Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 1

I’ve recently talked about using the D&D 5E rules for old school play (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). As I mentioned last week, I’ve been really interested in putting together an old school sandbox (also known as a hexcrawl) campaign.

I’ve been a DM since I bought the original Tom Moldvay red box Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set back in 1981. And a big part of being a DM back in the day was designing your own setting that did what you wanted it to do.

So I’m going to develop my own lands for the PCs to explore (probably for some future campaign), and I figured it might be interesting to others, so I will blog about it here. And, who knows, it might eventually end up as something publishable, or at least downloadable here.

The Foundation

When looking at this project, I think it’s important to outline some of my core objectives in doing this. This will help to keep me on track and ensure that I don’t waste time focusing on things that might temporarily grab my interest, but won’t actually contribute anything useful to the project.

I’ve thought about this a bit, and here are my initial goals for this setting:

  1. Develop a setting for use in actual D&D play.
  2. Focus on multiple regions, each with a distinct feel and look.
  3. Each region should have a reason to explore it, aside from specific “adventure locations” that the characters may find. For example, there might be mining opportunities in certain regions, or characters might be hired to explore certain areas because the empire is considering expansion.
  4. Provide opportunities to place individual adventure locations scattered across the locations. These will be unique geographic features, dungeons, settlements, monster lairs, localized magical effects, and anything else I can come up with that will provide direct character interaction beyond just exploring.
  5. Ensure the regions have a “frontier” feel to them—the empire has never before settled or even explored in this direction in any official capacity.
  6. Keep the home base as a safe location for the characters. Ensure adventure is “out there” rather than inside the actual home settlement.

I expect that, as I go forward, I will likely add another objective or two, but I think this is a good start. It will help me develop the foundation of the setting at the very least and ensure that it is strong and consistent.

The Regions

The core elements of the campaign setting will be the regions to explore. As I mentioned, each region should have a distinct feel and look. It should have a “character” all its own, and the players should be able to tell when their player characters leave one region and enter another.

One of the easiest ways to do this is, of course, with the specific environment. The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a list of environments in which the monsters of the game are mostly commonly encountered. These environments are:

  • Arctic
  • Coastal
  • Desert
  • Forest
  • Grassland
  • Hill
  • Mountain
  • Swamp
  • Underdark
  • Underwater
  • Urban

At this early point in development of the campaign setting, I’m not entirely sure I’m going to include all of those environments. I want my setting to be realistic enough that the players can understand the world, and so it’s difficult to have all of those environments close enough together in a way that makes sense. Further, some environments, like forests, may show up multiple times in different directions.

The Scale

Which brings me to the scale of the setting. I want the players to have the opportunity to travel and explore, and this means that there needs to be a fairly large area in which to place each region. Plus, each region needs to have enough space to house multiple adventure locations without adventurers stumbling upon one location after another during each day of travel.

So the key is to determine how fast the party will be able to travel in a single day while exploring, and then determine how much travel it will take to reach the next region.

According to the 5E Player’s Handbook, the normal travel pace is 24 miles in a day (assuming a movement speed of 30 feet per round). However, different characters are going to have different movement rates (e.g. a wood elf has a speed of 45 feet, but a dwarf is only 25 feet), I plan to incorporate the variant encumbrance rules on page 176 of the PHB, and armor could also modify a character’s speed.

While some class abilities provide even faster movement as they go up in level, like a monk’s increased speed and even the gaining of a fly speed at 20th level, I’m going to use the base speed to determine the size of the regions in this setting. That way, as characters gain levels, they will find it easier to explore farther away from their home base.

So here are the possible movement rates and the per day travel maximums.

Movement Rate
Per Round Per Day
35 feet 27 miles
30 feet 24 miles
25 feet 21 miles
20 feet 18 miles
15 feet 15 miles
10 feet 12 miles
5 feet 9 miles

Unless the characters are hauling a ton of equipment (or treasure!), however, most the time the party—assuming they travel at the speed of the slowest member—will have a daily speed of either 21 miles (if the party has a dwarf or halfling) or 24 miles (if no dwarf or halfling is present).

It’s also important to keep in mind, though, that these travel times “assume relatively simple terrain: roads, open plains, or clear dungeon corridors.” Difficult terrain halves movement speed, and includes “dense forests, deep swamps, rubble-filled ruins, steep mountains, and ice-covered ground.” So a lot of the exploring that the characters will undertake will be done at a much slower pace.

Note: I’m based in Canada, and many of the visitors to my blog also live outside the United States (or Burma or Liberia). So why am I using such an arbitrary and outdated measurement system? In this case, it is purely because these are the distances used in the core rulebooks for D&D. It would be great if they switched over to the International System of Units (i.e. the metric system) like the rest of the world, but as of the current printing of the D&D books, they have not. So, in order to save myself a ton of work converting everything, I’m going to use imperial units in these posts.

Now, for mapping wilderness areas, a common recommendation is to use a 6-mile hex. There’s a great post on The Hydra’s Grotto from back in 2009 about the use the 6-mile hex, and I fully agree with his arguments. This means that a party will likely be able to cross 4 hexes—or 3.5 hexes if they have dwarves or halflings in the party—in a single day.

Obviously, some regions are going to be larger than others, and the size may vary quite a bit. I’m going to start with a rule of thumb that the largest regions will take about a week to cross. The smallest regions should be crossable in about a day. By planning this out by time, rather than distance, it will give me an idea of how large the region should be.

For example, a dense forest that takes a week to cross isn’t actually (24 miles x 7 days = ) 168 miles in width. Since dense forest means half-speed travel, it’s actually only (12 miles x 7 days = ) 84 miles in width. Still a great deal of area to explore, but it won’t need to be so large on the map due to the speed restrictions.


So that’s it for this week. I have the basic idea down for the campaign wilderness, and my objectives are set. Next time (not necessarily next week), I’m going to talk a bit about the various monsters that I might want to include in the setting.

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