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The Wilds of Sandbox Games

So what are the fundamental themes or elements of a sandbox game?

Travel and Exploration.  The PC's have to in some way, shape, or form, move around a region, be it a wilderness, a mega-dungeon, or a distant galaxy.  It's the sense of not knowing what's out there that compels the players to do things with their PC's.  This is in comparison to the notion that the PC's will be handed a plot, through which they will move to their conclusion.

Risk and Reward.  At some level, exploration has a dimension of peril. It wouldn't be much of a game if people just wandered their local neighborhood, chatting up their neighbors and side-stepping dog walkers.  Most sandboxes have the written or unwritten rule that the wilderness is dangerous, often contrasted with the notion of some sort of civilized, safe harbor.

Take this. Go outside.

Complimenting that risk, however, is the concept that taking those risks may result in some sort of reward for the players.  Sometimes it is the direct reward of loot, scattered out there in the vast reaches.  Sometimes it is being able to cleanse a region of evil, or at least the unknown, and making it safe for civilization to expand into the area.  Rarely is there no reward for exploration, because why then would anyone justify putting their lives on the line?

Self Direction.  In a sandbox campaign, the players decide where they are going to go.  The GM provides some sort of feedback, some sort of structure that allows the players to gauge risk in a relative manner.  There is often a random element to encounters, but players usually have some sort of fair sense of knowing when they are asking for more trouble then they might be able to manage.  Resource allocation plays some hand in this as well, as players can estimate their own ability to handle conflict or just the rigors of travel.

Genres.  I think, inherently, that the fantasy genre lends itself to the sandbox campaign concept.  The PC's ability to travel is fairly limited--usually foot or mount.  The world outside is full of strange monsters that lurk in shadows and that makes sense.  There is treasure lying around and that makes sense.  Basically, in a fantasy game it isn't a big effort to have a game where you wander around the woods wondering if you'll be attacked by lions, tigers, or bears.

Shifter barbarian, wildling bard, human witch (with familiar), warforged fighter.
Contemporary genre games, on the other hand, seem some of the least workable in the sandbox model, despite the fact that the term was originally used for contemporary era games like Grand Theft Auto.  Think about it: with Google maps, you can get a good look at just about anywhere you want.  In most communities, you can walk down the street without worry too much about getting attacked.

"So there I was, just wandering around, when I was jumped by 1d8 hobgoblins"
Frankly, I'd love to come up with a solution to the "contemporary era sandbox" riddle.

Science fiction seems to be the hybrid, having some of the "wilderness" aspects available as a fantasy game, but with technology gumming up the works.  If the game is some sort of interplanetary exploration, you need to eschew the whole "jump to lightspeed" or similar special effect, otherwise it will be difficult to explain mid-travel encounters.  Sensors?  Those'll take the fun out of exploration.  So might a lot of other things.

Really, when you look carefully, you'll find most sandbox games are pretty low-tech, high mystery affairs.  It seems pretty ingrained in the concept.  Concepts welcome


  1. I solve the contemporary era sandbox quite easily in the Superhero genre.

    First, to me at least, sandbox isn't just about looking around and discovering new places. It's a deciding to look where you want to look.

    I often start my sandbox (or story laden sandbox/storybox) games asked the heroes what they are up to. I'll frame it with, "It's a cool and breezy, autumn night in New Knightsbridge. What are you doing?"

    The Eye of Justice says he is on the trail of The Maniac true the sewers on the West Side. Awesome. We know there is a West side, we know there are sewers in a major city. We don't know their exact layout but that's the exploration part.

    Enchanted Evening is visiting with her sister, Alchemy, at the teams HQ.

    The Midnite Hour is patrolling the skies near the bridge and dock area in the Northeast.

    Polychrome, the Rainbow's Daughter, decides she is returning from Norway where she helped a Norweigan Superhero defeat an evil Giant. This is a good opportunity for me to throw some hooks at her Player between Norway and New Knightsbridge, a Gotham City-like located somewhere in Massachusetts.

    The key here is just because we can look at Google Maps and see places all over the world doesn't mean we know what is there right this moment. The world is still a fairly large place.

    1. I like this, because it reminds me of something I said earlier about how GM's need to know their world, or at least be able to craft one easily. Your example also brings to mind some of the non-combat abilities that are in MHR which allow PC's to develop assets in transitional scenes.

      Food for thought. Thanks.


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