Hail! My process is probably quite different from other DMs on this forum. I think that’s largely due to my running “old school” games. I use random encounter tables, weather generation tables, random wilderness sight tables, cycling job boards for bounties, missing persons, etc., and, finally (this is my secret weapon as a DM, tbh), large scale random event tables. So my general process goes like this:
Large scale “campaign” ideas, the stuff you do when you’re figuring out what you want to run. And, a regional map by hand.
- Consider the region we’re playing in (I usually work with 50 square mile hexes), and create a Random Encounter Table (50 entries, all creatures but not all evil or monstrous, may include d6 humans or d4 pilgrims), Random Weather Table (within the normal climate of that region, 1-3 is much worse than before, 4-5 is only slightly worse, 6 is the same or better), Random Wilderness Sights (forest, hills, open terrain, coast, marsh, etc., usually listing 20 sights to spruce up my overland travel descriptions), and finally a Large Scale Table (d100 orcs, 20d20 lizardmen, 40d4 bandits, etc.).
- Use the Random Encounter Table and Large Scale Table to populate the region and figure out the "starting situation. I might roll an 87 on my Random Encounter Table, and get Minotaurs. I’ll ignore the normal number appearing that I’d use for an encounter, and place a single (or colony of) minotaur somewhere on the map, and write a short paragraph on them. I repeat this for every forest, hill, marsh, cove, etc. until I’ve populated much of the region.
Railroad-y intro session to “get them there”
- Really just let them loose. I give them some quest hooks to pick from at the end of session 1 (via a job board, a constable offering them work, a notice saying that the Pelvar Hills are off limits until further notice, etc.), and prep what they choose for the next session. Repeat.
The big thing for me is NOT having a pre-written story for them to experience. I prefer to design “living” sandboxes that evolve and surprise me, too!
Example: In my last Keep on the Borderlands game, I generated a huge amount of bandits and decided to split them into two groups (The Raven’s Oath bandits and the Iron Claw bandits). I put them into hexes I4 and I6 (because those are dense hills which provide cover and isolation from law keepers, as well as natural resources). I then designed their leaders, reputation, tactics, etc. and created a Timer - War (3/6 weeks). After 3 weeks, the timer completes and the bandits go to war! I roll some dice and see how that conflict resolves, how long it takes, what casualties each side suffers, and how nearby creatures, towns, etc. react to it. Can the Raven’s Oath bandits continue without their leader, who died in battle? Will they be forced into slavery? Join the Iron Claws? Then I adjust. I keep track of all these things in a Campaign Status Document. This is basically just your standard Patch Notes for a video game, that logs every change from the campaign’s default state.
In any given session, I’m rolling Random Encounters, adjusting the weather, and generating sights (and SITES) in the wilderness. Those rolls change the game. Why have I rolled Bandits the last seven times? Well, I guess there is a new group of brigands in the region. Why? From where? Who leads them? I figure all that stuff out after the session. Why did I roll a pack of 8 ghouls in the middle of the road? Must be a crypt nearby in the woods, or an errant necromancer who just killed a supply caravan. I guess I should make the necromancer and their goals, figure out who the caravan was, and how the military fortification they were delivering to will react when they don’t get the food they need for winter - and so on.
I hope this helps! People look down on the Random Tables of the past because they “don’t fit the story”. That is, in my opinion, a mistake. Random Encounter Tables aren’t supposed to fit the story. They’re supposed to help you generate new stories that appear as if they were planned all along. And of course, if the rolls don’t fit, ignore them. They’re tools, not shackles. Game on!