Sandbox Reflections

Robert Conley shared “Blackmarsh” with the online community–a great sandbox setting that I’ve looked over and thought about adapting. Good stuff!

Anyway, I was reading in the “Adventuring Advice” section, and ran across this:

After each session of the campaign, review what the players did. Look at your original timeline of events, see what impact their actions had, and make the needed changes. Sometimes the players’ actions will lead to a new and unexpected chain of events.

The creativity of the referee comes by not forcing his players to follow a predetermined story, but to develop new and interesting consequences based on the players’ actions. Use the NPC’s motivations and personalities to decide which consequences are the most likely and pick the most interesting.

The result is a campaign where the players feel they are forging their character’s destiny within a living, breathing world. It will not only be fun and adventurous, but also filed with surprises. Consequences will accumulate and spin the campaign into unexpected directions.

I agree with all this, absolutely. My caveat: this is only fun if your players can handle it. The unexpected consequences can trigger pouting and resentment.

Sometimes players use a sandbox like a catbox then complain of the smell.

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11 Responses to Sandbox Reflections

  1. All of my best games, as a player or GM, have been played like this. And as you say, make sure everyone’s on the same page, as I for one can really live without the pouting…

  2. fictivite says:

    Yeah. It doesn’t work when you’ve got one or more players who think if they can figure out the right thing to do, things will be okay; so if things go bad, they are being punished for doing the wrong thing. Or, worse yet, if they think that they’ll be punished no matter what they do.

    A game with no conflict isn’t much fun; as we say around my house, “farming makes for dull role-play.” I think some players just want to make sure that none of the conflict can be attributed to their actions.

  3. Joshua says:

    I think sandbox is becoming one of those terms that shortly (if it’s not true already) will have little or no meaning anymore, because its used so indiscriminantly to describe so many different kinds of playstyles which are, in reality, completely disparate from each other.

    For example, any game with “an original timeline of events” already doesn’t sound like a sandbox the way I understand the term.

  4. fictivite says:

    @Joshua: I do think you can have a sandbox with other things going on. In a city campaign you can have factions who are going about their business, and if the PCs get into their business then that’s the story, and plans change. Otherwise, it unfolds in the background.

    In a wilderness game, maybe overhunting is causing increased raiding by hungry elves. Do the characters contribute to overhunting? Try to stop it? Stomp raiding elves? They may ignore the situation, or they may get involved in a number of ways. Contrast that to a game where the scenario is that there are elf raids and the characters are hired to put a stop to it.

    Sandboxing is more about providing a variety of things for the characters to focus on, not creating a static world that only changes as the characters touch it.

    I do agree that many different play styles can fit under the term “sandbox.”

  5. Thanks for the kind words and I am glad you enjoyed Blackmarsh.

    @ Joshua, it helps immersion and the player feel they have a meaningful impact if the setting has a life of its own.

    A tool to accomplish this is to write a timeline of events that would occur as if the PCs didn’t exist. This timeline is only a plan not a script. Like a general’s plan of battle. After the campaign starts it will change during and after each session, much like a general’s plan will change after contact with the enemy. Having a timeplan plan means you thought about what your NPCs are doing and why. This make it easier for the referee to respond to what the player do (or not do).

  6. Joshua says:

    I’m very familiar with that concept, having used it for some years (without that label) myself. I cleverly thought I had invented the idea myself, of course. 😉

    But I’ve never called my game a sandbox. I think there’s been a tendency in the last few years to call any game that isn’t an overt railroad a sandbox. I don’t think the label has much value if its applied so broadly. Plus, I think that the use of the label is more trendy than substantive in a lot of instances where I see it.

    Anyway, don’t mind me. I’m just an old-timey gamer who gets a bit crotchety when labels from the world of computer gaming get applied to tabletop gaming. 🙂

  7. fictivite says:

    Yeah, here’s a contrasting example. In my Masks Fantasy game, we did a series of dungeon crawls; they showed up with characters, understanding we were going to do a dungeon, and we started at the entrance.

    We also have a quest, Search for the Sleeping Goddess. In that, they are committed to finding the resting place of a goddess and waking her back into the pantheon. So the adventures are driven by that basic goal, even if they wander a bit.

    As a third example, my Old School Hack style play can generate the starting adventure out of the motives of the characters. Not a whole lot of choice involved, but it focuses on the characters and pulls a story together around them. (And that can turn into a quest almost accidentally: see the Death of the Widow Dragon!)

    Finally, there is the Edge City game, with modern superpowered characters. They know a lot about what’s going on in the city, and they also know about some mysteries they haven’t chosen to check out yet. They sometimes go save the world, but the rest of the time they pursue their interests in town, asking each other for help with events and goals that matter to them. That’s a mix of sandbox and quest.

    Anyway, not to ramble unduly, but while “sandbox” is a broad term, it doesn’t cover a lot of other kinds of gaming.

    Thanks for checking in!

  8. @Jousha it did indeed originated in computer games. In 2003, those of us on the team that wrote the Wilderlands Boxed Set for Necromancer Games were having trouble explaining to folks at enworld and other forums what we did with the Wilderlands and why the boxed set was used for. During one of our mailing list discussions, one of us, not me, came up with the idea of taking the idea of a sandbox computer game and applying it to the type of roleplaying campaigns we ran.

    Most of us like the idea, including me, and started describing our campaigns as sandbox campaigns. I guess others liked as well because it spread all over the place from then on.

    As for being overused, people tend to do that. Roleplaying games is used for so many different types of games that we have to be careful to call what we play tabletop roleplaying games so people don’t confuse what we talk about with LARPS or World of Warcraft.

  9. fictivite says:

    Thanks for the back story on that, and for showing up on my humble blog!

  10. Joshua says:

    That sounds like about the time that I started hearing the term used to apply to roleplaying games. And I think it applies marvelously to something like the Wilderlands, it being (in my mind, at least) the iconic representation of a product designed to be used as a sandbox.

    My “concern”, and it’s not really important, so I’m not really concerned, but I’m not sure what other word best fits here, is that because of the popularity of the term, and especially its association with the OSR, it gets used indiscrimnantly, and lots of people say sandbox when what they really mean is merely that it’s not a railroad, and sometimes even moreso–all they mean is a game that they like. In any case, like I said, it’s really not important.

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