“Everyone knows” what sandbox means. Except that it was a term ‘ported into table-top role-playing from another medium and adopted as fashion rather than substance, so no, I don’t. Talk is cheap, whiskey costs money, and let’s see if this is a thing, and if so, how many things, and if so in a given case, whether it’s something you really want to play in.
I’ve worked on text for this for a long time, as a sequel to my essay Setting and emergent stories from 2011. But it was much more fun to do as a lab, joined by Jason D’Angelo and Ángel Jiménez. Check the games and tags lists for the texts we brought, and feel free to bring up more in the comments. I’d really like to see this topic keep going there.
Video capture didn’t fly too well this time, but I went to some effort to make it a genuine audio-visual presentation – as witness the Premiere file graphic:
So when you get the chance, please watch as well as listen. (Also, I promised a couple of file attachments, I’ll get them in here soon.)
30 responses to “Monday Lab 2: Kittybox”
Very interesting discussion, thanks. So, let me see if I got this straight:
We're not saying that "sandbox play" doesn't exist; we're saying that they term is not well defined. If you're arguing about sandbox play with someone on the internet, you two are probably talking about two different things.
And we're saying that the number of actually sandboxy games or adventures published is either zero or very low.
This is timely and relevant for me because I am about to start a "sandbox" D&D campaign, and didn't realize that I was stepping into a new minefield in RPG culture until I saw this discussion. After 10 years of (let's say) indie gaming, I want to bring what I've learned back to the dungeon. But I did find that I had to spend a lot of virtual ink defining sandbox play before I even proposed it to my players. And it turns out that I don't want sandbox at all, if "sandbox" means several prepared adventures or locations, and the players can choose which order to do them in.
What I want for this campaign is three separate but related things:
"Open World." A world that feels complete and self-consistent. The PCs can go where they want, when they want, and do what they want. I won't try to blinker or cajole them towards prepared material. The PCs will choose their own goals and pursue them however they want to.
"Fish-Tank World." The Setting is full of powerful, sticky factions and NPCs. Their power struggles and machinations affect the world in observable ways. Once the PCs start shaking things up, powerful NPCs will each try to hire, help, hinder or heliminate (hehehh) the PCs. I got this idea straight from Sorcerer, naturally.
"Clockwork World." This is probably a loaded term, too. By this I just mean that I will deploy the Bakers' maxim: "think off-screen, too." While the PCs are doing their thing, other actors are doing theirs. There are no orcs waiting in rooms to be slain by adventurers. Situations left untended will evolve on their own, probably for the worse.
So, these three concepts taken together, are what I mean when I say "sandbox play." I think it's pretty close to the definition arrived at in your chat, although it wasn't stated this way.
Hi! I’m going to break my
Hi! I’m going to break my usual habit and go through some of your post in a picky way.
The second sentence, yes, and maybe even, “If you’re arguing about sandbox play with someone on the internet, you’d waste less time browsing porn instead.” The first needs some work. Instead of “the term is not well defined,” the better phrasing is, “this is a confounding term.”
If it were defined strictly through exclusion, that’d be OK if what was left over was revealed to have individual structure or properties, and thus we’d have definition-by-feature after all. But that’s not what happens. What’s left over is a bunch of stuff that’s not necessarily connected, in many cases shares properties with what was supposed to be excluded, and is applied piecemeal whenever and however. The term is guaranteed to be a problem whenever it’s used as a reference point.
The only meaningful definition of “sandbox” is forced to be a “to me” statement, just as you painstakingly constructed for your game. It’s a sticker you may affix to something you’ve wholly created, not a reference point for anyone else to understand it. It simply cannot be considered applicable, relevant, or meaningful to anyone else outside that context.
So does that meaning or definition matter? Sure it does. To you. But whether you gained any value from using it at all seems dubious to me. I think your “open + fish-tank + clockwork” description is articulate, clear, necessary, and sufficient. Why bring in this scruffy, from-another-hobby, potentially profoundly misleading other term at all?
As a related point, in your final sentence, you referred to a definition we arrived at, which we did not. I talked about The Haunted Ruins as something I liked, in terms of the specific freedoms and potential rising action it afforded. Someone who values Against the Cult of the Reptile God as a sandbox, however, would find it poorly writtten and unhelpful.
I don’t think that’s a literal claim in the video, for two reasons. First is the same as above: there is no definition to check any given game or adventure against, so there’s no “actual” in this conversation. Second is that instead of zero, there are a bezillion games and adventures which qualify for the term as any given person may designate, which is to say, for any of a bezillion reasons or self-convincing justifications, and also, which may well betray any given other person who picks up that product on the basis of the term.
It may look as though I’m objecting and red-penning your post all over the place, but I’m pretty sure that what results will make our basic agreement stronger and more understandable.
This is very interesting due
This is very interesting due to a game project of mine that is in the early stages of development.
It tries to combine big, cartographed, sandboxy game world with the three things you just described in your d&d campaign. However, this game doesn't have a game master so there will be no pre-arranged plots or adventures which to pick on. All of the world and characters are managed together by the players.
I hope the discussion can be
I hope the discussion can be helpful. The most relevant point seems to me – as we discuss in the video – that no amount of randomization or group contribution or lack of centralization in preparation determines anything about freedom of action-and-outcomes during play. I'm beginning to be very suspicious of publishers claiming their game is a "sandbox" due to some fancy group or improv or randomized preparation, when the actual experience of playing my character is no different from the linear direction I might encounter in Pathfinder or the Bobby G I might encounter in Cyberpunk 2020.
For better or worse, the archives do belch and give forth:
I'm not recommending them for their discourse. It's like watching people spray-paint over a picture, or to point frantically somewhere else.
I usually don’t…
Get into discussions like this, and at this particular emotional point in time perhaps it is wiser that I do not get into a discussion like this, but rather than continue on having conversations in my own head, I prepared a video response. I didn't like the audio, so I prepared a second version which has its own problems, but I have decided to share it here as I think it addresses (after a fashion) some of the things which are coming out in the comments.
I mean this response to be helpful and supportive, not argumentative and disuptive, let's see if intent matters!
The video is currently unlisted, and might remain that way. It is unlisted so that I can share it here. I would prefer it not be shared unless I mark it as public.
I should mention that the
I should mention that the video is heavily annotated, and not all points are made verbally, some are only made in text.
Ron, if you would like to see the draft version of this (off the cuff) I can send you that link.
Watching! With trepidation ..
Watching! With trepidation …
I'm only posting now to eomment on your shadowmaster head-shot video skills, which are pretty artful by now and give me hope that one day my own talking head will be more fun to look at.
re: the rough, send it to me, but I won't look at it until after I watch and respond to the, uh, studio release version, so I keep clear which is which.
The TL; DW version
A forty-minute video can be a chore to work through, particularly when it is not as sharply in focus as it should be, so here is a point form version for viewer sanity~
-The sandbox is setting.
It is material to be used in play. It is not in itself a method of play and should not be conflated with one or miscommunication will arise.
-The sandbox arises from a culture present among early rpg gamers (former wargamers) to adopt a role in a place, time, and situation in order to make their own choices.
This runs counter to notions of being audience or working toward “story”, rather it stops at being a participant. The sandbox is the setting in which this takes place, it is not play itself. This format for setting is an important if not essential component of arranging a setting to facilitate this attitude toward play (being a participant).
-Other types of setting preparation, such as preparing a series or sequence of encounters, or building from the perspective that characters are protagonists in the literary sense can be layered over a sandbox or deployed independently.
Hopefully there is something useful and worth discussing among these points. Likewise hopefully, the video can be taken as intended: in a friendly manner.
I’m having a little trouble
I'm having a little trouble with it probably due to maturity problems. It's really hard to get past the whole context of posting toward a particular piece in isolation, irrespective of its role in the whole presentation or the points made elsewhere in it. I used the same quote from the AD&D DMG, for instance, so it's a bit galling to see it thrown at me as if it were a surprise.
… but I'm also trying to process it in the spirit it's intended. It will take a little while longer of growing-up for me to get to the point of responding, especially because I do have a counter-argument here and there, and I want to present those completely outside of a crossfire/counterstrike atmosphere. Plus I want to promote a general welcome to dissenting views (easy to say). I'll get there.
Sorry that, at least at the moment, I could not figure out a different way to explain and express my response to the conclusions drawn.
To be clear, I didn’t think that details like “Gygax on time” were a surprise to you, nor did I mean to present it in my context as an affront. I wanted to point out how its interpretation changes in light of what I label as IC play in the video, and in.light of the product’s development history.
Anyway, thanks for listening and being a good sport.
I think the “open air dungeon
I think the "open air dungeon" is what a lot of people accept as what a sandbox is, in the context of TTRPGs, but maybe that's just me.
In a way the Stars Without Number method reverses the buy-in direction: players are supposed to agree on what they will do next session, announce it to the GM, and the prep is done around that. So I guess it is more of a mode of prep than a mode of play.
Hello! Thanks for joining in
Hello! Thanks for joining in the discussion here. It fell off four years ago for reasons which aren't present any more, so I'd like to see what people think now.
However, a lot has happened in four years to develop the concepts from the old essay and this seminar, including about concentrated play and posts throughout 2021, as well as the coursework. You've spotted one of the most important, which is also getting a little workout right now in the current People & Play course, so it's on my mind. Which is maybe best stated in two interrelated points:
Point 1: Investment and excitement during preparation is not correlated with investment and excitement during play. When investment and excitement do occur during play (earning the name "play," I think), then it's often easy to trace the content back to some aspect of preparation. So it will feel as if the preparation caused these things to happen. In this case, yes, the preparation provided content toward that end, but I suggest that the causal factor is what the content is and does in play.
Point 2: Nothing is particularly important or empowered about who makes something up, compared to how this content is expressed in play, in any aspect of "expression." Let's say a troll lives undet that bridge. Who makes it up is definitely locally relevant, in terms of a given game system and all its other procedures and distribution of information. But it's not important at an intrinsic level, i.e., I don't think that including the troll through some democratic round-robin is intrinsically more exciting or inspiring, for play, than if one person made up the whole region including the trolls and all the other whatnots.
That's a lot of dense-packed assertion on my part, so please feel free to poke at any of it. Also, although it's only one of many interrelated posts and discussions, Situation: primary and primal is a pretty good more-recent look at the topic.
I read Godbound and
I read Godbound and discovered that the much-vaunted sandbox mode of play amounts to the players telling the game master what they want to do next and the game master preparing that. But at least there are random tables for preparing that.
Quite different from taking the geography seriously and using it actively in play via adventure locations, procedures for finding out about them (rumours, hexcrawling rules), procedures for moving around (hexcrawling in dangerous areas, paying for quick travel in the safe ones), expressing the environment via random encounter tables and maybe having active factions in play, plus player agency to try to do what they want under all these constraints.
The main difference compared to dungeon is how it is harder to find one's way outside and there are many more factors to take into account when travelling. So maybe still an open air dungeon?
First to address Ron’s
First to address Ron's comment:
Do you really mean not correlated or would loosely correlated be a more precise description? Certainly, you don't enjoy content because it was prepped, you enjoy it for how it performs during play, but I imagine many ways in which this performance can be helped by preparation. (And it can also be hindered by prepration, but I suspect the type of prep that helps and the type of prep that hinders is usually different)
Again, maybe I'm too fixated on being the hyperbole police (or maybe you mean exactly what you say), but while I think I understand the underlying sentiment of that statement, and I agree that neither is, as you say, intrinsically more exciting or inspiring, I would argue that it is still very important in defining the player's relationship to the fiction.
Yes, both things are equally made up. But one was made up by an us, and one was made up by an other. I would argue these approaches land differently, even for people who are on board with either of them. I would say it matters less if that other is the whim of a module writer, the intuition of a referee or a random roll on a table, than the fact that it is not the player group.
Now to address Tommi’s:
Now to address Tommi's:
I have two caveats here.
The first one is that Godbound, as far as I know, isn't the famous Sine Nomine sandbox game. I believe what put K. Crawford on the map was Stars Without Number, which does go into creation of stellar sectors and different planets. The open air dungeon (which I don't see as a contradiction to what I always took a sandbox to be, in the context of RPGs).
Second, is that in «the players telling the game master what they want to do next and the game master preparing that» there is an element that perhaps you are taking for granted (at least in the SWN model, maybe it is flat out missing in Godbound), and that is that "what they want to do next" is still constrained/prompted by the campaign: the players see a menu of possible locations prepared by the GM (maybe already fully detailed, maybe just sketched out). They are still engaging with the setting, when they decide what to do next.
The faction rules are there in Godbound. Do you mean you didn't like them? Stars Without Number has particular hexcrawling rules in spaaaaace, and Worlds Without Number does have, I believe, all of what you're describing except perhaps discussion of rumour tables. I cannot vouch for the usability of these at the table, but I just mention they are there to reiterate my point that Godbound isn't the best of all Sine Nomine games to judge on its sandboxness in particular.
I think all of your concerns
I think all of your concerns were addressed front-and-center in my "nuance" bullet point. There is no hyperbole, but my comment doesn't include any position like the one you're responding to either.
If that doesn't cover it, I suggest a screen conversation.
I think right now my
I think right now my impressions are not tested by actual play, so I would just be discussing assumptions on my part. If I ever manage to give the sandbox an earnest try (I want to try with Worlds Without Number, and this discussion is adding to my motivation), and come out the other end feeling the same way, I'll take you up on that offer. Thanks!
Godbound is the one I happened to read (and Stars without number once upon a time when it was new and I remember little), and the text of Godbound does make a big deal about this different sandbox metholody and how one might not be used to it and so on. So it clearly does consider itself to be do something different (from what?).
The things I ended up noticing are that there are rules about players affecting factions and factions affecting each other. But there is no reliance on concrete geography anywhere in the text from what I can see, which strikes me as something I strongly associate with a sandbox; using distances, places, travel time etc. productively to offer the characters and their players consequential choices as to where to go. Of course, given the power level of Godbound, a concrete geography might not be a good default solution anyway. They'll manage to travel around, those Godbound.
The other games indeed probably do more with geography. I wonder if the sandbox rhetoric is similar in all of them.
The other games indeed
I believe it is, but my main point was that historically I think Godbound is downstream from SWN which had put him on the map as "a sandbox guy". Maybe he thought it was safer to play to his strengths even if it wasn't fully appropriate for this game, or maybe he justs recycles a lot of his writing from game to game, which makes sense. As you say, Godbound is doing something a little bit different, doing very high and high powered fantasy, and trying to be actively weird (Geography in particular is not stable in that setting, if I recall correctly).
Now, none of this was to defend Godbound as a great sandbox game, just to point out that the sandbox hype, as far as I know, comes from Stars Without Number, which the video does tackle, so that game would be the game to dissect to give that hype "a fair trial", so to speak.
Sandbox as prep
I've been thinking about my assumption of "Sandbox as a mode prep" rather than play.
As Ron pointed out, investment and excitement during preparation doesn't correlate to investment and excitement in play.
I've seen the Reverse Mullet (great name) phenomenon when I ran Other Dust (Stars Without Number rules in a post-apocalyptic setting). I had generated lots of "stuff" but when play began, it fell into a typical – go here, do this. After a couple sessions – all these factions, places and such didn't amount to much fun. I bought into the hype that procedural generation would provide situations and dynamism during play.
What the heck did I prep anyway?
Looking back at it, it was all backdrop. Not a single thing amounted to a vibrant situation for the characters. I could have imposed more direction or story and guided the characters to the fun but that's not what my expectations were.
This was frustrating because I thought "hey, this is how I normally prepare a game but done for me." I've got a place, aesthetic details, stuff going on in the background, oh wait – the characters! Where do they factor in to the preparation? Between sessions, sort-of, the tools given allow me to elaborate on where they go but it lacked something to me.
All the sandbox products, I've encountered, seem to ignore or downplay the players beyond their role in revealing the setting. Ooooh ahh! Look at how the masterful GM took all this random stuff and weaved an elaborate tapestry. Let's to this location next. It feels more like a going to a theme park or traveling with a tour guide.
I am going to be running Classic Traveller soon, the original scifi sandbox game (it doesn't call itself that). I've noticed a major difference in preparation.
There is far less detail. It is more suggestive of a place, providing the bounds and leaving the rest to the Referee. In Starter Traveller, there is a telling passage under "Conducting an Adventuring Session" on page 6. It tells you to look closely at the characters, to determine why they are here and build the session around those characters. Don't elaborate too much without characters.
I hope that will make all the difference, and I'll share what I find out playing in "a sandbox".
I'm interested to hear what you think was missing in the backdrop that failed to engage your players. Although you could use character-specific elements in prep, I don't think it's necessary to help create a compelling situation; for example, most dungeons aren't prepped with those kind of elements. Did you not have enough NPCs with conflicting motives, or…?
I’m interested to hear what
I couldn't find my old campaign notes, but I flipped through Other Dust to jog my memory.
In Other Dust the components are fairly defined. What kind of settlement is there? Here is what it looks like, the kind of problem and people. So after rolling up a wasteland, I have NPCs waiting around as plot hooks or doing things "in the background", situations would change either from play or between sessions as GM "Group Actions" would suggest. Some of the situations had potential but a lot was happening off-screen and in one case resolving entirely on its own.
You'd think this create a dynamic tapestry of events, but it didn't. NPCS were just sort of there and wouldn't matter to play unless a player pulled at one.
I felt that I've got to lead players where the fun is. It felt weird, like the "follow your players" was more "guide your players".
Looking at the game this morning, it's clear that I have very different taste in post-apocalyptic gaming and stories than the designer does. This is probably 50% how the book is designed around creating adventure hooks for players to chase after and the other half strong aesthetic differences.
I hope this answers the question, in a way, I feel how the procedural generation works replaces too much of my voice.
I ran a Stars Without Number
I ran a Stars Without Number game (Other Dust's predecessor) and there is definitely a quality of a lot stuff going on in the background that you have to nail down into a real situation once the PCs get close enough to it. In my game I had a news delivery system, so any time I updated those things in the background I wrote up a little headline sheet that I gave to the players. That gave the player some options on where to go next based on their interest in whatever was going on in the bigger picture.
Now, that said, the players certainly did arrive as outsiders to whatever more local and actionable situation happened to be going on. For example, the players landed their ship on a floating city on a mostly oceanic planet. Upon disembarking these zombie like creatures rose out of the ocean and attacked the spaceport.
I don't think, though, that outsider status to local situations is necessarily a bad thing. Especially in these games that are clearly meant to be played on long and grand scale. In a lot of ways, character investment and stakes get grown organically over time as the players begin to make allies and enemies and start taking sides in larger conflicts.
In that regard its not that different from something like Trollbabe where the characters also start out early on as outsiders "just strolling along" but build up context in the form of Relationships. It's just that Trollbabe formalizes that process of connection and scope where as Stars Without Number and its related games assume that kind of stuff just happens by the very nature of playing with so much active material over a long enough time period.
I don’t think, though, that
Oh, this makes a bit of sense to me. We weren't planning on a long or grand game, rather something we'd play for a month or so. There was a lack of immediacy in terms of getting involved in the situation. I could have used stronger framing or worked more to bring the characters into the situation (everyone make someone who cares about X)…but I felt that would play against the "spirit" of the game as I understood it. I don't know if I'd enjoy running a game from such a remove, there might be too much emotional distance between my ideas and the results of the "sandbox creation" rules to make it work. It's going to be interesting refereeing a Traveller game with these points in mind.
with respect to:
You mean initially? It seems to me that initially, it’s part of the GM’s job to start play by getting the players to understand the basic conflict or things at stake in the situation. For example, if the prepped conflict is a village trying to defend itself against some bandits, the PCs might run into a recruiter from the area, or overhear some bandits talking about their plan, and so on. The players are free to ignore this and just leave the area, in which case we have to either present another issue at stake or just call it a night. So you always put the PCs where some interesting action is. Was there something about this system that made that difficult to do?
You mean initially? It seems
I feel at the time, I had the creeping sensation it was like having plot hooks to pull the players to an adventure. If I'm using plot hooks then there was a breakdown in communication between myself and the other participants. Time to back up, and figure out what went wrong.
I'm also at the point, where I need to sit down and play Traveller with all these points and discussions in mind. It's given me a lot to chew on.
So just to be clear, I’m not
So just to be clear, I'm not trying to be argumentative, and I'm not being critical or judgmental at all, I'm just honestly confused; this isn't a bad thing, because perhaps you can teach me something about roleplaying here. Specifically, I'm confused about this part:
Can you say what you mean by plot hook, perhaps by example? And why you don't like to use them? Also why does it mean communication broke down?
Can you say what you mean by
I didn't read you as argumentative, you're giving me excellent questions to reflect on. I am digging into my own assumptions and feelings on why a "sandbox game" did not click with me.
To me, Plot Hooks have a baked in assumption that the player's need to be led to or "gently guided" to an adventure or situation. I feel I'm presenting a discreet number of adventures to choose from rather than organically following the events of play.
A stated purpose of sandbox play is for the players to explore and seek adventure. Other Dust does this by populating the wasteland with adventure locations and "factions". I found how these were detailed to be detrimental and ultimately unnecessary.
Now, I am not talking about entirely replacing prepped material by doing "pure improv" or "random events" – rather I prefer to prepare for play in other ways. I am going to do my best to summarize my current approach.
We choose a starting location that looks interesting. In my current Traveller game, we chose Zeta, an Industrial Ice Planet controlled by warring Corporations. Then characters are created, we flesh out their motivations and the starting situation. In the Traveller game, we figure out why they chose to muster out on Zeta and what sort of work they are looking for.
So, now I know the place, the characters and why they are *here*. This determines what I focus on. I detail out the local surroundings (the Starport in Zeta's case), write out NPC's relationships and motivations (Traveller has Patron rules), and keep sketchy notes on things "just off screen" but matter to play.
From here I play my NPCs off the characters, and as we discover the setting at the table. I keep an open dialog with my players about the direction the character's are choosing to go. I build off what's been established for the next session, including moving the events "just off screen" forward and *most importantly* the NPCs. An important aspect for me, is to let each game's procedures add their spice into events – such as Traveller's Reaction Rolls, and Encounter Tables (which are left incomplete and left to be furthered defined by the referee for each location).
This way feels more organic to me, and avoids feeling like a theme park with guided paths towards destinations. I find the conventional method, as presented in Other Dust, to be more work, and less interesting for me.