September 11, 2008

Defining SANDBOX Gaming: What's it to you?

OK, there's been much buzz about so-called "sandbox campaigns" in the RPG blogosphere recently. There have been some posts directly focused on the topic, and many others that bring it up while talking about something else. From all this I think there's a need for clarification. Some bloggers think sandbox games are for 'lazy GMs', while others think 'it too time consuming to GM a sandbox game'. Other differences are between sandbox campaigns being 'too pre-planned' vs. 'too open-ended'. Many of these viewpoints seem contradictory. Here's a short list of all the ones I've 'starred' in my Google Reader over the last few months:
And, while leaving a comment on one post on the topic over at RPG Diehard, I found myself thinking that people obviously have different viewpoints on what a 'sandbox' campaign is and is not. Sure, there's a Wikipedia page that covers the basic idea of nonlinear gameplay, but its more directed at video games - not tabletop RPG games.

Maybe I'm the weirdo... to me a "sandbox" game is one where the world is open to explore - the environment and the character development is the focus, not some super EPIX storyline (although these can be woven into it). Also, sandbox games do not have to be well developed before the start of play - a sandbox can be improvised to suite the player's interests just as well as other game styles.

So, I'll ask the readers here: What is a 'sandbox' campaign to you?

[POST POSTING EDIT: I added the link to after I published this]


  1. I'm actually taking a break from sketching out some basic notes for my own sandbox campaign, so I'll bite.

    First off, this type of gaming is not for "lazy" GMs. I've seen GMs read directly from a prepared adventure and throw a fit when I try to deviate from the beaten path. Sandbox play encourages the opposite, and the job of the GM is to keep tabs on what piques a character's interest and how that story nugget might be expanded -- or not.

    To me, sandbox play can be boiled down into a few key points:

    1. The players drive the game.
    2. No decision or outcome is bad for the game.
    3. Both players and GMs have their own set of responsibilities to make sure such a game succeeds.

    I hope to get into these points in a little more detail over at my blog. For now, though, it's back to the creative process!

  2. Heh, I haven't ever heard the term "sandbox" used with gaming until recently.

    In programming, or least in my experience, a "sandbox" is a development environment where you are not afraid to test and break things. This way you're not f'ing up the production level stuff.

    From this context, I would say that "sandbox gaming" would be used primarily as a test bed for mechanics and ideas that one would use in a real game. Possibly the stage before or interlinked with Playtesting.

    But if it is just non-linear gameplay, hell I've been doing it for years, except I called it "making shit up as I go."

  3. I think the important bit is that it's player-agenda driven. Non-linear could just mean that there are five tasks but they can be completed in any order, or that there are multiple endings possible, which can be true of any table-top game where they big-bad at the end can win because you rolled poorly.

  4. Your post prompted me to write about the "microlight" variant of Sandbox Games.

  5. Thanks to everyone for chipping in...

    @patrickwr : My concept of 'sandbox' is in line with what your suggesting - not for lazy GM's; but a campaign that is designed well so that it adapts well to the player's actions.

    @madbrewlabs : "making shit up as I go" ... frak'n priceless. I too have been doing this for years

    @jamused : I think, at least from my point of view, is that sandbox games don't have "a boss at the end". The whole concept of 'bosses' in tabletop RPG's is something that came out of vgRPGs... the term BBEG for example stems from old Ultima BBS discussion boards; but i digress... or maybe this is the point. CLASSIC ODD style sandbox games have no "end" and the campaign is more about the characters and how they shape the world around them. my 2¢

    @alex : Sweet! Going to book mark your link - ill try to read it later today while at work.

  6. Hello Jonathan, and hello to the rest of the people commenting here. To be honest you quite shocked me with this post. Not because I couldn't understand you but because of the idea that if there is something like Sandbox gaming, there must be non-Sandbox gaming as well.

    I understand that you're talking about a continuum rather than two sets of "either or" categories, but the issue was hard for me to swallow because my very definition of RPG is based on those 'Sandbox' elements.

    Thank you for pushing the topic to my newsreader and for the list of links, I'll be writing about this and of course linking back to this resource.


  7. I'm intrigued. I'm not sure if this is in the same class as what you're talking about, but there's the "Strange Island" twitter-RPG that appears very sandboxey.

    I'm trying to get into it even though I missed the initial cut-off. My meager perspective is that it's a great way to get another RPG fix without the major commitment of a whole other campaign.

  8. Of course there are many different styles of gaming - but to shore up my point (if i have one?) - take two extreme styles of game play: 1) in one you play on a open-ended field, the players set the agenda to fit with whatever their own goals are for their characters development (i.e. Magnus wants to build a stronghold, Thamax wants to build a temple, Agies wants to recover lost artifacts, Symbul wants to get revenge for her families demise, etc); 2) on the other extreme there's the "Adventure Path" campaign - a series of preplanned adventures that are tied together into a cohesive storyline. In the second type, the players only have so much wiggle room before they go WAY off track. The planning is TOP DOWN, from the DM (or WotC for that matter). In my mind, true sandbox gaming is bottom up - the players direct the action.

    of course, in reality, most campaigns are likely somewhere in the middle are something completely different.

  9. My comment is coming a little late here, but what about lazy players? The players who long for railroads or would spend 2 hours real time having their character pick pockets in the marketplace? I would say that this is not for lazy players either. They would have to have a well defined goal and plan on how they are going to get there. I seem to find fewer and fewer of that type of player nowadays.

  10. @b.g.- I wouldn't call a player lazy just because they preferred to be railroaded...or, to put it more generously, they preferred a game with a clear story arc where the PCs are definitely the protagonists of the story. And a lazy player might be perfectly happy with a Sandbox game as long as there were dungeons or wandering monsters to bump up against (certainly a feature of some Sandbox-style games), or if one of the other players had a character that pulled the party along.

    As for players who would spend 2 hours real time picking pockets in the marketplace--that player might be very well suited to Sandbox play, where the GM didn't feel obliged to push him along to do something "interesting." To me the real problem with something like that (in any sort of game) would only arise if his doing that interfered with what the other players (including the GM) found interesting. If you ended up in effect running two games at once, one for him and one for the other players, that would be something that needed to be addressed (perhaps by the GM just eliding the details--rolling to see if he'll get caught, and if not telling him after two hours, here's your haul). But if all the players were having fun as thieves in the market place, picking pockets, acting as decoys, lookouts and cutouts, accumulating loot and dodging the law...well, in a very real sense it's the essence of Sandbox gaming to let them go ahead and do that. If they seemed determined to spend a bunch of session time doing that, you could beef up the detail and maybe offer them some adventure hooks (perhaps a mysterious object that they steal, perhaps a powerful merchant that they piss off who hires some bullies to track them down and recover his property, maybe a rival gang of thieves who complicate matters or challenge them for the turf) but if that's the agenda they want.... of course, if that's dead boring to you as the GM, you get a say in it too, but I would advocate talking to the players outside of the game about your problem with how it was going rather than just using a big plot hammer to move them along.

  11. I definitely agree that one of the most important components of a sandbox game is _not_ that there aren't story arcs. There most definitely are! But they are _optional_. The DM should craft the milieu so that things don't grind to a halt if the PC's decide rescuing the families of the rebel leaders isn't such a hot idea. It requires either that the DM is extraordinarily prepared (the Western Marches approach) or that the DM is able to wing it to an enormous extent, adapting to the whims of the players seamlessly at a moment's notice.

  12. @jamused... I agree with a lot of what your saying. What I was referring to was the players that need to be beat over the head with a plot or you end up with players divided in purpose, one wants to go the other to stay. Or players who just stack dice and talk about the other game they are playing. A DM would need players who really knew the direction they wanted to take their character and their game. Not just "I am a rogue and I will pick pockets until the DM give me a adventure" and "I am a wizard and I will be researching random spells until the DM gives me reason not to". I don't believe this would be fun for anyone. Finally, I am curious how to define Adventure hooks, are they not just "big plot hammers"? Something to motivate the players into a direction you would like them to go? I don't want you to think that I am bashing players and I don't have this problem with my group. It is just my opinion that a lot of gamers leave out essential character motivations that would drive the plot in a sandbox game. Now if you game them a copy of this post and made sure they were prepared I am sure there would be no problems.

  13. @b.g.- I see the difference between an adventure hook and a plot hammer as being whether it's optional for the characters to pursue it. The same thing could be one or the other depending on how the GM treated it. If the pickpocket gets a mysterious glowing talisman as part of the day's haul, is he free to pawn it or drop it in the nearest sewer? If bully-boys show up demanding he hand it over, what happens if he simply complies? Or does touching it place him under a geas to go do X?

    There are absolutely players for whom Sandbox settings won't work, but there are quite a few for whom it is scarcely any different from a plotted campaign as long as there's at least one player with a plan big enough to drag them all along.


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