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In my sessions, I let my players play in a sand-box world. There is a main story that I always plan that they could follow, and I have no problems with them doing so.
However, I would like my players to fully realise this is a big, breathing world that they can fully explore however they like.

I have already shown them the map of the whole globe, given some standard lore about important places and told them that they can go wherever they like.
I'm hoping to be able to let go of the main story and let them wander around the world, but I'm afraid they'll remain passive until I throw some encounters towards them, instead of them looking for adventure.

The party is currently level 6, and I would prefer it most if they would gradually expand their influence over the world.

What would be a good way to achieve this? How can I best present a sand-box world to my party, who've never done something similar before?

We're playing D&D 3.5 if that changes anyone's answer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ have you looked at the other questions on the site with the sandbox tag? \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs May 26 '15 at 14:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ How experienced of RPGers are the players? You say they haven't played a sandbox world before, but are they very experienced in general with (pen and paper) RPGs? That might make a difference as to how you need to approach this. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe May 26 '15 at 15:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joninean: You are at no point forced to pick any answer as "THE ONE", and even once you pick you can perfectly change it, do realize though that the older your question the least likely it is to attract new answers. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. May 27 '15 at 6:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why is this tagged dnd-3.5e? Do you want only answers that are applicable to this rule set? \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion May 27 '15 at 10:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joninean IMO that's information that adds context and is fine to just mention in the question. Tagging it as dnd is saying that a dnd expert has the knowledge to answer this question, which I don't think is true. \$\endgroup\$ – Daenyth May 27 '15 at 18:58
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I recently just built a sand-box world for my players, and I have decided to handle the problem this way.

First: Same Page. I had a talk with all of my players individually and collectively detailing what sort of campaign I was building. I told them that they can do anything that they want to and go anywhere they want to go. They understand that they are impetus to the plot and they are all happy with this, so getting everyone on the same page was step one.

I would like my players to fully realise this is a big, breathing world that they can fully explore however they like.

I'm hoping to be able to let go of the main story and let them wander around the world, but I'm afraid they'll remain passive until I throw some encounters towards them, instead of them looking for adventure.

If your players realize from the beginning that they can self determine their course then they will feel less railroaded. Sometimes having a main plot at all will make the players feel obligated to follow it. Players can railroad themselves, so make sure they know that there are other options. Therefore getting all of the players on the same page will start the game off on the correct foot.

(First and a half: Know Thy Players. During the same page tool figure out what sort of game play your players enjoy: exploration, social interaction, combat, etc. and tailor your sessions to what the group has fun with.)

If you are worried about your players becoming stagnant without any input from you and you know what they enjoy then you can throw a few hooks at them. The hook doesn't have to lead to a story arc that you've already planned, but simply something to give the group a little energy.

Second: Player Buy In. Create NPCs and locations that the characters can "bond" with and the players grow attached to. For a sand-box feel throw in some opposing factions that they can work for or against, and let their actions have lasting consequences upon those factions, and the world.

The party is currently level 6, and I would prefer it most if they would gradually expand their influence over the world.

If you want your players to have influence in the world, then make sure your "...big, breathing world..." is just that, big and breathing. Give it life through its taverns, castles, NPCs, factions, atmosphere, smells, landmarks, environment, etc.

Third: Play. Be willing to say yes. When your player want to determine whether or not Annbann the Aristocrat killed his brother the Mayor of Woodale then let them do that. If they just want to kill him, because he's evil and that moves their story forward then so be it. Let them help you tell the story, and the story will compel them to keep telling it.

Fourth: Rebuild. As you play keep thorough notes of what your party does and how your players reacted to the game. Take what you've learned and grow your world, adding detail and definition to give the world depth in the areas that the players love exploring.

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I usually love to do this kind of stories. I could give you some ideas, so you choose from them and combine them as you feel.

NPCs

In my experience, interesting NPCs can be an amazing way to show the players how interesting the world can be. They will find NPCs during their adventures, that's for sure, and if you make them have an interesting past, you can lead to exploration.

For example, when players need the aid of a cleric (for healing or simply information about an exorcism) the cleric can interest them when introducing some element of his land, saying some knowledge he has from his expeditions or simply by throwing some piece of information about interesting historical events.

Furthermore, NPCs could have their own interests, personal missions, and goals which the player maybe find interesting, enriching or see as an opportunity of adventure, and that leads to a new quest.

Gathering information

The simple fact that the players know something but not enough can usually make them wonder what's hidden there and start investigating. Try to include information about obscure spells, lost reliques, heroes of immense power, legendary events, and so on.

At first, it might seem just a way to lead the players to the next adventure, but when they start to find a lot of this pieces of information, they alone will understand that the world has a vast story and they can truly interact and investigate with it as they wish.

If you are not afraid to use this method it could even lead to players recalling something they found out before that could be used to solve their current goal, something that even you, the GM, forgot. And that's always fun for everybody.

Politics, love and economy...

I said these three, but actually relates to a lot more of topics. Include aspects that are not usually taken into account in RPGs. As soon as the players realize their characters are falling in love, or at least that NPCs are falling in love with them, love will take a role in the game. The same's true for politics. Create a mission, for example, where they have to play politics for bringing down some corrupt politician and this way they'll discover it's possible to interact in this area.

Include some NPCs as proposed before that help with this, and you can quickly make the game revolves around any topic your players want at any moment.

Long Journeys

An easy way to make the players discover the immensity of the world is to make them travel. And not simply travel for a week or two. Make them do an incredibly long journey, where simply traveling is not enough, since they'll need information, provisions, and, maybe, more power. But never tell them what to do in that sense. Simply describe the places they go, some events that happen, and their actions will lead to complicate them or simply ignore the place or the event.

Abstract goals

Goals as recruiting people, amassing wealth, gathering information or simply getting more powerful can lead to the players try weird things, investigating and trying to discover everything there is in your world, in order to accomplish what they have to (for a greater good). Even though, take into account that this option, if not combined with some others, can be a little bit frustrating for players, when they have no clue how to keep going on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the NPC option is especially useful since Joninean says that his players have experience in MMOs. They'll naturally understand the story structure in which a casual request from an NPC gives them a goal to reach, which then leads to further goals, which then broadens their reach and experience of the world. \$\endgroup\$ – recognizer May 26 '15 at 17:38
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The way I did it was by showing the world map, but also by presenting a series of options. Essentially there were notice boards that various people had posted things they wanted doing on. Initially there were 5 or 6 missions for different important people.

Doing those missions let the players explore the world and see what was there, gave them contacts, etc.

Roughly every 2 missions completed I would post one new one, this meant that over time the number of missions posted dropped - but in that time the players had got to know the world and were starting to come up with their own objectives.

Additionally I made sure that many (but not all) missions contained something worth coming back for. Whether this was a barred door at the back of a cave, a sealed tower, a mysterious plateau at the top of a waterfall, a sunken city beneath the waves, etc.

Soon the players were saying things like "I want to find out what was on that plateau" not "which mission should we pick from the list".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Especially the part about having players come back to solve some unsolved mysteries is an interesting idea. \$\endgroup\$ – Joninean May 27 '15 at 17:26
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Presenting the global map and history of their world is a good start. Have more in-depth descriptions of your world readily available in a notebook so you're prepared when your players do something unexpected or ask questions. Once players detect you're making up the world on the fly, suspension of disbelief may fade. The DM doesn't want to look like a hack - she needs to be one step ahead of the players at all times.

You can incorporate plot hooks into the canned description of your world. For example, it may be common knowledge that the local warlord, King Renfrew, is hiring mercenaries for the next campaign season. Once the snows melt every spring, merchants hire guards for their annual trade caravans across the high passes of the Mountains of Despair.

List a number of plot hooks on your map as colorful location descriptions, each a campaign in itself. Make the challenge ratings of the potential adventures as clear as possible in the location name: "Caverns of the Ogg goblin tribe", "Ogre den", "Lair of the dread dragon Azakel", "Tomb of the undead sorceror-king Turgoth", etc. This is important because it gives players control over the challenges they face. The danger of failure will be ever present if they make a poor choice. If they're 6th level then they'll know they can probably take on the ogre den, but better wait to tackle the dragon lair or the undead sorceror king (which they should deduce is a lich) until they've leveled up.

The map labels also presents a natural progression of adventures of increasing difficulty. If you present too few plot hooks to the players, they may get the impression each adventure has been "hand-crafted" for their characters. Suspicions will be aroused if the CR of every plot hook they've grabbed seems to be perfectly balanced and tailored to their PCs. They players will know they're being railroaded, that their adventure choices don't matter because the DM is always on the look out for them. This is bad, bad, bad for a sandbox setting.

If push comes to shove, you can spring adventure hooks on indecisive players with the standard tavern encounters: A forlorn peasant wanders in, looking to hire adventurers to help ward off Orc raiders from his village on the frontier, or the PCs overhear rumors of an ancient undead evil that has reawakened to the north. A grizzled prospector discretely pays the innkeeper with a lump of gold. That sort of thing.

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I use timed challenges and consequence maps.

The players know it is a sandbox, but I also provide a time element along with the main plot. Nothing too restrictive, but something to keep them mindful of their actions.

I also craft the main story in such a way that the players can approach it from multiple different angles. They have a set of things to accomplish, and they can accomplish them in any order they wish. BUT, they will find that the order they choose will have an effect on the outcome - maybe good, maybe bad, maybe simply a twist - but something where the players will see that their actions had an effect. The idea that they can "do what they want" is enhanced, but they should also think about what could happen.

For you, this could have three important benefits:

  1. for those who have not played in a sandbox, they can play without being overwhelmed with the unlimited choices presented.

  2. you can place parts of the main story in far off locales to encourage exploration

  3. you can create a modular world based off the main story instead of having to populate an entire world of choices/people/towns. It will still feel like a free-form sandbox, but it won't take a year of your time to craft every detail.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is very nice advice, and I will certainly apply this on the story I currently still have running. However, knowing my party, they'd jump on anything that would even seem like the "main plot", so I decided I'd let go of that story at some point. Still, this advice could be useful for someone else stumbling on the same problem. Come to think of it, if I suddenly decide to implement a new extra world-changingly important plot-line, I should definitely apply this technique. \$\endgroup\$ – Joninean May 27 '15 at 5:42
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Focus your preparation on what you expect them to do, but have contingencies ready so that they can do other things if they choose.

I run my current 4E Neverwinter campaign as a bit of a sandbox. I say "a bit" because everything is very time sensitive. This means that I don't have to worry about my party showing up and saying "hey, we've had a month to think about it, and we're getting on a boat to Kara-Tur, go". When one session ends, the next session starts right where it left off. We've been playing for nearly a year, and have had less than two weeks of in-game time pass.

This structure allows me to ask the party what they think they're going to do next at the end of each session: "Okay, you defeated the patrol. We'll stop here. What do you think you will do next?" "Well, that castle over there seems interesting, we'll probably go in there."

So, for the next session, I spent a lot of time on the castle, specifically the first few rooms. However, because this is supposed to be an open-world, I also updated and prepared the surrounding area. I was aware that there was a scout watching them fight the patrol in the road, and decided that that scout would go get reinforcements once the party left the area. I expected this patrol to follow them into the castle. However, they decided not to go into the castle, and then went down the road further into town. Luckily, I had prepared the reinforcements encounter and set up security checkpoints around town. I also had a general idea what the important NPCs in the area were doing. The whole session ended up focusing on the party's fight with guards at a checkpoint, followed by fleeing and evading the reinforcements. They got help from one of the nearby NPCs, and ended up at their base.

Now I ask them what they think they'll do next. I get an escape through the sewers ready, and slightly update all the other things I had ready in the area. They'll get to the castle eventually, and it will still be ready.

Pay attention to what interests that party. Add more detail to these things.

During the escape through the sewers, the party asked about where other side tunnels led. Because of the way they responded to my explanation, I think they'll probably come back here and check it out at some point. Therefore, I'll write some notes on what is down that tunnel, and be more prepared if they ever get around to it.

Get more specific the closer your party is to the thing.

I know that the Netherese are out in the woods. I have a general idea of the kind of encounter I might like to occur if they go out there. However, the party has yet to express any plans or interest in heading to the woods, so I don't expect it to happen any time soon. This means that I haven't wasted any time putting together a specific encounter. If I did, I wouldn't know what level to make it. Instead, I put together a few notes from an in-universe perspective, and if they somehow manage to jump through a portal and get out to the woods before I expect, at least I have some notes to help me wing it.

On the other hand, if the last adventure ended with them standing at the door to a temple, and I know that they're going in the temple, then I'm going to decide exactly what is in that first room. I will know how many enemies, what level, where any traps are, what kind of loot exists, if there are any secret doors, etc. I'm going to spend a little time on the buildings and streets adjacent to the temple, and a little time on things that might be at any exit, and a little time thinking about the purpose, role, and history of the temple, in case they do something crazy and I need to make something up.

If they wander out into the unknown, make some stuff up. These are now facts.

"What's the dwarf's name?"

"Oh. Crap. Name. Uh... Malin. His name is Malin."

There is now a dwarf named Malin in your campaign. If the party cared enough to ask his name, they thought he was interesting. Malin is now no longer a random nameless NPC, he's a person the party knows. Write this down. Next time you need a dwarf in the party's lives, maybe Malin will be a good fit.

"Is there any loot on the tiefling?"

Crap, I just made up the tiefling because I didn't expect them to cross the bridge.

"Sure, he has a diary in his back pocket. It's written in Netherese."

Haha! No one in the party knows Netherese. Now I have time to make up some diary entries before they find a translator. I can use these diary entries to give them a quest hook. It will seem to the party that they have stumbled on something important that I put together for them, when really they made up the tiefling when they crossed the bridge, and they made up the diary when they asked about loot.

Don't get too far ahead with your story.

Every session, your players will do things you did not expect, and all of these things should have consequences.

Therefore, don't plan out a long story in advance. Make the story more specific and detailed the closer you get to it. The easiest way for me to do this is to plan the situation, not the story. After each session, I look at all of my NPC's plans and see if the party messed with them. If not, I conclude that the NPC's plan progressed a bit, and update their situation. If so, I get in the NPC's head and see how their plans will change. But plans are not things that will happen in the future, they are ideas that the NPCs have right now. The NPCs' plans are part of the situation. When it comes to writing scenes and dialog, I almost never go further ahead than the next session, and a lot of times I don't even end up getting to that.

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