Despite the infinite variety of stories that can be told with RPGs, most fantasy campaigns revolve around the same story: a band of mercenary adventurers schlepping from kingdom to kingdom in search of gold, magic items and vengeance (somebody is always avenging something or other). What if you had a more concrete goal for your explorations and monster slayings? Could a party build something lasting and truly affect the world they exist in?
Here’s the idea: the PCs are settlers, along with a few dozen others, who have traveled into the wilderness to make a new home for themselves. You can figure out the why, the where and the how, but the key is that any other bastion of civilization is a long way away. There’s no help coming, no magic item shop to visit, and no duke/viscount/archwizard to hire you.
You have a small outpost to begin with, a few log cabins with plans to build stone houses in the spring. Ground is broken on some farms, livestock fences are erected to contain the cattle and oxen that were dragged along. Beyond that? Darkness. In the southern distance, you can see a high waterfall cascading down grey cliffs, and there’s a forest valley to the east, which likely has a stream or river running through it. On a clear day, from a treetop it’s possible to see some kind of stone ruins out past the meadows that stretch to the west. But no one knows what these places are, or what might live there.
The settlement needs things to succeed: fresh water sources, firewood, extra food for winter, protection from the elements, protection from predators. You can cheat and say the PCs were hired by the settlers to perform such tasks, or you could craft some intertwined stories about how each of these five settlers has special skills and are nominated by the townsfolk to form a group and explore the area.
The result is a very open-ended campaign. There’s no overarching plot of any kind to drive the players in a certain direction. There are things that must be accomplished, but the players choose how and in what order. We need water, let’s go check out that forest valley. We’re worried about what lives in those caves we saw, we should explore those. You can do what you want.
As you go, of course, you’ll uncover new secrets about this unclaimed realm. Who built the stone ruins? Who made the paintings in the caves? What kind of creature did we hear roaring in the distance last night? Plots will form gradually – perhaps some elves are unhappy about the new settlement, and the lands are claimed by an orc tribe. Maybe another group of adventurers comes tromping through looking for a magic item in a nearby dungeon. Well, isn’t it your dungeon?
You also get a nice opportunity to develop some meaningful NPCs. Initially, the settlement is only going to have a few families, so the PCs will get to know a couple of farmers and their kids, the blacksmith, and so on. It raises the stakes, too – stopping the owlbears from eating all the livestock seems more important when you know those kids will starve to death if you fail.
If you’re a DM, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, great, but who’s supposed to write all that? Open-ended stuff is impossible, you can never prepare enough material.” I offer some solutions.
Look at your world as a dartboard, with the settlement in the bull’s eye. See how the board is divided up into rings and sections? At first, you only need to develop material for the inner ring, closest to the settlement. You can keep those areas pretty simple, too. A few monsters to hamper supply collection, some interesting geological features, and maybe one tasty plot hook (like the elves). You can also sprinkle dungeon entrances here and there. The key to the dungeons is using published stuff whenever you can. The Dungeon Delves book is great for this (I desperately wish they’d make more of those). When the party finds an entrance and they decide to go in, just bring out a dungeon of the appropriate level (or not, you can also put them through the wringer or make them run away and try that dungeon again a few levels later).
An important element that shouldn’t be overlooked is temporal development. Seasons should pass. People in the settlement should die, but also give birth and age. Maybe new settlers arrive if things are going well. The settlement grows. More farms are built, more houses. More craftsmen and women set up shop. You can just make a rough outline of this, tied to whatever in-game temporal markers you want to use. I’d suggest something like ,”Every three gaming sessions, a season passes.” You could tie it to encounters or character levels as well. Don’t be afraid to make time go by fairly quickly – assume the characters have a lot of non-adventuring time, helping on farms, resting and recovering from their adventures, etc. The passage of time and large-scale development of the community is an important aspect of the campaign, since it shows how the party’s successes and failures affect the world.
The sandbox RPG is certainly not a new idea, but I got to thinking about ways to apply it while playing Civilization V and Minecraft. Of course an RPG isn’t going to look like either of those games, but those were the initial inspirations. Have any Vikings played or ran a sandbox campaign?
Addendum: I wanted to point out that the players shouldn’t be literally spending time gathering firewood and carrying water. They should still be having fun, grand adventures. So, for example, you’d have them defeat the undead that were plaguing the area around the freshwater spring, thus enabling the townsfolk to have the water. That sort of thing. Don’t get mired in bookkeeping.