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Nonlinear (Sandbox) games

Posted By Scott Martin On November 12, 2008 @ 4:29 am In GMing Advice | 33 Comments

Janna at Dungeonmastering recently wrote up an interesting article about running non-linear games. They’re a neat and slightly under-explored concept, so I thought I’d bring in other people’s discussions and see what we can figure out. They are commonly discussed using a variety of names… sandbox play is another common example.

Core Concept

In one sentence: In a sandbox game, you wander around and do what you want instead of following a plot.

The world exists independently of the PCs, who wander around and pick their adventures and plots. Events tend to follow as consequences of previous decisions and are usually logically inferred from NPC reactions to the actions of the PCs. “Destiny” and strong plots are rare.

Rather than creating an adventure that feels like a story, with opponents carefully gauged to the PC’s powers, thematic elements tying to the PC’s backgrounds, and the like– instead the GM creates a world. The world can be (and usually is) complex– a lot of deeply detailed homebrew worlds are created for this style of play. Often the world is created long before the PCs are generated.

Structure of a Sandbox Game

Unlike the short campaign notes Phil talks about in Lessons From The Long Campaign– Prep Only What You Need, one ideal sandbox game is built on extensive notes, a world history, detailed NPCs, etc. (More like the failed Mutants & Masterminds game from his example.) Ben Robbin’s successful sandbox game was called Westmarch. (Read all five articles to see how it developed and played out, or just the linked post for a sweeping overview.)

Sandbox games often involve more detailed creation of a smaller area than typical GMing. The same area will be tread across again and again, as the PCs investigate one story, switch to politicking with the city council, then infiltrate the black market, etc. (Or, as in Westmarch, when different groups wander through the same wild area.)

Plot lines are often less boldly presented and the game is likely to have several plots and events running at the same time. Often players are given a chance to choose which plot of several they intend to address– whether they’re clearly identified as plots or not. Many “plots” are just NPCs acting to accomplish their goals. Sandbox games can even lack plot altogether– though that’s more often leveled as a criticism of the style.

Modules in the Sandbox

Typical module play shares some elements of a sandbox game– the plot and setting exist independent of the PC’s actions and any group of PCs can get roped into solving the module. However, modules usually feature a narrower plot and try to keep PCs moving from one plot point to another– in part to spare the GM from having to invent a lot of material during free exploration. Some modules try a hybrid approach– providing a clear setting [often one structure, like a haunted castle] and a timetable of events.

A different approach to module design is to set up a complex situation and see what the PCs do with it. The Well of Souls is an interesting Glorantha scenario setup in just that way. A few background events are laid out, but what happens once the game begins depends entirely on who the PCs befriend and ally with. (Character selection and history in such an intimate setting strongly skews the list of options your PC can even imagine.) Sandbox play often results. NPCs want things and will ask, demand, or negotiate for them– and it’s up to the PCs to decide who they trust, if and how they want to investigate the death, and even what solution they’re willing to try, if any.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Sandbox Play

I’ve played in both good and bad sandbox style games. The best games remain directed– PCs with strong drives and motivations can provide this, as can an oppressive situation that inspires PCs to work to change the status quo. For example, Sorcerer requires PCs be built with a kicker (a dramatic event that kicks the PC out of their routine) to provide the initial drive.

Bad sandbox games can feel like plotted games, but with a lot of wandering around and boredom between plots. Players who are used to plotted games will sometimes wander around and interact with NPCs mechanically, just trying to identify the next plot. PCs who quickly achieve their goals (and have nothing left to motivate them) can leave the player rudderless. Standoffish and loner characters may find it difficult to get invited (or drug into) fun plots.

Janna’s advice about using plot hooks to tantalize the players instead of smashing them with plot hammers is excellent. While consequences are an excellent driver of play, you need to make sure that the consequences enforce the feel of the game you’re looking for. If you want dramatic heroics, suing the PCs for property damage after their first fight will chill what you’re trying to encourage.

Above all, if a PC repeatedly stays home to play computer games, something needs to change. The player may need the structure of a plot, or the contents of the sandbox may need tweaking to engage the PC more thoroughly.

What are your experiences with Sandbox style play? Have you built a sandbox game for your players? How did they respond? Did it take any effort to orient them to the new playstyle?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




33 Comments (Open | Close)

33 Comments To "Nonlinear (Sandbox) games"

#1 Comment By Brent On November 12, 2008 @ 7:14 am

I’m currently running a sandbox game of my own design. The players seem to be enjoying it so far (we’ve only completed one session).

The key is that I’ve built a loose larger plot into the sandbox setting. There are several major bad guys operating in the setting, and every plot line intersects with them at some point. So, the PCs will eventually bump into these villains, and if only because of the PCs’ reputation and influence, the villains will want to stop the PCs.

#2 Comment By Noumenon On November 12, 2008 @ 8:01 am

(Or, as in Westmarch, when different groups wander through the same wild area.)

If I was in a game like this my goal in every session would be to shake up the world so the other groups would know I was there. I wouldn’t just beat the dungeon, I’d build a cage for the BBEG in the middle of town. I’d raze forests and make crop circles.

#3 Comment By Rafe On November 12, 2008 @ 8:11 am

I plan on running a quasi-sandbox game for three friends, using Black Company Campaign Setting rules, classes, etc. I don’t intend to introduce non-character or non-background plot elements or stories; I’ll leave it up to them to determine where they go, what they do and why. In my campaign handout for them, I outlined the various ‘key figures’ in the town they’re in. It’s up to them to determine what they want to do with those key figures, if anything. There will be some pressure on them to do something, because money is not easy to come by and they need to put a roof over their heads if nothing else.

#4 Comment By Cole On November 12, 2008 @ 8:39 am

@Brent – I ran a similar game in my last campaign. The whole plot revolved around the vampire society, but the PC’s were free to do anything they wanted. For the most part, they did just that.

The only complaint I heard was that the consequences limited what the PC’s could do, and at the same time added a lot of complexity to the game.

The complexity was such that we had to have a campaign journal so the players could quickly recap what was happening in the world.

#5 Comment By Starvosk On November 12, 2008 @ 9:12 am

I find Sandbox games generally lacking. Maybe it’s because I haven’t played in any good ones, but it usually seems that the DM is more interested in his own world than the actual process of having fun with the game sometimes. I’ll probably be crucified for this, but it seems to me that a great many DMs who indulge in ‘sandbox’ type plots are failed/unsuccessful/unfulfilled writers/directors/actors that see D&D more as an individual creative outlet rather than a social event. This winds up generally being unfun, as they’re more slaves to simulationism rather than fun.

Sandbox games in my mind resemble MMORPGS or games like Fallout 3 or Elder scrolls than I’m comfortable with. If I want to go on random quests and wander around in a world that’s obviously….spread to thin…I’ll play a CRPG.

I don’t think humans can truly create a ‘realistic world’ without some kind of blatant bleed through. It simply doesn’t work when other people are involved. Think about how a TV show is created with a staff of writers, as opposed to a book with a single writer. They’re entirely different things. Worlds have multiple perspectives, to have a truly interactive world, you need to incorporate that. I don’t think it’s really possible for one person to have multiple perspectives, simply different facets of personality.

The strength of a human run RPG is custom content generated on a fly by someone that caters specifically towards you/your party. If everyone else gets some…variable of what I’m getting regardless of my character or who I am, I don’t see the point.

#6 Comment By Brent On November 12, 2008 @ 9:35 am

@Starvosk – I appreciate your concerns, and I can certainly see how bad games can come from GMs who are forcing their world on players.

However, I don’t see how the issues are any different than with a pre-written adventure, which is even more restrictive than a sandbox campaign.

Starvosk writes, “The strength of a human run RPG is custom content generated on a fly by someone that caters specifically towards you/your party.” I completely agree, and I think that this is something that a sandbox can provide better than a pre-written adventure can. You’ll have to think up parts of the world *anyway*; why not do it in a malleable context than try to wedge it into a pre-written story?

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On November 12, 2008 @ 10:27 am

@Brent – I’ve found it difficult to play without a plot somewhere, though player created plots can fill in for a while. Loose plots in a loose web sounds like you’ll have a good chance of impacting the PCs without overdoing prep.

@Noumenon – Some of that did occur in the Westmarch games, but more of it was subtler– different adventuring groups would contribute to piecing together the world back in town (with credit), and the GM altered the critter types (having them migrate into cleared lands, etc., leaving an impact. The reason it probably occurred less was because the different groups had overlapping members– so several characters in each adventure could tell you about their exploits instead of marking the terrain itself.

@Rafe – That sounds interesting. Mercenaries match the “PCs pick the plot” vibe pretty well– and, as long as your PCs are known as mercenaries, you can have people walk up and try to hire them– sometimes they’ll agree on a price and sometimes the PCs will decide the pay’s not enough.

@Cole – My Mage games sound similar to your games– consequences are fun and can stack up complexity quickly. As your players (and I) mention, it’s important to make sure the consequences encourage the type of game you’re aiming for. In mine, the PCs dramatically reacted to early events, which gave the next several game months a “fugitives on the run” feel.

@Starvosk – The worst combo is an undeveloped world and no plot– what is there for the PCs to push against? Many Sandbox games don’t have the MMO feel [they’re just less scripted], but the Westmarch style game sounds very like a pen and paper MMO– including the ease of scheduling in the experience he relates in his post.

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 12, 2008 @ 10:44 am

I think one of the major issues with sandbox style games is what type of players you have and what mood they’re in. I’ve been in games where, as players, we sit down an write out a list “This is who we need to F$*% over” or “This is what we need to accomplish” etc… Then I’ve been in games where you hand the players everything they need to sandbox around and they sit there and stare at you blankly til you hand them a plot.
In my experience, it’s best if you’re planning to sandbox that you at least have some backup plots ready until it either pans out or not.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 12, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

To add a wrinkle, what if you have a few players with strong personalities and a few wallflowers? How do you keep the game from turning into the personal CRPG of the stronger-willed players?

My experiences with sandbox play have been middling, at best. I’d much rather play via collaborative world creation or a “pick one of these four plots” campaign.

#10 Comment By BryanB On November 12, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

I like playing in those sandboxes.

My games are probably a mix of linear and sandbox approach. My goal is to have the sandbox approach become the stronger emphasis in my games.

My matrix method is probably closer to sandbox style than linear. I use or create a setting, populate it with NPCs that have goals, motives, and personalities. I create a central plot idea and a few subplots based on character backgrounds. The players can choose their course of action. Actions bring about reactions, while inaction creates possible consequences down the road.

I am fortunate to have players that are pro-active and prone to taking the few plot hooks that I toss out. It also helps that the players have a desire to be the heroes of the setting as opposed to being competing villains. So far, the players have been hooked into the main story arc willingly, but their course of action has often taken a different direction than I would have expected. That is part of the fun to me.

The players have free will. I do not force a course of action upon them. Sometimes the course of action is obvious and sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t, I might toss them a new clue or introduce another hook, but for the most part my players are pretty motivated towards the plotline given. At some point, I expect them to deviate far from what I expect or have planned and that will be fine. The Star Wars galaxy is a vast place and it is full of possibilities. Besides, if the players don’t find and foil the villains, the villains might find and foil them.

I strive for a dynamic game environment where anything is possible. I like using player background snippets to create subplots, which enhance the collaborative story arc. My plotlines are very loose and only the opening session has a large degree of linear design. Once the campaign goes, the game is largely based on what the players want to do or how they want to do it.

Improve skills help a great deal with this approach. Taking good notes is important. Being consistent is probably the most important aspect for a GM using this approach.

I like to think that I am having success with my approach. At least it seems to be working for my group.

#11 Comment By BryanB On November 12, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

Ack! Improvisation skills not “improve skills” …. so go out and improve those improvisation skills… right NOW!

#12 Comment By Karizma On November 12, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

Sandbox games have the potential to be fun, but it–like anything else–boils down to the players and GM. If the players want a linear style, they’ll amble about pointlessly. If the GM is too restrictive, there’s nothing for the players to do.

When I was still starting out as a GM, I had a game where I dropped the players in a town and gave them a few hooks, but no real direction. They decided to commandeer a ship and sail off to become pirates. I sent a ship of level “X+5 where X is player level” soldiers. It wasn’t a fun game, but I learned my lesson: Let the players have something to do.

#13 Comment By Badelaire On November 12, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

I’ll second the people who say you need the RIGHT players for this to work. Too green and they’ll just sit there like a tired dog, only moving in a direction when you nudge them that way, or they’ll decide to “live in the world” and spend so much time deciding on what to wear and chatting up the merchant at the next table over that nothing will ever get done.

Too veteran (and egotistical), and they’ll use their “freedom” to just screw with things under the flag of “well if it’s sandbox and I can do what I want, then I’m just going to be a jerk and mess with people because I can”. Which of course forces you to either A) let them become a murderous scumbag and go on a tyrannical rampage, or B) respond realistically and pile on the town guard until the PC finally drops.

So I think it can be done, but you really need to feel out your players and make sure that there are at least a couple who can provide good examples of play to anyone who hasn’t done a campaign like that before. Otherwise it all ends in tears, and eventually you just pull out an adventure or give up and start wielding the plot-hammer.

#14 Comment By BryanB On November 12, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

@Badelaire – You make some good points about “egotistical veterans” and “too green” players. It certainly helps to know the playstyles of the people you game with or at least figure them out in short order. :D

#15 Comment By BryanB On November 12, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – There is a risk of having the “Alpha player” take over the direction of the game. I think this is tempered by pushing subplots into the equation and/or by making the central plot idea much more grand than being just about one PC.

Certainly, the sandbox approach isn’t going to work for all groups or all situations. I would never run my “matrix” approach for a con game or in another one-shot situation. I’d definetly go more linear in those cases.

#16 Comment By BryanB On November 12, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

@Matthew J. Neagley – You make some excellent points. If the players aren’t proactive enough, the GM will have to be more proactive at pushing the hooks, otherwise everyone will sit around and eat chips and dip, wondering what the heck to do next. :D

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On November 12, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

@Matthew J. Neagley – You’re very right– what mode your players are in and what their characters are like determines how little GM created plot you can get away with. If the PCs aren’t strongly motivated, you’ll have to make stronger hooks to guide them.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Losing your wallflowers is a huge risk in sandbox play. The style is not well suited to spreading the spotlight– the most dramatic actions tend to produce the most noticeable response, which means the big early actors can dominate. I don’t have a good solution.

@BryanB – It does seem to work well for your group. ;) Players and GMs working together makes life a lot better for almost every game.

@Karizma – Your first paragraph is a great distillation of the advantages and disadvantages. Sorry that your first experience with it proved unfun.

@Badelaire – While I suspect the important variable is player attitude and character drive, you’re absolutely right about the group being key. If they’re too passive, taking the plot away just increases boredom. If they’re dicks… well, who likes watching scum trample everybody underfoot? As the GM I’m a player too– if you can’t keep the game interesting for me, then I’m not going to waste my time.

#18 Comment By Knight of Roses On November 12, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

I prefer sandbox games in general, I like have the freedom to go somewhere and do something unscripted. This does not mean screwing with the established setting or plots, usually. But the ability to build things that make a lasting impression on a ‘living’ world is very attractive to me.

Equally, I wish to give the same freedom to my players. I try to make sure there are adventures to be found but it is up to them to take them.

#19 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 12, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

Telas, Re: different personality “Strengths” in your group, I would say that some players, even when given the spotlight are more comfortable being supporting cast. While this is a phenominon I’d keep my eye on, and make sure I gave everyone OPPORTUNITY to stand in the spotlight, if those opportunities aren’t taken (and by “not taken” I don’t mean “are snatched more quickly by other players”) it’s not a big deal in my book.

However, Ars Ludi did have a very interesting post back in ought-six about players passing the ball between one another that was just fantastic, and as GM you can follow those rules too using your NPC mouthpieces. Here’s the link:
http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/38/play-constructively-pass-the-ball/

#20 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On November 13, 2008 @ 12:10 am

I’ve always preferred a more sandbox campaign approach – not exactly the same as sandbox adventures, whether running a Forgotten Realms campaign or the hombrew setting I’m developing. How much collaborative creative effort and input players wish to bring to the campaign has bearing on the merits of published settings vs. homebrew in this sense. Many players wish to do (or sometimes believe they’re only creatively capable of) little more than a basic outline of a character’s background – expecting the GM to provide to whole thing. For GM’s who haven’t yet, or don’t want to develop a homebrew with sufficient breadth *and* depth for it not to seem “spread thin” in play, a published setting everyone finds interesting is generally ideal – hence their market popularity. Players, while inherently much more limited in character options by the setting content than in a collaborative homebrew, readily know where to find the portions of the setting material of particular interest to them which they can investigate to whatever depth they care to. (I’ve also noticed that a great many players will happily read and practically memorize thousands of pages of published setting material and yet be extremely reluctant to read even an essential 10 page introduction and overview of a homebrew no matter how well written. Writing quality actually has no relevance even until they at least *start* reading – a necessary prerequisite to becoming discouraged by poor writing on a GM’s part. . .)

On the other hand, when developing a homebrew setting from a top-down approach, I believe that incorporating player collaboration is, while not an absolute necessity, exponentially more beneficial to everyone involved than doing every bit of it myself. (Personally, I find that both my creative range *and* productivity increase exponentially in a collaborative process – whether that is gaming, composing music or improvisational playing, or any other creative effort outside of traditional drawing/painting types of visual art.) Once the global concepts of a setting, i.e., overall geography, technology and magic levels, deities/religions, primary races, etc. have been established well enough to provide players with a basic contextual framework to start from, players are free to envision and flesh out nearly anything which doesn’t blatantly violate that context. I was about to say, “Such as no ray-guns” but then realized that a sufficiently creative player could in fact develop what would functionally amount to the same thing from a magical basis; a Wand of Magic Missiles, Rod of Lightning or Ring of Fireballs is arguably precisely that – cast the same enchantments on a pistol crossbow and fantasy gunslingers can soon be found lounging at the bar when the PCs wander into the obligatory saloon, er, tavern. Anyway, pretty much whatever character or even new racial concept a player might have can be incorporated while leaving the player(s) free to provide anywhere from just the character’s backstory (with the GM providing the portion of the setting in which that backstory then fits) up to completely creating the entire regions for the characters including other nations surrounding their homes, the political and economic relations between them and their bearing upon the world as a whole. Focusing some one-on-one time with each of the players, both during character creation and as the campaign progresses to maintain a good idea of how they wish to see their character(s) to continue developing also helps to ensure that the more extroverted players and their characters don’t overshadow the others as it helps continue providing “personalized” plot-hooks and sub-plots featuring everyone’s characters at various times. (Gives the one controlling the spotlight something to focus it on. . .)

Sandbox games in actual play can still pose difficulties even if the players are contributing to the backdrop of the setting. Some who can contribute vast, highly imaginative and detailed background material may still find themselves drawing a complete blank when they sit down at the table and need to determine what their character(s) will actually *do*. I try to maintain a “library” of available adventure material, whether linear adventure modules, story matrices or improvisational themes and patterns (“12-bar blues”). Most of these can then be readily adjusted and filled out as needed both to provide appropriate challenge and to support/further develop whatever storyline the players have chosen to follow/further explore. I also try to incorporate some of the “bait” for other, subsequent plothooks where it makes sense. Very few groups really can self-direct 100% in a wide open sandbox, (even one they’ve had an extensive hand in building,) no matter how well stocked – especially not at first. If that is the eventual goal the campaign will usually still need to start out as Robert describes with a “pick one of these four plots” mandate to get the ball rolling. Firmly basing each option on facets of one or more PC backstories, and including later elements which point toward others (as identified during one-on-one time) can ensure interest to begin. With a well conceived (and monitored) dynamic world setting players can be shown not only some of the direct consequences of their action but some of the wider ripples as the world shifts and changes around them. I like to further have one or more over-arching world storylines which are essentially developing on their own as part of the dynamic backdrop itself. These are things most characters (without a definite background in something like international politics or global church/trans-national faction activities) will only begin to perceive after the campaign is well under way and taken on its own momentum. At that point 20/20 hindsight may start to shed new light on previously unnoticed clues which had been in front of them the whole time – achieving a vantage point from which to play connect-the-dots then becomes an underlying, somewhat background goal and reward. Players by such time will have become much more self directing and motivating since their characters will have developed and invested considerable effort in personal goals which they know they cannot expect the world not to interfere with if matters are simply left to develop of their own accord. (Whether this involves various personal alliances, career growth in some profession or organization or simply financial investments intended to provide additional, steady income/retirement savings they will still start to take active measures as they deem necessary to ensure their desired outcome.) How they view and choose to respond to the facets of bigger picture they’re beginning to understand still remains entirely in their hands and even gentle nudging should by this time be entirely unnecessary. So long as the GM provides sufficient points of intersection between their personal story paths and such setting story arcs they will grow more adept on their own at recognizing them and their ramifications. A group still interested in and enjoying the campaign these more developed characters comprise (rather than wanting to create and play different characters instead,) will almost certainly generate their own motives to involve themselves in one or more of these greater patterns they now perceive.

The upshot of all that is that players, given some initial direction along with input can move into far more free-form play. The biggest hurdle tends to be generating the initial impetus. As the campaign develops it will develop a life of its own with its direction determined more and more by the players as they take more of the reins and less by GM whose primary job will become more focused on maintaining/increasing its momentum so as not to be stalled out upon encountering the obstacles and challenges s/he puts in the way

#21 Comment By draugen On November 13, 2008 @ 3:59 am

@Telas: The biggest problem in my ongoing sandbox game is definitely calling out the wallflowers. I have been encouraging players to give their characters clearly stated goals and some kind of roadmap as to how these goals are to be accomplished, in an effort to mitigate this. Then i can prep around these goals/character-based plot hooks.

This has slightly backfired though – the badass roleplayers have very much overshadowed the wallflowers with their complex, intertwined backstories and motivations, while the wallflowers handed over much underdeveloped goals and motivations… *sigh*.

I feel that in such situations, it is the GMs responsibility to pull the wallflowers in with something that happens _only_ to that player, and, if possible, in a way that ties into the charactar concept. It worked for me anyway – the wallflower in question was completely shellshocked over all the roleplaying he suddenly had to do :D

// martin

#22 Comment By LordVreeg On November 13, 2008 @ 9:16 am

Alright.
I am victim of work, so I am posting late, in the ‘No one will ever read’ area. I’m even posting after Snargash’s latest casting of his ‘Wall of Text’ spell.

However, I’ve run a sandbox campaign for 25 years. I just finished describing on a CBG post how the orginal players (3 of who are still with Celtricia, a quarter century later) helped create the basal setting notes. So I have some feedback here.

The first note is that like life and politics, setting design is almost never black and white, but a shade of grey somewhere on a continuum. I bring this up first after reading a few people trying to pigeonhole their settings in the terms of the title. Linear and freeform are two extremes on a continuum, much like freemarket and socialisation. And going completely to one side or the other too far makes an unworkable situation. Understanding where on the continuum you’d place your setting is more useful than trying to pigeonhole it. Celtricia, my burden, my world, is about 88% ‘freeform’, or ‘Sandbox’ style.

The second point I want to make has to do with the player maturity level necessary. A facet of Sandbox that has been mentioned in terms of gameplay but not foccused on my itself is the PC integration level. In a thematic setting, or a linear one, the PC’s are trying to accomplish something. This is why they are adventuring.
In a non-linear game, the reason behind why the PC’s are adventuring is often much more the decision of the Players, and must be carefully designed into the game by the GM upon inception.
The political or social growth potential normally has a lot to do with it, but that is a whole post in and of itself.

The third major point will probably meet with some dissaproval, but it is part of my whole, “Make the system match the setting, or the setting WILL morph into matching the system.” In this case, I ma saying that combat is a riot and a good time in any setting,. but systems that are combat oriented without a corresponding focus on social skills will become a lot more boring and will end a ‘sandbox’ style game more quickly. If Players are trying to socially advance and ingratiate themselves in the political spectrum of a well-realised’ setting, a system that promotes a, “Let’s get back to killing stuff” mentality is a near-critical handicap.

#23 Comment By Brent On November 13, 2008 @ 9:43 am

Well put, Lordvreeg! I agree completely, on all counts.

#24 Comment By Scott Martin On November 13, 2008 @ 11:06 am

@Knight of Roses – Have your sandbox games worked out well in practice– do your players make the effort to find the adventures?

@Snargash Moonclaw – Your third paragraph does a good job of listing some of the problems; the library of adventure material sounds demanding to accumulate and be ready to run, but it sounds like it works well for you. Your conclusion is right too; the sandboxes I’ve seen fail tend to fail from the beginning, before they ever pick up steam. That first hill is a tough one.

@LordVreeg – Thanks for sharing your hard won experience; I’ve never seen a 25 year old sandbox game. How many groups have tromped through your world/setting? When you say 88% sandbox– are some games strongly plotted with others being much more freeform, or are all of them a similar “some plot, lots of choice” setup?

#25 Comment By LordVreeg On November 13, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

“@LordVreeg – Thanks for sharing your hard won experience; I’ve never seen a 25 year old sandbox game. How many groups have tromped through your world/setting? When you say 88% sandbox– are some games strongly plotted with others being much more freeform, or are all of them a similar “some plot, lots of choice” setup? ”

http://celtricia.pbwiki.com/
That’s a link to a 25 year old sandbox setting.

I think were up to about 134 characters and 37 players. Right now we have 2 groups playing full time, 1 irregularly and an online group.
But the major plotlines are well set, with a lot of mid-level plots nestled in the crook of their arms, but with a minimum of railroading.
(well, except recently when they the Igbarians had to rescue a party member from a band of assassins that had given her in trade, but that was their own fault for wandering around alone after they found out there were cotracts out on them…)

You seem to have gotten a bit of response on this subject. Good job.

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[…] is particularly useful for groups who prefer Sandbox type games and/or are more prone to appreciate Storytelling.  Discovering such secrets can lead to whole new […]

#27 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On November 13, 2008 @ 11:39 pm

@Scott – Actually such a library is pretty easy to compile – and if you do a comprehensive inventory of all your old gaming stuff (assuming you’ve kept it over the years) you may well find you have one already. There are literally tons of old adventures, sites, etc. available for pocket change at most local game stores which can be easily recycled for a campaign. I particularly look for old city modules with maps. Online these days you can also find tons of stuff to download, legitimately, for free. Every now and then I go diving in the free download bins on Drive-thru Games, etc. WoC’s Vicious Venues, Map-of-the-Week and Steal This Hook archives are still in my bookmarks even though I’m converting my setting over to GURPS. It doesn’t matter really what game system – the basic material is there and it doesn’t take too much time to customize. If bandits are raiding caravans and have kidnapped a PC’s relative there are dozens of suitable resources to draw upon. . .Like map and NPC (rogues gallery) libraries, they provide handy material and inspiration to draw upon when you need something quickly – and the more open and free-form the sandbox game, the greater the need to be prepared for any contingency – and the more impossible it becomes to create it all from scratch, in detail, in advance. . .

#28 Comment By Shaun On November 14, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

I run a weekly Burning Wheel game that’s sandbox-style. I’ve found that if the PCs are sufficiently motivated, you won’t have any problems with them either being bored or jerks.

#29 Pingback By The Seven-Sided Die » Oblivious sandboxes and Savage settings On December 1, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

[…] there is a good Gnome Stew article on non-linear/sandbox games that gives an overview of the gameplay style, and gives a lot of good […]

#30 Comment By Xan Wolf On August 30, 2009 @ 1:16 am

I have a solution that has worked for my Sandbox games for a long number of years (been running since before 3e D&D was thought of) and it is:

COOPERATIVE STORYTELLING

What I mean is this – Tell your players the town name, maybe a few details. Improv the minor stuff like street names and WRITE them down. Let the players Improv small details as well, and WRITE them down. Call out your Wallflowers by asking them pointed character details and telling them to wing it within reason – a hobo won’t likely have a pentium 5 PC. Then reign in your veterans and greenhorns alike with realistic consequences – No gun-toting sociopath mage is going to get away with that psycho-killer shi’ite in my worlds, because the Cardinal Rule applies whether you speak Greek or are fluent in Geek: There is always someone better and worse than you. And the Bartender can always kick your ass.

COOP Play takes a good deal off of the DM in a Sandbox Game, allows the players more freedom to tie in their characters to the DM’s world – Imagine is said Mage was next-door neighbor to the town sherriff who had known the guy’s parents/wife/loved one? – and it establishes some control that makes EVERYONE wallflower, greenhorn, veteran, varmint and showhog all feel like they ARE IN THE WORLD, not just skating along it’s surfaces.

#31 Pingback By Robin Laws’ Revisited: Part 6, Being Spontaneous! : Critical Hits On January 24, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

[…] is particularly useful for groups who prefer Sandbox type games and/or are more prone to appreciate Storytelling.  Discovering such secrets can lead to whole new […]

#32 Pingback By On the Shelf Review – The Dance in the Blood « Papers Falling from an Attic Window On October 14, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

[…] setup for the middle part of a scenario is what has become known as a sandbox, a toolkit of locations and encounters that the players are free to explore as they feel as […]

#33 Pingback By Game: L.A. Noire | Infinidade On October 4, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

[…] do G.T.A. que realizava as missões para ganhar dinheiro e dominar a cidade. Este jogo é um sandbox onde as missões são solucioar assassinatos. É necessário andar pelo cenário do crime para […]


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