Sandbox  games often get criticized for being static and devoid of any real plot. To use a stereotypical example, the player characters start in a town that’s surrounded by the Caves of Doom, the Tower of Death, and the Dungeon of Discomfort. It’s up to the PCs whether they want to explore each of these and in what order. Alternatively, the PCs may decide to hang around in town and harass the citizens, or they may simply wander around the map and tackle random encounters.
The locations themselves also tend to be static. The Caves of Doom always contain a clan of kobolds, the evil wizard of the Tower of Death continues to sip tea until the PCs arrive, and even the closest rooms to the entrance of the Dungeon of Discomfort are never cleared and looted until the PCs get there. In some cases, especially in class and level systems, the challenge level of a location and the PCs’ power level can be a jarring mismatch. A high-powered PC party could cake-walk through the Caves of Doom, but a low-powered PC party could get decimated by the statue guardian of Room #3 in the Dungeon of Discomfort, to say nothing of the avocado dragon that rules it.
This can also lead to “sandbox apathy,” where the players lose interest in the sandbox world as nothing changes. Sure, they cleared the Dungeon of Doom, but the evil wizard and the avocado dragon just yawn and sit in their strongholds until the PCs come after them. The PCs simply become game pieces that are moved around the board until there is nothing left to do.
One defense of this style is that “testing the waters” of each location would guarantee that the PCs will opt to clear the Caves of Doom first, then handle the middle-powered Tower of Death, until finally they tackle the Dungeon of Discomfort. If this is the case, it begs the question why the Game Master just didn’t run the adventures in order. Most sandboxes don’t contain enough nuanced locations so that a beginning PC party could tackle the hobgoblin-infested Lair of Destruction first, although they’d have an easier time of it had they hit the Caves of Doom beforehand. It also doesn’t address the related problem of what “fun” it’s going to be for the higher level PC party to torch the Caves of Doom for little effort and weak reward.
To be fair, there are a lot gamers that are perfectly content with this style, as they imagine their uber-level PCs sitting around a fire, telling tales of how they tore the Staff of High Wizardry from the dead wizard’s hands, and used the Blue Blade of Vengeance against the avocado dragon in order to gain their current power level, and they actually had a grand time showing those pathetic kobolds who was boss when they marched in, kicked tail, and took names. This article obviously isn’t for you :).
Once way to keep sandboxes fresh is to create dynamic locations. The world keeps moving as the PCs make decisions. Taking a page from linear adventures, you can craft a story around each location that unfolds as the PCs act, no matter where they are, and ensures that they get a different experience depending upon when they decide to visit that location or deal with a particular plot thread. The trick is to make it easy on you so you aren’t overburdened when preparing the campaign.
Here’s an example using a post-apocalyptic setting.
The Greenfield Campaign
The PCs are nomads traveling through the blasted landscape of the old “Heartland” when they discover Greenfield, a relatively intact walled town run by an elected Governor, whose power (the Greenfield Authority) extends throughout a relatively fertile valley. The PCs learn of four problems that need attending:
- There is a feral band of scavengers that operate out of an old bomb shelter in the hills north of the valley. They attack travelers and occasionally raid the smaller communities along the Authority’s northern border. These attacks are frequent but the “ferals” tend to flee rather than fight. Of more importance are the pre-war treasures that are littered inside the shelter.
- A neighboring hostile community to the East, the Waterford Directorate, is at war with Greenfield. Currently, the river that divides the two communities is providing enough protection, but the Directorate is better armed and increasing in strength every day. Soon they’ll find a way to cross en masse, and the Greenfield police won’t be able to repel them. There is a rumor that an old National Guard depot across the southern hills may have weapons and ammo that would certainly strengthen Greenfield’s forces, but the depot is buried deep in a treacherous forest populated by mutated creatures. Greenfield can’t risk losing police officers on a foolhardy quest.
- The Governor of Greenfield has internal problems. The Chief of the Greenfield Police isn’t happy with her “pacifistic policies” and thinks that Greenfield should be attacking and absorbing the weaker communities around it so they stand a chance against Waterford. A coup is brewing.
- A ragtag band of soldiers is marching down the western border of the Authority, pillaging the small, weak communities that have thrived due to the Authority’s benevolence. While the Greenfield Police would normally shore up the border, scouting reports show that the soldiers’ path won’t take them into Greenfield and the Police don’t want to weaken the eastern border by diverting forces.
The PCs now have four immediate plot threads. They can follow any of these in any order they wish. That said the world keeps moving, so the GM has predetermined how each of these threads might evolve without PC interference.
- The Ragtag unit was heading south to look for that National Guard depot. However, they are distracted when they learn about the Ferals and their shelter, as well as a hidden vault, from the records of one of the pillaged communities. To the Greenfield Authority’s horror, they turn and march towards it. Left unmolested, the Ragtag unit lays siege to the bomb shelter (which is actually an old R&D complex) and eventually takes it by force. Not only do they strengthen the shelter, but they uncover and put to use some pre-war artefacts that the ferals left alone in their ignorance. Eventually, the Ragtag unit clears and descends the hidden shaft and cuts their way to the vault and unwittingly releases a vicious war machine with dodgy programming that flushes them out and threatens Greenfield.
- The Waterford Army is distracting the Greenfield army by building rafts as a secret force is sent north to use dynamite to dam the river. Once this is accomplished the Waterford army can march across the uncovered riverbed and attack the Greenfield line. Greenfield puts up a surprisingly strong defense, but they slowly retreat and it’s only a matter of time before the line collapses completely. Waterford agents strike an alliance with the entrenched Ragtag unit to hit Greenfield on two fronts.
- In spite of his disapproval, the Greenfield Chief is supportive of the Governor and fiercely loyal. The same cannot be said for one of his captains, who just lost friends and family to the Ragtag unit. As more and more police officers with ties to the threatened communities get pulled east, the Captain’s conspiracy grows. She sends her own team south to find the weapons, which she plans to use to overthrow the Chief and the Governor. Should her plan be exposed, she’s planted evidence for the Chief to take the fall, leaving her next in line for promotion.
- The National Guard depot has its own war machine guardian, although this one only defends the base and relies on it for its AI. It needs a human operator to leave the base. If the Captain’s forces get there first, the machine can become a powerful tool for her coup. If the PCs get there first, they can use it against Waterford, the Ragtag unit, or even the Bomb Shelter War Machine.
Bomb Shelter Example
To use one location, the Bomb Shelter, as an example, it’s easy to see how the challenges change as the campaign progresses. At first, the PCs are facing small bands of ferals and their mutated hounds. If they clear the bomb shelter at that point they discover some unused pre-war foodstuffs and equipment, and information that this facility is more than a bomb shelter. They may then spend time dealing with the other problems or explore the “dungeon” that leads to the Vault, ultimately uncovering the war machine (which they may activate in the hopes of using it against Waterford – oops).
If the PCs wait and follow other leads, then they may learn of the Ragtag unit’s change of direction. The PCs may intercept them en route or attack them while they lay siege to the ferals. If they don’t then the Ragtag unit moves in. At this point the PCs may strike an alliance with displaced ferals that can help them infiltrate the shelter or simply attack a better-reinforced shelter. They may even try a diplomatic approach, perhaps convincing the Ragtag Colonel that it’s better for them to throw in with Greenfield instead of Waterford (the Captain would love this – she may even seek help from Waterford for her coup). If they still leave the Bomb Shelter alone, then the PCs have no chance of stopping the War Machine before it starts destroying everything in sight.
Dynamic sandboxes keep things moving and make the players feel like their choices matter without being constrained. It’s not so much that a sandbox doesn’t have a plot, but rather that the PCs are simply causing ripples in a larger pond of plots, the conclusion of which can be just as, if not more so, satisfying than a more linear campaign.