[A short digression on my preference for custom sandbox settings suggested by the previous post on the Curabel campaign design. My apologies on the lack of updates since the initial flurry of posts. My hope is to get back on at least a weekly posting schedule starting with the next installment of my campaign design series this weekend.]
I’ve always run sandbox campaigns, even back in the 80’s in school when I wouldn’t have known what that meant. This wasn’t a conscious choice, though, just an accident dependent on my interests and limitations as a DM:
1. I have never been able to run someone else’s campaign or module — they’re the projections of someone else’s imagination and always feel foreign to me. I can borrow a general theme, minor detail, or random table and rework it so that it becomes mine, but that’s about it. For instance, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through Zak S.’s Red & Pleasant Land and David McGrogan’s Yoon-Suin settings recently and could see myself playing in them or even stealing individual ideas for my own use, but those are not my worlds and I don’t have that gut feeling for their ‘reality’ that I get with my own creations.
2. I have always loved creating campaign milieus and explaining how everything got the way it is before the players start breaking/interacting with it. I do this for myself, though, so never feel compelled to ram it down the players’ throats — it’s a largely invisible (from the players’ perspective) web of causes and effects.
3. Determining the why and wherefores of a campaign world has always highlighted for me the underlying concepts that are firing my imagination. Knowing that makes riffing on player choices off-the-cuff much easier. They can yank on any adventure string they want, but I know the thematic ball of yarn to which they ultimately connect.
So, to run through the process backwards: I’ve always had a knack for improvisation based on player choice (the bedrock of sandbox play) because I have a good sense of my campaign worlds’ themes and history. I have a good sense of those themes and history because I only use my own material and spend a good bit of time rationalizing the components of that material. I only use my own material because I delight in creating it for its own sake and suck at empathizing with or ingesting the finished ideas of others.