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Monday Lab 2: Kittybox

"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.)



John Willson's picture

Hi everyone,

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.

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi! I’m going to break my usual habit and go through some of your post in a picky way.

We're not saying that "sandbox play" doesn't exist; we're saying that [the] 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.

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.

And we're saying that the number of actually sandboxy games or adventures published is either zero or very low.

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 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.

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

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 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.

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

Will do

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.

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

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