Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Wild West sandbox

I was about to play Dogs in the Vineyard the day before yesterday. Since everyone in Sweden is ill, all the time, it didn't happen. But, when I was sitting on the bus going to where I though we were having a game, I realized one thing about Dogs. In DitV you as the GM generate a town, according to specific rules. Some NPCs will inhabit that town, and they are all involved in "the thing" that's happening in that town. They all have an agenda and want something specific from the characters, and you have to specify what will happen if the characters never had entered that town. Then you let the players loose and don't ever try to play god! It struck me that this is the ultimate toolbox for sandbox play.

So, that means that the most well known new school Forge-style indie game is based on sandbox play, not Story. Interesting.


  1. I don't know that that is entirely true... it's more that the story is inside a sandbox. Or perhaps the story /is/ the sandbox you play in. It's not as if you can totally ignore the town (i.e. the story) that is happening unless you are willing to say "Okay, we ignore everything and go home. Okay, see you guys next week!". Sure, you have near total autonomy within the boundaries of the current trouble you are dealing with but you kind of have to deal with it, or else there's no game... a least, that's my impression of it all.

  2. I think it becomes a sandbox if the referee doesn't impose limitations on player behavior - for example, if the group decided to strike out into the hills to dig for gold with a team of donkeys and miners, does the game prohibit that?

  3. Yeah, but in Dogs, you have to go from town to town, and you're the enforcer of a moral code. You don't ever set up a stronghold in the town, or choose not to be the enforcer, or marry that girl or guy who caught your eye and captured your heart, or any of that. So it's what I'd call a pretty long and narrow sandbox.

  4. The thing is, even in a open sandbox there is no game if you "ignore the town". I am simplifying a bit, but still.

    Can you ignore the town and strike out into the hills and dig for gold? Well, you will invalidate some GM prep and it's not what the game is all about, but I guess you can.

    Like amp108 puts it, I think most sandboxes in order to work had to be quite narrow.

  5. Andreas, that is how *many* "narrativist" story games work. The whole idea of "Story Now" is that the GM does not come to the table with a story to tell. Otherwise it would be "story last week when the GM came up with the adventure," not "Story Now."

    The GM comes to the table with a bunch of powerful problems for the players to encounter, but he can't know how it's all going to play out. If the GM knows how it's all supposed to play out, it's not Narrativism, it's railroading.

    So yes -- there's a huge similarity between what OSR guys call "sandbox play" and a lot of what the indie folks call Narrativism or Story Now. They both refuse to tell players what to do and how to deal with things, they just come to the table with a big pile of stuff for the players to encounter and react to however they want.

    "Sorcerer" is exactly like this. The GM absolutely must not show up with a "story" to tell -- just with raw materials for the players to react to, in whatever way they choose, including ignoring them (because ignoring a problem is a choice in and of itself, and can have consequences...)

    Seriously, you nailed it, and this is something that a lot of people misunderstand about story-games.


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