Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How to manage a sandbox campaign

JB over at B/X Blackrazor posted about the issues he had with sandbox campaign style. ChicageWiz takes issue and answers his post point by point.

JB issues are not new, there are numerous posts on various blogs and forums, like Enworld, that recount the failure of a sandbox campaign. All the issues that JB raises in W for Wandering Adventures I seen written by others.

So what going on? Part of the problem is how the term sandbox campaign arose. A bunch of us who helped with Necromancer Game's Wilderlands of High Fantasy adopted it to described what the massive boxed set was good for. A setting full of local details so your players always have something waiting for them over the next hill. It simple and easy to grasp and probably helped sell a lot of those expensive boxed sets.

And it was the worse possible way we could have chosen to describe what we all did with our versions of the Wilderlands. Because the reasonable conclusion that most referees came to after listening to us was: pick out a village/town, do some prep, players make characters, and have them show up at the gate.

And more often than not it failed than succeeded. Why there were more failures? Because this particular setup require that the player not only be very active in digging info, but also lucky that the particular info they dug up was interesting. If all they managed to find was the mustard farmers being menaced by kobolds and the group thinks that's lame, it can be hard for a campaign to recover from that.

Then there were the campaigns where people recounted that they had a great time. Describing how they felt their choices really made a difference in the fortunes of their characters.

I thought for a while that some of it was about the sheer size of the Wilderlands Boxed set. So I created, with Joseph Goodman, the Points of Light series of settings. And later my How to make a Fantasy Sandbox series of posts. For 2008 and most of 2009 I wrote settings, gave my advice and wondered why the failures kept appearing. Then it hit me what is not being explained.

The heart of the sandbox campaign is the feeling that that for good or ill that it is the player's choices that control the fortunes of their character. The triumph is all the more sweeter as the player knows not only he overcame the challenge but also made it happen in the first place.

I noticed that most of the favorable posts described the middle or end game portion of the sandbox campaign. The players recounting the plots he brewed up, the complication he overcame, and describing how it came about what he choose or didn't choose. That when it hit me.

The successful sandbox campaign reached a point where the players have enough knowledge about the setting to where they feel they can make reasonable choices. The ones that failed where because the players felt they were just throwing darts randomly onto the hex map and going to that point. It seemed hit or miss to whether a sandbox campaign got that point where the players had enough knowledge to make reasonable choices.

Also I realized that for me, I haven't run for a long time the campaign where the player just showed up somewhere and start out by looking at the tavern want ads. Very early on I was influenced by a section in the original Harn Folio about the pre-game. This was a page of advice, with tables, where N. Robin Crossby tells you to sit down with the players, figure out where they came from (rolled on the charts), who their family are (more charts), and then run a little one on one session where the two of you figure how the character came to be an adventurer.

It all came together for me and I realize that the main reason these campaigns failed is that players didn't have context. And without context you can't make meaningful choices, that all you do is take a dart and let it land on the hex map. And hope that something interesting comes up.

So the key to fixing this issue is to give the players context right from the beginning of the game. The best way to do that is to take N. Robin Crossby's advice and run a one on one pre-game with each player in the campaign where the two of you work out together the character's background. Then when the campaign starts and they look at what beyond the gate of Castle Blackmarsh they have an idea of what going on, and something interesting things to do.

I will get into details about the pre-game in the next post. Also note that this is not the only issue that JB and other referees have with the Sandbox Campaign. I will also be talking about the referee's bag of stuff and how that makes management of a sandbox campaign considerably easier. Finally how to make your setting a world in motion.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Rob.

The Bane said...

Well as a multi-failure sandbox-want-to-be-GM, who has finally figured this out, well said. A little late for me, but I hope others who are having problems running one; read and head. It is all about context, or what I think of as 'skin in the fight'. Without it, Players don't thrive. It has to be 'our' setting/adventure, not just mine.

The work is still there, just shared IMHO.

Best and as always, great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to reading this whole series.

Akhier the Dragon Hearted said...

A thing I notice with most of the problems that come of sandbox games is that people act like its a desert instead of a sandbox. No matter how you slice it a sandbox has walls and to succeed in using one you have to respect that or you end up going to far and end up outside of the sandbox.

Alex Schroeder said...

I'll need to look at this as well, because while I discovered sandbox play to be my favorite style, I also intensely dislike front-loading characters with info (except rolling on the B/X Headgear table, perhaps, or my Character Generation Shortcuts table) and the one time a GM asked me for a one on one session that basically sent me into a two week mental freeze. I just could not imagine an hour or two one on one before the game starts. I'm there for the table full of RPG nerds talking and laughing—and talking an hour about my character seemed like homework in comparison.

I quit that campaign before it started for other reasons, but friends tell me the one on one session was not awkward. I guess this is a very personal dislike of mine. But the fact remains that I feel my sandbox campaigns (one group in the Lenap region and two groups in the Sea of Five Winds region) work without providing my players with this sort of one on one character front-loading context.

I think the reason is that I start the campaign with a mission for the party. The sandbox nature then allows the players to do it, reject it, rebel against it, subvert it, etc. And if they don't, well there will be another mission until they start pursuing their own goals. I just need to avoid the time pressure of impending doom that pulls players onto rails even if they'd prefer not to.

Seth said...

Wow would I have loved to have this article 6 months ago.

One of my DMs is actually trying to retcon a little of this work into the game (which is to say, have us do some more of it now, even though the game has started, with the hopes it'll help our immersion moving forward).

However, for the games I'm running I wonder if it's too late to hook the players in this way...both because the game has already started and attitudes may be set, and because stopping to do this kind of close work might feel like putting the game on hold.

Gothridge Manor said...

Rob, great blog. I am a huge advocate for doing pre campaign adventures with players to let them get used to the world, their character and the interactions within the world. The players 'value' their character more when they've developed a background and RPed a portion of it.

Keith Sloan said...

I don't think there is any right ways or wrong ways to approach this, but there are probably better/worse ways. I enjoy the discussions immensely in figuring out my own approach!

DHBoggs said...

Rob, when you are confident you have all the bases covered that you want to cover, I think you should work your posts into a pdf for running the Sandbox Campaign. I think it would be a very useful work to have.

Personally, I'm idifferent to the pregame idea I mean, I think its fine but not especially necessary. Some of my players have crafted very detailed backgrounds, others hardly any. The detailed backgrounds do help in play, but not having it doesn't spoil the others fun.
What I think is most important is presenting the players with choices. As a player, I never liked fumbling around "in the dark" without any hints of things to come from the DM. Its much better if the DM actively finds ways to present the party with several rumors, plot hooks, diversions and so forth so the players are always making choices about what to do rather than mechanically going from one thing to the next or aimlessly pumping NPC after NPC for some nugget of opportunity.

Chaz said...

Good take. When I do a hex-crawl, I like to hand-wave a little bit, and start the characters with a clear goal and or even at the dungeon door. Hopefully the players become invested in the setting 'organically' as the adventure progresses. If not, just keep feeding them hooks. If they hit the tavern (or seem bored) skip the rumor table and just give them three or four immediate, cool sounding things to investigate. If you still can't get the players on board, then sandboxes may not be appropriate for that group.