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Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On December 5, 2011 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 18 Comments
Sandbox games often get criticized for being static and devoid of any real plot. To use a stereotypical example, the player characters start in a town that’s surrounded by the Caves of Doom, the Tower of Death, and the Dungeon of Discomfort. It’s up to the PCs whether they want to explore each of these and in what order. Alternatively, the PCs may decide to hang around in town and harass the citizens, or they may simply wander around the map and tackle random encounters.
The locations themselves also tend to be static. The Caves of Doom always contain a clan of kobolds, the evil wizard of the Tower of Death continues to sip tea until the PCs arrive, and even the closest rooms to the entrance of the Dungeon of Discomfort are never cleared and looted until the PCs get there. In some cases, especially in class and level systems, the challenge level of a location and the PCs’ power level can be a jarring mismatch. A high-powered PC party could cake-walk through the Caves of Doom, but a low-powered PC party could get decimated by the statue guardian of Room #3 in the Dungeon of Discomfort, to say nothing of the avocado dragon that rules it.
This can also lead to “sandbox apathy,” where the players lose interest in the sandbox world as nothing changes. Sure, they cleared the Dungeon of Doom, but the evil wizard and the avocado dragon just yawn and sit in their strongholds until the PCs come after them. The PCs simply become game pieces that are moved around the board until there is nothing left to do.
One defense of this style is that “testing the waters” of each location would guarantee that the PCs will opt to clear the Caves of Doom first, then handle the middle-powered Tower of Death, until finally they tackle the Dungeon of Discomfort. If this is the case, it begs the question why the Game Master just didn’t run the adventures in order. Most sandboxes don’t contain enough nuanced locations so that a beginning PC party could tackle the hobgoblin-infested Lair of Destruction first, although they’d have an easier time of it had they hit the Caves of Doom beforehand. It also doesn’t address the related problem of what “fun” it’s going to be for the higher level PC party to torch the Caves of Doom for little effort and weak reward.
To be fair, there are a lot gamers that are perfectly content with this style, as they imagine their uber-level PCs sitting around a fire, telling tales of how they tore the Staff of High Wizardry from the dead wizard’s hands, and used the Blue Blade of Vengeance against the avocado dragon in order to gain their current power level, and they actually had a grand time showing those pathetic kobolds who was boss when they marched in, kicked tail, and took names. This article obviously isn’t for you :).
Once way to keep sandboxes fresh is to create dynamic locations. The world keeps moving as the PCs make decisions. Taking a page from linear adventures, you can craft a story around each location that unfolds as the PCs act, no matter where they are, and ensures that they get a different experience depending upon when they decide to visit that location or deal with a particular plot thread. The trick is to make it easy on you so you aren’t overburdened when preparing the campaign.
Here’s an example using a post-apocalyptic setting.
The Greenfield Campaign
The PCs are nomads traveling through the blasted landscape of the old “Heartland” when they discover Greenfield, a relatively intact walled town run by an elected Governor, whose power (the Greenfield Authority) extends throughout a relatively fertile valley. The PCs learn of four problems that need attending:
The PCs now have four immediate plot threads. They can follow any of these in any order they wish. That said the world keeps moving, so the GM has predetermined how each of these threads might evolve without PC interference.
Bomb Shelter Example
To use one location, the Bomb Shelter, as an example, it’s easy to see how the challenges change as the campaign progresses. At first, the PCs are facing small bands of ferals and their mutated hounds. If they clear the bomb shelter at that point they discover some unused pre-war foodstuffs and equipment, and information that this facility is more than a bomb shelter. They may then spend time dealing with the other problems or explore the “dungeon” that leads to the Vault, ultimately uncovering the war machine (which they may activate in the hopes of using it against Waterford – oops).
If the PCs wait and follow other leads, then they may learn of the Ragtag unit’s change of direction. The PCs may intercept them en route or attack them while they lay siege to the ferals. If they don’t then the Ragtag unit moves in. At this point the PCs may strike an alliance with displaced ferals that can help them infiltrate the shelter or simply attack a better-reinforced shelter. They may even try a diplomatic approach, perhaps convincing the Ragtag Colonel that it’s better for them to throw in with Greenfield instead of Waterford (the Captain would love this – she may even seek help from Waterford for her coup). If they still leave the Bomb Shelter alone, then the PCs have no chance of stopping the War Machine before it starts destroying everything in sight.
Dynamic sandboxes keep things moving and make the players feel like their choices matter without being constrained. It’s not so much that a sandbox doesn’t have a plot, but rather that the PCs are simply causing ripples in a larger pond of plots, the conclusion of which can be just as, if not more so, satisfying than a more linear campaign.
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