Level One Wonk: The Sandbox

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we forgo the plot and go exploring! If your GM wants to build a world but is short on story, see if your group will put the work in to go play in a sandbox!

Everybody is talking about “open world” games nowadays. Ever since PCs (and consoles too) got enough graphical horsepower to render a sizeable chunk of land without loading screens or arbitrary boundaries, open world games have captured the zeitgeist of gaming. From Grand Theft Auto III and Just Cause 3 to Morrowind and Skyrim to Burnout Paradise and Forza Horizon, every genre of video game is trying to embrace the open world, for good or for ill. And while paper and dice RPGs beat them to the punch by a few decades, the practical appeal of an open world sandbox seems limited at the gaming table. The main reason, of course, is that when you don’t have several processor cores doing all the work for you, running a sandbox can be really difficult. It may seem counterintuitive, but from a design perspective running a sandbox was always more difficult for a tabletop group than for a computer.

Let’s back up here for a moment. What is a sandbox when it comes to role-playing? A sandbox is a term used to describe a campaign where there is no overarching plot. The GM puts together a world, and the players bring characters. The two mix, and that’s the game. The reason this is so tough to pull off is twofold: First, the GM necessarily writes little plot, so at least some of the heavy lifting for pushing the game forward must fall on the players. Second, while the GM is writing little plot, their world building needs to be utterly on point for this to work. So the players have to do more work, the GM has to do more work, and it’s likely that even when things go well, a sandbox won’t necessarily look like other campaigns.

Despite all these warnings, there are great reasons to run a sandbox. If you as a GM like building worlds more than stories, you could like running a sandbox. If you as a player like getting distracted and running off in a different direction from the GM’s plot, you could like playing in a sandbox. And if your whole group is on board to build something together and are ok with not knowing what it’s going to look like at the end, you all could really enjoy running a sandbox.

GMs: The Only Constant is Change

There are two ways to run a sandbox: Top-down, or Bottom-up. Top-down involves writing the entirety of the world in which the game is going to take place beforehand, including geography, political entities, cosmology, local history, and basically everything else. Bottom-up involves starting where the players are starting, and moving out from there. If you have written an entire world already, great! This section will be a tad redundant. If you have not, fear not, because bottom-up worldbuilding is fun and helps get your players engaged in the exploration process. If you’re using an existing setting for your sandbox, a lot of the work has been done for you but this should all hopefully be still useful.

Most campaigns are written in the middle between top-down and bottom-up. The GM details the area in which the campaign takes place, with the rest of the world maybe a sketchy outline. If there are gaps that come up during the game, they get filled in and (hopefully) become a consistent part of the world’s fiction. With a sandbox, you want to give your players more explicit permission to wander, and having a clear “zone” laid out doesn’t work well for that. So as above, you either write everything, or you write nothing. This doesn’t mean that the whole world has to be the sandbox: you could imagine running a campaign about a mysterious continent, the PCs being some of the first to explore it. Space games also work very well as sandboxes; you may know Earth very well, but when the entire solar system is just a single hex, the exploration potential feels quite vast.

If you’re writing the game bottom-up, start with one location that the players all know. It could be their hometown, or first port of call, or a neighborhood within their city. Keep it to a reasonable size: you’re going to need to start with a fair amount of detail. Add some distinguishing details and special landmarks, be able to answer in your mind what makes this place unusual. At this point you can keep going, but one of the best things to do is to ask your players for backstories. As I wrote before, there’s no need for a novel, but you’re going to be looking for answers to two key questions: why is the character in this place, and why is the character adventuring (if possible, why is the character adventuring with all the other characters). With these answers, you should be able to start sketching out some basic conflicts.

This is also a point where random generation can be your friend. While it’s great to be creative and just draw out a map, we all get stuck into patterns, and the longer you run a sandbox the greater the risk of repeating yourself. Random encounters may have gotten a bad rap in D&D but sandboxes are where they shine. In using random encounters, don’t let them stay random…monsters have lairs, bandits pay tolls to the Thieve’s Guild, and goblins move in warbands. Roll that random monster, but immediately think of the implications. Each random roll should be fodder for more prep, whether it’s an encounter, a settlement, or just some terrain.

Whether plucking from backstories or rolling on a chart, don’t go too nuts. Chart out what exists roughly a day’s journey in any direction (or a twenty minute subway ride, or a one week hyperlane jump…roughly one major landmark in six directions), and have some big issues for the characters to solve. When the characters start journeying, the real work begins. As the campaign starts working its way out, you need to keep track of what’s going on. First, make an in-game calendar. Yeah, it’s cool for verisimilitude and all that, but it’s also going to help you track time passing. Changing seasons are great background flavor, but other important things happen over time too. Each settlement is growing or declining depending on what’s going on…and this is how you create bigger drama with a sandbox. Let’s say the characters pass through a town looking for a necromancer’s hide-out in an old crypt. The town has been harassed by goblins on and off, and the captain of the town watch is offering some coin to anyone who can follow them back to their lair. The characters ignore this and go on their merry way to the crypt. They then go back to where they came from, turn the necromancer in, and the adventure continues. Imagine the characters return to this town three months later…and you know it’s been three months in-game, you’ve been tracking! Would it be more interesting if:

  1. The captain of the guard was still offering coin to track the goblins
  2. The goblins moved on and nothing else changed
  3. Having no one to track the goblins means that the town is now under siege by a goblin warband
  4. Another group of adventurers took the job, defeated the warband, and are now as if not more famous than the party

I mean, it’s obvious that 3 and 4 are more interesting. That’s the key about having the world change. Not only is it more realistic, it immediately gives consequences to the actions of the player characters. It means that if you assemble fronts and threats that act on their own, like in a game of Apocalypse World, the characters will be paying more attention to what’s going on. You don’t technically need a calendar to do this, but it helps immensely…Once you’re tracking more than one or two settlements, having things change on an orderly basis makes for a more consistent world, a way more interesting one, and it keeps you the GM from forgetting about what’s going on.

It should also go without saying that if you need an organizational system for the passage of time, you definitely need an organizational system for the space in which the campaign takes place. There are two basic ways to do this, a hexcrawl or a pointcrawl. A hexcrawl involves subdividing the entire map into hexes, and using a coordinate system to track what’s in each hex. The reason maps typically use hexes instead of squares is simply that traveling to an adjacent hex always takes the same distance; if you were to use squares you’d need to know separate travel times for moving straight and moving diagonally. Anyways. A pointcrawl doesn’t involve a physically representative map, instead you chart out the logical exits from any given point of interest and where they lead. For a pointcrawl, you need to detail out every point as well as what sits between them, but you don’t need to worry about scale unless you want to. I find that out of the two systems I prefer hexcrawls; since the GM isn’t defining only the points of interest beforehand, it’s easier to get lost and improv a bit on a hexmap. Either way you go, you need to track all of these points of interest. Take a page out of the Burning Wheel playbook and choose a “Resources Cycle”; even if you aren’t using expenses rules like those from Burning Wheel, having a set amount of time after which you evaluate how the world changes gives a steady rhythm. Having a short cycle makes the game seem more frantic, while a long one tends to slow things down and make things a little less fragile. Whatever you do, make sure the resources cycle is longer than the amount of time that an adventure takes…having to check up on the entire world after every session can burn you out fast.

Even if you’ve already written the world or are using an existing world, these tips should still work just as well. The best sandbox is a world that seems alive, and that is up to the GM. In some ways, working with an existing setting is more difficult, because you’re pushing against the inertia of what’s on the page. Take the information in your sourcebook as a starting point, and immediately start changing things. Do it logically, of course…when it comes to sweeping changes, one always has to ask why it hasn’t happened before. The longer an institution has existed, the slower it fails…so a post-apocalyptic game could have the characters toppling three warlords before dinner, while a game in a millennia-old empire may have the collapse of the royal family happen over the entire campaign. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but they help establish a feel for the world. Of course when your players get involved, everything’s up in the air.

Players: Self-Motivation

If you are playing in a sandbox, you have to make things happen. This is the time to write a character with passions and dreams, and to play those out across a crazy world. More than anything, you as a player have to engage with the material that exists, and likely do so more proactively than you’re used to. Fact is, hooks and MacGuffins at the beginnings of campaigns are either incredibly obvious, or incredibly contrived. That’s ok, it makes it easy to get the characters acting like a party. In a sandbox, though, this is either not the case or it will not be the case after a brief introduction. If your GM is trying to make a world for exploring, they’ll likely be offering multiple hooks, or working with the group to help give more information. At some point, for the world to open up the GM can no longer use contrivances to guide you towards the next adventure or even keep the party together. As a player you will be doing some of that heavy lifting, mostly just by creating a character with strong motivations, a solid backstory, and solid ties to the other characters. And while it’s a good thing to do in any campaign, in a sandbox it’s especially important to signal to the GM what you want to be doing with your character. Do that through mechanical choices, do it through backstory, and do it through action in play. Hopefully, communication will occur. If you want to build a castle, make sure your GM knows that! This is the type of game where castles can absolutely be built. Having the players together decide some goals can also help move the campaign in the direction you want, as well as give the GM an idea about what’s important to see in the world.

You, like the GM, are going to need to track things. While it’s not your responsibility to keep the whole world humming back behind the screen, your character’s arc is going to be shaped by things changing. This works best if you notice things changing. Take notes while you’re playing…just brief stuff, what you remember about a town, important people (to you), maybe some of the events that took place. When you come back, these notes are going to help you see how things have changed. What if that shopkeeper you liked talking to is gone? Does your character care? If so, what do they do? These may seem like little details, but we need to return to the core conceit of a sandbox, namely that the GM isn’t writing a central plot. The players get a lot of power to shape the direction of the game, but if they don’t use that power, the game will grind to a halt.


Of course, that doesn’t mean let the game grind to a halt, GMs. In the words of Raymond Chandler, “when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” Sometimes, you need to get things up and going again, and it’s perfectly OK to go back to those random encounter charts and make something weird happen. After it does, though, listen to those players of yours. What do they think happened? And what sounds most interesting to have actually happened? One of the driving forces in a sandbox is called apophenia, the tendency for humans to see patterns in unrelated things. This may be the downfall of your open-ended sandbox, in a way, but it can still make for a great campaign. Even if you don’t provide a plot, your players are going to naturally relate things in the game to past events. And you should let them! Take the conflict that they’re seeing and weave it up into a plot for them to follow. Don’t worry about the pacing, just use the tools you already have and see if this conflict begins to fall one way or another. Chances are your players will jump on the chance to act.

In all reality, that’s all a sandbox is. Instead of writing out a plot you write out a world. From that world is going to come conflict and intrigue and yes, narrative. You’ll play through those plots, and then maybe stick around for something else. The world should never be safe, the threats keep getting bigger as the players do. Eventually, those characters will retire, glorious heroes. Now, you have a whole world. Do you run through a few seasons, see if some grand disaster strikes? Or do you pull out a new map, and start on one village on one hex again? That’s what sandbox gameplay offers, for all the work it takes. A world of endless possibility, where the players and the GM get to discover what happens together.

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