A term I’ve suddenly started hearing banded about the blogging network is ‘sandbox’, which I find kind of surprising.
To my mind, the term originates from the world of video games, and refers to ‘open’ game worlds in which you can explore the map freely, with little or no limitations.
I think of Grand Theft Auto and Oblivion when I think of Sandbox games.
I’ve only recently seen it being applied to pen and paper RPGs, usually as an alternative to the ‘traditional’ dungeon crawl.
This is what I find surprising.
It may be that I didn’t start playing dungeon based games until relatively recently, and started instead with ‘open world’ games like Cyberpunk, Ars Magica and Vampire: the Masquerade.

Maybe because of this, I’ve found dungeon based settings hard to rationalize. They basically don’t make sense to me.
The environment and ecosystems are illogical and artificial, and the construction of a mega dungeon is not just insane, but logistically impossible.
Surely there has to be a more efficient and cost effective way of hoarding gold / worshipping your evil god than building a monolith of a temple that blocks out the sun then inverting it and buring it under a forbidden mountain.
Although that does sound kinda cool.
I’d do it if I could, and keep all my secret stuff there…

So, anyways, Sandbox.

I’ve run a few, and messed some of them up big time.

The biggest mistake I’ve made is not giving the players enough guidance.
I ran a Vampire: the Masquerade game set in the 1950’s, and I kind of let the players make their own way.
They stumbled around for ages, and every now and then I threw them a plot bone.
It was very unsatisfactory.

In a previous post I wrote about Grand Theft Auto and how it helped me realise something important about the structure behind a successful game.

That it needs a structure in the first place.
Which is a bit of a no-brainer, really, but an intuitive leap I needed to make.

What I realised was that whilst I was free to run around Liberty City as I pleased, to steal cars, compete in races, find jumps, acquire and evade wanted stars, deal drugs, pimp out girls and callously murder innocents, there was always a plot for me to return to.
I knew that if I got bored, or wanted something surprising and challenging, all I needed to do was go to the mob boss’s mansion or hide-out and get a mission.

This is what I forgot to include in my earlier games: the opportunity for players to be given a goal or tasks.

In the classic D&D model, this is making contact with the village elders / dodge guy in the tavern / local priest who usually has some jobs they need doing.
In a World of Darkness setting, this is a function your Allies, Contacts, Mentor, Covenant/Tribe/Court etc can provide.

It is also worth remembering that as a GM we can subtly or overtly nudge the players in the direction of the action.
Computer games often have an annoying companion or guide that spends the first act of the game following you around and interrupting play with advice, when all you want to do is get to the killin’ asap.
Table top RPGs can sidestep this convention whilst still providing all the necessary guidance and direction a player needs.


3 thoughts on “Sandbox games / Second pass

  1. You might be interested in the post I wrote back in 2008 on Sandbox Play. The contrast is usually being made not between dungeon and non-dungeon play, but open-ended vs. plot-driven campaigns. The stereotypical non-sandbox campaign is one where the players are charged with saving the world. Dungeons could occur in either style, what matters most is whether the players are knocking about the dungeon and exploring it at their own pace and because that's what they've elected to do, or whether they're doing it as part of a larger plot where (say) they have to recover an item from the bottom of the dungeon or confront the campaign's villain so they can advance the plot.


  2. Joshua: Good essay, with some good points. I think the main error I made was not giving the players the option of guidance, and just letting them mill around.
    Sometimes players need that guiding hand. Sometimes they don't.

    Dyson: Have you seen D&D 4th Ed? 😉


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