The stories told in sandbox-style games differ quite a bit from the procedural adventures presented in traditional adventure. They still happen, but rather than a planned sequence of events, they arise from the situational choices the players make.
Implicit Hexcrawl Plotting
The basic plot behind a hexcrawl is “the players go interesting places and see interesting things.” You can drill down deeper by creating situations for the players to encounter. Nothing so overt that you beat them over the heads with it, but puzzle pieces they can assemble into a coherent narrative if they choose.
The way the players interact with and respond to these situations — explore them, ignore them, exploit them — that creates another level of procedural story.
Four Steps to Hexcrawl Stories
- Write out the basic situation. It doesn’t have to be very long. A paragraph or three will tell you what you need to know. For each individual or group involved, write down what their goal is and what it is that they’re after. This should be presented as the status quo as it exists when the players encounter the situation.
- Trigger: What initiates the situation, from the players’ perspective? Is it in effect from the start of the campaign? Is it initiated by an encounter, or visiting a certain location? Does it start automatically after a certain amount of in-game time?
- Development: Write out how the situation evolves over time if the players don’t intervene. This adds a layer of complexity, and not all situations develop. They might conceivably stay in a state of equilibrium for the duration of a campaign.
- Encounters: Make a list of characters and groups associated with the situation that the players might encounter, and the circumstances under which they might be encountered. Add these to your encounter lists.
- Locations: Make a list of locations tied to your situation. Add them to your location keys when working up your map.
The Hexbox system book includes a brief sample campaign set in a swamp surrounding an abandoned keep.
There is a war being waged between the frog-people and lizard-folk of the swamp. Both have been rivals for some time, with various degrees of success or failure in the wars they’ve waged. Both essentially want the same thing: To be the only tribe of humanoids in the swamp.
Currently the Frog-people have the upper-hand. They’ve captured the keep and imprisoned most of the lizard-folk. The leader of the lizards alone remains free, hiding out in an old cave and plotting his revenge.
Trigger: The situation exists as the game begins.
Development: Barring PC intervention the situation is unlikely to change. The Frog-people hold the keep, while the Lizard King fumes and plots in his cave. Note though that the PCs are explicitly tasked with occupying the Keep; it is unlikely they will not fall into conflict with the Frog-People.
Frogs on Patrol
• 2d4 Frogmen hunting the Lizard King. They found the PCs instead.
• The PCs come across a crude sign the Frogs have put up to mark
their territory. It’s a wooden post with a Lizardman skull spiked through
The Lizardman King has come out of hiding to hunt for food and shake a
scaled fist at the Frog-Folk. If he sees the PCs he’ll try to follow them in secret,
otherwise behave as he does in his lair.
The Keep is currently overrun by a tribe of Bullywug, who defeated a tribe
of Lizardmen to take it over. There are a dozen Bullywug present at all times,
armed with spears, holding eight lizardmen hostage in a holding cell.
If the Frogmen are defeated the Lizardmen will agree to disperse into the
swamp, only to return later under the command of their king.
The Swamp Cave
This has become the lair of the deposed Lizardman King. If he hears the PCs
approaching, he’ll hide in the pool in the back of the cave and watch them.
If they spot him or otherwise seem open to conversation, he’ll tell them his story.
He realizes that the PCs have come to take their keep back, and he is
of course willing to help them, if they are willing to help free his brothers and
sisters from captivity. Together they can defeat the frogs and
usher in a new era of mammal-lizard cooperation!
This is a lie. He intends to use the PCs to free his people and then turn on
them. He is a pretty good liar, though.
If the PCs agree to his plan, he will accompany them on an assault on the keep,
betraying them after his people have been freed. If not, and he survives, he will
sulk and skulk just out of site, following the PCs until they attack the keep, and
try to free his people in the confusion.