Sandbox-Style RPG using Conflict Resolution Tools

I recently had the opportunity to combine my job, a speech project, and my love of Role Playing Games into a single speech at Dungeons and Toast, my TTRPG-themed Toastmasters club.

The Toastmasters speech was from my Persuasive Influence path and was the "Conflict Resolution" project, where you learn about conflict resolution techniques, then apply them to a problem and talk about the results.

Conflict resolution, both as presented in the Toastmasters project, and in the types of work I do, does not mean addressing a hostile work environment or other conflicts of that nature. It has to do with helping intelligent, passionate groups of people to find a solution where there is no single right answer, and everything is a trade-off.

My Project

I challenged myself to tweak the project and make it about Role Playing Games, while still meeting the spirit of the project, and I found the perfect answer in a game that I ran for the club.

For the 2022-2023 calendar year, the club ran an 8-session campaign called "The Lost Lair of the Manticore." The story involved getting a long-lost magical Orb last in possession of a manticore. and was structured as 5 or 6 different GMs running their own federated stories that loosely connected to that theme. My role was to run the finale, which was a challenge since the stories were only loosely connected and the dozen or so players were all very different--and it led me to wonder how I would ever come up with a satisfying conclusion to the story.

My answer was to use Conflict Resolution tools and Sandbox Gaming techniques to encourage my players to help tell the story the way they wanted to.

Technique 1 - Listen and Respect

My first conflict resolution technique was to listen to the participants and respect their different views, preferences, and goals. Some people like combat, some like puzzle solving, some like social interaction and some really enjoy the opportunity to heavily role-play their characters, regardless of the circumstances.

To support this, I used a sandbox technique which is to describe a scene and put a variety of hooks in the scene for the players to pursue, or ignore. For the four-hour adventure, I created five scenes and let the players take them at their own pace. The highlight of this was a scene in which I put a herd with large non-responsive or hypnotized goats, eating and completely oblivious to the characters.

The Orb the characters were after was a mind-affecting device, and I wanted to give the players an idea of what it could do, as well as some hint that the Manticore was actually using it. I put a few hooks in to give the players a chance to explore it using whatever techniques they wanted to--it was going to take 20 minutes maybe?

Instead, the first group I ran it for spent an entire hour on this scene, trying to figure out the extent of the control, what would cause the goat herd to lose their hypnotized state, and so on. People approached the problem in accordance to their character's personality, and using the skills and tools they had available.

My indicator of "Is it working" was that the players were all actively engaged with the scenes. Engagement is an excellent indicator that your conflict resolution efforts are working because while they're engaged, they are not "walking away" from the problem.

Technique 2 - Encourage Agency

My second conflict resolution technique was to give participants agency to approach the problem the way they wanted to. This is both an independent technique and an obvious extension of the one above. People not only look at things the way they think of them, but they also want to approach possible solutions in a way that makes sense to them.

To support this, I used a sandbox technique which is to have puzzles with no fixed solution. There are boundaries and limitations, but there isn't one correct answer--and so there isn't one correct solution to get to it.

The best example of this was an underground lake, about 300 feet across. The players were on a shore on one side of the lake, and the manticore's cave was on the other side of it. The challenge was to simply get to the other side by whatever means. The unknowns were obvious questions such as "What's in the water" and "How deep is it"?

Through exploration, they found that the water probably didn't have any predators, and was only about 5-10 feet deep, with rocks throughout. And given this they approached it in ways that worked for their own characters. These included:

  • For the good swimmers, just swim. It seemed to work okay.
  • One person, less good at swimming, tried doing rock-hopping, so he always had a place to put his feet when he started getting tired.
  • A few people tried "tie the weak swimmers to the strong swimmer" (which didn't work very well, as they worked through it--as it resulted in the good swimmer being held back by the sinking bad swimmers.)
  • A druid turned into a crocodile and just had weak swimmers hang on.
  • One bad swimmer swam anyway. I had them roll 3d20 and tell me the individual results. He almost drowned, so someone else came back to help him, and the two of them (through additional rolls) made it across successfully.
The key was that they succeeded, and anything that seemed like it should work, did. And I let the dice help with the narrative. It also gave people with special characteristics (high athletics, shape change, height, etc.) use those things to help come up with a solution.

My indicator of success was that everybody came up with solutions, and seemed happy with the results, whether they were one of the ones who actively solved it or one of the ones who got dragged across by the crocodile.

Technique 3 - Guide to a solution

The third conflict resolution technique was "help move people to a solution, even if it's not your solution." This is essential because the key is to get to a "resolution" that people can live with. It's very easy to have conflict resolution efforts stagnate, as the number of problems becomes a barrier to getting to an answer. For this, I used a sandbox technique which is to have an idea of where things might go, and know enough about those options to support the players in getting to the answer of their choice.

In this case, there was the Manticore, and he had attuned to the Orb. From my perspective, the players would resort to combat including going full-murder hobo, or they'd use stealth or negotiation. Given this, I had ideas of how I'd handle it, and I came up with narrative endings for each of those approaches.

Of course, the first group of players surprised me by renouncing the quest, declaring the Marquess who had sent them on it a "jerk" and declaring loyalty to the Manticore. But because I'd thought about who the Manticore was, and the myriad circumstances of him being here, I was able to improvise an ending that fit everything that was going on. (I ran the adventure a second time, for the rest of the players, and they came to the same conclusion.)

My indicator of success was that I received several messages after the game saying "I didn't expect that at all, but I really liked it. Good job." This was funny to me because I didn't pick that ending--the players did. And in doing so, had come up with their own satisfying conclusion.


The finale was a success, as was the speech. People really liked how I had combined the two concepts, along with Sandbox techniques to deliver what initially seemed a daunting conclusion. I know the speech was well received, because of the reactions of the crowd, plus the messages I received afterward (and the evaluation that I received during that portion of the meeting.)

And I know that the adventure was a success, not only because of the mood of the people at the table, but that I received several comments in the form "I see how we got there, and I like the conclusion" which is always the goal of any conflict resolution exercise.

About the Art

The header art for this article is "Betrayal" by Mario Nevado (at

Besides the fact that "Betrayal" is a beautiful and incredible piece, its subject is one of the biggest conflicts in our world--between the spirit of nature and the aggressive growth of industry and civilization. Civilization seems willing to do whatever it takes to keep expanding, and while the outcome of this conflict may be the destruction of one or the other (or both), we're still at a moment in time where we still have options. The gun hasn't fired yet, so there is still hope for a resolution.


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