Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The sandbox myths - they continue and I stomp 'em

The A to Z thing has really taken a lot more of my creative time/energy than I thought, so I was wondering WTF I was going to write about today, and JB over at B/X Blackrazor has given me the perfect subject.

JB writes some good shit, but I have to disagree with him perpetuating the myths of sandbox play.
  • 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.
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)


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.

24 comments:

Timeshadows said...

Interesting difference of opinion with JB's position.
--I think I agree with you on every point.

Rob Conley said...

Go get em!;) This is a good post and nice using your own campaign as an illustration of why you don't need 30 years of setup to make it work.

I will have my own take up later.

James Maliszewski said...

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.

Really? Maybe I'm weird, but I've found just the opposite. A sandbox campaign demands a lot less energy on my part than do other styles of campaigns. It's true I have to be able to think on my feet and improvise when necessary, but that's what having lots of random tables at the ready is for!

I don't why sandboxes are so often portrayed as so difficult and time-consuming to run, because they're not. I'm lazy by nature; if they demanded as much of me as some suggest, I wouldn't run my campaign as a sandbox.

ChicagoWiz said...

@TS and Rob - thank you!

@James - You and I share that same laziness or lack of time :)

I don't know why they're portrayed as such either. It seems like a convenient, common myth that persists no matter how often it is debunked.

None of this should be construed that I think sandboxes are the be-all, end-all. While they are my favorite tool, they are just one tool in a DM's kit. I want to dispel the myths, but I also recognize that there is a particular set of skills/approaches that a DM must favor to make sandboxes work.

I could not run a plot/story-driven campaign as effectively as a sandbox campaign. I could do it, and probably do a passable job, but not nearly as well as sandbox. I recognize that and I'll stick to what works.

Zak S said...

JB's second bullet point makes me really wonder what the heck is going on over there in Blackrazorland.

The Bane said...

"I don't know why they're portrayed as such either [...requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM’s part]. It seems like a convenient, common myth that persists no matter how often it is debunked."

Because it does? Sure there is a lot less energy expenditure building that sandbox than a 'conventional' campaign, I get that - I do. The energy that I would address, that it takes a mega-crap-ton of (for me at least), to have a successful sandbox adventure was with learning and perseverance of both the GM and the Players.

I have been a long time follower of many of the blogging greats, such as yourself, that support and indorse sandbox play. When I got back into RPGs, the old style (that I alluded to in my response on JB's blog) of 'and here you are' jumping from one adventure to another no longer appealed to me. I wanted a chronological plot of time - an epic continuios story. I thought the only way to get that was through a well developed setting and predefined plot. Then I began studying on sandboxes.

When I /thought/ I had it, I tried it out as prescribed. Epic failure. I studied some more and off I went, armed with guidance. Epic fail. This went on until I got tired of losing players, which is painful in this day and age to find more, and went back to, "No shit, here you are and this is what you have to do..." tactics.

Though it went 'ok', it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted a no rails, open end world, with less energy spent b y me. Back to the sandbox grind. The issues for me were: I'm not a creative think-on-your-feet fellow. I can be creative, it just takes me time. I couldn't switch to that "off-the-grid" idea that popped up (though rarely) from the players, fast enough. Too many years of [spoiler] not believing in Santa [/spoiler] and the lack of playing 'make-believe' killed me. Just too many years of being a work-a-day adult staring at computers and making rational decisions. Finding my creativity and juking my ADD/OCD is what brought me back to the hobby.

Another problem I faced was younger players. Where I had lost 'it' to time and adulthood, they had lost it to console gaming and getting their burger "their way" when there are still only one 'burger' (bread on top/bottom, beef in the middle - sure you can add shit to it, but it still a fucking burger!) Having to explain things to them, such as you linked to on The Tao of D&D, takes energy.

What am I getting at? If it doesn't come natural to you, you have been out of it too long, and/or your players don't grok it, it is extremely energy intensive. Sure you can have that burger 'your way' but 75%+ of the population still orders a number 3.

People know it (sandbox) works. Too many people proclaim their success at it to deny it. Why it takes too much energy is finding out, like I did, what isn't working for you when you try it, and being creative enough to figure out a solution.

For me, I figured out that I can't think on my feet quickly enough and that my younger players were used to the rails. So I now do, thanks to the West Marches experiment, have a way to do "rumor-box" play that covers both the identified weaknesses.

There, in a long winded, rambling, diatribe (that I am all to well known for) is the reason for the difficulty, in my opinion, why it is so hard, and takes so much energy, to jump on that sandbox railway train.

Glad I did it though, "ALL ABOARD!"

Time for another Oxycodone...

TB

Carter Soles said...

Brilliantly said -- I 100% agree with your POV here.

cibet said...

Good post, I enjoyed reading it and the other post you are responding to. I think you both have great points. As for your rebuttal specifically:

"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."

So those are "rails" you just put under your players feet. They are ok, they save you from having to do extraneous work you are not interested in doing.

"I started Dark Ages with three dungeons of 1st level only..."

Dungeons are the original railroads. They are popular because they limit the area the players can move around in so the DM doesn't have to detail an entire world.

In just these two quick examples I already see evidence that you are limiting your "sandbox" to make your job easier as DM.

One other thing that doesn't get mentioned here that negatively impacts sandbox campaigns: bad DMs. Nothing is worse to a player then being caught in a crappy DM sandbox game night after night with no way out except quitting the game. In my youth this killed more game groups than girlfriends. I kid, I kid, but you get the picture. Can a bad DM kill a story driven campaign? Absolutely! But it is harder since the story has to end eventually and it is usually written by a professional author. So as long as the DM stays on the rails it usually works out despite his skills.

ChicagoWiz said...

Ah, hair-splitting - I love it!

So those are "rails" you just put under your players feet. They are ok, they save you from having to do extraneous work you are not interested in doing.

You can call them rails if you like, but let's expand the definitions a bit, since you've opened the door.

What is a sandbox? It's a box with sand, by which someone can build something inside. It has boundaries, well defined unless you want the sand to run all over the place.

Nobody ever said that sandboxes don't have boundaries. If you wish to call them "rails" to prove a point, I'll call it your definition, but I don't agree with it. It's not the rails that we think of with plot driven games or games where the players don't have the freedom to do as they like within the agreed upon game.

We honestly could go all day with the meta about D&D itself being a "railroad", given the restriction of rules, tropes and such, but why?

Even going back to the original wargame campaigns, there were limits and boundaries. The participants were free to do as they liked within the rules of said campaign.

If you can effectively simulate an environment without such, more power to you.

Dungeons are the original railroads. They are popular because they limit the area the players can move around in so the DM doesn't have to detail an entire world.

What is with the axe to grind about railroads?

Badmike said...

I don't think everyone can run a sandbox, which is why it gets a lot of flack here and there. Certainly DM's I gamed with in the past did not have the creativity or on the fly imagination to make this style work, and I do think it takes a special talent to do so. I've been DMing for 30 years and I can guarantee you while I could put together a dungeon in 15 minutes it wouldn't be my best work and I'd be unhappy with aspects of it (give me an hour, though, I'd be on much more secure ground). Not to brag but I guarantee that something that takes Mike 15 min to do and takes me an hour to do is going to take some other guy a day to do. He's going to stick to a nice "safe" adventure path in the end.

That guys like Mike and James and Rob can whip these out like hotcakes doesn't surprise me, but that guys like Bubba and Gogo and Freddy can is optimistic if I take my experience in playing as an example (all made up names, I apologize if your name is Gogo and you are a dungeon design genius). As a matter of fact most guys I gamed with bitd sucked eggs running a sandbox (although we didn't call them sandboxes back then, but in point of fact that's what they were). You have to consider the fact that what comes naturally and easily to some does not seem that way to many other guys running a game.

Personally, finally running a sandbox has been a lot of fun and I agree in a lot of ways it's much easier than other types of campaigns. I even run a lot of city type adventures and these have been enjoyable (not a big fan of the Western Marches style of never having city adventures)

I've never had bored players so I'm at a loss there, even the lamest adventure set up can end up a wild ride (and has in the past) depending on what everyone puts into it.

Allandaros said...

@cibet - while I will concede that a bad DM can possibly do more damage in a sandbox campaign than a strongly plotted one, because there are more areas where things are left to the DM to improvise, I fail to see the utility of discussing how a bad DM can impact sandboxes in particular. Addressing bad DM habits is useful, but saying "sandboxes are often less effective because of bad DMs" doesn't really help in analyzing the issue; the solution is "don't be a crap GM."

@The Bane: As a younger player myself, I'm less than thrilled with the suggestion that us young folk have more difficulty grokking the nature of a sandbox. I've been running my sandbox campaign on and off for 3 years now, each time with differing groups of my friends (undergraduates and recent graduates); they've all cottoned on pretty darn quick to the basic sandbox concepts*, have been self-motivated, and engaged in interacting with the world without me dropping any hints or clues aside from a personalized "starting rumor" which I provide to every character. The character goals that have emerged (depose the tyrannical Baron, figure why the mage is hearing weird voices in her head) have emerged entirely from play. These are folks who've grown up on D&D 3 and 4, and WoW - and they're still able to pick up with a sandbox style of play, with no problems.

Us young folks can pick things up OK. :)

*although I did have one instance of a new player in the first session of a campaign asking random people in a tavern "Do any of you have any quests?" and being told "Yeah, fill up my tankard, the best quest possible!"

JB said...

@ Chgowiz: Thanks for taking the time to read (and stomp on!) my post!

Um...that's NOT sarcastic thanks, though I realize it might look that way.

So, I see your take on the "sandbox" thang, and as I wrote, I may well have an imperfect understanding of the whole process. But my feelings on the subject (that it is "hard" or whatever...) come from my experience with doing "it;" which (since it didn't turn out to be "fun") may indeed mean I was doing it "wrong."

On the other hand, Jeff Rients 20 Questions (plus or minus a few of my own) is the kind of thing I use for my starting point...and it still doesn't lead to fun long-term play.

Look at your answer to my statement players get bored ("...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."), followed by your rebuttal to my "crap-ton o energy required" statement ("Bullshit. Pure and simple.").

See for me, I AGREE that sandboxes should be "living/breathing/moving" things...that's exactly WHY I say they're a crap-ton of work! Or as I said in my whole quote:

"It requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM’s part to keep the campaign world LIVING/BREATHING/EVOLVING/RESOLVING..."

See? The work (and I'm just as lazy as the rest of y'all if not moreso) comes from trying to make a "living world;" that and the "keeping a couple steps ahead" of my players...which I don't do.

Nope.

And while I WANT my players to be independent and "go off doing their own things," I have a shit-hard time reconciling MULTIPLE players wanting to do DIFFERENT things at once...ESPECIALLY in a campaign world where the "maps" are static, even if the "world" is not.

Now, I admit I may be making this harder than I need to...I may be over-prepping my sandbox and still under-prepping (not preparing enough "adventure opportunities" for the old tavern want ads) at the same time.

However, my post was not really supposed to be a jab at sandboxes at all. I was writing how they don't work for ME (at least the last three or four I've tried), and how there may be another "primitive" way of playing that still has some merits.

I think it's cool that you guys all do the sandbox thing...I think you have a lot of good tips for a newbie sandboxer like myself. So long as my players get to develop their own characters over time...strange as it might sound (coming from me) that's what I prefer to see more than the development of a campaign "world."

Cheers!
: )

The Jovial Priest said...

Just added this post to the Links to Wisdom wiki
Great debate, great comments - worth saving.

Jeff Rients said...

Random thoughts on this topic:

1) I think any decent campaign is going to involve a crapton of work. But if it actually feels like work you might need to find some new techniques. Campaign prep should be fun.

2) Not every player or group wants the absolute discretion of a fullblown sandbox. Some players are very pro-active (they're often the ones who act like a caller) and will develop their own agendas very quickly if you let them. Other players will tend to follow whatever hint they think they are receiving from the DM. This second type will become very frustrated if you simply parachute them onto a hexmap and expect them to do something.

3) The sandbox isn't the end all and be all of gaming. I'm glad the form has been revived and highlighted in recent years, but people have had lots of fun in games with serious plots and crap.

The Bane said...

@Allandaros - I can understand you taking exception to my statements about younger gamers, but I did say, "Another problem I faced was younger players." It was a problem for me several times. The point of my Oxycodone rambling that there is alot of expenditures of energy to run a sandbox that is subsumed by DM and the Players, which does cut down on DM prep once it worked out. Not to mention my self confessed issues that I had.

Allandaros said...

@The Bane - mea culpa, misread the emphasis on your comment. :)

Cord the Seeker said...

Sandbox play is hard unless you have two things: a DM who is good at improvisational, on-the-fly gaming, and also players who will buy into the idea and who are capable of self-motivation. Lose one of those and it gets harder. Lose both and it is pretty much doomed to fail.
Another point is that perhaps people who don't like sandbox play, or are uncomfortable with it, feel that every aspect of the setting has to be predesigned at a Harn-like level of detail, just in case the players head off in that direction.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Cord - that last point is exactly the biggest myth that I want to put to rest. Even the most unimprovisational (?) DM can use a couple of random charts if the players go off the rails. I hope to be able to teach that, and be an example here.

imago1 said...

I dig your blog. I see your point about running things your way or no way. However..

Re: not running urban adventures.

It's not analagous to being a baseball player stuck putting up tennis nets, but rather being a baseball player who doesn't like a facet of the game of baseball--like grass, or chalk, or gloves.

imago1 said...

analogous, that should be.

ChicagoWiz said...

@imago1 - perhaps in YOUR game, that analogy works, but I disagree. A baseball game depends on those items. A D&D game does not. A D&D game depends only on the mutual accepted/agreed tableau that the DM presents and the players choose to explore.

If we're to take your analogy, then all D&D games must have dungeons, sea adventures, desert adventures, frost/ice adventures, etc. Where does one run out of "must haves"?

imago1 said...

"Must have" is a big ole straw man. And all caps to make a point is more dickish than the occasion warranted.

I didn't say that d&d or baseball "must have" anything. Both are inherently modular --kids play one with sticks when necessary and kids play the other diceless if necessary. On the other hand, both have tools and customs popularly associated with them. The modularity of baseball doesn't include a rule for nets or racquets. The modularity of d&d most certainly provides for urban adventure.

I said urban adventure is an aspect of the game. You don't like that aspect, clear enough. I'm not dogging you for your playstyle preferences. But I am dogging you over a false analogy. The baseball v tennis justification for erasure of an aspect of the game is inaccurate, if not disingenuous considering the source--someone who philosophizes upon the subject at length. Better to just cop to hating it on personal grounds than go through lame contortions of why it's okay to feel how you feel.

Now you gotta more of a reason to shout. That said, I dig the blog--just think instead of laying diamonds, sometimes you drop an egg.

ChicagoWiz said...

*chuckle* Imago, if you want to disabuse my analogy, go right ahead, but I think we're talking past each other. Yea, I think I misread your initial comment, but I think you are misreading my original analogy or we're just not going to communicate well with it.

My point is that forcing someone to do something that's not even in the same sport as they play (ie., my D&D the way I run it) doesn't make sense.

Alexis said...

Of course you're dead on, Chi.

But of course you're going to get these kind of posts from people badmouthing sandbox campaigns when they don't know how to make one, they don't have the energy to make one and they outright refuse to make one from irrational prejudice.