Six Tools For Sandbox Dungeon Masters
Running a sandbox game isn't for the light hearted, organization is prime and being ready to respond to player actions is a close second. If you are properly prepared, a sandbox is an easy way to run a game. There are books, blogs, and podcasts by the dozens talking about different methods of pregame preparation. All have their own method; preparation is something that everyone does differently, just like dungeon mastering. So which one is for you? I can't say, but I can give you insight into the tools I use. Aside from good pens, a mechanical pencil, and a bunch of dice what do you need to prepare for a sandbox game? I'll tell you what I use and why.
1) Red Tide And An Echo Resounding
These two books by Kevin Crawford revolutionized my preparation style. They have advice on your GM binder and what to keep in it, an easy system for randomly determining and populating an area with cities, towns, ruins, and lairs and maps to steal. An Echo Resounding sets up domains and factions, details domain turns, and mass combat, should things get ugly. Both are short and easy to read and come with detailed examples to help you work through it the first time. I've adapted them to my style and use them for most of my randomly determined areas, and sometimes for pre-populated ones too. These two well worn and sticky-tabbed books are easily in the top three most used in my library. What's the top one?
2) Dungeon Masters Guide
I prefer the first edition dungeon masters guide, but the fifth edition is no slouch! Both cover things beyond the rules of their respective edition, talking about time, non-player characters, and adventure locales just to name a few topics. The random tables in each cover personalities, traits, motives, and best of all random dungeons. If I'm drawing out a dungeon for a game, making non-player characters, or creating an encounter, one of these is what I reach for. Seeing a theme yet?
3) Random Tables
Random tables help you get away from same thinking. Anytime I need a question answered in my preparation I turn to a random table to break out of similar ideas. Similar ideas can be great in the beginning, even enforce a theme, but after a few sessions they start to seem stale. Random tables mix it up creating wild combinations that you need to make sense of; things I couldn't have come up with on my own. The books on my table lately have been The Dungeon Dozen, d30 sandbox and Tome of Adventure Design. The latter being my most used book in the last six sessions I prepared.
4) A Good Monster Book
Monsters are the base of encounters in Dungeons and Dragons. Whether you are making random tables or static encounters, you are going to need a lot more enemies than the ones in the back of the Players Handbook. Sometimes just flipping through a book will inspire an encounter or maybe even a whole adventure. That's the way the fifth edition Monster Manual is written, according to Mike Mearls. If you haven't read the Monster Manual, take the time, as it's well worth it. After exhausting that, pick up Tome of Beasts, Tome of Horrors, or use the fifth edition Dungeon Masters Guide and make some of your own!
5) Tablet, Laptop, Or PC
I like to run digital. Most of my collection is in PDFs, I make maps and graph paper, and keep all my notes online. At my game I run with my laptop, dndbeyond.com, and Nitro PDF reader. I even have a tv set up for maps, pictures of monsters, and rules to show the players. At home I like to prepare on my PC; there are four basic programs I use. A digital art program for maps, handouts, and paper minis. Photoshop is what I use, but GIMP, painter or whatever you have will work too. With online notes syncing across all devices, I can prepare wherever on whatever is handy (I do a lot of work on my phone). I use OneNote as my GM binder and have a lot of worksheets and forms set up to help me with the common things like settlements and adventures. OneNote works for me, but Evernote and Google Drive, or offline applications like Scrivener and Campaign Logger are also options. A PDF reader for all my PDFs, Nitro, Foxit, or Acrobat all work fine. The last one is a web browser. I get a lot of encounters, maps, paper minis, and ideas from the internet. Places like ENWorld, reddit, and Discord are some of my go-to communities. Remember great dungeon masters steal ideas! Just don't publish stolen material.
Yes, as digital as I like to be, plain old paper is a staple for my game preparation. If only for scribbling notes or sketching an encounter, I always seem to find a need for paper. I have a disc bound notebook to jot stuff down quickly or take notes during an encounter. I use this notebook for when I'm stuck, somehow staring at a blank sheet of paper gets my creative juices flowing. A doodle here, a number there, a list of names, and I'm off to the races, heading toward OneNote with ideas in hand ready to develop into a solid encounter.
Preparing for a game is a path all dungeon masters have to trudge down, but it doesn't have to be such a chore. We're dungeon masters partially because we love to create and sometimes we need some help with that creation. Having the right tools can make that session preparation a whole lot more fun and easy. I hope I’ve introduced you to some that fit into your preparation style.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains this blog