Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cautionary Tales from the Sandbox

Ripper X over at Advanced Gaming & Theory wrote yesterday about the trials and tribulations of running Isle of Dread as a pure sandbox module — as in, the players wander around a map, discovering cool stuff and fighting off foul beasts. Sounds like fun, right? I’ll quote Ripper X:

On paper, a complete wilderness adventure sounds great! Wandering around blind, not knowing where in the hell you are going, or really what you are looking for. In actual play, this was SLOW!!!! So slow that I was getting bored, and it was all the same thing. I thought that it would be fun, but plotting a coarse and deciding of where to go that day is frickin boring! I don't know if it was my fault, or if I did something wrong, or what. I thought about it! I really did. How can I spice this up? But with such a large map to explore, I really couldn't prep anything or describe a scene more clearer then what I was. I really didn't want to spend too much time talking about a day where nothing happens. I did give the place a lot of sounds and smells, but the players weren't all that interested, and I kept failing my random encounter checks.

His post serves as a cautionary tale about what to avoid in a sandbox campaign. It seems Ripper X was a little too wedded to the sandbox concept and could probably have been a bit more liberal with his random encounters (as in, fudge the die rolls so they actually happen, or adjust the rules so you’re rolling more frequently) without infringing too much on the spirit of the game. Moreover, it’s important to note that sandbox games are defined by their lack of a linear plot — but not necessarily their lack of story. Time spent exploring should be time well spent; the PCs should learn something important about the area, uncover a villain or stumble across a previously unknown map feature.

Plus, those villages aren’t just set pieces. The natives travel the lands, send out patrols, hunt, trade, etc. There’s no reason why a large percentage of ‘em can’t be on the move, thus increasing the chances that the party might encounter them. The island itself was a bit limiting — it’s a finite bit of territory, and if you treat the published module as canon, it’s entirely possible for the players to bumble their way through the least-interesting parts of the map.

I say all this not to condemn Ripper X — quite the contrary. I’m glad he posted his concerns, because I’m running a sandbox campaign myself, and any wisdom that can help me avoid such pitfalls is useful. I’d be grateful for any advice from DMs out there: What have you gotten right or wrong in your sandbox game?


Sham aka Dave said...

It's been so long since I ran a proper sanbox adventure or session. Most of my games of recent years have been nearly pure dungeon crawl. That said, I can recall some jungle setting stuff that the players enjoyed immensely. They had entered the vast unexplored jungles with a specific goal in mind; finding a ziggurat and it's hidden temple (dungeon). I let them set off with only the knowledge that the ziggurat was 'to the west, deep in the thick jungles' or some such clue. After some wilderness crawling, I threw a red-herring at them, a swath of foliage had been recently cut, marking a trail which led off into the darkest depths of the wilderness. Thinking this was me 'railroading' a bit, the players followed the trail...for days. It took them to a side adventure that I had to mostly ad-lib based on minimal notes. That side adventure ended up being more memorable than the ziggurat and it's temple, which by the way the players eventually found, days later, short on supplies and water. It had been a mere hex away from the red-herring trail. Boy did I get some 'boos' from the players that evening.

Patrick W. Rollens said...

Update: Joshua over at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers expounded even further on this topic. Check it out if you're interested!

RipperX said...

Actually, I'm glad that this caught on. The game wasn't a total sham, the players liked the parts where they finally found the dungeon.

This was the first time that I have ever attempted anything of that scale, it wasn't a failure, however I know when something could be better. For this case, I was at a loss as to what it was that I needed to improve. I will go back to the "sandbox" style of play, as I enjoy using every play style that there is when running games. Variety is the enemy of boredom!

Patrick W. Rollens said...

Yes, I'm pleased with the interest your post has generated as well. I'm in the midst of planning/playing my own sandbox campaign, so this is great food for thought. Game on!