Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Little More Musing About the Sandbox

I've previously mentioned the sandbox, but I don't think I've ever talked personally about my perspective on it.

As previously noted, I'm post-Hickman revolution, so linear games are somewhat familiar to me.  However, I'm a bit particular about them.

Basically, when I go into a game, I'll follow whatever hooks are thrown my way.  Basically, I'm in this game, and I'm not doing anything else at the moment, so why not do this cool thing?  If only one direction appears interesting, that's okay.

However, I don't want to see the boundaries.  Remember in Super Mario 64 when you're flying and you hit the invisible wall at the edge of the map?  Or in any video game ever where you hit a boundary that is only there for game purposes?

Well, that might be okay in video games, but it's not okay in roleplaying games.  I want to feel like I'm in a sandbox, even if I'm currently following a relatively linear story.  So, even if the story hooks are leading me one way, I want to be able to wander and chew the scenery if something more interesting catches my fancy.

D&D Encounters just had this problem: last chapter, there were two encounters wherein it was obvious that we were willing to talk our way through it (and our bard probably would have managed to do that, too).  However, since Encounters advertises a fight, combat ensued anyway.

Likewise, I've previously mentioned a game I played where death or failure did not appear to be significant risks, though I'm not certain how accurate that truly was.

Those are chafing.  I don't mind walking through the GM's plot, but I at least want that to be my choice.  The idea that I can leave the plot whenever I want is the bare minimum player agency to keep me interested.

As an alternate example, the Deadlands game in which I am currently playing appears to be linear, but that's part of the setup: some agency plans on getting the group to San Francisco, but we're basically going of our own free will.  Theoretically, if we get sidetracked or decide to do something else, we won't be stopped (though our patrons, such as they are, will likely try to return us to their path).  In practice, though, we likely won't do something else — each character is committed to this journey — but the option still appears to be there at the moment.

Like I said, the typical model among my groups appears to be a plot-in-a-sandbox, so you can follow the plot if you'd like, or you can just wander around in the sandbox if you want.  I might like to try something more sandboxy in the future, but I really don't mind following a linear plot.  Just so long as that's my decision.


  1. From my experiences trying to run two heavy-sandboxed games, you need to have players with a VERY strong "this is what I want to do" to pull it off. If they don't have a clear image of what they want it is very easy for them to get into a humdrum existence of simply existing within the world.

    My game of Reign which had the children of nobility who were going to (hopefully) struggle with the weight of history and past decisions of their City-State never really got off the ground, but I think that was due to the system as well.

    Changeling was a good game, but it was very much me trying to wrestle plot into the PC's way, and they frequently dealt with the immediate problem and then tried to go back to just living in the world. Which was interesting in that it was probably a close simulation to what people try to do; but hard to keep up. But I never really had a defined overarching mission to keep them focused on a prize. I kept trying to find something to hook them, but nothing ever stuck.

  2. That's why I typically stick with the plot-in-a-sandbox model. Most of the players I've encountered are perfectly fine with a linear plot (myself included), because who wants to go searching for fun?

    I always like to throw a bunch of stuff out there so that players can wander if they like, though, even if it's a fine line to avoid overwhelming newer players.

    I ultimately think I'd be more inclined to play in a sandbox campaign rather than run one, if only for the fact you mentioned: you really need a motivated player group to make that work.

  3. Yup, probably why I'll try running something with Dresden Files at some point if the game I was invited to never gets off the ground. I'm getting itchy again.

  4. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    I've recently put out an ebook of my writing, called 'The New Death and others'. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story 'The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune' and HP Lovecraft's 'Under the Pyramids'.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog.

    If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy. You can email me ( or reply to this thread.

    You can download a sample from the ebook's page on Smashwords:

    I'll also link to your review from my blog.



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