Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sandbox Gaming: A Brief How-To Guide

In response to JB's post, W is for Wandering Adventures, on the BX Blackrazor, I have decided to write up a brief how to guide for sandbox gaming.

Let me first say, however, that I don't subscribe to the school that believe the sand is the be-all end-all of campaign concepts. If that were the case, Pendragon (can you say meta-plot) would not be along my top 3 favorite role-playing games (along with D&D and Classic Traveler). There's nothing mystical or otherworldly about sandbox gaming, and the worst thing you can do as a potential sand-box referee is to place it upon a pedestal.

I often find that the concept of a sandbox to be intimidating to many would-be referees--as if it necessary to put in 100 hours of work before the start of play. I tell you what guys. I run sandbox campaigns near exclusively and I don't think I even put in 100 hours of campaign prep a year. For my current campaign, the only work I've done away from the game table is to make a shoddily scrawled map and label a couple of island (I really must get around to writing up session reports).

Similarly, my plays are rarely bored durning play. The way I keep them interested is not by planning out everything beforehand and seeing what they do with it, but watching their facial expression, learning their interests, and acting/adopting the situation accordingly.

Instead of spending hours and hours in prep work, I try to focus my energy to these five basic principles (which are not exclusive to gaming and can to applied to most aspects of daily life):

1) Confidence
2) Flexibility
3) Improvisation
4) Reading Like a Maniac
5) Being the "Yes-Man"

Those are my five easy steps to being a sandbox referee.

Now allow me go through to explain each in slightly more detail.

Confidence: Confidence is NOT being the most egotistical or an unmoving wall of intellectual greatness (although those can be helpful). Confidence is not second guessing yourself and being able to open yourself and your ideas up to your players without the fear of potential backlash (which is extremely rare in the gaming world, in my experience; this isn't a dissertation or anything).

Don't worry that you don't have everything completely though out or that your players might not go along with what you're coming up with. In fact, minor inconstancies (and even major inconsistencies) can lead to great adventure hooks. Just act like you've had everything planned out from the get and keep asking questions of your players during the session ("what do you think the duke is planning), and riff off of their ideas.

Flexibility: Be willing just to go with the flow. Don't worry if you don't know where the river is going; just get in the boat and ride. The most important thing is to keep at least one eye on your players' expression at all times; try to figure out when they're bored, excited, disappointed, etc. Don't worry if they're angry, aloof or whatever. The key is to drag their emotions along for the ride. You want to keep them engaged, but don't worry if those emotions are negative 5 or so percent of them time, as long as they're excited, laughing, etc. for the rest.

Similarly, if something isn't working, either for your or your players, don't be afraid to take it in another direction. Mix things up; don't get too attached to any one outcome. Just go where the fun is, even if it doesn't quite make logical sense (that's when you start asking questions of the players and mining them for possible solutions). Turn the inevitable inconsistencies into adventure hooks. Maybe you forget the Mayor's name. Great, make up a reason why that's the case and offer to your players to figure it out. Better yet, ask the players why you think the Mayor's using a different name and riff off their ideas. If they just stare at you, puzzled, you're doing your job RIGHT.

Improvisation: Just go for it. I think I've covered most of what I want to say in the Confidence and Flexibility sections. To reiterate: don't be afraid to that a road you don't know were it will lead; just watch you're players expressions and adjust accordingly.

You dreams, book, movies, and--especially--the shower to generate potential adventure ideas that you can plot into your campaign. 90% of my D&D related thinking get's done at 5:30 in the morning.

Read Like a Maniac: I'm an English and History major. I do a LOT of ready for classes. And when I'm don't with that I read some more. I find being the best read member of the group to be a real boon when refereeing an improvisational sandbox.

Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide is great and all, but is a bit intimidating if you're looking for somewhere to start. Here're my suggestions, specifically aimed at sand-box gaming:

1) Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
2) Tales of the Dying Earth
3) A Princess of Mars

Being the "Yes-Man": If a player want to do something, in game, go for it, let him/her do it--figure out how to let him/her do it--and turn it into a source of adventures and an adventure itself. Player-character run organization (stores, gladiatorial arenas, castles, entire countries, even a manager all have great potential). This is, by far the easier, and most important. As long as you learn to say yes and turn your player's desires into adventures, you've got your game made.

Conclusion: That it, that's what I do. Yes, I drew a map for my current campaign and wrote up s list of rumors for my City State of the Emerald Eye game. haven't haven't really done too much more prep work than that. Furthermore, I find that my adventures become much more interesting/creative/unexpected when I just let the world develop naturally and just allow the game to make its own course.

So good luck, and remember, just loosen up and have a good time. Don't take things too seriously. Cheers!


  1. Being the "Yes-Man": I read on one blog about a technique for improv called "Yes, and..." which was basically taking up the stuff the other improvers tossed onto the stage and not just running with it, but putting a fun spin on it. This is a fun addition to this sort of play, so long as you use it to make things more interesting and not as a way to just screw the players or nullify their ideas.

  2. Nice post. I think a point that all new GMs should have hammered home is that even if they're not running a sandbox campaign, they're going to have to operate in a sandbox style at some point in the game, just because players have to feel like they're not being shoehorned. Posts like this remind me that that's's a legitimate mode of play and, really, it's the nature of the beast.

    With that said, one day we'll have the ultimate book of random tables that will take away all the icky improv and return all the game to sandbox RPGing. Or it'll be coded into our consciochips or something.

    Also, I just feel like I should note that for some reason, my default reaction when I'm forced to improv is racism. As in bartenders and guards saying, "You're an elf? We don't like your kind around here..." kind of stuff. Maybe it's because I grew up in the American south?

  3. With sandbox gaming, it's important to find a good balance. Even with the "boss monster" defeated, one group didn't know that there was nothing more to be done on the island. Not wanted to break the organic groove, I had an NPC let 'em know: "We'll take things from here," he said, as black helicopters flew overhead.

    With the amount of adventures I've collected (and written) over the years, I have no qualms about placing maybe 5 plot hooks or so in the opening scene, and then sort of run the adventures from memory, tailoring things to whatever they come up with. I try to place other potential sources of adventure inside the adventures, as well. If needed, I can write up a brief synopsis of the events and encounters for each adventure to get my creative juices flowing and I can run the rest off the top of my head.

    This worked well for all the TSR editions of D&D. When I got to 3E, the prep time became unbearable, so I was using some software program (etools, I think) to generate stat blocks and items and all that.

    I don't put more detail into a starting scene than I have adventures for, otherwise I run the risk of derailing the campaign:
    "We want to go to the Carpathian Mountains!"
    "Uh, I don't have an adventure planned for that..."

    All of this saves me from having to do mountains of prep, draw dungeon maps down to the last cobblestone or anything. And I end up as amused as the players. :) Nuff said!

  4. Maybe, you could give me a good answer to this question: Is Pendragon a good game for sandboxing? What is its behaviour? What kind of things should be considered? Thanks.

  5. That's an interesting question, Francisco. I think I'll go ahead and write a full post on it later today (after I get done with my history final).

  6. Nice! I'll keep an eye on the feed. Regards.