Using Sandbox Gaming Techniques in your Regular Game
On Friday, I gave a keynote speech at my Dungeons & Toast Toastmasters group. This is the first-ever Toastmasters club designed to meet the needs of RPG players and gamemasters.
The speech was called "The Three Secrets of Tywardin" and began with the story of a lost city found by characters deep in a large forest. I went on to explain that the characters only found the city because the players showed an interest in some scene details and improv turned into a multi-day storyline. I explained that the shift from the normal improvisation of details to enabling the characters/players to help direct the story is called Sandbox gaming (also known as open world gaming.) I then provided some tips on how to easily add sandbox concepts to existing games without changing those games.
The speech was a big success, and I was asked to provide notes on it, so people could go back and refer to it. Rather than writing down the whole speech, I'm going to summarize it, while also providing more detail to some parts. That said, if I record the speech and put it on YouTube, I'll certainly include a link in a later edit of this article.
Sandbox gaming is about tweaking the world so that the events and situations the characters encounter become more driven by the players interests and goals for their character, even in the context of a directed storyline. In making that shift
- The players become more invested in the story, because it's more about their characters.
- The camaraderie of the table grows, because the players (including the GM) become interested and engaged in other's stories.
- The depth of the world grows just a bit by filling in small details to make the world feel more real.
Tip 1: Players: Know your character's motives, and give them an aligned goal.
As a player, you know something about your character. That may be as simple as name, class, level and alignment, or it may be a multi-page backstory. To take that to the next level, I proposed two simple ideas: First, come up with some view of how your characters sees the world. Second, create an achievable goal for your character that fits in the game you're playing.
The example I gave in the speech is a character who is from another country, they came here just exploring the world, so maybe they have wanderlust. So their view of the world may be that each situation is an opportunity to see something new. And their aligned and achievable goal is to see all 37 districts of the country.
This could play out as follows:
An NPC offers your characters a couple of jobs, one to District A, and one to District C. District A appears easier and more profitable, but your character might pipe in that they haven't seen District C before, so would prefer that. Rather than choosing the "obvious" choice, your decision is influenced by those other elements, and in a nuanced way rather than disruptive.
The GM, seeing this, can begin tweaking their hooks to let you explore a bit more. And other players/characters might become invested in helping you out, too. Maybe another PC is given a choice of two districts, and they choose the one you haven't been to, to help you out. At the same time, you may be doing the same for other people at the table.
This doesn't disrupt the GM's plans; it doesn't dramatically affect what goes on, but it raises the level of detail just a bit, and provides a sense of incremental camaraderie.
Tip 2: Players and GM's: World build on the fly, in the empty spaces.
Players may know their backstory, and GM's may know their world. Both may even know these things to a significant extent--but because it's a game, and not real life, there are always gaps. Another way to add a sandbox element is to fill in some of those gaps on the fly either for yourself, or for the other--so long as the details don't take away someone's agency.
A GM, as the group travels to District C for the first time, may introduce a character's aunt who lives there. Assuming the player didn't define that relationship one way or the other, it can provide instant content for the world. Now as it's played through, the player has to decide if the character is obliged to visit the aunt. Maybe they even have to stay with her. Is it a much-loved aunt who was like a mom? an interesting black sheep of the family? Someone they haven't seen in years, or someone you've never met? These details can all be pulled together quickly or role played. Take notes, and the next time you are in District C, this new yet canon story element can continue to be a factor.
On the flipside, consider that your character has a background of being from the wrong side of the river. Your group gets an assignment to guard a gate. It'll take 8 people to guard that gate, and there are only 4 of you. As a player, you can say "There was this guy, Jerome, who used to bully me. But he'd never allow anybody else to bully me. I wonder if he'd help me stay safe with this mission."
As a player, you've introduce a new NPC along with a name and a small backstory. The GM has no obligation to let this NPC help you out, if they had other plans. Nor are they obliged to make it easy for you for "Jerome to be helpful." But they might want to. Maybe Jerome says "Sure, kid. I'll help you out. I'll even bring along three friends....but you're going to owe me for this."
With this crew, you successfully guard the gate. Your party has a story-connection to the four new people from the bad side of the river who helped you. The GM has four new NPC's to pull into other storylines, and as a bonus, you owe Jerome a favor, so the GM has a hook for later.
Nobody forced anyone to do anything...but the depth and interest in the world have both gone up a bit, and the player's engagement for this and future storylines related to these characters has grown.
Tip 3: GM's: Plan for what you don't expect.
From a recent poll I did on Twitter, some GM's plan extensively for sessions. Others literally wing everything. But either way, the minute characters approach a scene or situation, they are likely to do something you didn't expect. For this, I propose doing just a little bit of prep to create elements that can be pulled out and used at a moment's notice.
My premise is that characters or locations that have just a TINY bit of preparation are more realistic and memorable than one you came up with entirely on the fly, especially if you are someone who tends to plan more heavily. So by spending 5-10 minutes thinking about a random person, with personality traits, a description, a job, some motivations of their own, and writing them down--they can be used if they are needed. If you create 2 characters and 2 places, and one random event, that's about 30 minutes of incremental prep work to create that, and write it down.
Now as an example: assume you've given the party a choice of staying in Inn1 or Inn2, both of which you've prepped, or maybe they've already been there before. But they say "there's currently a price on our heads, we're going to hang out at a flophouse." As a GM, you now are creating a flophouse on the fly...but maybe there is a character you created for such eventualities, for this session or who is unused from a previous session. They are down on their luck and need some help. Bring that character from your reserve elements library, to the front of the story, and now your ad-libbed flophouse feels more real to both the players and you.
This situation has made you more prepared as a GM, made the world a bit more realistic to both the players and you, and again raised everybody's engagement with the world.
Sandbox gaming is a great way to play, and I'm very invested in it. The benefits I see come out as out-of-session engagement in development, heavily RP-based choices in game, and people's efforts to ensure they are adding to the world as they go.
My three campaigns are all 100% sandbox. But that's something I've evolved to after many years, and is frankly a challenge for both players and the gamemasters, especially initially.
But at the same time, some of those benefits can be achieved by using versions of the three tips above, as they work at your own table. And hopefully they'll provide engagement, camaraderie, connection to the game world and most important additional fun.
As always, comments are welcome on if this helped you, as are any other suggestions that people should consider.