Back in May, I posted an article about developing an old school sandbox setting for 5E. In that post, I described my core objectives for this campaign setting and talked about some elements that I would need to consider.
I’m revisiting that idea again this week, where I’ll talk a bit about monsters.
A Few, Some, or All?
There are a lot of monsters available in D&D 5E, especially if you take into account third-party products. And that’s before you get into converting monsters from older editions.
One of the core assumptions in a sandbox setting is that monsters are not placed based on the level of the adventuring party. If a lair of hill giants is located in the foothills of those mountains over there, then a party of 2nd-level characters who go exploring in those foothills could stumble upon monsters that are too powerful to defeat.
On the other hand, a well-planned sandbox should have many different possibilities for adventure, including monsters of all different challenge levels, so that the characters have something to explore no matter what they level they are.
So how do you balance these two factors?
When designing a sandbox, there should be plenty of opportunities for the characters to gather clues about an area before they dive into the local dungeon.
For example, there might be an ancient battlefield that they stumble across. Perhaps a couple of skeletons animate the first time they cross near the killing ground, and they find scattered pieces of rusted weapons or armor of ancient design. So the characters leave and go back to town to do some research (either asking locals about that battlefield, or researching local history). From that, they find out that some great evil villain once tried to invade the land and was slain in a great battle. But the villain used his dying breath to spout a curse that he would return as an undead spirit and slay every living thing upon the island.
So the players know that, somewhere in the vast battlefield, there is an undead spirit of great power that is probably able to animate the dead. If the characters are of low level, they may decide not to explore the battlefield and instead skirt around the edges on their way somewhere else—meaning that they will encounter skeletons and maybe zombies but nothing more powerful. Then, once they are of a higher level, they may decide the time is right for them to explore the battlefield (discovering that the undead spirit was unable to leave the confines of the battlefield until someone found his corpse).
I touched on this in my original post, but one easy way to differentiate regions within a sandbox setting is to use the environments listed in the 5E DMG (Arctic, Coastal, Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hill, Mountain, Swamp, Underdark, Underwater, Urban).
However, there is more to creating an interesting sandbox—and ultimately, the placing of encounters—than just tossing monsters of the appropriate type into a bunch of environments. The setting itself should have interesting locations that make use of, but are more than, the existing environments.
For example, a forest is just a forest, unless you give it some character. But what if you have one forest that is full of large trees and an unbroken canopy overhead, where it is always dim light underneath and explorers can hear a great many birds and other animals moving through the branches above their heads. And then you add another forest where most of the trees are dead or dying, and the wind moans as it passes through strange holes in the tree trunks, and there is always the sense of being watched by something (or somethings).
The players will come to recognize those different forests, and will probably start giving them names of their own (especially if you don’t tell them the “official” names until they have a way to find it out).
There are also specific features that you can use to provide specific interesting locations in the setting. For example, you can drop in a large ravine that runs through a set of hills. Perhaps there are a set of caves at the bottom of the ravine, providing great adventuring opportunities.
Putting It Together
Personally, I find that the selection of monsters and the development of interesting locations go hand-in-hand. If I decide that I want to have a bunch of ettercaps and giant spiders in a particular forest, that goes a long way to giving that forest some character. There will be obvious clues for the players (like old webs hanging from the trees), and I’ll make decisions about what animals live in the forest (since the spiders need to have something to eat), which means it needs to be a living ecosystem that will help me flesh it out and describe it.
So what monsters do I plan to put into my sandbox?
I’m going to start by saying that I won’t rule anything out at the beginning. Because during development I may decide that something that didn’t seem to fit turns out to be the perfect creature as I flesh things out.
I also need to decide if I want to provide some “common” adventuring possibilities. For example, do I want to include kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and other common humanoids? If so, can I come up with interesting ways to present them so that I don’t have just another typical goblin lair? Can I integrate them with the environment in which I place them in order to ensure that the location is memorable?
And then there are the legendary monsters. Do I want to have a dragon’s lair? Is there a beholder somewhere on the island? Does a lich or vampire reside in some ancient tower? Those are great threats that characters may not encounter or go after until they are high level and the campaign has been going on for some time.
And finally there are all the non-monster locations. What about other towns and villages? Or fortresses? Or lone wizards’ towers? These can be allies or enemies, sources of information or innocents in need of protecting from monsters. They can also present challenges that don’t have to be resolved by a fight.
A good sandbox usually includes random encounters, and I plan for this to be no different. Just because there is a goblin lair in a particular forest doesn’t mean they are the only creatures there. Each region should have its own random encounter tables so that characters can have encounters while exploring. Some of these will be with monsters, and some will use other options.
What I’m doing at this point is going through the Monster Manual and other inspirations and selecting some monsters that I feel I definitely want in my sandbox. Then I’m comparing those monsters with my list of interesting environmental locations that I’ve made to see if I can put together some good combinations that will make for memorable regions to explore.
Once I’ve got that list, I’ll place them on my map in appropriate locations, which will help me plan out my terrain a bit more. From that point, I can start developing the areas in between the core locations, figuring out what other monsters might inhabit an area and how they relate to the ones I’ve already placed.
Yes, it’s a fair amount of work, but it’s work that I enjoy and will certainly pay off when I finally run the game.
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