Welcome to the Sandbox

This will be the last of my how to build a campaign world posts on my own site for a little while and in a funny way this one does not really relate to building the world, more about how you are going to play in it once it is built.  Sandbox games are named after the idea of a kid in a sandbox.  They make their own fun from their imagination.  They may build a castle and have an epic war trying to knock it down or treat the sand as the dunes of a faraway planet.  The direction they take is entirely up to them.

Well this translates into gaming as the child in the sandbox is a representation of the player.  The person that fishes the coke cans and rubbish out of the sandbox and fills it back up with sand every week or so is the GM!  Really, in designing a sandbox adventure you can choose any method you wish.  The bottom up, interactive history, top down it does not really matter.  The one thing that you want to do in this style of game though is provide plenty of colourful NPC’s and plenty of areas fit for investigation by the PC’s.  You can even have plots by huge evil overlords threatening to raze existence itself but be prepared for players to pursue what interests them.

The first game of AD&D that I played in and thoroughly enjoyed was a complete sandbox adventure.  The DM had designed his world (or the amount of it he wanted to design) with a bunch of interesting areas.  he was not interested in leading his players by the nose, and most of the time we played solo anyway, coming together very rarely.  We would explore our own surroundings and warnings were meant to be heeded so when we asked about the “Swamp of Despair” and got told not to go near it as it was exceptionally dangerous he was not trying to set up the place for us to head to it.  if we did we found out it was exceptionally dangerous and got eaten by something big and out of our league.

Well they did tell you it was out of your league!

So, the moral of this is that it is a good idea to have a full understanding of the area you are designing and have a variety of challenge rating areas for the players to explore.  Put it to them straight from an NPC e.g. “Oh you’ll not wanting to be heading up to the old mansion.  Chief Roland went up there with a band of famous heroes and not a single one was heard from again!”  Sounds really interesting and in most games where the GM is leading you on a campaign arc it would be a signal flare in the darkness to head here and find out what took out Chief Roland.  But in a sandbox this is a dire warning if you are low to mid level.  The highest powered guy in town (Chief Roland) led a band of heroes (famous heroes none the less) and went missing.  This is a red flag, unless you are nearing the top of your game, KEEP AWAY!

Sandbox games can be the most fun to play in because your players get to do what they want to do, not what the King wants or their grumpy old master.  That said it does take a special group of players to be able to pull this off effectively.  The players need to be motivated to chase their own goals and they have to be interested enough in the setting to chase down what they want.  It is true that some players simply want to be led through a campaign arc and other players want to make the story all about them.  In this style of game you still may run a campaign arc but it will be one that the players pursue.  It may be about the hook or seed you started building the game with or it might be something completely different.

Drugs are bad Mmmmkay?

Especially if you want to catch flies.

It is very hard to plan for games in this style of adventure so a lot of your designing needs to come up front with at least some detail on each of the surrounding towns and possible encounters.  It depends largely on your own style as to how much you develop things.  For example, I tend to design dungeons more as a flow chart than a physical map with a key so I would have a bunch of mind maps for the encounters nearby and would just wait to see what the players want to investigate and bring out the appropriate planned encounter and run it.  The sandbox style is great in that if the players look like they are going to go off map or try to go out of the sandbox, you just add on, do a bit more design and no one needs to be any the wiser that the parts they are now playing in never existed a session or two before!

If you have read my blog on why the GM is not a story teller you would have seen my graphic (that I stole from the internet) of how the players may move through a campaign arc.  A comment that was made to me on that particular blog was from a GM who said tracing the path of his characters is like the way a spider on drugs builds its web (and there was a scientific study into this, you can see the images to the left).  That is how it should be with a sandbox adventure.  The players will pick up on what they want and it may not always be in a direct line or the predicted path that you as the GM expect.  But if you do the preparation for this style of play and are willing to let the players do what they will, this is the style of campaign for you.

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