Seven Sandbox Essentials
By : Reynard
Posted 12th September 2008 at 05:03 AM by Reynard
The « sandbox » setting, in which players are not only allowed but encouraged to make their own fun by exploring and interacting with the setting, is, in my opinion, a fundamental requirement for satisfying, rewarding D&D play. Adventures and setting that force players along certain paths — or worse, away from certain paths — cannot hold a candle to sandbox play. No DM’s or designers’ story has a hope against the story that the players themselves create through their actions and the consequences of those actions (with a healthy dose of DM input and dice-based uncertainty, to boot).
Here are seven essential elements for a good « sandbox » setting.
- Big, but not Too Big: A sandbox setting should cover a relatively large geographic area, with room for varied terrain and environments, as well as multiple political entities. However, one of the things that make a sandbox game so enjoyable is the players” ability to engage it as a whole, to see all four corners and to uncover its nuances and secrets. Too big a sandbox makes each part indistinct — the DM likely doesn’t have time to flesh out every aspect of a whole world ; nor do players likely have time, or even interest, to visit it all. By limiting the scope of the setting and containing it geographically, the DM has the opportunity to delve into the whole setting and so do the players. Something on the order of the British Isles works well, size and scope wise.
- Lots to Do, Lots to See: As stated above, a sandbox needs to be diverse in regards to where the players can go and what they can do when they get there. It isn’t enough to litter the place with 100 dungeons. Rather, there should be a handful of dungeons, a handful of towns, a handful of active fortresses, a handful of mythic locations, etc… This applies to political, religious and mercantile groups, as well. A monolithic nation that covers the whole setting won’t do. At the very least, there should by various states or provinces with different cultures and conflicting interests. Even better, numerous small nations or city states work well. In addition, even if the DM chooses to have a dominant religious entity, schisms and sects within the church, with their own temples and own interpretations of scripture are necessary. Players should want to explore the setting to see what is around the next bend or over the next hill.
- A Life of its Own: The setting should « live » like a real place. The diverse locations and groups discussed above should interact and those interactions should be both internally consistent and produce movement within the setting. Groups that are opposed might be moving ever toward open conflict. The heir to a city state might try and hasten along his inheritance. A lowly peddler might slowly climb to the top of the mercantile heap. A dark cult might be waiting for a soon approaching celestial event to unleash their dark master on the setting. It isn’t that the setting ignores the players and their characters” actions. Rather, there’s something of a timeline or assumed evolution to the setting that the players can interact with and disrupt. Knowing what would happen in a given situation without the involvement of the players allows the DM to better interpret what happens when they do get involved, as well as allowing the DM a plan if the PCs don’t bother with a particular setting element or subplot.
- No Scaling: The sandbox should not scale to the level of the PCs. If there’s a « 12th level » monster in the Darkenwood when the game begins, that monster remains there — barring its involvement in the above — whether the players choose to go to the Darkenwood at 2nd level or 20th (or both). A scaling setting breaks verisimilitude and suggests to the players that whatever growth they have is irrelevant. Instead, the setting should include a wide array of « levels » of adventure locales, NPCs and monsters, disrupted throughout the setting in a plausible and internally consistent manner. This is not to say that the setting can’t include « zones” that are geared toward certain levels of play, but too much of this inhibits the open nature of the sandbox. Mix it up instead. But make sure that there aren’t too many « invisible » major threats. Powerful creatures and characters produce legends and rumors and even inaccurate information will give players a glimpse into what lies ahead, allowing them the opportunity to make a meaningful choice as to where to go and what to do.
- Wandering Monster Tables and Random Encounters: One of the key concepts of the sandbox is that players are free to go where they will, do what they wish and engage the setting through their characters without being pulled or prodded into the DM’s « story ». This requires a lot of work on the part of the DM, creating many adventure sites, placed encounters, NPCs and organizations before play even begins. But even with all the work done, there’s still a good chance the players will go somewhere the DM hasn’t thought too much about or had a chance to flesh out. This is where the value of random encounter charts comes in. With such tables, built specifically for the setting and informed by the detail the DM has done, can provide fun for everyone even during those sessions where the players simply strike out down the road. These random encounters shouldn’t simply be a collection of monsters listed by terrain type. Instead, the charts should include elements of the setting, little glimpses into the setting. What tribe are those orcs from ? Who are the bandits ? Where is the merchant caravan heading. By making specific encounter charts for the setting, the DM ensures that more of the work he has put into the setting sees use. By exposure, players are given hooks to choose for themselves to investigate and engage aspects of the setting.
- New Blood: Characters die. They retire. Players get bored or want a break from the usual. Inevitably, a player is going to need a new character, or a new player will join the group. It may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked : the setting must allow for the introduction of new heroes (i.e. PCs) without breaking plausibility. As such settings that are mostly wilderness or wastelands with few settlements don’t work as well as those that provide a diverse selection of races and classes within the population. As a related aspect, this means the setting must be adventurer friendly and reasonably wide ranging in regards to which races and classes are available. While it is okay for the DM to establish some limitations to better suit the genre or setting he has in mind, too many restrictions hampers the introduction of new characters and should be avoided.
- Meaningful Choices and Meaningful Consequences: Most important of all, the actions of the players should have direct, noticeable impact on the setting, at least insofar as the PCs degree of influence. Information should be plentiful enough to allow the players to choose which actions they will take, and those actions must have consequences. Who the players ally with, and with whom they make enemies ; what meta-setting secrets they uncover, and which they bury ; those monsters they kill and those that they merely enrage : these all should change the setting to some degree or another. If the players feel their adventures and explorations within the sandbox have a real impact, they will be both more inclined to engage the setting, and more thoughtful of the consequences of their actions.
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