Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Some structure for your Sandbox campaign

In this post at the Old Guy's RPG Blog Chgowiz talks about a difficult session he had as a DM. One comment caught my eye

1. Make some defined missions available. Not everyone wants to go out and explore and just figure out the world on their own. The thing about my sandbox is that while I made this wide open dynamic world that keeps moving on, the players don't feel connected. So I will give them direct opportunities to get connected.
For the past several years I participated in several forums discussions on Sandbox campaigns. One point that keeps coming up is the idea that players can pick their own direction. All too often I see sandbox proponents or novices take this to an extreme. Basically saying that the campaign is devoid of any type of plot, story and the referee is there just to adjudicate what the players do.

Which is a recipe for having a bunch of a confused players and a referee not having fun.

I call what I write for my campaign plot. Unlike a story it is a plan comprised mostly of events that happen in the future. The initial plot is written as if the PCs did not exist and unfolds what happens in your setting for the next year or two. The crucial difference between what I do and what "narrative" RPGs do is that after every session I modify my plot to account for what the players did (or not do). Sometimes everything changes and the future is going down a completely different path than I originally planned. It is immensely fun for me when that happens. Remember all the NPCs (unless dead) and all the locales (unless destroyed) are still available for me to use. The context is completely different now that the PC have acted.

As for helping out the PCs with a sandbox campaign you have to remember that they are part of a living breathing world. Like our on live their characters will have family, friends, allies, and enemies. This what gives the players a context in which to make their initial decision. As the campaign progresses often it will take a life of it's own as the consequences of the consequences start propelling the game forward.

Especially for older edition D&D the PC's background are often useful when a character dies. One of the original PC's allies, family, or friends can be selected as the new character for the player. While losing a character always sucks in this case some measure of progress and continuity can be retained.

Most milieus have societies with religions, nobles, and other organizations. Characters that are members these have a instant source of allies, resources and most importantly adventures. There often a price attached in terms of loyalty and/or duty. But for truly interested players these details easily merge in their character's backgrounds.

The key thing is that none of this imposed by the referee. You give the players some choices, and a little guidance and help them to fill in the blanks in their background before playing. The result will be an initial starting point from which they can start wandering the setting.


Rick said...

nice post. after a 10-yr hiatus as a ref, I made the mistake about sandboxing w/out plot in the 9th session of my new campaign. completely reactive DMing may work for certain very well-disciplined and creative parties, but for most (and certainly mine), it's best to throw them one or two fairly well-defined leads, and then modify per their interests and deeds. Lesson learned the hard way!

Unknown said...

I found the same thing as Rick. I think there's a reason things evolved away from the plotless/pointless sandbox style of gaming for most groups. :)

Dale said...

I've found that with my groups the sandbox play helps determine which defined plot will be run with next. I've been just as bored as a player with a series of defined adventures that had little or no connection.

Methuslah said...

It's definately key to make sure that there is enough material present as well; I recently played in a sandbox game which ran out of steam very quickly because the DM had only highlighted one plot, and when that came to a conclusion the party ended up directionless in exactly the manner in which you describe.

Badmike said...

Good post. I think the failure of the sandbox setting in most cases is while we think players want a wide open style, when a lot of them really don't mind adventure hooks. A meandering, directionless campaign leads to a directionless, meandering bunch of characters unless you have one or two exceptional players in the group.

Gothridge Manor said...

Great point Rob. I always found it helpful to have storylines going on with or without players' involvement. It helps give the world some depth. Adventuring in a stable kingdom is much different from adventuring with a savage civil war tearing the land apart.

Zzarchov said...

I always wonder where people got the idea that sandbox meant 'stagnant', having monsters wait around for the players to come by and kill them.

I always sell a sandbox game as do whatever you want in a setting. I use the example of WWII.

If the setting is Algeria in 1939 you don't have to get involved in WWII, you could become smugglers, mobsters or explorers of the jungles of Africa. But WWII is going on either way, and it will begin and more importantly end regardless.

Lord Kilgore said...

Yes Yes Yes.

Open sandbox. Various background plots/motivations that can be changed by PC actions. Lots of hooks (rumors, treasure maps, random damsel in distress, etc.)

Keaggan said...

Because we have a generation that has grown up on only passive entertainment. Gone are the days of children develpdeve strong imaginations and a healthy sense of curiosity.