This is the first is what will probably be an irregular series on lessons for tabletop RPGs that can be learned from CRPGs. Minor spoilers for the game in question should be assumed.
It was around thirty hours into Skyrim that I started deliberately pursuing any of the actual plots in the game. And then, it was only to join the fighter’s guild because I heard that they’d give you your money back for weapon and armor training once you were friends with them. Up to that point, I had done precisely enough of the main plot to unlock the dragon shouts game mechanic, and then had just started wandering to my explorer’s heart’s content. Happen on map node. Explore map node. Kill creatures. Loot. Repeat.
As I was playing, I couldn’t help but notice that this was likely the closest the hexcrawl crowd is going to get in a AAA video game to their preferred tabletop experience: the particular form of sandbox where you explore an open world map. And while I think the players that expect a hexcrawl to be the default model of fantasy gaming are in the minority, pretty much every GM I know has considered running one at some point (or at least a sandbox of a non-world-map variety). The downside, of course, is that what most games can’t borrow from Skyrim is a giant team of writers, scripters, and artists filling in hundreds of unique encounters all over the map. The number of GMs I’ve heard talk about running a hexcrawl is far greater than the number that eventually runs one, due to the sheer amount of work involved in prepping a truly open environment.
But while you probably can’t borrow Skyrim’s dev team, you can take away some tricks to make your sandbox more coherent and engaging.
Major Plots are Global
When I finally started to do the main plot in the game in earnest (probably around hour forty, 2-4 times longer than all the content in many games), I was able to pick it back up with no problem even though it had been at least twenty game hours since I’d messed with it previously. That’s because the overplots of the game concern the return of the dragons and a civil war. Both of these things you see everywhere, even if you’re not on the main plot. Dragon attacks seem to happen with increasing frequency as you play, and you’ll be stumbling across their lairs anyway as you explore. Meanwhile, war camps for each faction are common encounters in the wilderness, and when you’re in town the alliance to one side or the other is a frequent topic of ambient NPC dialogue and features heavily in politics-related missions. You can refuse to do the main questline, but it’s much harder to avoid the related elements of those quests.
This trick is pretty common in tabletop sandboxes, and it’s often even intended that the “main plots” will just be ambiance for a while before the players feel like they’re ready to mess with them. And all it requires is having some world-level plots that could conceivably be visible from anywhere the players visit and then advance them gradually enough that the players take notice.
Powerful Necromancer? Early on the players notice that many villages they visit have problems with graverobbing and several undead-infested tombs appear to have been explored already without disturbing the undead and without taking much besides possibly books. Eventually, undead encounters start increasing in the wilderness and rumors of their source can start building to drive the players into action.
Planar Incursion? Minor creatures from the plane seem to get into weird stuff early on, and areas of the world seem to be strangely fused with another reality. Eventually rifts start opening up and nasty things spill out, getting in the players’ way at the very least.
You don’t even have to destroy your world if the players aren’t interested in getting involved. If they pass on the plot, eventually it dies down because someone else dealt with it and the next major plot gets spun out of the fallout. The players feel like they’re in a living world that will move without them, and that they can choose to involve themselves or not.
Almost no gameplay in Skyrim is actually limited to a single spot. You can just wander in a direction completing every dungeon/encounter node you see on the map, but all the while the game will be giving you clues and quests to direct you somewhere else. It may be as explicit as a mission added to your log, or just some quest item that you can’t get out of your inventory until you figure out who it belongs to. Inevitably, if you follow up, you’ll find yourself traveling far across the map… generally to places you could pick up even more quests if you were so inclined.
This is harder in tabletop sandboxes because of the lack of a room full of developers to pre-plan these connections. It’s hard enough to detail a whole bunch of encounter sites on your own without having to remember to explicitly link them together non-geographically. But it’s important to try, because these indirect links between sites become the fuel for player-directed play. That is, connections that the players can choose to follow up on or ignore are what actually makes the game into what people are really thinking about when they imagine the fun of a sandbox. With no connections between sites other than geography, your sandbox becomes the opposite, and just as undesirable, extreme of a railroad: players just wander randomly and deal with whatever they happen across with no agenda or impetus.
A simple way to do this with less than total prep is to give each encounter node an undescribed connection to another node or two. And create a few “quest hub” nodes, generally larger towns or cities, where there are a lot of outgoing connections, and try to link many of your encounter nodes to one of these. This can all be accomplished with a flowchart if you’re feeling up to it, or just a couple of small notations on the GM map (e.g, “Hex A6: links to G5 and I8”). Once you’re actually filling in the location, think about what would make sense as a link to the other node, and throw it in. It can be as simple as a treasure map or can be some complex entanglement between the sites.
Culture and Theme are Omnipresent
Even if you completely ignore all context in Skyrim—never doing a mission in your log, never following up on a connection, and just hitting nodes as they appear on your radar—you’re still going to be immersed in the game. One part of that is the context of culture. For example, some dungeons are dwarven and some are human, and they’re very distinctive. You’ll learn a lot about these cultures just by blundering through their dungeons. The second part is thematic links between concepts. For example, daedra princes are jerks. If you happen across an encounter or dungeon that features one of these demonic entities, you will gradually learn that even the most benevolent of them is mean, and the others will go out of their way to make you miserable. You’ve picked up on the cosmology without even trying.
This is probably the hardest thing to do without a huge team of artists and lore writers keeping everything consistent. But it pays off in presenting your world as a whole rather than a disparate set of encounters. In particular, a few strong themes can tie your game together even if the players do nothing else related. For example, if one of your themes is “blasphemy is always followed by swift divine retribution” and a bunch of your dungeons and other encounters are variations on creative divine punishments, the players will eventually get it (explicitly or unconsciously), and enjoy the worldbuilding all the more.
When making your sandbox, this is actually easier than it may seem. In your early notes you can do something like “All ruins are Elven, Orcish, or Dragonkin and all dungeons are Dwarven, Goblin, or Human Tombs” and then come up with a few significant visual and encounter variations for the different types. Immediately, you’ll stop having generic dungeons as players have the ability to compare and contrast. Simultaneously, you can come up with a few overarching themes, like “Never make a deal with a devil” or “The first sin is Oathbreaking,” and try to design any backstory discovered in dungeons or any story encounters to speak to these themes in some way. Even if the players never follow up on any kind of plot or direct connection, the game as a whole should feel consistent.