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You Can Use Your Sandbox Too

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On February 4, 2009 @ 10:16 pm In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 10 Comments

A few weeks ago I was in a bit of a pickle (how the heck did that phrase come about?). I was supposed to start a new adventure for my WitchCraft game in an hour and I had nothing prepped for it but the vaguest of outlines (more like a mission statement and a couple of notes). Real life had gotten in the way over the last few days and I kept promising myself that I’d bang something out before the session and now I was out of time. I really didn’t want to cancel the session.

My WitchCraft campaign is designed like a sandbox. Most of the action takes place in a small geographic area, a fictional South Jersey shore town and the surrounding communities. As with any sandbox, I’d seeded the town with a number of interesting GM characters and threads. Normally, these elements sit in the background for the players to play with while solving the current adventure. If they don’t get to it now, those elements will wait. Even more importantly, those elements can play out organically; I don’t have concrete plans for most of them and adapt on the fly based on my players’ interactions with them.

So I decided to play in the sandbox.

I picked a few elements, looked at them through the lens of my mission statement, and threw them at the players. If they stuck I used them, if they didn’t I let them drop and scooped up something else. We ended up having a blast. The players had a chance to pursue some personal arcs and get a general sense of where the new adventure was leading while I bought myself some time to properly draft the specifics later.

While the sandbox is often presented as a tool for the players, it is also a great tool for the GM. I know a few GMs that are good at winging it with no prep. While I’m not one of those, I learned that a good sandbox gives me the tools to do some “structured winging” when I need to.

So how about you? Have you ever used the sandbox to your advantage as a GM beyond letting the PCs roam where they will within your planned areas?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




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10 Comments To "You Can Use Your Sandbox Too"

#1 Comment By zinzarin On February 4, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

“In a pickle” comes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and it means pretty much what you’d think: it stinks to be immersed in brine, thus it stinks to be in a pickle.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On February 5, 2009 @ 11:06 am

I tend to be one of those winging it type of GMs, so I definitely use the sandbox. The important thing to remember about sandboxes, is they have some structure to them. Too big of an area to play in and the players get confused and aren’t sure where to go. Too little space and they feel like their is no point to it.

I like the way you were willing to drop elements if they weren’t working. It’s always hard to put something in the trash that you’ve prepped and planned for, or were excited about doing.

#3 Comment By deadlytoque On February 5, 2009 @ 11:07 am

This is more-or-less how I run all my games. I come up with a few interesting NPCs, and I ask the players to do the same between sessions. Recently, I’ve started putting index cards on the table, and anybody can grab one and fill it out with a Who-What-When-Where-Why, introducing an already-populated location brimming with plot hooks; in order to encourage players to do it, I reward them with small experience bonuses (I run mostly White Wolf, so I give out 1 xp for a long-term game, or 5 in a short-term game).

I use the first session or two to just let the PCs wander their environment and find their feet, pursuing personal goals. Between sessions, I look at all the NPCs and locations I have, and try to figure out how they could be used for interesting drama. Then I just start hinting at what might be going on under the surface and let the player’s chase what leads they are interested in. Often I’ll tie it all together as the game nears its end, making it look like all the disparate plots were part of a huge Xanatos Gambit (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/XanatosGambit).

#4 Comment By nolandda On February 5, 2009 @ 11:17 am

The origin of the phrase “in a pickle” is described here. Zinzarin is correct in his analysis.

#5 Comment By dmmagic On February 6, 2009 @ 3:29 am

In editions 3 and 3.5, my players were a big fan of the Chaotic Neutral alignment. It let them do pretty much whatever they want, and it made my life miserable, so it was a win-win for them. As such, I had to be ready for everything, and I did that by learning how to improvise 100%. I got to the point where I hardly ever prepped in advance beyond sitting and thinking for 30 minutes to an hour, flipping to a random monster or three, and waiting to see what they’d do.

I think I’m going to be a bit more railroading in 4th ed >_>

#6 Comment By whateley23 On February 6, 2009 @ 7:53 am

I’m not sure what, exactly, you mean by “looked at them through the lens of my mission statement”. Could you give an example of what a mission statement used for this purpose might look like?

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On February 6, 2009 @ 9:26 am

@whateley23 – Sorry, I used a personal slang term there.

Whenever I start designing an adventure, I write a quick blurb at the beginning that describes its basic premise and a few stray thoughts. Since I continually refer to it while drafting, I call it my “mission statement.”

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On February 6, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

@dmmagic – If that style really isn’t something you enjoy, speak with them about it. Leaping to “railroad” may cause them violent fits if they are used to no plot at all.

#9 Comment By whateley23 On February 6, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

@Walt Ciechanowski – So, then, something like the capsule adventure seeds that S. John Ross used in his Big List of RPG Plots, plus specific details as needed?

#10 Comment By David Reese On February 11, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

Back when I was running a more episodic-type game, there was one session where we were waiting for one of the players to arrive. To pass the time, I let the players play out whatever their pc’s happened to be doing in town that day. It was great fun, and set the seeds for some great moments later on. (Also, the orc that one of my players conned into indentured servitude was quite helpful when the adventure for the night finally did begin.) I liked having some sandbox time before the official start of the planned adventure for the session.


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