View Full Version : What would you look for in a Sandbox game?

2007-12-08, 04:36 PM
I'm interested in doing a PbP sandbox game, because the concept has always fascinated me. But before I even try I'm going to ask the all important question:
What would you look for in a sandbox game?
By that I mean what features would appeal to you as a player. For example, a high level of detail on where you are initially.
Let's say that you could either be solo or in a group with some reason to work together. Being a sandbox game you could theoretically leave a group if you wanted.

2007-12-08, 04:44 PM
Could you define 'Sandbox game'? :smallconfused:
It sounds fun, but I'm not sure what you exactly mean...

2007-12-08, 04:54 PM
Sandbox games are where the players can decide where to go and what to do without beginning with 'you were all hired by X'.
Like the beginings of Morrowind and Oblivion, where after the tutorial they just leave you to make your own way.

2007-12-08, 04:58 PM
Yes, I know, but where's the limit? Do they still have some sort of goal, or just nothing at all?

2007-12-08, 05:04 PM
That's entirely up to the player. Does their character have a goal? Do his goals change and evolve or will he be content once he acheives a certain goal? There is, techincally, no limit.

2007-12-08, 05:04 PM
Caves/Dungeons to explore
Different areas, each running off its own theme, each with its own NPC's, monsters, terrain, and environment
The ability to become the leader of something (Army brigade, Town, Castle, Kingdom, ect.)

Reel On, Love
2007-12-08, 05:05 PM
I'd look for a sandbox.

By which I mean, it's easy to get out of working out plots and quests and such by going "hey, you guys can do whatever you want".

But you have to define the world--particularily the players' immediate surroundings--well enough so that they know what their options are. In fact, you have to absolutely riddle the place with things they can do.

2007-12-08, 05:22 PM
Generally, a total sandbox doesn't work. It's pretty aimless, and people get bored.

A better course of action is to set up a small area first. Maybe a valley in the mountains. Set up a timeline of things that will happen. For example, on day 3, orcs are sighted near a nearby village. In one week, there's going to be an orcish raid on that village. The PCs can intervene, or stop it before it happens if they want to. Or the mayor of a local town has been replaced by a doppelganger, who has some sinister plan that will reach fruition in 2 weeks, however, there are telltale signs that the 'mayor' isn't acting normally.Set up a number of little scenarios like this, sort of 'timebomb' miniquests. It keeps the world changing, making it feel more realistic, and your players can choose how they affect the world, and their actions will really feel like they make a difference.

2007-12-08, 05:23 PM
this makes the game actually a paper/forum based MMORPG where the DM is the server. and let me tell you a DM (meaning "a human") has more trouble with handling multiple story threads than a high-end server.
interesting game... but troubling to maintain.

2007-12-08, 05:28 PM
In my experience, sandbox games don't really work the way you intend them to unless you supply something important to go on in the background.

I tried doing this. I gave each player a house in the biggest metropolis in the world. I clearly defined each section of the city, all the things that were there to be had, a bunch of important people and factions, politics, religion, etc.

The first thing the players did was look at each other dumbly and ask if there was an adventurers guild or the like where they could get a quest to "...kill some kobolds or something."

2007-12-08, 05:28 PM
Generally, a total sandbox doesn't work. It's pretty aimless, and people get bored.

A better course of action is to set up a small area first. Maybe a valley in the mountains. Set up a timeline of things that will happen. For example, on day 3, orcs are sighted near a nearby village. In one week, there's going to be an orcish raid on that village. The PCs can intervene, or stop it before it happens if they want to. Or the mayor of a local town has been replaced by a doppelganger, who has some sinister plan that will reach fruition in 2 weeks, however, there are telltale signs that the 'mayor' isn't acting normally.Set up a number of little scenarios like this, sort of 'timebomb' miniquests. It keeps the world changing, making it feel more realistic, and your players can choose how they affect the world, and their actions will really feel like they make a difference.

Pretty much how I run my sandbox game atm... seems most of my players are pretty well happy as well. If anything tho, it seems sometimes they want to be lead around, rather than having too much free choice.

2007-12-08, 05:36 PM
Just set up a number of towns, and things to do. Even if they aren't fully developed, create a bunch of beginnings of plot-lines. These will act as the, "first quests in the chain," and eventually you can see which ones players go toward and you can progressively plan out only the ones that the players are doing. Also take notes in-game of who the players meet, how they react, what the players do, and what parts the players seemed to like.

2007-12-08, 05:42 PM
If high-level; Ability to take over and command a kingdom and wage war, always fun to invade someone.

And of course, explosions and collateral damage.

2007-12-08, 05:58 PM
If there is a group, there ought to be a good reason for them to cooperate, since 'hey, you must be the party' is going out. Unless people want to intertwine backstories, a common cause/foe seems likely. To keep the scope open, probably something that either can't ever be fully won (abstractness or regeneration, either way), or is simply so far beyond their power that they aren't a real threat (and don't draw too much of its attention, though a little bit of hang together or hang separately could boost cohesion). Keeping people in a small box, like a game-world containing only one really important city, could at least keep PCs in interaction range of each other without having to associate.

In a game where the PCs can range pretty freely, the world's consistency needs some attention. They can and probably will take the time to poke bits of it that don't seem to work. If the world is the sort that should have the Teleport Circle mass transport system, and doesn't, they may end up building it. Unless you don't mind them tearing up the setting worse than Kevyn Andreyasn (http://www.schlockmercenary.com/d/20020415.html), that's probably something to avoid leaving the door open to.

There definitely needs to be more going on than just the PCs, or they won't really have anything interesting to do. And ideally, things should happen even when the PCs aren't really watching. Most or all of Morrowind was static when the player wasn't around, and you could just walk away from things and expect them not to have changed at all when you get back. But if there's a band of brigands or monsters holding down a trade route somewhere, and the PCs don't do anything about it, it probably will have been resolved somehow when they next pass through, and whatever has happened in the mean time will have fallout.

2007-12-08, 07:55 PM
Make it detailed, and keep the world changing. And have a few adventures planned that will work in many places. After all, each city is just as attackable by a dragon as the next. While it may a sandbox, in the end you may still need to have NPCs that give them quests instead of the PCs going out and searching for them. That's ok, but still give your players plenty of chances to find their own quests. And above all, keep it detailed.

2007-12-09, 02:21 AM
What would you look for in a sandbox game?

A pail.

Oh, and some of those little plastic shovels.

2007-12-28, 08:49 PM
It's probably worth mentioning Sigil Prep (http://www.sigilprep.com/), which is only the most awesomest D&D sandbox setting EVAR. The original campaign is over 2 years old, still going strong, and still brilliant. It's an excellent example of how to run a PbP sandbox campaign, because there are so many things that it gets right. Among them:

"The Life and Times of..." Someone once posted an excellent breakdown of types of D&D campaigns on this board, and this was one of the listed types. It's an interesting contrast to a more typical sort of campaign, because the characters are, in a sense, more important to the story because they're not major power players in the world.

Confused? Allow me to explain.

Y'see, in a lot of campaigns, the PCs are the Great Heros who must Save the Land From Evil. Within the context of the game world, they're very important, because of the role they fill. But that's also pretty much the reason why they're important -- in fact, this is so significant that it overshadows everything else about them. Ultimatelty, the only really relevant details about them are that they're capable of stopping BBEG X and willing to stop him. Anyone who met those qualifications would have done, really. Because the characters have been cast into such an important role, their significance to the story derives from their impact on the world.

In a campaign where the PCs are not major power players, it is not their job to change the world. Their job is to pursue their own personal objectives, which means that which direction the story goes in depends significantly on the specific details that make up the PCs. They probably won't have a huge global impact, but the world may very well deeply change them. Things they come across may help or hinder their personal goals, and provide them with new opportunities or challenges. In short, because the personal goals of the PCs drive the story, the significance of the whole rest of the world to the story derives from its impact on the player characters.

Sigil Prep is an interesting setting in that regard. The main characters attend a prestigious learning institution with excellent research facilities, a great health care plan, and portals to everywhere in the multiverse nearby. To get in, they had to be highly talented, have rich parents, or both. While anyone with a PC class is already a cut above the common population, these guys are, in a sense, to regular PCs what PCs are to commoners.

But the thing is, due to the nature of the setting, they're surrounded by a bunch of other people who are just like that too! In fact, many of the other students they encounter will be highly experienced, personally rich (as opposed to just having wealthy parents), and well-known around the campus. To say nothing of the Epic-level professors. The college quite successfully produces a whole bunch of highly qualified adventurers on a regular basis -- That's the whole point! -- which means that beginning freshmen are basically nobodies by comparison. So you can totally play, for example, Merrix d'Cannith's daughter, because within the context of the setting, that is not even a big deal. To paraphrase an OOC discussion:

"Would other students notice that a giant muffin golem is attacking our dorm?"
"Not on a Wednesday."

Sure, after you have several levels under your belt, you can go into town and lord it over the NPCs if you want. You can go on a wide variety of dungeon crawls; in fact, you're pretty much expected to do that. You're surrounded by people you can team up with and places to buy equipment. If you're picky, it's not too hard to find an adventuring location that's fairly easy to fall back from, and there's a whole damn staff of clerics to fix you up when you get back. But because all this stuff is perfectly standard activity where you are, none of your actual peers will be impressed unless you did things especially well. And because they are your peers, they're the people you really care about being able to influence; that's the only way you'll have a really big impact on anything, relatively speaking. You're a part of the upper class, within which stuff that most people would find amazing isn't even considered impressive. So, basically, the game is a soap opera at its heart.

(And to anyone who may be thinking that the whole "The role of the PCs is to impact the world" vs. "The role of the world is to impact the PCs" is a false dichotomy... You're basically right. You could easily set up a scenario where the PCs have to choose how to grapple with Big Important Issues, their choices determine which path history follows, and things are far more nuanced than simple success vs. failure. The players might all take the roles of heads of competing factions, for instance. Conversely, you can run a series of dungeon crawls with no overarching plot where nothing has any long-term impact on anything else (besides "The PCs level up").)

A dizzying array of character options. If you're going to give players the freedom to do whatever they want once they're playing the game, you might as well give them the freedom to build whatever they want to start with. After all, the main reason to restrict character options in the first place is the assumption that a PC is going to fill a particular sort of role. But in a sandbox game, the character's role is pretty much up to the player. So someone could play a demon bent on secretly corrupting mortals, and even if a different PC is a paladin, that's totally fine, because players are allowed to play characters who are enemies with each other! It is probably best to explain from the outset that this is acceptable, and thus should not lead to the players becoming enemies in real life. :smalltongue:

In SP, of course, you can not only be any race, any class, and any alignment, but from any D&D setting. The only (obvious) restriction is that your character has to somehow wind up at the school. In fact, "is presently in location X" pretty much has to be a requirement for any game. If your character originated in some crazy alternate reality, that's fine, but if he's still there, and not anywhere near the other PCs, they're not really even in the same game. Theoretically, the DM could try to provide plot hooks that lead the character to the main setting... but the DM trying to direct a character's behavior is really the opposite of how a sandbox is supposed to work.

Both the DM and the players are encouraged to create plot hooks. Okay, so the players have made their characters, and they're all here now. So... now what do they do? That's a pretty important question, since there needs to be an answer. If no one provides an answer, that quite literally means that everyone has stopped playing the game.

Well, what do the characters want to do? What are their goals? Why are they here? What are their likes and dislikes? If you have answers to those questions, the characters already have their own objectives to pursue. Of course, they'll need to be familiar with their surroundings in order to know how best to pursue said objectives. How familiar they already are with their surroundings is up to the DM. If they're starting someplace where they grew up, the characters should already know all about it, so the players should have received a detailed description of the setting before the game even started. (And their characters may be quite tied into the setting as a result.) If the characters just arrived at wherever they are now, they need to be able to explore. Ideally, there will be plenty of interesting things scattered about that aren't hard to find, so that they don't need to spend a lot of time just wandering around through irrelevant scenery.

Of course, often ones evironment encourages one to develop goals. Maybe there's a competition going on. Or a nearby zombie infestation. Or an aventurer's guild! Or... well, you get the idea. The more there is to do, the more there is to choose from, and the lower the risk of the players becoming bored is. It takes a lot more time to come up with all the detail needed to fill a bustling metropolis, but of you put in that effort, the game will probably proceed at a quicker pace than if set in a quiet little town. Of course, some groups might want a game with a more relaxed pace, where there's plenty of time to stop and think, and new demands on the characters' attention aren't continually cropping up. Up to you, really.

The Sigil Prep game run by DM Swift really embraced the proliferation of plot hooks. Naturally, there are all sorts of campus activities to participate in. If a player decides that their character wants to do something on her own initiative, the player starts a thread about it. The player may simply state that their character is looking around for some general thing, or looking around a particular location, and details will be provided. Of course, a DM can't really know ahead of time which details a player will look into, so it's best not to plan too much out ahead of time, since you don't know what you'll use. PbP is ideal for this, as it gives the DM the time to flesh things out as they're explored, without a need to prepare a lot in advance.

Beyond that, the SP players would sometimes outright state that something was happening, even sometimes giving dialogue to named NPCs. And then it would be up to Swift to work out what caused it. There was no real player control of the environment within a plot, just throwing out plot hooks. Frankly, most DMs would probably find it hard to manage this. Swift is awesome like that, though.

More mildly, a player might simply say that their character notices something, leaving the details entirely up to the DM. Xizlqk's player was particularly fond of using "and suddenly!..." type narration when he didn't want to end the thread yet but didn't really have anything left to do. Hmm, maybe that's how Xiz has managed to accomplish so much despite a complete lack of well-defined long-term goals.

2007-12-29, 12:11 AM
Sandbox games can fail utterly if there is nobody else playing in the sandbox. By this I mean if the players are the only entities taking action, you'll have a very boring sandbox. NPCs need to do something other than react to the PCs. Have them run their own plots in the background. You don't need to have a ton of NPCs, just a few named ones and a few groups/organizations acting. Basically the sandbox needs to move independent of the PCs. Something that is static except when interacting with the PCs is going to be horribly boring.

Yes this sounds like a lot more work for the GM, but it actually makes it a lot more fun to play too. I like to run this sort of game on my computer. I keep a folder of NPC organizations. Some organizations are text files, others are folders with NPCs in them. After each session I go through each file and add a sentence or two about how they developed. It's often something really simple, but you need to have some sort of progression regardless of PC intervention. I also often keep another folder of plots. Each plot gets a file and shows the whole story of the plot rather than what each side is seeing.

2007-12-29, 01:01 AM
yeah, a 'Sandbox' game only really works if the DM has made an effort to flesh out the world (within certian limits, one can't always have an infinite world...though, for my big game I did define the entire world just to be sure that everything was covered.). Since one can never be 100% sure where the PC's are going to go, one must have everything detailed enough that you can make up details as you go along and record them so that they are pretty much the same when/if the players return.

That aside, a 'sandbox' must be a living organic world. Seasons, economics, politics...vast distances, people with motivations, dreams, desires...all manner of things going on. And the players are not the only forces acting. Weather it is for grand scheme, personal profit or just a roaming band of youngsters looking for adventure...the PC's are not the only ones out in the world.

In such a world, the PC's would be free to really do whatever they wanted. Of course, to have a managable game, you would provide plot hooks to see if they snag a player into doing something...but if they don't, well...you wil have to allow the plot to develop unhindered...or possibly another group takes the job/quest.

Now...if the players are perfectly happy just with random happenings, or things being 1 shot adventures...fine...but most often those little piddly adventures get kinda boring. Most often to hold attention in a campaign, something big needs to be going on that persists through the adventures...maybe it is some secret about the world, something to discover...maybe it is a huge war that is going to start or has already...a villian that has started to do dastardly things and the heroes must figure out what the hell is happening.

Sandbox is cool, but the best sandbox is one in which others are playing and the world doesn't just react to you, you must react to the world or make it react to you.

A great 'sandbox' I had was in a well established campaignworld that I had used over and over...it had a well developed history and lots of quirks thanks to past adventures. The PC's were shown this valley and that is where they started (comming in from a far off land so they knew little of the area, made it easier than explaining the backstory of everything...if they didn't know they asked). The valley introduced some problems that they were free to deal with or not...they could have gone solo against the evil, helped the people (which they did), gone in search of aid, decided to loot the towns for no reason, or just flat out left...there was a whole wide world open...but there was going to be a whole lot of craziness going on...if they stayed (which they did) tey would learn of it and have a chance to effect how and what was going to happen, or the evil would spread unhindered and they would see the effects as they happened to the rest of the world.

Railroad plots are 'easy' for the DM, and allows for extra detail in a closed system...dungeons are great in that way because everything that can happen is pretty much contained and written down. But when players are totally free to do whatever they want, while hard to do...it can be highly rewarding.

Just remember these principles: The limits of the world must be at least loosely defined in terms of major powers, cities, and their relations to each other. All the major players/parties must be at least loosly defined and their goals set along with what they know about the world and their relations with the rest of the world. Plot hooks with a general idea of what can be good adventures...and most important of all...a DM with a great wit who can think on his feet and come up with great ideas on the fly.

2007-12-29, 01:14 AM
A few basics I think would help in that kind of game:

A detailed world (lots of interesting places)
Good available adventure hooks that lead to good adventures
Disguised adventure hooks! (see above)
Recurring villains sound like they would be excellent here

2007-12-29, 07:33 AM
I was running a RL sandbox game where there were Major Events occurring outside of the immediate sphere of PC awareness. Orcs from the east were displacing goblin tribes, who then began to sweep into human lands. An evil city-state of Hextorites, planning invasion, hired many goblin, ogre, and hobgoblin clans to work together as mercenaries to create a distraction in the north, while they prepared a real invasion in the south.

That right there was about the extent of my story. Everything else I would fill in, depending on what the PCs did.

Of course, the PCs were totally clueless about all this, just bumbling around in a cave system fighting goblin raiders and their worg allies for awhile. They uncovered some clues. Upon exiting the caves, they were faced with several options: fight goblins in an urban environment, fight ogres in the woods, travel north guarding a caravan, travel south to explore a mysterious blight, or travel south and enlist to help defend against the Hextorites.

Random encounters also contained scraps of clues to other little "mini-dungeons". All these, of course, were totally optional. At any one time, the PCs had something like 3 or 4 options, most of which were an encounter with a handful of monsters.

At any time, they were totally free to do whatever they wanted, but they usually found it more exciting to follow the clues/make decisions about what they should be doing in the campaign world.

I also added a lot of unrelated elements, which would later become individual stories. A gnome illusionist attacked them, as a random encounter, trying to steal their loot. They fought him until he attempted to surrender, but they killed him out of frustration. Of course, they were convinced the illusionist had something to do with the goblins.

The death of the gnome led to the gnome's tower becoming abandoned, where ghouls took up residence. Rather than run into a potential ally in the northlands when they next traveled there, they found a haunted tower for the pillaging (almost a TPK- the ghouls played it smart with a few PC levels).

This was me simply stringing together a few unrelated quest ideas- a ghoul infested wizard's tower with a random gnome illusionist.

2007-12-30, 06:48 PM
It's probably worth mentioning Sigil Prep (http://www.sigilprep.com/), which is only the most awesomest D&D sandbox setting EVAR...

Great Caesar's Ghost, that was an exquisite essay. Permission to quote this? It's much better, and more eloquent, than my usual explanation: "It's like American Pie with elves. And there's a character based on Colonel Sanders in it."

(Also, presuming you're one of my players? Else you are the one helluva lurker)

2007-12-30, 07:00 PM
Don't make it a total sandbox, those will always end badly. Instead, have a event, like an on-going war. So say your players are living in a human nation, which is having a war with an orcish nation. But leave it at that. This leaves your players with just about anything to do. Join the Army, Become Muscle for hire to the highest bidder, Run away and find a different country to live in, Become Independant and launch their own sneak attack agaisnt the orcish capitol, Or even become traitors for a high place in Orcish socety. This is only a few of many options, and all of them would be acceptable for an adventure.

2007-12-30, 07:10 PM
This was the best sale of Sigil Prep I've ever seen, and it's not like there haven't been a lot of them (because SP rocks and people want to spread the love), but here's my favorite part:

So you can totally play, for example, Merrix d'Cannith's daughter, because within the context of the setting, that is not even a big deal

You called out my character specifically. <3

2007-12-30, 07:15 PM
I typically look for politically complex countries (or just one, such as in the case of Rokugan) that interact, change, and develop as time goes by without the presence of the PCs. If the PCs choose to interact, then it changes accordingly. But it can become something the players were never expecting if they don't pay attention. I also look for an openness to the game, meaning that anything I come up with(RP or build wise as long as it's legal) the DM won't restrict because it doesn't fit what they imagine. This makes the sandbox feeling much higher, at least to me. Also, not level cap.

2007-12-30, 07:22 PM
Great Caesar's Ghost, that was an exquisite essay. Permission to quote this? It's much better, and more eloquent, than my usual explanation: "It's like American Pie with elves. And there's a character based on Colonel Sanders in it."

(Also, presuming you're one of my players? Else you are the one helluva lurker)
I am ashamed, as one who lives to plug your excellent campaign setting, that DA did it so much better than I ever could. That was a great essay, and should be read by everyone who wants to run a sandbox game.

2007-12-30, 07:24 PM
(Also, presuming you're one of my players? Else you are the one helluva lurker)

I think Caleb wrote that. It's succinct, elegant, well thought-out, and well written. Yeah, Caleb.

2007-12-30, 07:41 PM
(And I think we're done hijacking the thread now. Sorry. Carry on.)

2007-12-30, 11:10 PM
It's been touched on, but I'd like to expand a little on a certain something.

Rule #2 of sand box games is you have to have sand box players. Like all the other styles of play, it's not for everyone. Make sure that the players understand what is expected of them for this type of game. Otherwise, they're just going to be sitting there, waiting for you to tell them what quest to go on.

Other than that, a good setting, with lots of things the players know. That way a common frame of reference really can help make it much more cohesive, and stop the: "What do you mean the bartender is an elf woman, I thought it was supposed to be a gnome man?" wtf moments.

PnP Fan
2007-12-31, 09:52 AM
This may seem obvious, but I think it's worth mentioning.
Make sure your players know that they are in a sandbox before character creation. Otherwise you may wind up with characters created in a vacuum, that are waiting for the adventure opportunity to appear. Make sure that they create characters that have motivations, besides "adventure and get loot".
You may also want them to help create some of the setting material pertinent to their characters. If someone is playing a town guard, for example, then have him create some of the NPCs in his backstory.
In fact, PC backstory will be crucial to the success of your campaign. That's what will tell you what your players want to do with their characters. It will also let you know if someone wants to do something that you're not comfortable with (evil PCs, ToB anime-esque PCs, etc. . . ) and give you the opportunity to redirect them.

Good luck!