Marching through the Sandbox

Written in response to Alex Schroeder’s What is Sandbox? which is in response to Brad J Murray’s sandboxery.

update: Aaron Griffin pointed me to his What is a Sandbox? post from 2018-11-09. I concur with his tl;dr—a sandbox is a game where play is driven by characters with strong goals, as opposed to a game driven by an overarching story.

This afternoon, I was reading through Ben Robbin’s West Marches posts. In part, because I see my current campaign possibly spinning down.

For the next game, I want a game in which the players and characters choose the direction and invest in the campaign because the campaign pushes back against the character’s actions. I’m also looking to minimize the amount of preparation.

I’ve heard people say that sandboxing requires a lot of prep because you never know which way the players will go next. Well the system seems to do that for me just fine so is that not sandboxing? Do I need to prep a whole world?

Could you maybe plot gaming on two axes, say Plot Planning and World Planning and find categories that way?

I’m not looking towards Plot Planning, that smells too much like railroading. We played in the Scales of War adventure path, neither hex crawl nor sand box, and found the most meaningful thing to be when our business partner tried to swindle us out of our franchised brewery and pubs; Something absolutely not in the adventure path. And consequences emerge. So I’m looking at World Planning; From past experience, I won’t do too much world planning until around session 4. Any earlier, and it may well be wasted effort.

Where are your games on there? What would you call that? Are all hex crawls sandboxes? Certainly all sand boxes are not hex crawls.

Tomb of Annihilation is a hex crawl. You start with a wizard teleporting you to Port Nyanzaru and tredge through the jungles of Chult looking for the source of the death curse. In no way could I say this is a sandbox. The locations and events of the adventure point—with varying degrees of clarity—towards the city of Omu and the Tomb of the Nine Gods. There are side quests and diversions, but with a time constraint in play, they feel counter production. Also, I believe an external time constraint—especially one that starts before the campaign begins—is anathema to sandboxes. To make Tomb of Annihilation a sandbox, I would swap out the death curse and setup Omu as a place to plunder for wealth and riches.

Constrast with the DCC Campaign that I ran at Better World Books. This was a hex crawl and a sandbox. I started from a single adventure Purple Sorcerer Game’s Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry and built out the world through a series of other published adventures Goodman Game’s Doom of the Savage Kings, Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s Tower of the Stargazer, and portions of Greg Gillespie’s Barrowmaze. .

Which brings me to Alex Schroeder’s response:

I just feel that a campaign that is solely determined by the products we bought or by the adventures we picked from a shelf (in other words, decisions made outside the game), is less immersive, has less pull on me, than a campaign where we play for fifty sessions or more, moving through the world pulled along by our in-game decisions.

I couldn’t agree more. Stringing together adventures is not adequate for a sandbox. The sandbox is what the players do with the treasure, information, allies, and enemies they create in those adventures.

The DCC campaign was more than a series of published adventures loosely connected. Instead those adventuers were elements of the campaign composition; I took the characters actions and built the world up from there. The players were driven to learn more about a Writ of Orcus and to convert vast sums of wealth into something more portable. I set the world in motion based on their actions. Creating a procedures for the worlds response to a gold rush in a small village, and how a villain might escape and exact revenge.

The components of my DCC campaign highlight what a sandbox is for me:

  • A starting situation (Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry)
  • Players pushing to explore and push against the world with their characters
  • Clues and hints at a larger world and history
  • Procedures to feed content into the game (eg. Random encounters)
  • GMs taking time to reflect on the consequences of the character’s actions

Based on Brad’s diagram, I’d be joining him in his definition of sandbox. I don’t know if I’ll create layers of history as Ben Robbin’s did, but I think those layers are critical; I may just backfill them as I was doing for the DCC campaign.