Running the Sandbox: Overarching Narratives

Intro

Well I wasn’t necessarily intending on following up my piece on Reactive vs. Proactive questing in the context of a sandbox campaign, but there was something contained in that piece that I think could stand to be elaborated on.

I discuss in that piece how in a sandbox things will tend to start off as Reactive then shift to Proactive as the party bonds more. I later mention how you can deftly weave larger ‘endgame’ stakes into the party’s Proactive gameplay. This can actually be identified as a three-part narrative structure of sorts.

So for this piece I want to talk about how to bring an overarching narrative into that sandbox structure. I’ll discuss a few ways to do this, and they’ll differ from sandbox to sandbox.

Technically this piece is a follow-up to that Reactive vs. Proactive Questing piece, so do read that beforehand if you can, but I’ll also be leaning on some content from this ‘3 Layers of Storytelling’ piece.

Beginnings

So I’ll preface all this by saying the things I’m going to discuss are not the only ways to run a sandbox, nor are they the only ways to introduce overarching narratives into a sandbox.

The start of a sandbox campaign is all about the characters getting to know one another. They need to form the bonds that will see them staying together long-term. This is where we judiciously employ our Reactive questing. We basically put the characters together by circumstance, and in the short-term they will stay together out of convenience.

But it’s important in that time that they’re creating those long-term bonds, and that’s something we may need to actively facilitate.

For my sandbox campaigns I make it clear to my players that the first ‘Arc’ of the story will be the time for them to do that bonding. I will handle the rest. I’ll basically just put the story and plot hooks in front of them so that they can focus on gelling as a party.

That’s just one part of facilitating inter-party bonding though. Giving them the narrative space to bond is important but there’s also cause to create circumstances that might ‘force the issue’, as it were. This could be something like having a person from a character’s past bump into them and bring up something the character had been hiding about themselves from the party. If you have a goblin character, it could be the town they’re staying in being attacked by a goblin raid, forcing the character to confront their differences (or indeed similarities) to the rest of their species. It could be something as simple as an NPC challenging a party member on their beliefs.

In essence, whatever form it takes you want to be creating emotive moments that allow the characters to explore themselves and each other. This is what forms the basis of a strong emotional bond.

Middles

This is where we now shift to Proactive questing. Because the characters have the foundation of a long-term bond they will be invested enough in each other to start getting involved in each other’s ‘Arcs’.

In this portion of a campaign things tend to naturally trend toward a more ‘Episodic’ narrative as party members begin to pursue their larger character goals (‘Find my missing father’, ‘Redeem myself to my tribe’, etc). Each of these arcs will often be somewhat self-contained, narratively speaking, but the character-driven style of arc isn’t the only one we can deploy during this ‘middle section’.

When we’re trying to weave together a cohesive underlying narrative we have a very powerful tool at our disposal: Character Actions.

All actions have consequences, and the consequences of character actions are what can generate narrative opportunities for new arcs. Maybe the Paladin’s personal arc culminated in him defeating his tribe’s chieftain in single combat. A few months and a few arcs later, this has left a power vacuum among his people and a powerful Necromancer is on the rise, taking advantage of the situation. Now the party needs to return to where they’d gone before to stop this Necromancer.

Alternatively, character inaction can be the driver for narrative opportunities. If your world is alive then it will be teeming with opportunities for characters to go and do things, but the party can only pick up one plot hook at a time. The unexplored opportunities will still develop and eventually create outcomes that the party may still have to come back and address. By not hunting down a dragon when the opportunity presented itself said dragon has become more bold and more powerful, destroying several towns. Now when the party comes back to properly address the situation they will do so knowing that they could have prevented it getting this bad in the first place. There’s so much narrative meat to that kind of concept.

But I digress.

The point in the end is that there is a kind of flowing narrative that is entirely informed by the characters themselves. Whether they’re exploring their personal stakes in the world or addressing the consequences of their various decisions, there is a continuity from arc to arc, and it is with this that we can create an overarching narrative for the campaign as a whole.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

Non-Episodic Middles

There is a different kind of sandbox though, and I’ve run this one just as much as I’ve run the episodic kind. This is the hack ‘n’ slash sandbox. This is the game where it’s all about procedural adventuring and session-to-session outcomes. That doesn’t mean that everything is ‘Monster of the Week’, but certainly the gameplay takes place on a purely quest-to-quest basis. When one ends, the party looks for hooks of where the next quest will be.

The focus of these kinds of sandboxes is less about narrative stakes and more about direct gameplay. That isn’t to say there can’t be wider stakes that the party get embroiled in, and indeed as they gain levels they need to be facing more and more significant threats, but at its core this is a campaign designed to facilitate far more standard adventuring.

The main way to tie an overarching narrative to this kind of campaign, if indeed you even find that necessary, is to have the party dealing with a big problem in small pieces. It’s less about ‘Taking down the evil overlord’ and more about the session-to-session gameplay of hitting the overlord’s war camps and razing them.

Anyway, there’s actually another kind of non-episodic sandbox, and that’s what I would call the ‘Soft Adventure Path’. This kind of sandbox plays out with the party having a wealth of options at the campaign’s outset (after a small period of bonding as a team), and each option plays out to an extent similar to a published adventure. The party gets swept up in something (albeit by choice) and see it through to its conclusion over the course of several levels – often in the realm of an entire tier’s worth.

This kind of campaign probably fits the ‘sandbox’ definition the most loosely, since really the ‘freedom of choice’ comes at a few distinct moments where the party is essentially choosing what story to get involved in at each tier threshold.

This kind of campaign also requires the least work in terms of building an overarching narrative since each ‘mini campaign’ within it represents a complete, self-contained narrative. This campaign’s story is also more about the characters in the context of the narrative they find themselves in rather than the narrative the characters make for themselves as they create the story.

There’s little need to tie each story together since each is more or less the grand story that the party was involved in at that point in their lives. It’s very ‘classic’ in terms of having a party of career adventurers. These sorts of campaigns are also great for having a larger scale of time, with each mini-campaign taking place years apart over the entire course of the character’s lives.

Ends

Regardless of the kind of sandbox you’re running, eventually you will need to come to a conclusion of some sort. Ideally this is because you’re approaching level 20 and that represents a natural end-point. It could be for plenty of other reasons though.

But the reason isn’t important. What’s important is deciding how exactly you’re going to end this thing.

Now I’ll preface this by saying some players won’t mind just having a final high-level arc that’s in effect no different to any other. Other players may find that unsatisfying, wanting something that’s more of a big finish. So how do you facilitate such narrative payoff in a sandbox where things are only partially connected (if they’re connected at all)?

Well let’s start with the Episodic kind of sandbox.

Episodic Ends

Remember when I talked about having a kind of continuity from arc to arc created by the movement of action to consequence to responsive action? Well that mechanism is how we’re going to create our overarching stakes to come together in our finale.

Real quick though, remember at the start I mentioned that ‘3 Layers of Storytelling’ piece? This is where it’ll come up. If you haven’t read it yet then maybe go skim through it now.

Anyway, in essence when we’re looking to create finales with huge narrative payoff we need to first acknowledge that the DM and the players are telling two very different stories. The players are telling the moment-to-moment story of their characters and how they act in the moment, the DM is telling the story of how that affects the world and their place in it. Really this can be viewed as the DM telling the story of the world, and the characters happen to be affecting that world.

But for that finale to take place we need to recognise that regardless as to what the party is doing session-to-session, arc-to-arc, there is some grand narrative happening in the world whether or not the party is involved in it. Yeah the party might have been liberating the goblin wizard’s tribe from the ruling hobgoblins, but elsewhere in the world a lich in disguise was amassing power in the council of mages.

So our final arc is essentially whatever that story’s finale would be.

But that doesn’t mean it’s disconnected from everything else the party has done. As the DM if you have this background story in mind then you can be alluding to it the whole way through. Find the ways it can touch the other arcs of the campaign. The presence of that background story should be felt all throughout the campaign.

An Example

To use an example from one of my own campaigns, the continent at large was headed toward what would inevitably be a very costly war. That was the overarching ‘world story’. In the party’s first major arc after the Beginning they were tracking down a stolen shipment of guns, which were this newfangled weapon. The arc itself was a gangland ‘political intrigue’ kind of story. At the end, the party found out what happened to the guns (they’d been shipped to the enemy and were long gone), reported their findings to the lord who hired them and went on their merry way. Arc done.

But in the background that lord had been manufacturing and selling these guns to ensure the population was well-armed when the eventual war came. By letting the shipment slip through their fingers, the party had inadvertently neutralised this advantage. The enemy now had the same technology.

Then in the next arc they found a pocket dimension of Dwarven refugees from a previous war. They rescued said refugees, who decided to resettle an abandoned forgeworks. This forgeworks being reactivated would give the nation an advantage in that upcoming war.

And so on.

Now the party wasn’t invested in this war, at least not yet, but their actions were influencing it. Eventually that war came, and not only had the party’s actions affected its course, they were also closely tied to people in the world who were invested in the war. This very people are the ones who roped the party in to help defend and, eventually, win the war. This constituted the final arc of the sandbox campaign.

Non-Episodic Ends

First let’s address that Hack ‘n’ Slash sandbox. Really we can just do the same thing. There is some overarching story going on in the world, and eventually the party’s procedural adventuring will collide with this wider story. In this sort of campaign this often happens as a natural consequence of the party growing in power as they gain levels. They need to face bigger and bigger threats so as to stay challenged, and eventually this is going to see them colliding with threats of the ‘world ending’ variety.

If we want this to have that extra layer of payoff then really all we need to do is again make the presence of that eventual ‘world ending threat’ be felt all throughout the procedural adventuring. Maybe from time to time they find the tomb they were going to delve into has already been ransacked and the powerful artefact within has been taken. It’s a small hint, but when they eventually encounter the ‘big bad’ wielding that exact artefact they’ll see how it’s all been connected all along.

There is a different opportunity here though, wherein the party is actively combating this ‘world ending threat’ from the outset and the nature of this combating is a week-to-week hack ‘n’ slash style of adventuring. I used the example earlier of razing an evil ruler’s war camps and actively counteracting their power and influence.

There’s also that other kind of non-episodic sandbox, the ‘Soft Adventure Path’ as I called it. Now I will say that this one needs a finale that ties everything together the least. It’s perfectly adequate to just have the tier 4 ‘mini campaign’ be an appropriately large-scale threat.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t weave the other mini campaigns into the finale. Perhaps the outcome of each of those arcs left a power vacuum that the final ‘big bad’ is simply occupying. Perhaps in the final arc the party fights the undead version of each previous ‘big bad’ that the ‘bigger bad’ necromancer has raised. Every played Wildermyth? It’s kind of like that. You get the picture.

So I Heard You Like Critical Role

That episodic sandbox with a wider ‘world story’ going on is exactly the kind of campaign Critical Role runs for its major seasons. Each character has their own things going on and their own stories they want to play out and resolve, but Matt Mercer is telling a very different story. He is telling stories of trapped gods, of wars and conquests, of fallen kingdoms and the price of hubris. The players end up embroiled in those wider stories as the campaign progresses, and as more and more of that wider story is revealed you realise how early on it was present in the campaign.

Again this ties into that ‘3 Layers of Storytelling’ concept. The players are telling one story, and the DM is facilitating it and having the world react to it, but the DM is telling a very different story that the players are in turn reacting to.

Conclusion

Now I said from the outset that this isn’t entirely necessary. Sandboxes don’t by definition need to have these kinds of grand finales and strong narrative ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ structures. That being said, much like the Reactive vs. Proactive questing concept I feel this is a way to really elevate your sandbox campaigns. It’s also not that hard to do, really. In fact I would say it’s quite easy to master. We’re told stories all our lives, and as DMs we’re used to telling them too. This is a natural human thing. We’re just applying it specifically to D&D.

Thanks for reading!

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