RPG Diehard talks about a sandbox session that Ripper X tried to run that went poorly:
RPG Diehard: Cautionary Tales from the Sandbox
On paper, a complete wilderness adventure sounds great! Wandering around blind, not knowing where in the hell you are going, or really what you are looking for. In actual play, this was SLOW!!!! So slow that I was getting bored, and it was all the same thing. I thought that it would be fun, but plotting a coarse and deciding of where to go that day is frickin boring! I don’t know if it was my fault, or if I did something wrong, or what. I thought about it! I really did. How can I spice this up? But with such a large map to explore, I really couldn’t prep anything or describe a scene more clearer then what I was. I really didn’t want to spend too much time talking about a day where nothing happens. I did give the place a lot of sounds and smells, but the players weren’t all that interested, and I kept failing my random encounter checks.
His post serves as a cautionary tale about what to avoid in a sandbox campaign. It seems Ripper X was a little too wedded to the sandbox concept and could probably have been a bit more liberal with his random encounters (as in, fudge the die rolls so they actually happen, or adjust the rules so you’re rolling more frequently) without infringing too much on the spirit of the game. Moreover, it’s important to note that sandbox games are defined by their lack of a linear plot — but not necessarily their lack of story. Time spent exploring should be time well spent; the PCs should learn something important about the area, uncover a villain or stumble across a previously unknown map feature.
I’ve got some more suggestions for making sandbox play work better, in addition to Diehard’s eminently sensible ones:
- The single most important thing you can ask yourself prior to running a Sandbox session is “What’s the PC’s agenda?” Knowing that lets you know where to concentrate the bulk of your preparation. It’s absolutely true that you can’t put enough initial work into a large-scale area to cover every contingency and every path the PCs might follow (some settings might evolve to that point over years of play, but it’s unrealistic to try to start there), but you really shouldn’t have to. Why are the PCs exploring the Isle of Dread? Are they searching for treasure? If so, then give them a map, diary, or guide… some reason that they’d embark on this dangerous expedition with some hope of success. (I seem to recall that The Isle of Dread uses both of these.) Decide what’s on the map or in the diary, and that will tell you what landmarks they’ll be looking for and where to put obstacles for them to deal with. Feel free to change the published map by deleting or adding information to highlight obvious routes to explore or approaches to take (e.g. if there’s a native village on the map, mark them as “Friendly” if they are a place where the party can get further information about the island.)Are they castaways? Then you can assume that they’re going to be interested–at least initially–in the bare-bones stuff of survival: building or seeking shelter, acquiring food, and so forth.
- Change your understanding of encounters. In a lot of games (D&D in particular) “random” encounters are combat encounters–they don’t necessarily turn out that way depending on the PC and the reaction table, but they have the potential; things that don’t pose a threat to the party are generally deemed unworthy of notice. The standard chance of encounter (e.g. 5-6 on a d6 per 3 hexes traversed or whatever) is geared towards that understanding. But if you really want the characters to feel like they’re exploring without the feeling that each day brings nothing but MFJ* you need to provide more points of interest–and ideally decision points–than that. You should be thinking in terms of # of Incidents (info/decision points) per day, say by rolling a d3 and saying they’ll hit that many things to ponder during the day’s explorations. Roll an additional die to see if one of those encounters is a “wandering monster”, otherwise pick it off a list of things you’ve prepared. Some things might include:
- Spoor: signs of one of the monsters from the chart for the area. This might warn them of the presence of something particularly dangerous before they actually encounter it, or provide them with the opportunity to stock their larder. A successful Tracking roll (or whatever, depending on system) can turn this into an encounter with that creature if they desire.
- Vermin: some non-dangerous but potentially annoying vermin (mosquitoes, leeches in the stream they’re trying to cross, etc).
- Game: something they can eat if they can hunt or trap it.
- The way is blocked: some natural feature that will require a skill roll or some role-playing to traverse; it could be a ravine, or a swiftly running stream, a gigantic fallen tree, a huge mound of stinging ants, or whatever. They must either backtrack (costing them, say, 1 hex of movement for the day) or do something to get over it.
- Notable Feature: some unusual feature of the local terrain that’s worth describing, or better yet interacting with. E.g. A waterfall with a hidden grotto containing the bones of an adventurer and some treasure, a volcanic fumarole, a ravine with a rotting rope bridge, a road-side shrine to a long forgotten god.
- Hazard: a feature that poses an active menace to the party as soon as they encounter it, e.g. quicksand, an erupting geyser, a dead-fall trap left by native hunters, etc.
- Clue: something that points the party in the direction they need to go, or furthers their agenda in some way. E.g. a trail blazed by prior adventurers, a short stretch of paved road indicating the direction of the Lost City, a brief glimpse through the clouds that usually shroud the mountain top of a tower, etc.
- Setback: somebody gets sick (not seriously enough to be deadly) from some fruit or perhaps the water, some rations have turned moldy or been stolen by monkeys, some piece of equipment was lost through a hole in a pack (or maybe it’s those darn monkeys again), somebody twists their ankle and their pace is halved for 1d3 days.
- Good Fortune: they discover something fortunate (not counting a clue), such as a medicinal plant that heals 1d3 of burn damage, or a small cache of adventuring equipment (some still usable) left by previous adventurers.
- The Drums! The Drums: evidence that the party is not alone on the island, or even that they’re being watched. Nothing like a little PC paranoia to up the tension.
- and so on. If you’re good at improvising, you can come up with this stuff off the top of your head, but given some prep time anybody should be able to review various stories and movies to come up with a fairly long list of incidents that can liven up an otherwise dull “No Wandering Encounter” day.
The important thing to remember is that just because you’re trying to run a “sandbox” adventure where the players are free to follow their own agendas and you’re not going to hem them in or lead them by the nose doesn’t mean that as GM you don’t have the authority or responsibility to give them stuff to interact with in the world, even if it isn’t spelled out on the Encounter Tables in the module. If anything, the opposite: if you’re going to make them play out day-to-day tasks like exploring a jungle, you have to make sure that the exploration itself is interesting.
That’s not to say that if you follow this advice, your Sandbox sessions will always go well. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Either it’s not a good fit for the players, or the party, or it just doesn’t “gel” and the players flounder around ’til they’re begging to be gaffed with Ye Olde Plot Hooke. At which point, I say Go For It. If the only way to get things moving forward again and have the players start having fun in the session is for a crazed wizard to show up and Bamf them to a dungeon, so be it. The Sandbox is a certain approach to empowering players to have fun, it’s not a substitute for it.
* More Fine Jungle