Sunday, March 23, 2014

Scaling Your Sandbox

When I was running "The Caves of Ortok" last night, my players did what good players should do - they went off the script. They were so damn sure there was something beneath the tentacle headed statue there was no way in hell they were going to leave it standing.

As written, it was just a statue. Nothing special except the design of its head. When my players saw it, the "knew" it was special. In truth, if +Jason Paul McCartan wasn't lurking and watching the players progress (or whatever it is my group does that resembles progress) I probably would have put something under the statues. Minor treasure, a map, stairs - something. As it were, I wanted to keep true, as much as was possible, to the adventure design. To some extent, it was a playtest of sorts.

Still, my instinct is to reward my players when they think out of the box, as such rewards not only them, but myself and the campaign as a whole.

As +Jason Paul McCartan pointed out afterwards in regards to Sandboxes, and I agree, it is as much about freedom of choice for the players as it is them putting their own spin on the direction of the campaign. In truth, why shouldn't there have stairs beneath the statue they tumbles, long hidden and leading into dark depths, perhaps flooded and requiring the party to return at a later time, properly prepared for such an expedition?

Because it was written as such?

Sandboxes aren't so much written as created by the players and the events they put into motion. Sandboxes form in reaction to the actions of the players, not in spite of them.

A thriving sandbox is the result of ones players.

I've had some difficulty in seeing a sandbox as anything but a hex crawl, and now I see the sand is perpetually around the players so long as you allow it to be. And they allow it to be. A proper sandbox requires the DM to trust the players' ingenuity and also requires the players to trust the DM's judgement and off the cuff rulings.

It isn't so much the scale as the amount of trust.


  1. " Sandboxes aren't so much written as created by the players and the events they put into motion. Sandboxes form in reaction to the actions of the players, not in spite of them."

    Absolutely! When I run my game I have a good idea of what is going on on the micro and macro scale, but in the end it is a game and games are meant to be fun. I have no problems modifying things a bit as the players do their thing because sometimes their ideas are fun and exciting and more interesting than mine. This is their game as much as mine - and for a sandbox style game interaction is the key. If the players continuously work at things that fail, they'll stop trying. At the same time, if everything they do results in a special treasure or new find, nothing is special. Striking the balance is the key.

  2. I find this interesting, because your initial reaction was to change the sandbox to make a "dead-end" decision a "positive" one; to reward the players even though they were acting on nothing more than a hunch, and possibly against clues to the contrary. But if the statue were a dragon or some other creature well above their CR, and the PCs had pursued it on a hunch, possibly against clues to the contrary, it seems like standard thinking would have been to punish them, not reward them.

    FWIW, I think you did the right thing. In a sandbox, some decisions aren't rewarding. They might be interesting, but they're not rewarding "in-game" except as a learning experience.

  3. I'm thinking about my eventual sandbox, and this is good discussion. Striking the balance between rewarding and punishing player agency is important. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.

  4. I like that not everything become something significant. Gets watered down. But I do think a sandbox needs to be organic in the way that it grows. Players being the fertilizer and water...hehe, I made calling the players shit, sound like a good thing. When I run something I have an outline of events, things that will occur, but the players fill in the gaps and widen the scope of what is inside the sandbox. It's fantastic to be a GM and watch it happen.

  5. In a situation like this I assume the players, by the link with the characters, me and the game and system as a whole, have at least a loose bond with the nature and potential nature of the game world, or facets of it, and that their feeling for it might well be more accurate than mine and the materials, printed or otherwise. So within reason I'd roll for it, usually a 1 in 3 chance, e.g. a 1 or 2 on 1d6.

    If the chance comes up and the dice say so, the way is open. More rolls might reveal it's more or less similar to what they expected. The key I think is to set with this kind of feedback process or collaboration a reasonable question to ask the dice and let the dice answer.

  6. _Stairs spiraling into dark depths, with a susurrus sound, barely detectible, rising from the depths, the air is still and reeks of alien decay, becoming thicker, hazier, and more daunting the deeper it goes. The walls are carved with cryptic warnings in dozens of languages and scripts with images of some cthonic, C'thuhluan horror, and every round spent on the stairs imposes a wisdom check to avoid becoming overcome with dread and running back to the surface, full of desire to shove the statue back in place, possibly trapping their braver, more foolish colleagues. Go deep enough, and the saves are against death, as the dread is overpowering._

    Every interesting choice need not be 'rewarding' to the players.

    I think riffing off the players actions is the charm of RPGs, especially sand-box, and because the goal is to have fun and not teach object lessons to players about choice, making their choices have interesting results is part of the fun. Not all interesting results need be rewarding, some can present new problems or challenges, and some can be presented as overwhelming, so maybe the players return at a later date, and roll the statue aside once again to brave those stairs once again... or maybe later, deeper in the crawl, you allow them to discover a secret chamber with a switch labeled 'dread effect', situated at the bottom of that spiral staircase... allowing what was teased at become a shortcut to the surface later.

    Concluding: especially if the full extent of the sandbox is unknown, riffing should be acceptable. You are creating interesting 'sockets' to attach future adventures to.

    1. "Not all interesting results need be rewarding, some can present new problems or challenges"
      Next session, when the characters need to retrieve an ancient statue, unbroken....

  7. Justin Alexander's blog "The Alexandrian" once offered a suggestion for running mystery adventures that there should be no absolute "red herrings". Even a wrong turn should reveal something new, perhaps ruling out some other wrong turns or providing a another advantage (e.g.: The characters who mistakenly investigate a local thieves' guild have the chance to impress local shopkeepers that pay protection to the guild. They don't solve the mystery, but potentially gain an ally). I'd apply the same logic in that case, rewarding the party's determined investigation of the statue. Perhaps something lies under or behind it, such as a set of partial blueprints of the level, which show how the statue's decorative stone was hauled into the dungeon.

  8. I've pondered this myself recently. The way I figure it, if the stairs are there and the players don't find them, or if the stairs aren't there and the players don't find them, and it makes no difference to the current challenge either way, then having the stairs be there when you hadn't planned for them is no different than any of the other times the GM makes something up because of what the players are interested in. Man, that was a long sentence.


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