Monday, January 11, 2010

Some reflections on sanbox campaigns

If you hang out by the blogs, especially those OSR oriented, you have probably heard the word "sandbox" mentioned a gazillion times. I don't know if it's as frequently used on the rpg forums. Maybe it is.

The idea behind a sandbox is nice. You have a world to explore as a player, and the GM have the freedom to develop just as much as is needed, since the players are going to be exploring and thus be the engine that takes the campaign somewhere. Often, freedom from "story" seems to be an objective when people set up to talk about their sandbox campaigns. I think a few things is worth mentioning about this.

Now, I am just as bored by GM railroading as the next guy. But, that is just as extreme as a world map for sandbox and having everything that happen by driven by the players. Simply put, elevating the sandbox style of play and disparaging "story based games" is taking one extreme and making it an ideal while calling the other bad and "extreme". You see what I mean?

I have had some experiences that highlight some things worth thinking about, regardless of game style. I once had a game prepared where the characters were walking down the street and a NPC jumped into the river right in front of their eyes. I expected my friends to do the obvious thing and try to rescue that fellow and try to find out why he was trying to kill himself. Let's look at this from two perspectives.

From the sandbox perspective, I was a bad GM. I had a story and I wanted my players to walk the path. In a way I agree with that description. It might have been better if I had asked the players what they wanted to do.

Let's put it another way. We had gathered to play a game, and I had prepared some stuff to entertain my friends. They re-payed that by acting like jerks, just being contrary and refusing to follow along. Weren't they just ignoring my kind of fun and trying to strike out on their own instead? No, I maintain they broke the social contract.  The rest of the session was a meandering mess where they walked around town ignoring any kind roguish adventure. No fun was had. While I certainly failed to make the game fun for them, they failed to make it fun for me as well.

If your players wont grab a plot hook you'd better let them create their own adventures. In the same vein, if your players seem to wander about and not doing much like adventure you'd better show them a hook or two. If they wont do any of those, they might need a reminder that you agreed to play a game and they don't. Too bad it took me quite a few years and my own attempt at a sandbox campaign to realize that.

It's very popular in the blogosphere to talk about the liberating effects of a sandbox. This experience of mine, and my latest attempt at a sandbox campaign in Traveller have shown me that neither the open sandbox nor the GM-story ends of the spectrum works for me. Nuances don't come across as well in this medium, but for me it seem to be the way to make a campaign work. A guided "story-sandbox" kind of works. I wanted to toss in those two cents in the big sandbox conversation.
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