Hubs, Sites & Routes is a methodology for planning out a sandbox game. As the name suggests, it is defined by three elements.
- Quest Hubs: Relatively safe and friendly areas where the PCs can rest and find things to do.
- Adventure Sites: Dangerous areas where the PCs will do most of their adventuring.
- Routes: Connectors which PCs use to travel between quest hubs, adventure sites, and other routes.
The first two, hubs and sites, are very similar except in focus. PCs will get most quests at quest hubs, and most quests will require PCs to travel to adventure sites to fulfill them. That said, there can certainly be quests which are started at an adventure site and/or which are fulfilled at a quest hub.
Routes really just help you to define and keep consistent the distances and effects of travel.
A quest hub should be a relatively safe and friendly place for the PCs, the sort of place they could use as a home base if they were so inclined. It should have a variety of NPCs available for interaction and for questing. Most civilized areas would probably be considered quest hubs, but not necessarily all. An orcish settlement or a town controlled by an enemy, for example, would likely be considered an adventure site, and a roadside inn might be considered a route.
When designing a quest hub, try to keep it open-ended, as ideally you’ll get a lot of use out of it. Ideally, most of the major factions in the area should have some presence in the hub, even if it’s a single person residing there in an unofficial capacity (a retired general, for example). Factions at a quest hub might include churches, political groups, guilds, merchants, etc.
And of course, the most important thing for a quest hub is… the quests! Try to have a number of different quests which can be completed in the same nearby adventure site. I just posted some advice on quest design.
Compared to quest hubs, adventure sites should probably be smaller and more numerous. That doesn’t necessarily mean physically smaller, mind you, but smaller in terms of there being less going on. There should be a small number of enemy or neutral groups at the adventure site. Ruins, dungeons, caves and enemy settlements are examples of adventure sites.
Adventure sites should also have some kind of story for the PCs to discover, and the PCs should ultimately be able to change the adventure site in a lasting way. In fact, they might even be able to turn an adventure site into a quest hub–for example, clearing an evil necromancer and his legion of undead out of an ancient castle and then gifting it to a local lord, or taking control of it themselves. Adventure sites also might turn into routes to other sites and hubs, such as a garrison blocking a passage into the mountains.
Routes are a bit more abstract, and meant to basically allow for some consistency and meaningful choices. For example, there might be two routes from a village (quest hub) to a dungeon (adventure site). The old road is relatively safe, but curves around the dark forest and takes 2 days to travel. The second route is to go directly through the dark forest, which takes only a day if the PCs pass a skill test, but if they fail they could get lost and trapped in the forest longer.
When designing routes, you need to decide what the routes connect to. Routes can connect to any number of hubs, sites, and other routes.
You also need to decide how long a route should take to travel, and any consequences you might wish to attach to traveling the route. Routes serve as an excellent opportunity to emphasize skills in an otherwise combat-heavy game. Skill checks can be used to endure harsh weather (failure depletes the PCs healing surges or similar resources in other games), avoid getting lost (failure increases travel time and may deplete PCs’ food stocks), and avoid (harmful) encounters*.
In practice, there’s a lot of flexibility in how you design routes, and the important thing is that it describes how the players travel just as much as where they travel. So for example a long journey might have two routes–one a direct course to the destination that’s shorter but more taxing, and the other where the PCs stop at an inn halfway through, taking more time but arriving at themore rested.
*A note on encounters: I recommend giving little if any experience or other reward for random encounters, to emphasize that PCs should avoid them and see them as a bad thing. Otherwise, some groups might try to game the system by actively seeking out random encounters (guilty!).