JB writes some good shit, but I have to disagree with him perpetuating the myths of sandbox play.
I wrote about this two years ago (JESUS! Two years ago!?! Who the hell was I two years ago??) and even run local workshops on 2 hour sandbox campaign preps, but like birth certificate disputes, gas prices and bad pennies, this one comes up again and again. So let's once again dispel the myths and have some discussion about it.
- Players often end up with a “huh, don’t know what to do” attitude (looking for clues or suggestions or direction from the DM)
- Some players DO have a strong idea of what they want to do, but it’s “off the grid” (i.e. something the DM hasn’t prepped), leading to them being forced to go for the direction offered by the DM
- PCs spend a lot of time combing through “tavern want ads” which is no more or less ridiculous than DQ’s “Adventurer’s Guild” (aped by many computer fatasy RPGs since).
- The players (and sometimes the DM!) get BORED with the world/setting long before they’ve exhausted all the adventure avenues the DM bothered to prep, thus leading to (what I see as) a waste of the DM’s time and energy.
- It requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM’s part to keep the campaign world living/breathing/evolving/resolving as the PCs podunk around the imaginary country-side.
Players often end up with a “huh, don’t know what to do” attitude (looking for clues or suggestions or direction from the DM)
I think it's a fallacy that sandboxes don't provide hooks or opportunities to adventurers. What sandboxes don't do is beat the players about the head with the chosen adventure of the month. If the players decide that the opposition is too tough, they know there are other opportunities, or they go looking for them. I think a sandbox doesn't hide, but it also doesn't force - they are just there. If players are too afraid to enter the bar, local Merchants Guild, talk to the local priest or lord ... well...
I can honestly say that in the 2 1/2 years in my sandbox, or in the solo game, I haven't seen the players have a "what do we do now" attitude because I present a living world. If you don't believe me, go look at the list of quests from both campaigns. It doesn't take a lot to do that either... just have a sheet of paper and when the players talk to NPCs or you drop a clue or announce what has happened between games, keep a note of it. Trust me, properly motivated (ie., poor) players will remember that 6 months ago, you mentioned that there was rumors of a gold mine beyond the ko-bald/goblyn infested forests.
This isn't rocket science, but it's also not requiring you build a rocket. Just leave hints and clues and let events transpire to guide you to how those clues/events build and develop.
Some players DO have a strong idea of what they want to do, but it’s “off the grid” (i.e. something the DM hasn’t prepped), leading to them being forced to go for the direction offered by the DM
That is exactly what I want! It's a fallacy that the DM has to "prep" for every player decision, in fact that's why sandboxes work! You put the pieces in place. You set the stage, but you also have broad concepts and brush strokes for those moments when the players do want to go "go off grid" and you have clear boundaries.
One aspect of my campaign that I do not hide is that I will not run in-town, in-kingdom adventures. I just don't do it. If the players wanted to pursue some sort of internal vendetta against the King, I would not run such an adventure. That's not my game, that's not my campaign and I'm really damn comfortable with that decision. If I'm a baseball player, why am I going to insist that the tennis players get up on a mound and throw tennis balls like baseballs to me? I'm not an in-town intrigue kinda DM. So my players know what to expect and they know the boundaries of my sandbox.
Within that, there's a whole world for them to explore and there's nothing "off-grid". If they want to ride 10 days to the Sithasten mountains, do I have 10 dungeons prepped? Nope, but I also give them and myself enough leeway that I *can* come up with something. My deal with the players to run a game is they tell me about 3 to 4 days prior what the mission is they want to do and who's coming. And I prep. If game day comes and we suddenly shift gears, I have no problem asking them for 15 minutes to figure out what is going to go on ... and I make some serious notes, grab some great tools and away we go - within the broad brushstrokes of my world and based on where the world has dynamically flowed since the first time I wrote those ideas down.
PCs spend a lot of time combing through “tavern want ads” which is no more or less ridiculous than DQ’s “Adventurer’s Guild” (aped by many computer fatasy RPGs since).
I also have to respectfully say "So the fuck what?" No more ridiculous than 99% of what we do anyway - wandering monsters, encounter tables, d30 tables, etc. If the players want to go to the Merchants Guild Job board, what do I care? 99% of those jobs are boring and the players are going to end up not caring. And if they do, then that's the world they want to play in. I'll run mustard farmers. It's not all that hard to drop hints and hooks to take the PCs away from "want ads." (see #1 above) and sometimes you go with a trope because it works. I can honestly say that the only time the PCs went to the Merchant's Guild Job board in Skalfier in my online game is because that's the mechanism I use to introduce players into how my world is structured AND that's my mechanism for dropping hooks or giving players a bit of income till they get the lay of the land. I don't force them to do so, but that's also not their primary mechanism for finding things to done once they get their feet wet.
The players (and sometimes the DM!) get BORED with the world/setting long before they’ve exhausted all the adventure avenues the DM bothered to prep, thus leading to (what I see as) a waste of the DM’s time and energy.
That's an interesting observation because I don't think that reflects sandboxes as much as it reflects the type of games/players/DMs involved in the campaign. I don't have bored players and if I do, they end up causing their own messes that get them quickly involved soon enough. It's also a fallacy that DMs have to prep every adventure that the players are going to participate in. I'm constantly a "just in time" preparer. I'm maybe 2 game sessions out, unless I'm using a module or third party adventurer. If the players run into something that I'm not ready for, I invoke the 15 minute rule or I'm not afraid to put up the "Under construction" sign.
If players are bored - ask why? Sandboxes are not static worlds - they shouldn't be. I set the pieces in place, but I also wind up the key and start the little toy soldiers staggering about. If the players get involved, the world reacts. If the players don't get involved, the world moves on. Broad brustrokes, remember? I don't have to "waste [my] time and energy" until the players are ready. When they are, I'll meet them there.
It requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM’s part to keep the campaign world living/breathing/evolving/resolving as the PCs podunk around the imaginary country-side.
Bullshit. Pure and simple. This is the single-most biggest fallacy I have seen to date and I don't know how it persists. OK, if you look at World of Greyhawk, First Fantasy Campaign, Conley's Majestic Wilderlands and so on, yes it looks like a crap ton of energy - THAT HAS BEEN BUILT UP OVER ONE/MANY DECADES!
I started Dark Ages with three dungeons of 1st level only. One was James M's monastery. Took me 10 minutes to adapt it. I added another module (which I can't reveal - yet) as the 2nd and beyond levels. As the players go through it, I spend maybe 10 to 15 minutes adjusting stuff prior to a game. Another dungeon was generated through Gozzy's online tool and I spent about an hour stocking it and tweaking it. As the players cleared it out, and I dynamically refilled it, that took maybe 15 minutes. And so on.
The area around Enonia, my PC's homebase - I took an hour or two. The map you're gonna see this afternoon as my "L" entry - all 29,000 odd hexes? I have about 10 filled with some sort of crap. And this is a 28 month ongoing campaign. My wife's solo campaign has nothing but one page maps for each 30 mile hex. As I need them. And it takes me maybe 15 minutes per map to generate it, figure out the general "feel" for the area and have it ready. I probably spend way more time painting the minis for her game than the actual writing.
I don't think my campaign takes me any more energy than the work I see going on with the story-based games, with the "gonzo-include-em-all" games. Over the years, yea, it's gonna build some layers and you're gonna see a lot of work, but it's no different than a Pendragon campaign, a Battletech/Mechwarrior campaign, a *gasp* White Wolf campaign and so on. The fact that sandboxes are some mythical high energy requirement type of deal is perpetuated only because someone went down that path because they bought the fallacy.
You can do this. No, really. You just have to get away from the one central myth that I hope to crush as mercilessly as I can... that you have to spend a ton of time and energy to provide a living/breathing space for your players to play in without having some sort of railroad or just abandoning the idea altogether.
If all else fails, I think you can build an awesome starting point by taking a gander at Jeff Rients "RPG Stud God"'s latest awesome work - the twenty questions for a campaign. I don't think, after answering those questions and sticking to my Myth Buster suggestions, any DM that can run a game would have a boring sandbox, unless they really want to believe those myths. And if that's the case, well, I can't help ya then.