No Man’s Sky and Sandbox RPGs

On September 23rd, Hello Games released the Origins update to No Man’s Sky, the latest in roughly a dozen major content updates to the game since it was originally released about four years ago. These content updates have turned No Man’s Sky from an overhyped mess into possibly one of the most celebrated sandbox exploration games available in the digital space. No Man’s Sky is not worth talking about on this tabletop-focused site because of its crossover potential, but rather because of how both its design and post-hoc development have laid it bare in a system sense. No Man’s Sky has three interesting things going for it as a subject: First we saw it fail, then we saw it succeed, and it happens to do both of those things to a mode of gameplay commonly attempted in the tabletop space: the sandbox game.

The premise of No Man’s Sky is relatively straightforward: you wake up on a foreign planet with a broken ship and no memory of how you got there, only some directives to tell you how to return to space (stop me if a GM has ever tried this sort of campaign start on you). Once your ship is repaired (a quest sequence which also serves as a tutorial), you are given some direction towards either the center of the galaxy or a mysterious entity called Atlas, but all in all a relatively minimal amount of guidance and large amount of freedom. This starting point is very similar to the way many sandbox tabletop games start, and often leads to a similar endpoint if either game doesn’t hold players’ attention.

The Sandbox Mode of Play

The idea of a sandbox is straightforward: Provide the players of the game with a map and some basic ideas of what they can do in that space, and then let them do whatever they want with the tools given. In the digital realm there have been sandboxes of a sort for years; most early Maxis games like SimCity fell into this category by virtue of giving the player an empty space and a specified set of tools. In tabletop games the notion of a sandbox is older than D&D itself, being more aligned with the notion of paracosmic writing which has been around for centuries and as a participatory artform for at least decades (a great reference for this is Playing at the World). While the hexcrawl cemented the notion of a sandbox into RPG design discourse at a very early point in the hobby’s history, larger, designer-driven settings became the norm in the late 90s as both an outgrowth of and response to the metaplot-heavy book lines of the World of Darkness. Both Deadlands and Legend of the Five Rings serve as solid examples of this late-90s RPG zeitgeist; the time period also featured the return of Harnmaster ten years after the first edition and 13 years after the Harn setting was originally released.

While the idea of big settings to let the players run wild in was popular at the time, there were few mechanical innovations to actually support that mode of play. For designers this wasn’t really an issue, if anything it helped build the large supplement libraries for those games. As the 90s turned into the 2000s, there were two large problems that made this business model significantly less sustainable. First, the d20 boom/bust put a lot of pressure on companies trying to market big game lines; many companies went out of business or changed their strategy. Second, the US had not one but two recessions that decade; by 2010 building a business model around selling not one, not two, but in excess of half a dozen hardbound rulebooks and supplements looked a little fanciful. Harnmaster’s third and final edition came out in 2003, and Deadlands became part of the Savage Worlds umbrella when Reloaded was released in 2006. Only Legend of the Five Rings was still standing with a Fourth Edition in 2010, releasing half as many supplements as the book’s first edition and serving as the last version of the game released by the original designer.

In 2011, two major things happened for sandbox gaming. First, Kevin Crawford released Stars Without Number. While the OSR had existed in some form or another for about a decade prior to this release, Stars Without Number was able to capture a lot of attention and fans by maintaining the accessibility of an old-school ruleset without being as inside-baseball as the OSR was at the time (and still is depending on who you ask). In addition to that, the game’s random sector generation and faction turn rules provided a wealth of actual mechanical support to writing and adjudicating a space sandbox on the fly, something that old games driven by setting supplements never really supported. 2011 also saw the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While neither the best nor the most ambitious of the Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim cemented the notion of ‘open-world’ into the heads of millions of people. Skyrim would not only directly inspire No Man’s Sky, it would change the face of gaming so irreversibly that here in 2020 no one bats an eye at ‘open-world racing game’ or ‘open-world sports game’. On the tabletop side of the world, Skyrim would help thousands of people envision a version of sandbox play that could literally never happen at a gaming table. In case it isn’t clear, Skyrim, like No Man’s Sky, is not a tabletop game.

No Man’s Sky is Not a Tabletop Game

No Man’s Sky is obviously a video game, but it’s not even a video game that could have a comparable experience at the tabletop because it’s not offering things to its players that are possible to replicate at a tabletop. Although this is somewhat reductive, No Man’s Sky has as many fans as it does because it is tactile and pretty, and more pretty than tactile. What No Man’s Sky offers its players is a simulacrum of flying through a galaxy and seeing weird planets; that’s why an update whose selling point is doubling the outcome bandwidth of the game’s procedural generation is such a big deal. More importantly, though, pretty and tactile are things that tabletop RPGs do not do, at least in that way. There are things that video games do well, and things that tabletop games do well. While what they can do in an absolute sense overlaps, what they do best does not (and if you think this means I don’t think highly of most RPG video games…you’re right). No Man’s Sky provides the feeling of flying a spaceship and the visuals of running around crazy alien worlds with walls of fire for weather and bizarre six-legged rhinos with wings that we can feed and ride if we train them. A good tabletop game provides a catalyst to tell stories and engage with situations strategically, and does so emergently using the input of 2-8 brains in ways computers simply cannot replicate. This means that while both a video game and a role-playing game can build us a sandbox, what they must place in that sandbox to keep us occupied is completely different.

It may sound reductive to say that No Man’s Sky is good at being pretty, but think about it. When you consider how many planets there are and how small the variations between them can be, having them be interesting to look at is important. Like all sandboxes, the external plot or plot-adjacent elements which drive your decision making are minimal, so there needs to be something else to make you want to explore. While the game has several nice and long acquisition-upgrade-acquisition gameplay loops, they only hold your attention if there’s something engaging in the underlying activity. There is a reason that, even after releasing several updates which added entirely new gameplay loops, Hello Games still chose to make the most recent one almost entirely about making the planets prettier and more diverse.

This is where we start shifting into the elements of the game that are applicable to thinking about RPG sandboxes, and RPGs in general. A sandbox RPG is about exploration and it is about place, but it cannot be about place in the same way a video game like No Man’s Sky is. Your descriptions, no matter how good they are, will not motivate your players to wander around one of your fictional planets and hope to catch an alien sunrise.

An alien sunrise.

Lessons to be Learned

So sandboxes at the tabletop have grown and changed from hexcrawls to setting bibles to newer games with setting-building mechanics. Sandboxes in the digital realm have changed from RPG emulators and simulation tools to massive open worlds and open-ended gameplay loops. What do games like No Man’s Sky teach us about running tabletop sandboxes?

The first thing to remember is why No Man’s Sky was initially panned. The original version of the game had one basic collection-crafting gameplay loop and a lot of places to fly. This was not enough to make the game interesting. Similarly, your game can have hundreds of square miles of landmass and six different empires and twelve biomes but your players won’t care unless they can do something. While hexcrawls can at some level be interesting with only the travel mechanics behind them, a good hexcrawl still has every hex keyed. No Man’s Sky missed the mark on this by providing however many million planets and not giving players interesting things to do either while there or to get there, and they fixed the issue with things to do long before they tried to improve their location generation. Focus on quality over quantity; never forget that Skyrim fits inside one standard D&D hex.

The second thing to remember is that No Man’s Sky is fundamentally a pretty game. While being a pretty game is not sufficient in and of itself, it is one of the things that makes No Man’s Sky compelling. The ability you have to make your sandbox compelling is not couched in the capabilities of a rendering engine, but in some ways your tools can be a lot more powerful. While you can’t imitate the feeling of walking on a foreign planet, you can make all of your NPCs much more interesting than those in No Man’s Sky (sorry fans, it’s true). You can allow and adjudicate interactions between the PCs and your world that are remarkably difficult for computers to manage. Instead of trying to emulate the sorts of things that a computer is better at than a human brain, focus on the things that a human brain does better than a computer.

Let your players make a mark. Ship customization and base building are lauded parts of No Man’s Sky, and it’s as much because of the drive to create something as it is the underlying gameplay loops which support these activities. In a tabletop RPG you have significantly more and better opportunities to let your players change the world they’re exploring and residing in. If there’s one thing you can do to pull them in and keep them engaged, this is it.

Finally, consider the benefits of random generation. No Man’s Sky is built on procedural generation, and while that makes certain aspects of the game relatively repetitive it also allows for a significant amount of content to be made without undue developer effort. Use your random generators, whether they be random tables or more complex tools you can find online. Random generators help make your prep more efficient and also lead your game places it might not have otherwise gone. At the same time, remember that arguably the most interesting part of No Man’s Sky is the handbuilt core narrative. Take the time to write the central elements of your game yourself.

The underlying gameplay loop of a sandbox RPG is the same whether it exists in the digital or tabletop realms. As a result, the mistakes made by designers in both areas can often be similar, and that means the opportunities to learn from those mistakes can cross over. What makes No Man’s Sky an interesting example is that its development happened largely in front of the public after its underwhelming launch. No Man’s Sky is still a video game, and as such there are things you get from playing it that you don’t necessarily get from a tabletop RPG. The opposite is also true, though, and the broad design changes convey lessons that are broadly applicable. No matter how big your map, you need to give your players motivations and things to do. Random generation can be immensely powerful, but it also has limitations. And of course, nothing will be more compelling to your players than the things you write specifically for them, except maybe the things they do and create specifically for themselves. I’ve had a great time flying around the galaxy of No Man’s Sky, but when my players want to come to the table and explore a world that they can make their mark on, I’ll be ready.

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