Welcome to the Jungle! We Got Fun and Games

RPG Diehard talks about a sandbox session that Ripper X tried to run that went poorly:

  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

Sandbox, Not Simulation

One thing I’d like to clarify is that Sandbox Play is not the same thing as the old rec.games.frp.advocacy Simulationism (nothing to do with whatever the Forgeites mean by that term; I don’t even want to go there).  The point of Simulationism, at least at the far end of the spectrum, was that the game-world really was out there chugging along with things happening and events unfolding whether or not there were any players around; the player characters were part of the simulation, and the players helped the simulation along,  but from the hardcore simulationist GM’s perspective, the game-world was the end, and everything else was the means. (From the player’s perspective, they were usually about simulating “what the character would do”, and the GM was helping by providing a perfectly consistent extremely detailed environment for exploring that.)

Now, I think it’s true that a simulationist game world automatically supports Sandbox Play, but the reverse isn’t the case.  What the Sandboxer is after is verisimilitude and freedom of action, not an alternate reality.  It is perfectly ok, even expected that a fully Sandbox setting can have recognizably PC-oriented adventures just sitting around in it waiting for the PCs to visit that part of the world and set things in motion.  That’s exactly what Sandbox computer RPGs do.  The events don’t have to unfold all over the world regardless of what the PCs do, though for a GM with time to think that stuff through it can make for a rich and interesting back-story when the PCs eventually do visit that region, or the ripples from the events reach wherever they are.

It’s also OK if the PCs are sitting in place not doing much of anything for the GM to keep generating adventure hooks to see if they want to bite any.  Filling up the Sandbox world with stuff for the PCs to interact with is the main part of the GM’s job, and nowhere is it written that the only way for PCs to encounter new things in the setting is to travel around.  Where it gets intrusive, and where the GM who is committed to offering his players Sandbox Play would probably tread lightly or not go at all is when the PCs are repeatedly hit with things that they have to respond to–loved ones kidnapped, getting accused of murder, having their homes burned down.  All of these can make for interesting situations, and suitably spaced out all of them could occur at one time or another in a Sandbox campaign, but you really want to avoid giving the players the sense that it’s pointless to make long-term plans because no matter what they do you’re going to hit them with some big disruptive event, or worse that if they attempt to do anything that isn’t capital-A Adventuring you’re going to punish them by having something bad happen.  You also probably want to avoid giving them “Jessica Fletcher Syndrome”, where no matter where they go supposedly unusual things “just happen”…but that may really be an aesthetic preference on my part unrelated to Sandboxy-ness.

The point, to me, of the Sandbox is to maximize the freedom of choice of the players as to where to go and what to do, but the setting is still there to entertain the players.  If it comes to a choice between fun for the players or the internal consistency and integrity of the setting, consistency and integrity take the hit. On the other hand, in many cases consistency and integrity of the setting are aids in maximizing the players’ freedom of choice.  Maximizing freedom of choice means that not only should the players be presented with choices beyond “Rescue the kitten/Eat the kitten”, but also minimizing the places in my GM notes that say “regardless of whether the PCs beat the footpads, capture them, are captured by them, or run off they will arrive at the bridge just before the wicked uncle’s minions are ready to blow it up.”  That’s where it really helps me as a GM to conceive of an adventure as containing antagonists who have Plans that they’re trying to carry out, but that perforce have to adapt to circumstances, rather than conceiving an adventure as a Plot, meaning a storyline with key scenes that will occur leading up to a particular climactic scene/battle.  I’m sure that you can run a Sandbox-style game the latter way, since that’s pretty much the only way a CRPG can do it, but this is an area where I think that a human GM can do a better job by adopting a different approach.

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.

Sandbox Play

Sandbox Play is a term that comes from computer RPGS, though it is said to refer back to when war games were played on sandboxes where the wet sand could be shaped into any kind of terrain.  It refers to CRPGs where there is no plot that the game is taking the player through, but instead the player is free to roam around the world and interact with it. The player might encounter NPCs who will offer missions, but is free to ignore them or abandon the mission in the middle if it’s too hard or boring; the player can also just instigate things on his own.  Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is offered as an example of this style of play (I’ve never played it myself).

By extension in tabletop RPGs Sandbox Play refers to the same sort of qualities in a campaign: no particular overarching plot, with the players free to pursue their own plans and interact with the world as they see fit.  There’s no built-in supposition that the players will go on any particular quest or be employed by any particular NPC or organization.  There’s some dispute among people who use the term as to whether such things as plot hooks or adventure seeds even exist in Sandbox worlds, but the general consensus seems to be that as long as the players are free to ignore the cries for help, or the reports of trouble brewing in the coastal provinces, it doesn’t diminish the Sandboxness of the setting that it contains such things.  In some sense, it’s the essence of the style that such things go on whether or not there are PCs there to interact with them.

Things that are anathema to Sandbox play include: “level appropriate encounters” such that wherever the party goes they only encounter things that they can defeat, but not too easily; Schrodinger’s NPCs, who always are just about to get mugged no matter which alley the PCs are walking by; GMs applying meta-game pressure to the PCs to go on a particular adventure because “this is what I’ve got prepared for this week”; travel that moves at “The Speed of Plot” so that however the PCs choose to travel, and whatever stops they make on the way, they always arrive at the villain’s castle just as the final evil ritual is about to commence.  In other words, anything that disturbs the illusion that the game world exists in all its detail and with events proceeding along their course whether or not the PCs are looking in that direction.

Pretty much anybody who’s played in one of my campaigns will recognize this as my default style of GMing (one-offs are a completely different kettle of fish, since they are usually defined by the particular story the PCs are caught up in and end as soon as it’s resolved).  Certainly I’ve done things at various times that have violated the spirit of the Sandbox, out of laziness or because the players have started to flounder and asked to be gaffed with a plot hook, but basically Sandbox Play is what I like to GM for anything reasonably long-term.

I think part of it is that I don’t seem to be very good at the overarching plot style of campaign.  While I certainly admire the aesthetic of the Sandbox, I’m not married to it.  But when I’ve tried the plot-driven campaign (because my players have asked for one)….it doesn’t seem to work out very well.  Frankly, their characters usually take one look at the set-up and run away.  I don’t know…maybe I’m not very good at conveying the scope of the problem they’re facing versus the extent of the character’s powers, so they think it’s overwhelming or insoluble.  My players will sometimes say it’s because “we suuuuuck” but they don’t really believe that, and neither do I.  It’s true that my games often feature large-scale unintended consequences, but that’s a reason for caution, not outright paralysis.  I mean, it certainly doesn’t paralyse them in the Sandbox campaigns…they just think twice about doing anything major and sometimes prepare contingency plans, then scramble to pick up the pieces if something unforseen occurs.  But somehow when it comes to a campaign with a built-in plot from on high, they chicken out.

Now, one thing I haven’t yet tried is making such a campaign set-up do-or-die.  The Sandboxer is strong enough in me that when the characters have fled their destiny, I’ve shrugged and let them run, coming up with new stuff in the setting in whichever direction they’ve bugged out.  Their destiny has never come and dragged them back kicking and screaming.  Maybe it should.  It could be that I’ve been confusing character reluctance to buckle down and follow the course of duty with player reluctance to embark on the campaign.  I certainly don’t want to force the players down the path of a long and complex adventure if it doesn’t seem fun to them, but maybe once in a while they want to be railroaded–at least to kick off the campaign.