddenly take something that they provided and say that it's just as important as your own plot will make the players feel important. You won't have to sell them a plot, they'll already have bought it hook, line, and sinker.

The other thing I do is kind of vulgar. I throw a bunch of crap at the wall and see what sticks. It's not usually what I expect. This method usually means that my games start off slowly due to a poor ratio of crap to interesting plot.

But once the players take an interest in something, I shift the focus to that. The plots that didn't stick don't have to be resolved. The NPCs that the players don't want to talk to won't come back with more quests. All that stuff just fades into the background and you're left with the things the players are interested in. The real key to this is to not get attached to your plots (and the key to that is to remember to save them for next game - just because today's players don't like that plot doesn't mean you can't use it later) and be able to read your players.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for advice on getting them to give out direction, although that's half of what I need. \$\endgroup\$
    – user5834
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 3:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ My problem is that my players don't usually have backstories to work with until they play the characters for a couple sessions. Especially with how the group meshes this gets muddy. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 3:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ CatLord, could you ask them for backstories in advance? I wouldn't give my friends homework if it didn't add so much to the game. If they're opposed to writing something, just talking about the character and brainstorming ideas one on one can be good enough. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 13:09

It sounds to me like your PCs (and therefore your players) are basically suffering from ennui:



  1. a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

Essentially, you've given your players a world where they can do anything they want, but where they have no particular reason to do anything at all.

Sure, they can just decide to go on any random quest just for the sake of adventure, and I'm sure you'll provide lots of diverse and in-depth opportunities for them to do so. But without some actual or perceived need driving them, why should your PCs get off their ass and do something?

Generally, I'd say that a well-designed sandbox game shouldn't just give the players the option to do whatever the heck they want — it should give them a reason to try and get from situation A to situation B, and at least one (apparently) reasonable initial direction to start getting there, and then give them the opportunity to do whatever they want to get there (or even to change the goal mid-game, if they want to do so).

To some extent, this issue of motivation can and should be addressed through character back-stories: a well-designed character should have both long- and short-terms goals that they want to achieve. But those separate character goals still don't (unless you and/or your group specifically planned them together to do so) explain why your PCs should get together to do a particular thing, rather than just each pursuing their own goals alone. Providing that reason is not something you can leave to individual players — it has to be done either by the GM, or by the whole group together.

The motivation doesn't need to be anything complicated or constraining: for example, in a frontier exploration game, it might simply be that the PCs are poor and want to be rich, and have heard that a good way to do so is to band together and go look for treasure in the wildlands. That already provides everything you need: an initial situation (poor players arriving in a frontier town to find adventure), a long-term goal (get rich and retire — not that your PCs are likely to ever actually do that) and a plausible initial direction (the wildlands are that-a-way; oh, and if you hang around in the tavern, you'll probably hear plenty of rumors of treasure).

You're then free to offer your players the freedom to try and accomplish their goal any way they choose (do they want to look for the legendary tomb of Mrzxlphng in the mountains, or would they rather explore the swamps of Aaaaaargh? or maybe they'd rather take a job as caravan guards?) and to set complications in their way (that treasure they were after? it's not actually there just lying around — it belongs to this tribe of natives, who actually seem like pretty decent guys and would rather like the players to help them). But the initial goal and direction need to be there, so that your players have some reason to get involved with your world.


First, as many other folks have mentioned, it's probably a good idea to have a good conversation with the group about what kind of game you run and what you're looking for. "I like to have an open world with a lot of stuff going on, but it's up to you pick your goals and directions within it." If that's not what the players want, there's nothing to do except find a different style of game or different players who want what you offer.

Second, maybe point out 3 locations with known problems going on and ask the players during character creation to tie their characters into 2 of them. You may want to also change your reward system a bit so the players are rewarded with XP or whatever type of points when they pursue their goals they've established. As play goes on, allow them to change those goals or replace them.

Explain to the players, "I build my game around YOUR goals. So you may be on the way to do a mission and run across a few other things along the way - it's up to you whether you're going to sidetrack or not and what comes of that. That's not me telling you to definitely go one way or another. I present some choices, but it's you who make them."

Finally, be sure not to OVER-prep. It's easier to have a flexible game system that makes it easier to improvise than it is to spend lots of time writing up stuff that might not see use and even more so if the players aren't really into side-tracking.


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