Updated: Dec 17, 2022
Running one-shots and published adventures is fun but one of my favorite ways to run a D&D campaign is with with a totally sandbox world to allow the players to take full control of the story. If that sounds like fun to play - you’re right, it’s amazing! If that sounds like fun to prepare, you‘re probably a workaholic and possibly a masochist. But not to fear! The “Prep Your Nouns” method is how I prepare a sandbox open world campaign with a minimum of effort AND in a way that ensures the story is totally in the hands of the party.
Locations - Think about where the party is in your world and what they’re doing and make sure you have 2-3 locations prepared that they are likely to visit. If the party is in town, this might be a tavern, general store, temple, or the great hall of a noble. It will likely include at least one dungeon or encounter location. You can spend a lot of time building out epic dungeons but what I like to do is have a couple of simple and easy-to-run dungeons on hand. I made Sandbox Adventures for this exact purpose. Around 20-30 minutes of reading through one of those adventures should be enough to run one. A resource that I live to use is the annual collection of One Page Dungeons. I have a binder of some of my favorite ones that I can pull from quickly based on the party’s actions. One trick I would recommend is to ”reskin” dungeons. If you have a dwarven stronghold dungeon on hand but the party pulls a fast one on you and decides to check out the crypts below the temple instead, be prepared to adlib a new description on the fly. Learn more about this strategy in Be a Thief, a Cheat, and a Liar.
Obstacles - What are 2-3 challenges the party is likely to encounter? These could be CR-appropriate monsters you’re ready to roll out, puzzles the party has to solve, or some other source of conflict such as severe weather. If the party does something surprising, I may need to pull out my trusty Monster Manual but have just a couple of obstacles ready minimizes the on-the-fly encounter building.
Objects - What are 2-3 interesting objects the party is likely to encounter? These might include magic items, items such as book or maps that might hook the party toward other adventures, or clues with information leading to evil cultists or a plot in the world by your BBEG. Having a couple of these objects prepared will help make the adventure feel unexpected and special but can also serve the tactically desirable function of encouraging your players to roleplay and discuss while you make needed adjustments or encounter difficulty calculations behind your GM screen.
NPCs - Who are the 2-3 characters the party is likely to come across in this session? If the party is in town, these might be shopkeeps or NPCs who have adventure hooks. If the party is in the wild, they may be characters who require help or who can serve as a guide to the party. Preparing basic description and - most importantly - their motivation/bond will help you quickly and convincingly roleplay the NPC when needed.
Now that we have our nouns, I hear you asking, “What about verbs?” Great question! As I prepare for sandbox style campaigns, I love this technique because it constantly reminds me to not think about the verbs. Verbs are actions and actions are for the party to worry about. I don’t need to worry about how the party will solve the puzzle in the third room or escape a well-executed hobgoblin ambush. Thats the jurisdiction of the players. And the more I neglect thinking about the campaigns verbs, the more authentically sandbox and open-world it becomes.
So in review, here is the complete DnD Prep Checklist for you to keep in mind as you get read for game night:
What's your best strategy for running an open world campaign? Is there something else you would add to your own personal DnD Prep checklist? Let me know in the comments!
- Shane Collins