I don’t like sandboxes. Sand is coarse and rough and irritating – and it gets everywhere. Oh wait. Wrong kind of sand.
I hear those unfamiliar with the term asking, “But Ang, what is a sandbox game?” A sandbox game is one in which the GM has created a world that the players are allowed to explore at their discretion. If the GM has crafted any overarching plots or planted plot hooks, the players are completely free to ignore them to go where they want and do what they will. The term is also often used for video games like The Sims or Minecraft where the world is there for the player to interact with in whatever way they choose. Tabletop RPGs that use a sandbox model are theoretically the same, but still require other players and usually a GM.
One of the common laments I’ve heard from sandbox GMs is that the players have ignored all of their plot hooks, so now they’re forced to rain down doom and destruction on the game world because the players didn’t stop the big bad that was actually doing stuff in the background. My pet peeve with this is that means the PCs are irrelevant to the world’s story. If the game’s story isn’t about the PCs, then why are we playing a roleplaying game?
To be fair, there are plenty of folks who love the sandbox style of game, and that is perfectly fine. I may not enjoy that style from the experiences I’ve had, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell someone else they’re having bad wrong fun for playing in a way that is outside of my preference. Everyone needs to find a game group that fits their tastes and needs for gaming, and if that happens to be a wide-open sandbox, then more power to you. Keep getting your game on however your group enjoys it.
Now that I’ve told you why I don’t like sandboxes, I’m going to confess that I found myself setting up my Savage Worlds East Texas University campaign a bit like a sandbox.
“What?! Why on earth would you do that, Ang?”Â Well, let me explain!
- It’s a contained sandbox. It’s not the entire world or a vast and sprawling fantasy nation of boundless possibility. It’s a simple town and gown set-up of a reasonably sized university and the neighboring small town to support it. Sure, there’s a world beyond those two things, but these characters have obligations at school, so if they decide they want to head off to Houston for a couple of weeks, that’s going to affect their grades. If they ignore their responsibilities to their academic journey, it could force that character into becoming an NPC if they flunk out. In other words, there are built-in in-game reasons for the PCs to stay invested in the game world in front of them.
- There is a ton of material out there for ETU. Just some casual poking around will turn up a bunch of official material from Pinnacle, from one sheet adventures to a full plot point campaign in the form of Degrees of Horror. And that’s without getting into all of the third-party plot ideas out there. I can easily pull in a wide variety of adventure ideas that are seeded around the world for the PCs to stumble across and explore on their own terms. After the initial introductory session, I seeded four plots into the world around the PCs. They’ve so far investigated and resolved three of them, and there are so many more ideas to choose from in the existing material.
- I still get to craft an overarching plot and tailor the game entirely around the PCs the players brought to the table, absolutely making them the protagonists of the story. Consider a bit like the network television model that X-files used. There will be a fair number of sessions based around the plots the players discover and decide to explore, but there will be the ‘mythology’ episodes that are tied to the main plot that’s meant to carry the PCs from Freshman Orientation all the way to Senior graduation.
I suppose what I’m doing isn’t a true sandbox, but it feels like a good compromise between my relatively tighter campaigns and leaving things open ended. I still improvise the bits in between, but the players have their freedom to explore what their characters are interested in. Hell, our most recent session had me reconfigure a mystery to happen at a nearby Renaissance Festival because the players suddenly decided that was where they wanted to go.
What about you? What are your thoughts on sandbox games vs. the more curated style of campaign? Do most people fall somewhere in the middle? Do I think about this all a bit too much? GO RAVENS!
I cannot recommend Dungeon World enough, if not as a great game in and of itself, but as a great resource on how to run a character and story-driven game with the flexibility of a sandbox game.
I’m with you about the sandboxes… Buuuut… 50 Fathoms 😛
This is such a helpful article for me! As a relatively new GM, who is just about to branch out into his first fully created World, many of these same questions about sandboxing were coming up in my mind naturally. A friend tipped me off to GnomeStew and so really glad to see so many awesome articles (including this one) that really help give perspective and solid information. I may be a newbie to roleplaying and GMing, but thanks for taking the time to make such a thoughtful article! Keep up the great work!
I’m running a successful sandbox right now.
When they stop to all around, they hear three hooksâ€”Humm, something odd is happening there, but what it is isn’t clear at first glance. They get the hooks close to the end of the season, so they can discuss them in character, but not investigate much.
If they investigate the hook, it turns into an adventure that reveals some lore and mysteries to figure out. This last month, they went after the rot creatures across the river from their hometown, and ended up finding hats to cover fungal monsters in a human illusion, running from other fungal monsters with bane weapons.. a complete puzzle for them. But they learned a bit and the mopup will teach them some stuff. Not as much as they want…
If they don’t investigate the hook, it turns out to be something relatively minor. Someone else can deal with it. They’re movers and shakers, but the rest of the world isn’t completely helpless. Some minor changes might result, but I don’t expect them to chase everything.
If they don’t care about any of the hooks, I ask what they are doing instead. Maybe they want to travel someplace, where they will spend much of the season gawking like tourists and finding a new set of hooks. Maybe they need to do some downtime stuff, and I can come up with a downtime event to deal with for a session. Maybe they want to do an errand, and there will be something to do on the way.
If they are indecisive, an emergency situation springs up nearby for them to assist with.
In whatever case, I have something to work with between sessions.