Thursday, June 14, 2012

How Big is Your Sandbox? aka Player Decision Leeway

I started a discussion last night on G+, where I simply asked the question "how big is your sandbox?" I also clarified that I wasn't referring to geography.
Some great responses were posted, but no one really mined the vein I was thinking, because I wasn't very specific.

How much leeway or freedom do your players have in the sandbox?

I have recently decided to think of sandboxes as varying in size. Here is a rough breakdown:

  • Infinite breadth of options
    • In this type of sandbox, players are given a literal "anything goes" card. The DM either has invested a ton of time in preparation, or is (like me) relying on his ability to build on the fly.
    • Players are not given any scenario or issue to consider. They are merely placed in a world, given descriptions of that world, and asked "What do you do?"
    • There is no starting point or ending point for adventures in this type of world.
  • Limited breadth of options
    • While the DM may have a world planned (or created on the fly) that can accommodate the "infinite options" type of game, for some reason he or she has chosen to limit the PCs in some way.
    • Examples of this include my recent Savage SciFi game-- I created a world, gave the PCs vast input in its creation, but set up a specific starting scenario. No goals were laid out by me, but there were a few more obvious possible outcomes of the initial scenario. Because I gave the players full freedom at every turn, though, they surprised me at every game session.
    • There is a definite starting point for adventures in this world, which naturally precludes some options, but can help set up a particular style of adventure. No end point is laid out.
  • Railroad with options
    • I think of this as analogous to most RPG video games, like Final Fantasy. While there is freedom to explore the world, level up, pursue side quests, the DM still has a definite "win scenario" in mind (or maybe two or three scenarios.)
    • I hesitate to use the term railroad for this type because it is still not a set in stone type of plot. It is probably much more flexible than the stereotypical railroad.
    • You can think of this type of sandbox as having a line laid in it, showing a start AND end point.
  • Railroad (aka Not a Sandbox)
    • Do I really need to define this one?


  1. In my current campaign, it is the first, though I have a quest chain (not strictly ordered) which the PCs can pursue if they want. So far the players have stuck to the quests, which is making it feel a bit like a crutch. I kind of wish they would go off and pursue their own goals too (and yes, I have suggested that directly to the players). But they like quests.

    I blame video games.

  2. I think I'd use the metaphor of a Highway instead of "Railroad With Options": A railroad gets you from A to B and all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride (Cutscene cutscene cutscene cutscene). The virtue of a highway is that while it's fast and direct, there are hundreds of little exits and detours along the way, most of them going perpendicular to the main road. And even if you go 30 miles off, you can still get back on the main highway.

    1. Yes, that's a much better way of expressing it.
      I'm going to use that analogy more often.

  3. I said I would answer, so here it is:

    I don't know what I do! I just sit there and do the Irish accent and then there is talking and someone yells ROLL INITIATIVE.

    Hope that helps!

    (ps I know that it does not. This is what makes the previous comment a joke)

  4. Ian, this is a great discussion topic and also big on my mind as I develop and run games in my own sandbox.

    I think it's contextual -- no matter how big of an "infinite breadth" sandbox you create, the game system used (ie, how you "gameify" the activity of interacting with the sandbox) and also the basic setup of the world will imply specific activities. Therefore, I think "infinite" vs "limited" isn't quite the scale of granularity I would define. It would be more "broad" vs. "focused". To some degree ANY game sandbox world must be focused in this manner -- because you have to decide what's important to prepare and what's not. For example, an oldschool D&D hexcrawl/dungeon sandbox is one which I would consider highly focused -- you're exploring the wilderness, interacting with towns, looting dungeons, encountering creatures and NPCs. ACKS takes that focus and shifts it as a course of gaining levels throughout the game. IE, later on you are conquering kingdoms and then ruling them.

    The term "sandbox" itself I think embodies the first idea you present here, one of "infinite options". You want to create player agency by sticking them in a world and seeing what they want to do while they are there.

    I would argue that a "railroad" type sandbox -- that is, the JRPG model of a giant sandbox world to explore -- but really you're just trying to trigger the next item in a series of story events, is a hybrid sandbox/railroad model -- rather than a type of sandbox. Those games incorporate both play styles.

  5. As much as I prefer to offer infinite breadth of options, I've found, particularly if I'm introducing new players to the game that I need something more structured. So I'll say Option 2.

    Whenever I start my next Flashing Blades game I'll go full sandbox: Your character is in Paris or Rome. You have a few coins in your purse and big dreams. You need food, lodging, and income. What do you do?

    However, I'll note that the convention games I run, while not plotted per se (and so not, strictly speaking, "railroady") are much more focused with almost no options. Multiple routes to the same destination are available but there will be a mission, an objective, etc. when I'm prepping to provide a good convention experience.

    1. I find that infinite breadth of options is a blast to play and run... but for me to run that I need more time to prepare. I can do more off the cuff if the framework is a bit narrower.

      Either way is fun, though, as long as it's what everyone at the table (or on the Hangout) wants.
      The only thing I just cannot run at all is a straight up railroad.

    2. I have run railroad games: lots of the modules from the 2e AD&D era, lots of White Wolf; I've played in too many railroad games, too.

      But I don't enjoy them anymore, so I avoid them.