I've made no attempt to hide my utter fascination with sandbox-style gaming. Last summer's old-school renaissance, with its focus on non-linear, location-based campaigning, struck me like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. Here, I thought, was the sort of gaming that I had been striving toward for most of my adult life. I've seen the light!
See, I had an opportunity last weekend to dig through my old RPG notebooks. The earliest was from 1997, when I had become enamored with West End Games' Star Wars RPG. At this point, I'd owned the game for several years—indeed, it was the first RPG I ever owned—but hadn't yet had an opportunity to play it with anyone. I was 15 at the time, and I cobbled together a campaign to run for my high school friends. The game quickly degenerated into a fairly traditional "adventure path" type of campaign, with the PCs shuttling across the galaxy following clues I had painstakingly arranged for them to follow and interacting with PCs that served only to further the game's plot. It was my own original work, but I was definitely railroading them.
But that first adventure, when I was still trying to lure my friends into regular gaming, was different. I had no clue how to write an adventure. All I knew was that my friends—occasional D&D dabblers—had a tendency to run all over the place and get into trouble. Knowing that, I made a location-based introductory adventure set on a wacky space station full of cantinas, bazaars and brothels. I had a few scripted encounters, sure, but my primary motivation was making sure I could react appropriately when they tried to do crazy stuff.
And it worked! We had a great time playing, and the one and only goal of this adventure (get the players a starship!) worked out well.
Fast forward 12 years, and here I am, re-discovering those very fundamental elements of making games hum. Doubtless my 15-year-old self has a few more lessons in store for my 27-year-old self to discover.