On Google+, Brendan S asked for an article about sandbox play for someone with no sandbox experience. I thought of the intro page I wrote for my own campaigns, back in 2012. Sadly it doesn’t talk too much about sandbox play. It’s also the first page of my Halberds and Helmets house rules.
The rules offer very little mechanics: there aren’t many classes to choose from, no feats, no skills, no prestige classes and hardly any special abilities. Furthermore, elves, dwarves and other demihumans are simply separate classes. There are no elven thieves of dwarven mages. On the other hand, missing rules also leave a lot of freedom for players. The characters are as diplomatic, friendly or intimidating as the players want them to be. There are no rules governing it.
We’ll add rules as time passes. Discovering and befriending intelligent humanoids, for example, will allow you to hire them and eventually to play them. Certain magic-users can teach player characters new spells, too.
We’re playing in a sandbox. There is no planned ending for the campaign. The actions of player characters determines the directions the campaign grows in.
You learn of rumors from travelers in taverns, merchants at markets, sailors at harbors, books in libraries or sages in their ivory towers. This information gained is not always accurate or complete. Use these rumors to add new locations to your map and determine your goals in-game.
Players determine where the campaign will head. If player characters investigate rumors and locations, I will develop the game world in that direction. The harder you look, the more there is to see.
Dangers are not adapted to the strength of the party. Generally speaking it’s safer near civilized settlements. The further you move into the wilderness, the more dangerous it is. That’s how players control the risks they want to take.
Preparation and experience should help you avoid situations where your character’s survival depends on a single die roll. If you’re rolling dice, it’s already too late. A saving throw is your last chance to survive due to luck and experience. Ideally you would never have to roll dice because you’re well informed and equipment. Perseus didn’t have to save against the medusa’s petrifying gaze because he was well prepared.
Retainers are another safeguard against character death: torch bearers, porters, men-at-arms and mercenaries all cost money, but they will also keep your character alive. Should player characters die, the next character is most probably going to be one of the retainers.
Experience points (XP) is gained by spending the gold you gained in adventures. If you manage to obtain the gold without combat, good for you. The best strategy is to pick your battles and stake the odds in your favor as far as possible. Remember, if you’re rolling dice, it’s already too late.