Being back to hitting the books and classrooms after a month-long break, I now have time in between classes with little else unproductive to do except blog to all of you about D&D. With the tentative date for the new campaign set to next Friday, I have some work cut out for me.
For now, I'd like to talk again about, in my mind, what exactly a sandbox is rather than chat is it not.
Let start off with the two most basic fundamentals of the sandbox: the Sand and, well, the Box.
The Sand, as I see it, are all of the miniscule building blocks from which a campaign is created. They are the individual monsters, the dungeon rooms, the NPCs - even the game rules fit in here. But not all types of sand are the same. The rough rocky sand of Belize of very different than that of the smoother particles here on the Oregon coast. The referee's job is job to design and create the sand. What types of monsters, dungeon rooms, NPCs, dungeon rooms, environments to smash together in order to create a semi-unified whole.
The Box, on the other hand, is the boundaries of the campaign. This could be the world, a set of planets, a region, a massive town and surrounding wilderness area, a megadungeon, (in my case) a single island, or whatever you want, really. The important thing is to HAVE a box. In my experience, the box is actually just as important as the sand - it's what keeps the players from floundering in a world of infinite and thus meaningless choices. Having 3 or 4 interesting and meaningful choices is often much more interesting that a plethora of ill defined ones.
The box is while the concept of a megadungeon works so well: the structure allows for meaningful choice. Whether you go left towards the howling noises beyond the portcullis or into the statue-filled hall IS a meaningful and, more importantly, a fun choice. As is whether or not to sit upon the bone-incrusted throne.
In my experience, the bigger the box, the less meaningful and abstract the choices.
This doesn't mean the box can't be expanded later, by the way, just that it is defined at a certain point in time and updated regularly. Quality over quantity of choices is the key. That being said, make sure there is still room for undefined, player-driven choices as well and that the choices the players are making are meaningful and don't all lead to the same end. The perception of choice is not actually choice at all and makes for a very shallow campaign.
So once you have the basic composition of the Sand and the Box, it's time to Shape. Cause face it, what more interesting a sand of sand waiting to be played with or someone's elaborate sand castle ready to jumped on and toppled to the group? I think the latter. To me, it's the referee's job to make the first castles, pits, stick-figures, and shape the sand in an interesting way that will produce interesting choices and reactions from the future players.
From there it is up to the players to interact and change the shape and form of the sand within the box through the choices they make through Play. (Since you're taking time out of your life to read a gaming blog, I just going to assume you understand this one already.)
Finally, and here's the kicker, you need to Revise. Between each session, it's important to keep the world up to date and react to the choices the players make during play. This is the most important step in making player choice matter - the world reacts to it in a way that is predestined by the referee. The process should be organic rather than contrived. So if the players take over a keep, how to the peasants respond? How do the lord of the neighboring towns respond? And they shouldn't all respond in the same way. Maybe one lord wants to make an alliance, another all-out war, and another want to manipulate the PCs for his own means.
The most important concept of revision to keep in mind, however, is that revision should lead to further choices. Yes, this may seem railroad and arbitrary - IT IS - but so are random tables. At some point, you have to figure out what results go on those tables, after all. At some point, you have to make a decision. That's what being a referee is, making the ultimate call. Learn it. Love it. Embrace it. BUT DON'T GET CARRIED AWAY WITH IT - don't let your own agenda (predestined ending) get in the way. It's all about the players, after all.
So, to view: Sand. Box. Shape. Play. Revise.