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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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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