A few weeks ago I was in a bit of a pickle (how the heck did that phrase come about?). I was supposed to start a new adventure for my WitchCraft game in an hour and I had nothing prepped for it but the vaguest of outlines (more like a mission statement and a couple of notes). Real life had gotten in the way over the last few days and I kept promising myself that I’d bang something out before the session and now I was out of time. I really didn’t want to cancel the session.

My WitchCraft campaign is designed like a sandbox. Most of the action takes place in a small geographic area, a fictional South Jersey shore town and the surrounding communities. As with any sandbox, I’d seeded the town with a number of interesting GM characters and threads. Normally, these elements sit in the background for the players to play with while solving the current adventure. If they don’t get to it now, those elements will wait. Even more importantly, those elements can play out organically; I don’t have concrete plans for most of them and adapt on the fly based on my players’ interactions with them.

So I decided to play in the sandbox.

I picked a few elements, looked at them through the lens of my mission statement, and threw them at the players. If they stuck I used them, if they didn’t I let them drop and scooped up something else. We ended up having a blast. The players had a chance to pursue some personal arcs and get a general sense of where the new adventure was leading while I bought myself some time to properly draft the specifics later.

While the sandbox is often presented as a tool for the players, it is also a great tool for the GM. I know a few GMs that are good at winging it with no prep. While I’m not one of those, I learned that a good sandbox gives me the tools to do some “structured winging” when I need to.

So how about you? Have you ever used the sandbox to your advantage as a GM beyond letting the PCs roam where they will within your planned areas?