November 30, 2015

Sandbox Style RPGs

Sandbox style play rewards players' creativity, but taxes their attention spans and requires more effort from GMs.  What is sandbox style play?

The term "sandbox" originated in video games, along with its synonym "open world."  Sandbox video games give players a ton of compelling optional activities, in addition to the main quest (if there even is a main quest - many MMORPGs don't have one).  Video games like Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Fallout, and Skyrim epitomize this style.  There's even a rating scale for how "open world" a video game is.  (Hey, RPG reviewers - you should use it to describe modules and adventure paths!)  But even though they're fun, video games are a poor medium for open world, sandbox play.

Tabletop RPGs are what inspired it, and tabletop RPGs are still the best medium for it.  Because the GM can re-purpose existing content as needed, and only directs their creative energy to the scene at hand while running the game, there is no tension between the width of the players' option set and the density of content they will experience along any road they take.

While you may find dungeons in a tabletop RPG sandbox, a dungeon is too linear for sandbox play.  Dungeons are isolated, and the paths within that the players can choose from are constrained.  A good dungeon has options and branches, but it can't be a sandbox.  Even megadungeons have inherently constrained paths.  Only when there are whole societies, regions, and cities to get lost in can there be true sandbox play.

Here are some characteristics of sandbox play:
  • There is no chronic time pressure
  • Adventures can be found at different locations in the setting more than an hour's travel apart.
  • The PCs probably have hooks into different plots whether or not all the plots are tied together by a single antagonist.
  • The GM activates multiple hooks, so that the PCs have choices as to what to do at any given point.
  • There are usually generic plot hooks that the PCs can follow, too.  These are often called "side quests."  

Hex Crawls and Urban Adventure

There are really two kinds of sandbox play, in my experience.  

The original sandbox sub-style is the hex crawl, an old school D&D style sandbox play style.  Read my post about hex crawls for more on that.  Hex crawls offer multiple points of interest, but each is a constrained dungeon.  Whenever the PCs finish with a dungeon, they have a brief moment of choice where they decide which dungeon to go to next.  Once they pick a new point of interest to explore, they usually move into a linear, isolated dungeon adventure.  

In the 1980s, we saw games emerge with an investigative theme, like Call of Cthulhu and Top Secret.  These games were set in real world cities, where characters could investigate different leads.  The hex crawl quickly gave way to urban adventure.  

Urban adventure sandbox play is distinct from a hex crawl.  In a hex crawl, the PCs experience a series of adventures.  At the end of each dungeon, they can choose to move to a different location and start a new dungeon.  In urban adventure, the PCs experience a series of scenes.  At the end of each scene, the focus of the game switches to a new scene, often somewhere else, often with different characters.

Urban adventure sandbox play involves splitting the party a lot more than hex crawl sandbox play.  Urban adventure GMs need to learn techniques for running a game where the PCs split up and pursue different component goals all over town.  

But hex crawls -- and even linear RPG campaigns -- often include urban adventure.  Consider the "in town" scenes in between dungeons in a typical Pathfinder adventure path or D&D campaign.  Those are urban adventure.  And many points of interest in a hex crawl are towns where the PCs are likely to split up and pursue different goals.  Handling these situations is a GM "core competency."

Learn Something

Here are some techniques for handling urban adventure sandbox style play.  Many of them are useful for any "splitting the party" situation, but together, they form a set of skills that every GM needs to run urban adventure.  In the coming weeks, there will be an article about each one.