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127

What you are trying to create in a sand box is player agency. My definition of this is: Players making informed decisions that have reasonable consequences It is important to remember that there is an inherent information imbalance in RPG: you have it, they don't. It is your job as DM to give them information that is relevant, reasonable and accessible. ...


112

In game, make it clear that they won't always win The cause of your problems isn't open world, the problem is the preconception that PCs can always solve the problems in front of them with combat. When a level 1 PC sees a dragon, the correct reaction should be to run. That much is obvious. But what about when they are asked to track down and kill a certain ...


81

Let them fail - miserably! But don't kill them... A lot of good stories start out like this: You have a bunch of over confident wanna-be heroes who want to kill the evil general with a stupid plan. So of course it is doomed to fail, they will never kill them and they will surely get caught. But why should they all be killed? The evil general probably has ...


54

there was a spy present at the meeting where the plan was hatched and discussed If you want to warn the players off their plan in a plausible way, the existence of this spy offers some options to do that. Have the spy change allegiance and come to the players with a warning, for a price. "Get me/my family/and a sack of jewels out of the war zone and I'll ...


43

My own 5e campaign world is "unconstrained," as you put it, but the players seldom get in over their heads and certainly not to the point of TPK. High-level dangers may exist in the world, but whether and how the adventurers are exposed to them is a different matter: The Boss Monsters Are Busy High CR monsters and NPCs generally have more important ...


39

Tell Them Your Goals If you haven't already, I would start by telling them essentially what you just said here. That there is no "one true plot". Tell them that introducing an evil person / problem does not make it the overriding campaign unless they want it to be. Tell them that you are willing to follow along with their character's background goals. ...


39

It's always easy to remember the flashiest effects of any roll. Everyone remembers rolling a 20 is a crit, right? Get into the habit of putting signs and tracks everywhere Since you mention your worlds can be a little empty, start every single random encounter as a give-more-information cue. Only then roll for effect. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but ...


37

Let's simplify this scenario to what it amounts to: there's a button, and the players want to push it, and they're not sure what will happen, but you alone know that if they push it they die. Right now, you only see the option that they die. It is inescapable that character death tends to suck. You could explain they had no way of finding out — that ...


34

I have experience playing the low levels. I can briefly summarise the impact as follows: It will make encounters much harder. With many characters dying in combat, and possibly a few total party kills as well. This can be demoralising, but some players might be up for it. But something perhaps easily overlooked is that it removes a wonderful suspense ...


33

One of the central premises of a West Marches campaign is that one character may start events in motion that their player will not get to see resolved. If the players aren't okay with that, either they've chosen the wrong campaign to play in or they weren't properly briefed on how things were going to be. As players attend and miss sessions, the group ...


29

Everything is okay In the question title you claim that you have a problem having the players do stuff; this is clearly not the case, as they are doing precisely what they should be doing in a sandbox game: They have set an objective and try to accomplish it, while ignoring unrelated hooks. This is good and effective play; I am happy when my players manage ...


26

You could present the game in a more reactive fashion. If the players do not appear to be making any kind of indications of the sort of actions that they would like to take then you could simply present low-importance information back to them and again prompt them for action. For instance: The players would like a means of entering a city and have their ...


24

Putting out fires mechanic Imagine your party has 3 different issues that are all presented to them in differing parts of your world. One is a necromancer problem to the east, a werewolf problem to the north, and political friction at the border to the south. Putting out one "fire" gives the others time to grow. Whatever they decide to tackle early ...


23

My suggestion? Don't. When I run sandbox games, I tend to divide the world into regions of general power; I start the players off in a low threat zone, full of mudcrabs, rattata, and the occasional goblin. Then, in universe, I tell the players what areas are safe. Rumors in the bar that the road to Harborhead has been having some bandit troubles. The city ...


19

Change the order of evaluation. Currently it is determine "random encounter" or "signs and tracks", then roll on table. The payoff of rolling on the table for mere "signs and tracks" is low. Instead, roll for the random encounter first. Then roll what kind of encounter: signs and tracks, lair, ambush, etc. So 1-3 is "roll random encounter". 4-6 means "...


18

The way I've been on the receiving end of campaigns like this, it starts from the central conceit that home base is safe—i.e., no combat. Then you scale encounters by distance to home base. You tell your players from the outset that they will run into trouble the further they push, but the rewards are also sweeter. You can sprinkle the odd higher level ...


17

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 ...


17

Make them stumble upon and want to bite the hook. Expecially in a homebrew campaign, players will want to get their bearings: take a look around, see what the locals are like etc. This is where you come in: They hit the tavern? Have the innkeeper talk about how it's not been going well lately because for some reason less visitors drop by for drinks and ...


17

In very broad terms, the CR of a creature is based on three factors: Numbers. Attack bonuses and AC, save DCs and saving throws, etc. etc. Requirements. Magic weapons for overcoming DR/magic. Flight, or ways of dealing with others having it. Teleporting, or again ways of dealing with it. Protection from various status effects (e.g. those things that ...


17

At 1st level, a single critical hit from all but the weakest monster can reduce a PC to 0 HP. For example, kobolds (CR 1/8) do 1d4+2; that's a maximum of 10 on a critical, fighter types should survive - most others are at 0. Hobgoblins (CR 1/2) do 1d8+1 plus 2d6 if an ally is within 5 feet of the target, an average of 25 and a maximum of 41 on a critical; ...


17

Take a spare 6-sided die. If you don't have one, buy a cheap one at a dollar store. Print out two monster footprint icons like these and one monster icon like this. Cut out the icons into small squares and glue them to the appropriate sides of your die. Optionally, glue blank pieces of paper to sides 4, 5, and 6. Use the die only for monster encounter rolls.


16

I'm a little bit surprised to see so many answers to this question without what I thought was the obvious one, so I'm going to put it out here. What you have here is an obvious disconnect between what the player thought the situation was, and what you, the GM thought the situation was. Very seldom do players actually do things that they believe are ...


16

I have not run a West Marches game, but I have run games where players were active between sessions. The secret was: give them something to do. Many games will involve players doing some one-on-one interaction with the DM: going shopping, talking to NPCs, experimenting with strange magics and equipment, interrogating prisoners, making skill checks at the ...


16

Don't keep secrets Your players have to be in a position to make informed decisions at the relevant time. If the swamp is home to an Ancient Green Dragon, then the players need to know this before they encounter the dragon. Ideally, they should know this when, or shortly after, they become aware of the swamp and definitely before they start to explore the ...


14

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 ...


14

Whose plan is this, really? Do the characters have a plan that will get them killed? Or do your players have a plan that will get their characters killed? There's a subtle difference, and your response should hinge on which of the two it is. The players made a terrible plan Players only have fairly limited information about the world and are often not as ...


14

Some of my rules of running a sandbox: It is better to spoil surprises than to appear unfair. Do you best to ensure you have given them all the information they should have. When things do go wrong, provide opportunities for retreat. While you know more than the players, you also know more than the NPCs. The NPCs aren’t perfect, and their countermeasures ...


13

Do not introduce hooks, introduce situations The main difference between a campaign and a sandbox is that campaigns have a well-defined plot, while sandboxes have a well-defined premise. Think of it as a ballistic approach to storytelling. You set up your guns, load, elevation etc. and you fire. Where the projectile will land is then in the hands of gods, ...


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