The players recognized the open-ness of the world, but still couldn’t resist delving into the first dungeon they came across. Here’s how the dungeon crawl went:
This particular dungeon was built by the so-called “Mad Mage,” though in reality he was more simple-minded and ADHD than “mad.” As such, his dungeon was largely unfinished, with most rooms and hallways being bare stone with no furniture. However, the dungeon was built with the purpose of luring in gullible adventurers, killing them, and claiming their items. To that end, the dungeon was stock full of nasty traps.
The players first found some viewing globes in the dungeon’s “lobby” area, used by the Mad Mage to communicate with his four brothers. By speaking to the eldest brother, the players learned that the Mad Mage had committed suicide some 70 years ago, and that all five brothers had built dungeons in order to compete to see who was more successful in the art of scamming fatally gullible adventurers. It seems that since the Mad Mage’s suicide, all the brothers lost contact with each other and abandoned their hobby, having amassed more than enough wealth over the years to live comfortably.
The players’ opinions on the Mad Mage turned from “Burn the witch! Steal his shit!” to a sort of morbid curiosity, with a slight twinge of pity. Again, they took the time — however briefly — to reevaluate the situation: There was no telling what sort of traps or beasts they’d encounter in the dungeon, and also no telling what treasure, if any, they’d find. Perhaps it was not worth it…? Perhaps they could just head outside and find something better to do…? No, no, they can’t walk away from the possibility that there might be more to the story of the Mad Mage than what they’ve been told.
They are repeatedly (and hilariously) maimed by the various traps, and occasionally stop and again ask themselves if the dungeon is worth it. But one player brings up an excellent point — “Well, the Mad Mage’s house is way out in the country, and the dungeon is pretty well hidden underneath. If we clear out this dungeon, we can use it for ourselves, as a hideout or keep or something.” Now that was a really cool moment! It had never occurred to the other players — mostly longtime veterans — that they could do this. They were so used to happily taking the leads in whatever module they were doing, and not straying too far from the path. But this world was open! This world could be affected by whatever direction they took!
So, with the dungeon as a potential prize now, the party was more motivated than before. They did clear it out, and laughed about what a terrible dungeon it was. One player mentioned that they felt kind of bad for making fun of the dungeon, as if he was mocking a child’s art project for being awful. As a DM, that kind of emotional response is music to my ears! I must be doing something right!
They found some decent treasure, and made it to level 2. And best of all, the characters bonded. Currently there is a werewolf, a Vanara (monkey people), a sylph, and a half-elf. We also have a Tian Xia (read: Asian) refugee and an Aasimar on the way to join the party. So they bonded over their weirdness and over the fact that in their own ways, they’re all outcasts and freaks.
Next session will be an important milestone in my sandbox experiment. This dungeon (and its background) was the only material I prepared ahead of time for the campaign. I knew they’d go for it, because, come on, easy dungeon crawl. But now they are on their own. They’ve irritated the town, ignored a weird dead body, and annoyed a ranger. That gives them very little to go on, so they’ll need to — no pun intended — take the initiative from here on out.