Sandbox Game Lessons - Part 1: Introduction and Examples



Open world gaming (or "Sandbox" gaming, as I'll refer to it in this series) in video games has become a big trend over the last several years. People love adventuring, questing, puzzle solving and crafting within the game, but they also love to make the game experience their own. A great example of this open world approach is Bethesda's Fallout 4, which has an astounding number of quests, sub-quests, mini-quests and achievements, including the main quest to find your missing son. As people got more experience with the game, one of the things some players liked to do was show off these amazing buildings, settlements and crafting accomplishments they'd created. A joking response to some of the more extreme cases was "How's Shaun?" as a teasing reminder that the player has totally ignored the main quest to do their own thing.

In TTRPGs, sandbox gaming has become more of a trend as well. It's always been true that no planning or adventure survives the players. As a GM, you can lay out all the hints and hooks you want, but even when players are committed to collaborating on your story as planned, they aren't always going to act the way you expected. Sometimes they'll choose a different option than you expected, look for information in new places, or try a technique that blows up those carefully laid plans.

Every GM jokes and complains about this. In my game group, we call it the feather principle--after an incident where players focused on a feather that the GM described rather than the obvious hooks. And the best GMs are the ones who can improvise and adapt to what the players want to do, but also tweak and push the group in the general direction that he needs them to go for the story he designed.

Sandbox gaming is different. With sandbox games, the GMs prepare events, encounters and people, but it's entirely up to the players what they want to do. Players have their own personal objectives and the story rotates around that. Instead of getting caught up as the pawns of world events, the players decide which events they want to participate in. An extreme example might include being in a city under siege. Instead of a planned storyline, the players may decide that they want to work as black market barricade breakers, defend the city, or leave it entirely behind. And this degree of flexibility can be both satisfying and challenging.

This is going to be the first of a set of article that I'll be writing on those challenges and advantages as I run into them, and what I do to encourage or address them. Today, I'm going to address one advantage and one challenge with this style.

Advantage: Connections

One of the first advantages I saw was in creating connections between the players. Virtually every game I've played has always tried to have player connections, but this style requires it.  Sometimes the connections are family, and so a "backing your sibling's play" mindset can become a motivation to work together. Rivals, former acquaintances, destined connections, roommates, shared experiences and so on are other options. Really, the specifics are not important. What is important is that when one player wants to do something, other players, making their own choices about how they want to play, still go along with it.

This is especially important at the beginning of a campaign. In a directed campaign, a band of adventurers, members of the military group, or whatever are told to go fight rats in the basement. It works, and the story heads out from there. But in a campaign where each player has their own objectives, it comes down to someone deciding what to do first, and the group going from there.

This was crystalized in player's minds on the first session. Deciding what to do, one of the players had family debts to pay, and wanted to get a mostly-legal job that would help him pay those debts. He found a warehouse guarding job that paid well. His half-brother came along, which caused another player who was a childhood friend to come along. The romantic interest by another player caused them to join the ranks, and the promised-guardian of that player of course had to come with. Within a few minutes, the whole group realized it was doing a warehouse job for some reason--and the campaign was off to a great start.

The next step of this is that once people have accomplished things together, they get into routines. They hang out together because they worked well together, so the relationships stop being "meetup" hooks, and start becoming actual story hooks. To misquote Spaceballs: The Movie:

"I am your brother's friend's girlfriend's guardian."
"What does that make us?"
"Absolutely nothing." 

That first time together it makes a great way to ensure that everybody is playing together for a reason, but after that, you start getting "I'm coming with you because you almost screwed up last time, and I need to make sure you don't do it again." or "You saved me, now I have to follow you around and try to save you" or "That was fun, I'm in." Also, those real-world events begin to strengthen and change the initial relationship. Brothers may become more protective, or start becoming competitive where they weren't before. A romantic crush may become respect, or a harder push to be noticed. And maybe two people with no connection start develop one.

This is also a great mechanic because it allows the introduction of new characters. Why is a druid joining our campaign? "He's another of the brothers, and you meet him at mom's Sunday night dinners. He knows something about mystical waterfalls, and may be able to help you recover the macguffin.

Challenge: Moving the Stories

One of the biggest challenges of sandbox gaming is keeping everybody engaged in their own storyline, but also being interested in the game as a whole. If one player is interested in avenging a great wrong done to their family, it's not going to advance their storyline to keep doing warehouse jobs, or finding the items that got stolen from the warehouse. Also, since both earning money and revenge are full time jobs, it becomes a real challenge to progress both storylines at once. This becomes a bigger issue the more players you have (the challenge of a larger number of players will be a separate article.)

This is probably the biggest challenge of sandbox gaming, and is one that I am not only struggling with now, but will probably continue to face for as long as I continue to run the game. This means, expect more articles from me as I learn or develop new techniques. But for now, I have found three that I am working on.

First: Split the Party, and time sharing.

One of the most obvious ways to allow each person to advance their story is to give each person some time during sessions to work on their own items. When I do this, I get an idea of what each person is planning to do, either by themselves or with others, and then I give each person time to go through some amount of their story. This has the advantage of giving players a chance to feel they are making some progress, but has the disadvantage of making everybody else wait. If it's interesting storytelling, that helps, but it's easy to lose other players. One way to handle this is to manage some of those elements offline in email, phone calls or narrative IM chats in the various platforms.

Second: Bring the stories to a head

The second way to move things along is to get stories to the point that they require everybody to be successful. Through individual work, you've found that these dock workers are responsible for the thing you need to deal with. You ask your group, and they agree to head to the docks that night to participate in whatever negotiation (or combat) may ensue. This is not just a good technique, it's critical to maintaining interest. The other players have listened to the story during their own downtime, and now is their chance to become a part of that story. It's also a chance to do those favorite tropes of RPG's: Combat, sneaking, looting and executing plans that may or may not work.

Third: Align the Stories

This is a technique that I'm just figuring out, but is potentially very powerful. The key here is to find common elements between the stories, so that they actually begin to align. The best source of money is this corrupt lord, and the corrupt lord is responsible for the slight to the other player's family, and that slight is related to the secret that a third player is attempting to understand. By doing this, the separate stories start to become one. 

In Invisible Sun, this is easier, because coincidence is a built-in mechanism to the game--you keep throwing coincidences at the players so that by the time they realize that their stories are intertwined, they don't even notice. The first player's lost color of blue is the very thing needed to create the item that the second player is working to create? Sure, that makes sense. In other games, this can come off as contrived, and while suspension of disbelief is a key agreement among players and the GM, it's also essential that it not be pushed too hard, or the illusion will be shattered.

But what I'm finding is that if you let the player set their direction, and put those aligning elements in such that they are making the choices, it's harder but very feasible to create that connection and make it seem natural.


To bring it all together for this essay, sandbox gaming is a very rich and fulfilling style, and it has many advantages. It's not for everybody, and the players need to understand and accept the implications of playing this way before going into it. But even with full support, there is going to be work to really exploit the advantages, and mitigate the disadvantages of the style. In this article, I spoke about building strong character connections, and trying to mitigate the slow pacing or disconnected feeling that arise from multiple storylines going on at the same time. In future articles, I'll be addressing other advantages and challenges, one at a time, or in groups. And I can also guarantee that I'll be addressing some of the same points again. Aligning the Stories is something I can promise will be addressed in the future, because some aspects worked wonderfully and others...well, live and learn. Please leave any comments, tricks, or insights you have...either here on on the social media links. I will be listening closely to all ideas and promise to steal with pride (and maybe attribution.)

Source Callout

While I have been improvising and herding characters for years, embracing a sandbox style of game came from Monte Cook Games' Invisible Sun. In that system, the entire world is explicitly setup to encourage sandbox games, and has tools for supporting it built into the mechanics of the game. Players can choose to advance their own characters, stories and situations in a truly unbound number of ways. And it also provides built-in tools for helping the GM run fully open stories.

With MCG's release of Your Best Game Ever, the idea was expanded to other game systems. And I have embraced those techniques into my latest game. But I have also found new challenges, because the supporting concepts aren't built into the mechanics of the system and so are harder to implement. (Hence this series of articles.)

Art Callout

Today's art is called "Open World" by Jeff Brown. It was my first hit when I searched for "Open World" on Deviant Art, and it was exactly what I was looking for. Not only is it a beautiful piece, but it speaks of a lone figure standing in front a world that is his for the taking. It features rivers, waterfalls, cities, cliffs, mountains that stretch beyond sight and distant lands beyond that--and which that small horseman chooses to approach is entirely up to him.

The work was originally commissioned by Epidiah Ravachol, for his online gaming and fiction magazine World Without Master Issue #6. The work appears here with the permission of both creators.

Unlike most other artists that I've featured here, Jeff is one that I was somewhat familiar with before I included his piece. He has illustrated several books I've seen or read, and I've always been attracted to his epic, engaging and often-terrifying style.


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