Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 3

I’ve posted a couple of times about developing a sandbox setting for D&D 5E (Part 1, Part 2), and this week I’m going to expand on the climates, terrain, and monster selection.


As my sandbox is an island, and it’s not so large as to be a full continent, there is a limit to the different climates that I can realistically include. I’ve decided that this island sits in the northern waters of the world, and so climate reflects this.

The island itself is slightly larger than the Northwest Territories in Canada—the surface area is approximately 916,249 square miles (1,474,560 square kilometers). So this gives me some room to work with.

Using the Köppen climate classification types to describe the island, the southern and middle portions of the island are subarctic climate, the northern portion of the island is polar tundra, and the higher elevations are dry-summer subarctic.



This has a direct influence on both the terrain types I will use and the monsters I plan to include.

Terrain Types

As mentioned previously, the 5E DMG provides lists of the monsters divided by terrain type. The terrain types listed in the DMG are Arctic, Coastal, Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hills, Mountains, Swamp, Underdark, Underwater, and Urban.

So applying these terrain types to the island based on the climate I’ve chosen, I get the following:

  • Arctic—The mountains in the northeast of the island use the arctic terrain type. This is due to their elevation in addition to their latitude, increasing the sub-arctic climate to arctic as you climb higher into the range.
  • Coastal—As this is an island, the coastal terrain type is definitely applicable.
  • Desert—Even though the mountains provide a rain shadow for the interior of the island, I don’t want it to be too dry. A sandy desert is out, and I don’t feel the island is far enough north to get a dry snow desert. So I’m not going to use this terrain type on the island.
  • Forest—Most of the middle and southern portions of the island are subarctic and therefore forests are very appropriate. The forests are almost exclusively conifers (needles instead of broad leaves) which remain green throughout the cold months. It’s not unknown for the occasional broadleaf forest to be found within a subarctic zone, and so I’ll probably include one in the southern area of the island.
  • Grassland—The northern tundra can be considered a grassland for the purposes of monster selection by terrain type, though the vegetation is very short and is composed mostly of shrubs, mosses, and lichens. The central area of the island is also covered by a grassland.
  • Hills—Each of the three sets of mountain peaks are surrounded by foothills. In addition, one of the sets of hills extends out into the central part of the island (near the grassland noted above).
  • Mountains—As mentioned, there are three distinct sets of mountain peaks. The mountains in the northeast are fairly low and very cold. The mountains in the southeast are essentially a continuation of that same chain, though the ground between them is low enough that they seem as if they are a separate set of peaks. The mountains on the west side are much larger (cover more area) and have a higher elevation.
  • Swamp—The tundra in the north transforms into swampland during the short summers when the temperatures rise enough to thaw the ground frost. The ice melts and creates many bogs and marshes (as well as lakes and streams).
  • Underdark—This is less a “terrain” type than it is a location that can underlie almost any of the other terrains. On this island, the underdark will be mostly found underneath the hills and mountains. As I plan to have this campaign be mostly about exploration of the island itself, I’m not going to make the underdark too extensive.
  • Underwater—Like the underdark, I don’t want to run an extensive underwater campaign. Therefore, I plan to have a large lake with underwater ruins that can be explored if the PCs are interested, but it won’t be a major part of the campaign.
  • Urban—The point of this campaign is a wilderness hexcrawl focused on exploration. So I’m placing a small town that is the PCs starting point, though I don’t plan to put any adventure hooks that lead to purely urban adventures there. I also have ideas for two other small settlements on the island, but they won’t be sizable urban environments. The one possible exception to this is that there are the ruins of a small city on the island that is entirely abandoned by people after some kind of disaster, and only monsters can be found there (as well as some interesting mysteries and cool set pieces).


So I have my climate, and this affects the terrain types to include on the island. And now I have to select my monsters.

  • Humanoids—The first choice I need to make is about how many humanoid races I want to include. D&D contains many different options here, such as the goblin races, orcs, drow, bullywugs, derro, duergar, firenewts, gnolls, grimlocks, grungs, kenku, kobolds, kuo-toa, lizardfolk, merfolk, sahuagin, tabaxi, troglodytes, and yuan-ti.

    Obviously, including all of these would be far too much. Some I can eliminate simply by climate and terrain type (such as yuan-ti), and others just don’t really fit into the setting (grungs).

    Still, that leaves me with many options.

    For now, I expect that I’ll include some form of goblinoid race (probably straight goblins and perhaps bugbears, but likely not hobgoblins). I may also include orcs as a tribal race that inhabits the tundra in the north. As far as the bits that take place in the underdark, I will likely include duergar and one other—most likely either grimlocks or troglodytes, whichever I can make the most interesting.

Of the other monster types, these will be selected on a case-by-case basis:

  • Aberrations—I will definitely include a few aberrations with each as the core monster for a larger encounter area. My plan is to create a few new aberrations to provide something new for the PCs to discover.
  • Beasts—Natural animals will certainly populate most of the wilderness areas, and I will also include some of the giant versions and a few of the larger beasts. Dinosaurs will not be found on the island.
  • Celestials—As celestials are native to the Upper Planes, and generally are of the same (or similar) alignments to the PCs, I don’t have plans to include these creatures (unless as a one-off for a particular encounter area).
  • Constructs—I will certainly include a few constructs on the island, mostly as remnants created by those who lived in the ruined city on the island.
  • Dragons—I do have plans to include at least one dragon, as I have a new race of creatures related to dragons that will play a part in the setting.
  • Elementals—These creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only.
  • Fey—Some types of fey will certainly inhabit some of the wild places on the island, though they certainly won’t be common.
  • Fiends—Like elementals, these creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only. I do have a couple of ideas already, so there will definitely be a few included.
  • Giants—I do plan for there to be a couple of types of giants on the island. I do not intend to use the Ordning or anything similar to constrain the giants into a hierarchy.
  • Monstrosities—I will certainly include some monstrosities in my list of monsters on the island. They will most often be part of specific encounter locations, but some can be found in the random tables.
  • Oozes—These will be included as appropriate to the climate and terrain type.
  • Plants—I do plan for there to be some plant creatures on the island, and I intend to create a few new ones for PCs to discover.
  • Undead—There will certainly be undead on the island, though they will not be a focus of the campaign.

Island Regions

Now I’m in the process of creating specific regions on the island. A region can be as small as one hex, or as large as I need it to be. A particular forest will usually be a single region, and a region could include an entire mountain range or just a single mountain, depending on its relationship to the surrounding terrain.

From the moment the PCs leave the main town, they will move from one region to another as they explore the island. Each region will usually have a noticeable boundary (such as the edge of a forest into a grassland, or crossing a river into a new area), though some may have large transition areas as regions overlap for some miles.

In some cases, the regions may be defined by the monsters themselves. For example, if I choose to include a colony of ettercaps, they may take over part of a larger forest. While the forest itself could be a single region, it would generally make more sense for the spider-infested area to be a single region, with the regular portion of the forest a neighboring region.

For this reason, the development of regions and the placing of monsters basically goes hand-in-hand.

Random Encounters and Set Pieces

And, of course, once the regions are developed, each one will get its own set of random encounter tables, reflecting the creatures that could be found in that particular region.

Each region will also have at one set piece encounter, and probably a few. These are locations that do not change and are not random. For example, a goblin lair where a particular goblin tribe lives would be a set piece encounter, with a map of the lair and description of the tribe and its members.

Not all set piece encounters will necessarily include monsters, of course. When exploring a hex, there will be interesting things to find that won’t always lead to a fight, or even interaction with living (or undead) creatures.

But this the final, and longest, step in developing the sandbox and will take some time to do.


I’ve been picking away at this setting here and there as I work on other projects, so it’s not moving terribly quickly. I hope, though, that my thoughts here provide some insight into the development of such a sandbox setting.

I’ve already started planning out the regions and marking them on the island map, and I’ve created a couple of the hexes in the first region. The next time I update this project here I will include some of the developed regions and a couple of completed hexes so you can see how I will present the information for use when running the game.

Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 2

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.

Next Steps

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.

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.