When You Set Out for Ithaka: Travel in the Sandbox

When you set on the voyage to Ithaka
Pray that the road is long

Full of incidents, full of knowledge.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Raging Poseidon-do not fear these

Ithaka, Cavafy (1911)

I’d like to elaborate on some comments I made in the thread on my original Sandbox Play post.

In Sandbox play, it’s important not to gloss over travel with “And three weeks later, you arrive at the gates of Port Autumn.”  If you do that, you’re robbing the game of one of the chief features of Sandbox play, the chance to interact with all the tiny details that make up the texture of the world.  A minutely detailed setting feels no different from one which only consists of the battle-mats of the set-piece combats if you ellide everything in between, in a hurry to get to “the good stuff.”

More than that, though, in a Sandbox you never know in advance exactly where the good stuff will be.  In a story-oriented game, the PCs may be on their way to Port Autumn to exact their bloody vengeance upon The Six-Figured Man* and the GM might wave away anything in between as being a pointless distraction from the ongoing story.  Given the same situation and a more challenge-oriented campaign, the GM might roll to see if there are any level-appropriate encounters on the way that should be played out because it’s only fair to see if the players arrive in full fighting trim or if they’ve had to expend any important resources before their big confrontation, or even run them through certain set-piece battles because it would be too easy for them if they weren’t worn down enough in advance.  In a Sandbox, though, the characters might actually run across something that can soundly defeat them and set them back if they’re not careful, or something that changes their minds or their priorities entirely.  You never know unless you actually play it out in at least some detail.

Suppose, for example, that as they head across the map the characters come across a town suffering from a plague.  In a typical game, that would be a call to adventure.  The players would assume, generally correctly, that this was something they were supposed to do something about, and it will be their task to find out what the cause of the plague is and how to deal with it.  If this is coming in the middle of something important, like their heading towards their big confrontation with their nemesis, they would assume this was put in their path by the GM deliberately, perhaps as a moral test.  (How they feel about that would depend on what sort of game it is and whether the GM is an adversary or an ally.)

In a Sandbox campaign, that event would only have whatever significance the characters imbue it with.  It might cause them to spend extra time carefully circumnavigating the town to avoid exposure while the single-mindedly pursued the Six-Figured man; they might decide to see what they could do to help, but be unable to find a cause or cure and have to content themselves with offering succor to the dying–they could even end up dying of the plague themselves.  Or, and I admit this is what I live for, they could remember some feature of the setting that the GM had even forgotten and figured out a plan for applying it to the situation.  “Hey, remember when we slew the Ogre of Bittermere for Seras of the Wind?  Wasn’t one of the treasures he let us choose from the Orb of Panacea?  Maybe he still has it, and we can beg, borrow, or steal it from him!”  And bang, you have your next two months’ worth of plans for the PCs laid out for you.

* the unscrupulous millionaire that ruined their family business.