Idea: Mini Sandbox

(and a few adventure hooks)

If you’re a DM that likes a modicum of control over a campaign but your players enjoy having plenty of choices that can affect the game, consider bridging the two with a Mini Sandbox. A Dungeon Master can create an “Invisible Railroad” for the plot, as described recently by Chris Sims in Dragon Magazine, but still lay down a framework of switches which give the players choices that may affect the outcome of an adventure. To take the metaphor further, for every railroad there can be a junction.

I call it a Mini Sandbox because your overall campaign can run how you like, guided like a railroad or one great big sandbox, but this little technique can fit in all. The Mini Sandbox can be as small as a single encounter or skill challenge, or as large as an entire level’s adventure, so everything here is versatile.

Containment

To begin with, take a part of your adventure and surround it somehow, physically or otherwise, so the players feel as if they have entered a space that isn’t necessarily affected by the rest of the world. At the root of classic Dungeons & Dragons adventures, this is known as a dungeon. It doesn’t have to be an abandoned haunted mine or the lair of a red dragon, it can be outdoors, in the sky, or even in a space that isn’t physical at all. Some examples:

  • A banderhobb has manipulated the sleeping PCs into dreamscape that it has woven. The characters all wake in a world that isn’t a part of reality, but they can affect it in certain ways and must use their wits to escape.
  • A wizard shrinks all of the PCs to the size of chickpeas, and drops them in his terrarium filled with fly traps and ants.
  • A rakshasa noble has a notorious garden maze that surrounds his estate where he is said to spend many hours crafting his schemes and weaving his rituals.
  • To get to the floating city, the PCs must be transported by a gigantic flying barge that ships everything from crates of gold to crates of prisoners.

Goal

The next thing the Players will need is motivation while within the Mini Sandbox. Most likely they will have a motivation already determined by your plot, but part of the point of the Mini Sandbox is to offer a secondary objective. You could use the goal of a side quest to trail the characters through, but you could also present to them with an opportunity that had not been brought up before.

Using one of the examples above for instance, let’s say before the PCs went on their adventure to slay the rakshasa for the king they were presented with a side quest from an esteemed NPC to save the city’s captive daughters the rakshasa has taken. This is a side quest, and while the PCs are within the garden maze, you could bait the characters with female cries for help, motivating them to not only get through the maze to the rakshasa’s estate, but to explore the maze immediately so they could save the daughters. However, if there is no side quest involved you can also motivate the players by putting a spin on the final encounter with the rakshasa. Giving them a small bait while they are within the maze that because the rakshasa spends so much time in his garden there are indications that within there may be ways to reveal weaknesses he might have. The players then have a choice: explore the Mini Sandbox for a leg up on the final battle, or push through and take their chances with the big bad evil guy a la carte.

In short, if the goal is simply to get out of the Mini Sandbox, then it is reduced to an obstacle course. That can be fun in and of itself, but if there is an element of advantage for the characters while they are within the Mini Sandbox, they will not only be willing to explore it, but they’ll find it connects to the overall adventure and that offers an opportunity to tell a better story.

Pressure

Just like any good game there has to be an interesting level of risk vs reward. You want the players to explore the Mini Sandbox, but it should include some element of risk. When you put dangers in a Mini Sandbox you are telling the players not to explore; when you put rewards in the Mini Sandbox you force them to ask whether exploring is worth it. You want to make it worth it, so the pressure should be light enough to keep the Mini Sandbox from being a death trap (or from overshadowing the showdown at the end of the adventure), but significant enough to bring out some thrill in the game.

Essentially, you want the players to pose to themselves a question: “While we’re here, what can we gain?” The ‘while we’re here’ bit is important because you’ve presented a scenario that forces the players to be idle alongside the trail that takes them to the plot’s resolution. Being idle in D&D is boring and is usually skipped, as it should be, but if you add a little bit of danger to the idleness, you can make for an interesting adventure. That danger must come with reward however, and thus, pressure ensues.

As an example I’ll use the gigantic flying barge en route to the floating city. While on the barge, the characters are simply traveling. They’re idle. Drop a little rumor about how the big flying freight ship has a covey of were-gulls nesting in the walls of the hull that have pilfered from the cargo over the years. The PCs go exploring and finding traces of the strange creatures they can follow. The crew might reveal that the captain has brokered a deal with the creatures a cut of cargo for protection of the ship. Searching around a bit for these creatures, they might find some log books in one of quarters that indicates crew members disappearing. A secret door leading into the walls of the hull, they’re met with the were-gulls and a few pet protectors they keep. They indeed find treasure in their nests, but after adventuring for more they find something else in their hidden roosts: desiccated humanoids in sailor garments. At this point the players have a choice of exploring more, risking dangerous encounters for more magic item treasures, taking the bodies back and confronting the captain, or any manner of exploration you can provide in the secret compartments of the boat. Maybe they stir an uprising from crew, maybe they find the dead crew members were actually criminal stowaways, maybe they uncover these creatures coat their feathers with residuum—anything that keeps the risk of danger at level with some form of reward, but only if they choose to explore further.

That’s the concept behind the Mini Sandbox: it’s an invitation to players to choose their adventure, alongside the main adventure.

Plot

The Mini Sandbox can still offer a connection to main adventure however, and with many groups this is something quite necessary. Many players feel like anything that isn’t a direct path to resolving the plot is a distraction and not an optimized path. If you want to use the Mini Sandbox for those kinds of players, you may have to trap them. But don’t ignore their needs, you can thread in the aspects of the contained area to the overall story quite easily.

I’ll take another example above to illustrate how the Mini Sandbox can weave a separated space into an overall plot:

When the players are shrunk into chickpea-sized adventurers and tossed into the wizard’s terrarium, they’re met with a Mini Sandbox where they can explore. The motivation is of course to regain their size and get out of the box, but we’re going to want something more. The first thing they do is avoid the giant fly trap plant they’ve landed next to, but let them notice that it has recently caught an ant that is slowly digesting in the plants jaws. If the PCs explore the carcass, you can reveal (through a series of skill checks perhaps) that it isn’t an ant after all, but ankheg that has been shrunken down to a miniature size, just like them. After that, you can put some pressure on them by staging an army of ankegs coming for them, perhaps a skill challenge to avoid them, and climaxing with a skirmish. When the PCs are resting, they hear a voice and explore what they think is a cave to find it. Within the cave they find a gnome NPC with a pick ax who is shuddering at a white wall he’s seemed to discover in the cave. The PCs introduce themselves and the gnome reveals he’s been surviving in this ant hill for many days, carving his way to secret nooks for protection, but now he’s discovered this roadblock. Another series of skill checks reveals the white wall is actually a life-sized pearl that is buried in the soil of the terrarium, and that it is actually a Pearl of Power. Little use to the miniature sized PCs, but a great treasure piece should they escape, they leave the pearl alone for now. The gnome says that the wizard punished one of his goons by shrinking them just yesterday, but when the punishment was through, he took the goon out of the terrarium and cast the magic words upon him to return him to his normal size. The gnome wrote the words down but doesn’t know how to use that kind of magic—and even worse, he dropped the notation when he saw a gigantic lizard on the other side of the box. The PCs are sure they can break the shrinking spell if they had the words, so they explore further to find the lizard’s lair. On the way however they come to a part in the caves where the soil meets the glass walls. Outside the glass they can see the gigantic wizard’s goons walking around a table working on some sort of model. With a few skill checks they may find that the model is a tiny replica of their hometown city. All of the sudden, the evil wizard’s motivations have gone from experimentation on ankhegs, to punishing people with shrinking magic, to a plot to shrink an entire city for whatever nefarious reasons.

You can expect the remainder of this Mini Sandbox leading to them tracking down the lizard, slaying or placating it to grab the dropped magical notation, and decrypting the words to break the shrinking spell on them. All this with more vengeance for the wizard who shrunk them because they want to thwart his plans to enslave their entire hometown into miniature pets for his evil delight. You’ve got a combat, skill usage, a helpful NPC, some challenges, some plot, and even a treasure parcel to boot. This, and you didn’t have to lay a series of underground (life-sized) tunnels and rooms leading to your BBEG that your players have all seen before.

It’s worth noting however, there was little choice for the players in this scenario; without the magic words they couldn’t be returned to their normal size, so that hook was pretty much a rail. This example was more about the Mini Sandbox being a device to reveal part of the plot and not necessarily about providing tons of avenues to discover.

It should be noted that a lot of these discoveries, dangers and rewards in the Mini Sandbox can be shuffled around just like a sandbox should. The characters may find the desiccated bodies before they find the ledger with missing crew members. They may find the lizard and the notation with the magic words before they find the gnome. Some of these clues might be more enticing, more leading than others, so be sure to sprinkle a little bit of bait at each phase of exploration.

The Mini Sandbox is just like a big sandbox adventure, but allows you to use it in conjunction with whatever other style of play you’re using in your campaign. It’s a great way to try out a more open style if you’ve never done it before and it’s a great way to give the players a little feeling of control over the game without having to prepare for everything possible they could do. I know I’d rather prepare a list of 10 things the characters might do in a contained setting than 100 things they could possibly do in the whole campaign world at large.

How do you run your games? Could you use a contained Mini Sandbox in it?

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2 Responses to Idea: Mini Sandbox

  1. Eodrid says:

    1) This could be a good way to introduce players to the idea of a sandbox if they’ve never played that way.

    2) Its a good tool for a DM to use to pad a simple adventure idea–spread out the parts and make the PCs look for them.

    3) If you have an Explorer type player–this is how you engage them! I love stuff like this when I play.

  2. shimmertook says:

    All great suggestions Eodrid. The idea started as a simple adventure hook and expanded into a template for running a game that resolves several issues (like needing to pad the game or fulfilling an explorer type player).

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