Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sandbox Play vs. Quicksand ... Box Play

All these recent posts about sandbox play around the rpg blogging community got me thinking. The posts about sandbox gaming are pretty much all positive. My first reaction is the same - I've read and played enough indie/story games that I get (and like) what they're about, but I've really been grooving on the old school lately. It's not just about nostalgia; it's also about the raw fun that these games facilitate. Pat's been talking about running a sandbox game for a while, and I'm definitely down. I have this image of a larger than life paladin burned into the back of my brain, and I want to play him dammit! But there must be some issues with this style of play too, right?

The main issue that I worry about is that such a game won't keep my attention for too long. My chronic gaming ADD aside, sandbox play tends towards the modular - visit the wizards tower here, clear the caves of chaos there. Level up. Like Pat said, sandbox play thrives on taking one's time in long journeys across a land. In practice, this means random encounters and a slew of events unconnected to a larger arc or to the characters. Instead of enjoying wandering around the sandbox, I worry about getting mired in portions of it.

I never played Grand Theft Auto before GTA IV. I expected the best when I shelled out 60 big ones for it. But despite its popularity, I really don't like it. The car chases are fun and the city's big as hell, but I just get bored trying to explore every nook and cranny of the city. There's just so much to do that doesn't matter. I'm impressed by the scope of the world, but once my awe fades, boredom kicks in.

So, I love the idea of sandbox games, and I don't know what the ultimate solution is. But it has something to do with the GM managing to highlight plot and character and those themes that connect game sessions while still managing to bring out the glory of the scope and detail of the world. Sounds like, well, just good gaming to me.


jamused said...

I'd suggest that it helps to give your character a goal that he's actively working towards. Not just "When I get powerful and rich enough to retire, I'll build a stronghold for my deity" but "I'm going to start scouting out a suitable place for the stronghold right now, make alliances with the locals, recruit people to my cause, amass wealth, get whatever dispensations I need from my church. As I get money I'll start by building a road-side chapel, then I'll add a round tower nearby to serve as home base and to protect the surrounding area from goblins" etc etc. Then, as you go on adventures and level-up (if it's that kind of game) you can keep returning to advance your plans.

I'd also suggest that it's good to negotiate mutually compatible goals with the other players as the characters are created. While intra-party conflict can be interesting and fun if the players are mature enough to handle it, it can also really cut a campaign short even if nobody gets killed as the characters reach a point where they have to go their separate ways in order to pursue their goals.

If characters do drift apart, don't be afraid of letting that happen and introducing new characters; PC solidarity for no good in-game reason can really stifle the potential of a Sandbox setting.

PatrickWR said...

@jamused: Awesome suggestions! I'm writing those down.

For Ben Robbins' West Marches game, he actually did write larger plots into the sandbox encounters. The key is making sure the game can go on if the players turn up their nose at the metaplot bits.

If I make a point of having the goblin raiders guarding a stolen Elven artifact and the PCs choose not to investigate said artifact, well, that's just part of the sandbox. I can't force anything on ya, but I can plant seeds.

szilard said...

I like sandbox play in computer games.

I'm less thrilled about them on the tabletop. Sandbox games deliberately eschew what I see as one of the great strengths of the medium - that the setting can be molded on the fly by human judgment to maximize fun.

jamused said...

@szilard - I think one way or another everybody is trying to maximize some aspect of gaming they find fun. I think Sandbox Play tries to highlight some aspects that are often overlooked in the common play styles of "If This Is Tuesday, This Must Be Module B7" and "Help Me Occupant, You Are My Only Hope!"

I certainly don't think it precludes molding the setting on the fly to emphasize something that the players enjoy doing. If the players are trying to establish a trade-route through the mountains I would expect the GM to start adding a lot of detail about those mountains, who lives there, who travels through, what the weather is like, what various settlements have to trade, who the NPCs the players can trade with are, rival NPCs, and even adventure seeds: things to be discovered in the mountains, barbarians who plan to seize control of the pass so they can raid the lowlands, political intrigue in the Dwarven kingdom over the desirability of trade with the humans, and so on.

Jonathan said...

I think my next campaign will be my own setting and that setting will be a sandbox for the players. Some of the best campaigns I've ever run have been sandboxs. Unfortunately though... I've never been a player in such a campaign.

@szilard : I would agree only if everthing in the sandbox is pre=planned and just waiting on the players to walk over to it. In the SB games I've run, everything is planned on the map - and maybe I have some vague notes about what each area is, but those notes are mine and mine alone and often times I would edit or altogether throw them out to shape the game around the players to maximize fun.

On a side note: from your stand point - one might also say that published campaign settings, like FRCS, are also sandbox - becuase nearly everything is planned out in nauseating detail - and all there for your players to read too. But, maybe my own definition of sandbox differs from yours. So... not to threadjack, but you've prompted me to ask: what IS sandbox anyway? Seems like - if you look across the RPG blogosphere over the last few months; not everyone is in agreement. Maybe I'll start a post about this...

Supah said...

@Jonathan - I think your comment about the need to define sandbox is right on. Especially when letting players know on the front end what they're in store for.

d7 said...

I think the trouble you've run into with videogame sandboxes is that they tend to be broad but shallow away from the central, non-sandboxy plot. Although I suppose that's still a danger in a tabletop game, it does have the advantage of a human behind it who can focus in and create depth in a particular area when needed. I like what the commentors above suggest for setting goals. I think that'd be a perfect way to flag areas for the GM to expand on.

To continue the metaphor, I think you might actually want to be able to sink into a particular part of the sandbox. :) Maybe just not "mired", since it's fun to hare off on a tangent, sometimes.