16 September 2017

Sandbox Gaming

I recently read an article about Sandbox Gaming. In case you're not familiar with that term, it comes from video game designs, in which players are given free reign to go where they want and do what they please. This is in contrast to the linear structure of most early video games.

At first glance, you might think that traditional tabletop roleplaying games are a perfect example of sandbox gaming. Whereas a computer game only has so many possible actions programmed into it, so many objectives for players to try to attain, in tabletop RPGs, players can do whatever they want. They don't need the game to have been preprogrammed to allow them to go to certain places or offer them certain options. They have a GM who can improvise to accommodate anything the may think to do. They don't need to wait for a programmer to make something available; the GM can do it for them on the fly.

However, the article in question isn't about sandbox games in that sense. Instead, the author describes whether or not the players are given objectives, or must decide on objectives for themselves. In other words, does the GM tell them, 'You have been hired by the ruler of the Shallukar Empire to find and deliver to her the Canopic Chest of Solitude,' or does the GM say, 'You are standing in the main plaza of the capital of the Shallukar Empire. What do you do?'
Are there advantages to a sandbox approach? Of course. Some players like being given the freedom to go where they wish and do as they want. It can be exciting to decide for oneself what one's story will be. You may decide to become a mercenary, seeking out someone willing to pay you to fight on their behalf. You may go in search of oppression, finding people in need of liberation. You might choose to conquer a kingdom and become rulers in your own right.

Why You Should Avoid a Sandbox Game

There are, however, two distinct problems (or, at least, potential problems) with this approach. The first is if you find yourself playing with gamers who aren't necessarily that capable of deciding for themselves what they want to do. There are, after all, plenty of people in the world who aren't very creative. If you say to them, 'You can do absolutely anything you want,' they might look at you and say, 'What do you think I should do? Where should I go? What would be the right thing for me to do?' And so forth.

As a corrollary to this idea is the fact that many gamers (especially those of the Butt Kicker and Power Gamer types, but this is not a universal truth) don't necessarily want to do anything but kill monsters and collect treasure. Storytellers and Method Actors tend to be better at this sort of arrangement, but even they may need some direction to get the story started.

The second problem is a psychological phenomenon which is referenced in the sandbox gaming article above. The more choices a person has available to them, the harder they find it to decide between them. Often, people faced with a plethora of available options will regret whatever decision they end up making. If you decide to have the tuna sandwich instead of the BLT, you may feel that you would have enjoyed the BLT more. This issue is even fairly well documented in board games, where it is known as 'analysis paralysis.' The player is so overwhelmed with possible options that they cannot make a decision.

How to Avoid Sandbox Games

To counteract this, it's always best to give the players a goal. Provide them with an objective to serve as a framework on which they can base their adventures. Of course, you don't want to deny your players any control over the game at all; that spoils the fun and is contrary to the purpose of a roleplaying game anyway. As the sandbox article states, ' sandboxes and railroads fall on ends of a spectrum.' In a railroad game, the players have no choices at all. The GM has decided where you will go and what you will do.

It's always best to strike a balance between these two options. Give the players an objective, but then allow them to go about achieving that objective in whatever manner suits them. In my experience as a GM, I usually go with one of two options: the Reactive Campaign or the Set-Piece Design.

In the Reactive Campaign (which, because of the types of games I normally tend to run, is usually better suited for the stories I tell), I present the players with the story hook. Then I sit back and watch to see where they go with it. I react to their decisions (thus, the name 'Reactive Campaign'), adjusting the actions of the adversaries (and the other NPCs as necessary) to reflect the influence the PCs have on the world. So, for example, if the players choose to put up fliers around town asking for information on the villains, including a photograph they've managed to acquire, the antagonists may kill the person in the photo and leave his body in a public place to let the PCs know that they won't be able to find them so easily.

The Set-Piece Design involves the creation of several noteworthy stand-out scenes with a general plan of how to get from one to the next. You might decide you want to have the players experience a thrilling martial arts battle on top of the Eiffel Tower, a high speed chase on power boats, a shootout between characters flying on two different zeppelins, and a scene in which they rescue a prisoner being held by a group of Lovecraftian cultists. The normal technique is to ensure that you know how they'll get from one scene to the next if they succeed in the first scene, and how they'll get to the next scene if they fail in the first. So you may choose to arrange it like so:

Scene 1: Rescue Prisoner from Cultists
Success: As the party flees the cultists, they find a powerboat and attempt to escape in it. Failure: The PCs are imprisoned along with the prisoner they were trying to rescue. He helps them escape and the group flees to the river, where they find a powerboat
Scene 2: Speedboat chase
Success: The PCs lose the pursuers, and the rescued prisoner tells them that the cult leader is flying via zeppelin to Athens. The group commandeers another zeppelin and initiates a gunfight through the windows. Failure: The PCs are recaptured, and taken aboard a second zeppelin to follow the first, but manage to escape and take control of the zeppelin in which they were being transported.
Scene 3: Zeppelin Shoutout
Success: The enemy zeppelin is destroyed, but the cult leader manages to escape with a parachute. The PCs realise he's going to land on the Eiffel Tower. Failure: The PCs' zeppelin is shot down, and they must use parachutes to escape alive. The cult leader is waiting for them when they land atop the Eiffel Tower.
Scene 4: Martial Arts atop the Eiffel Tower
This arrangement is closer to the railroad end of the spectrum, in that the GM has determined certain events which will happen regardless of the player's actions. But the actions of the players still affect the story in significant ways. Aside from determining how the players get from one scene to the next, they also have a major influence on the ease of transition between those scenes. And if the players come up with a different course of action than ones the GM had considered, a competent GM can still find a way to allow those players to take a different action and still arrive at the next scene in an appropriate manner.

Both of these approaches serve as a compromise between the railroad game and the sandbox game, giving the players direction but allowing them a great deal of choice in what to do with the direction given them.

A Final Thought on Sandbox Games

In the sandbox article referenced at the beginning of this entry, the author states: Original Dungeons & Dragons... included a goal: Take treasure from dungeons and the wilderness. By rule, characters who won treasure gained experience and power. They won D&D. 

It almost sounds as though the author is stating that D&D was, by its very nature, a railroad game. Clearly, that's not his intent. But it is true that it was not a sandbox game. The players always had an objective, even if it was a very loosely defined one. However, as I'm sure readers of this blog will realise, there are a lot more options for objectives. Several of them were mentioned previously: free oppressed people; conquer a kingdom; find work as a mercenary. Those are just a few of the more obvious examples. Clever gamers can think of many more.

This does, of course, fall in with one of my biggest problems with D&D: that it rewards the killing of monsters and the collecting of treasure above all other goals. Sure, some people use house rules to award XP for other acts, but the core game at least certainly railroads players into the 'open door, insert sword, collect treasure' mentality of gaming.

Other games, such as the original World of Darkness games, award experience for telling entertaining stories, playing in character, and character growth and development. Of course, that's a different type of railroading. Perhaps one of the most accessible and rewarding experience systems is that from FATE: you gain character development rewards any time you reach a milestone. Simply getting to that point is cause for reward.

Anyway, I think that's quite enough on that topic. I'll see you back here next time, and until then, remember to

Game on!

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