[RPG] Sandbox play


How would you describe the concept of sandbox play?

How about to someone who is used to adventure modules or adventure paths?

Best Answer

As with anything, usage varies, but usually when people say "sandbox" today they mean a campaign that does not have a specific prescribed storyline, but one where the GM sets up a world (or at least a small section of one) and the PCs are free to wander where they will and find adventure where they will. It's about freedom of player choice.

Pure sandbox play is purely simulation driven. A super hardcore sandboxer places a dungeon (or whatever) in the game world and that's where it is, for the PCs to come across or not (and for NPCs to come across before them or not). If a thief is sneaking into a mansion, in a sandbox game he is able to avoid guards and traps, and not have predetermined plot points presented to him regardless of his actions.

Sandbox is not an antonym for adventure module. Some of the early modules, most notably Keep on the Borderlands, were extremely sandboxy, as were many of the early dungeons (Castle Greyhawk, etc.). Here's a place, there's fell monsters and treasure there, go do what you want. More recently, Paizo did a sandbox-style adventure path called Kingmaker for Pathfinder. Sandbox is a different approach from story-driven - a "story of what happened" may emerge from a sandbox session but a preconception of story, or what "the GM wants to happen," is never applied to the game. Adventure paths, being a series of adventures, can try to be sandboxy but generally try to provide enough story to get PCs from one chapter to another, but event timelines and things like that can serve that purpose without being railroads (though people often complain and call things like that railroading, just because they feel pressured to do something).

Railroading, the antonym of sandbox, is simply extreme constraint of choice. Some perceived constraint of choice is always there in any simulated world in that there are always choices that are impossible to physically perform or clearly undesirable, but where you cross the line to railroad is when these things are obviously being imposed by the GM/metagame (usually in the name of "The Story" or "The Plot").

You can be apparently providing a sandbox but using the game world to provide so many restrictions that you are effectively railroaded into a single course of action. A dungeon full of one-way doors that inhibits all teleportation and divination, for example.

Most games are somewhere on the continuum between pure sandbox and railroad, or even move between the two based on need and GM inclination. Many campaigns switch back and forth between railroad and sandbox. Railroading to move the story on when the players lose momentum and sandbox otherwise it a frequent GM tactic that lets the players be free when they want to be but gives them structure when they're feeling lost.

Sandbox gaming can be desirable because it produces a sense of game world reality that enables the player to focus less on the metagame and immerse in their character and the game world. It can be problematic because players can feel like they are spinning their wheels and wasting limited leisure time without more guidance, and because sometimes a preplanned story cam have more "big, interesting" things happen in it plot-wise than a sandbox.

I tend towards sandboxy play, but in my most recent campaign I had players get frustrated and ask for more direct guidance from me on "what they should do" - I am normally reluctant to do that but did so to make them happier. Often players want the illusion of sandbox and unlimited choice, but with the GM pulling strings behind the scenes to keep them headed towards interesting things.