Vortigern Does Sandbox & Why You Should Care

I am very Sandbox and simulationist oriented as a Gamer in general and especially as a GM / Storyguide. Yet I find that increasingly this is not something many (especially younger) Gamers have even been exposed to so they do not really understand what I mean when I say Sandbox. Even though they think they do.

To that end here is some of the better material on the topic that I've seen anywhere. Reading should forearm you a bit concerning my general attitude and approach to gaming and handling scenes, risks, and rewards.

It is not from Ars Magica and is instead material from another game I am fond of called Stars Without Number.

Sandbox Gaming and You (by Kevin Crawford)
Stars Without Number is designed to accommodate a particular style of play known most commonly as “sandbox gaming”. Sandbox gaming relies on two things; a group of players willing to take initiative in seeking adventure and a GM willing to make a world large and interesting enough to be worth the exploration. In modern day RPG circles, sandbox gaming has sometimes acquired a reputation as being burdensome for a group. Players can have a hard time deciding what to do with their characters without the clear guidance of an obvious story line, and GMs can grow frustrated by the sheer volume of content they need to create for a sandbox game.

To some extent, these criticisms are justified. These problems of aimlessness and overwork are the ones most likely to be an issue for sandbox gamers because the setup of the game naturally tends towards them if they aren’t nipped in the bud. If the players or the GM fail to understand or embrace the point of sandbox gaming, the play is likely to degenerate in short order. Still, with an understanding and cooperative group, sandbox gaming can produce some fun and interesting outcomes.

First, sandbox gaming creates emergent stories. With many other gaming styles, play is assumed to follow a specific narrative arc that is tightly bound to a preexisting story. There’s a beginning, middle, climax, and denouement, and the player characters have their roles. The GM has a clear idea at all times of how the story might progress. Player actions might alter the ultimate outcome, but they aren’t expected to go completely “off the rails” and charge off in a direction unrelated to the plot line.

The emergent stories created in a sandbox game are different. The GM does not have a single prearranged story on hand that he expects to fit the players into; he has many potential stories, formany potential places, all of them locales that the players may or may not visit. He might have a general idea of the goals that the players wish to accomplish, or offer them particular plot hooks to catch their interest and focus their efforts, but he largely sits back and facilitates the stories that the players grow themselves. The players might decide one evening to start building up support for an assault on the slaving rings of the Scordian Rim worlds, and the next to detour briefly to investigate the shrines of alien amberglass they’ve discovered on a remote jungle world. Their story is ultimately a recounting of what the players have decided to accomplish or attempt.

Emergent stories can lack the polish and artistic proportion to be found in play styles that presume a particular context and story line for players to participate in, but they are very much the stories of the players. They get the satisfaction of knowing that they really can play the heroes and freebooters of the cosmic spacelanes, free to accomplish anything within the compass of their courage, prowess, and luck.

Second, sandbox gaming is unforgiving. In most other styles of gaming, it’s implicitly assumed that the challenges the players face will always be calibrated appropriately to the abilities of their characters. They won’t ever find themselves in no-win situations or facing overwhelming odds without making willfully stupid choices and insistently fighting against the story line of the adventure. In many cases, this is a good thing. Not many people play role-playing games so they can experience the joy of being stomped flat by an insurmountable obstacle.

Sandbox games work differently. The world is not carefully gated for character ability, and groups that charge off into the lion’s den can expect to be eaten in short order. In many modern games, players are trained by genre conventions to assume that any obvious obstacle or enemy put before them is one they are intended to be able to overcome through cunning, strength, or diplomacy. There is an assumption that the GM won’t let the group stumble into overwhelming danger unless they intentionally set out against clearly-labeled impossible odds.

This assumption is not safe in sandbox gaming. If the GM has arranged for some ravening alien abomination to stalk the corridors of an abandoned orbital station, there is no promise that the players will be able to overcome it if they decide to claim the station for their own. If the group’s shuttle pilot reports a hot war zone over their landing site, then there is every likelihood that they’ll be blown out of the sky if they attempt to land anyway. The world is set up the way the GM has arranged it, and it does not change to accommodate the capabilities of the group.

In consequence, sandbox groups need to pay serious attention to advance reconnaissance, scouting, information gathering, and lines of retreat. They need to be able to identify a no-win situation before they get into it, and be ready and able to bug out if the situation gets to be more than they can handle. Failure is always an option in a sandbox game, and it’s up to the players to respond to threats without assuming that the GM is going to get them out of a bind. By the same token, the GM has to be ready to let dangers be discovered before the group is neck-deep in trouble. Effort spent to investigate and scout a situation should be repaid with a relatively clear warning if it’s more than the group can be expected to overcome.

Third, sandbox games rely heavily on the idea of a living world. The universe continues to move as the characters go about their adventures. Empires clash, scheming villains progress in their plans, lost worlds are discovered and expeditions vanish. The players shouldn’t be left to feel that the rest of the cosmos goes into stasis when they’re not around.

Many modern adventures can end up a little bit mechanistic, as important plot points and revelations can’t happen out of sequence without spoiling the progress of the story. The GM may be willing to fudge a few things, or may have the improvisational talent to let things unfold without disrupting the story arc, but most GMs find it easiest to simply let the important NPCs hold off acting until the
dramatic moment is right.

This isn’t how a conventional sandbox game works. NPCs will act when they are ready and events will unfold when it’s time without reference to what the players are doing or have done. Because the only story is emergent, there’s no master narrative to control events. If all-consuming disaster visits a world due to the players’ carelessness or indifference, well, there’s always the rest of the galaxy for them to explore.

The guidelines given in the Factions chapter give a method for creating a steady supply of “off-screen” events for a GM, but it can’t be a substitute for a GM’s careful consideration of cause and effect. If the players wipe out the secret maltech laboratories of the Brotherhood of the New Day, the impending Brotherhood assault on the nearby frontier world of Argus IV might be set back for months or years. By the same token, if any Brotherhood cultists escaped to tell of the culprits or any security footage survived, the cult may well vent its displeasure on the group.

In either case, the group needs to be aware of these causes and effects, so as to give them the proper feeling of being in a world which reacts to their actions and is affected by the choices they make. A sandbox world that is perpetually impervious to the players’ mark isn’t so much a world as it is an exceptionally large backdrop. Players will engage more deeply with the setting when they feel as if their actions matter to it.

Now that three major elements of a sandbox world have been described, it’s important to point out the things that the players and GM need to bring to the table. Sandbox games can fall flat in a hurry if the group or the GM isn’t prepared to deal with certain important factors, and these things need to be understood up front.

Players need to understand that it’s ultimately their job to motivate their characters. They need to have a goal and work toward it, even if it’s something as simple as “Become fabulously wealthy and renowned.” The GM will do his best to provide interesting hooks and places for the characters to be, but ultimately, the players need to have their own motivation and act accordingly. They should be ready to get out into the cosmos and do something.

Players also need to understand that the universe is not organized around their capabilities. The world is full of situations and opponents that will get the group killed if they are careless or foolhardy. The GM will respect attempts at scouting and investigation and will clue properly careful adventurers about potential death-trap situations, but he won’t save the group if they insist on plunging ahead into certain doom. Players need to know the limitations of their characters and choose challenges they’ve got a fighting chance of surviving.

For players that are new to Stars Without Number, it may be necessary for the GM to be a little more explicit than usual about letting them know when a situation is too much for them. They may not have the experience with the gaming system to realize that a quartet of freshly-generated adventurers hasn’t got much of a chance fighting against a dozen pistol-wielding thugs. GMs shouldn’t hesitate to give new players like this an explicit take on their odds of success before the group chooses a course of action. Once the players get more familiar with the way skill checks and combats play out, they’ll be able to make their own estimation of their chances.

On the GM’s side, it needs to be understood that a sandbox game world requires a lot more preparation than many contemporary story line-based games. It’s not sufficient to plan out one particular narrative arc on the assumption that players can be steered back onto it if they go astray. The GM needs to have at least a basic idea about the contents of an entire interstellar sector, because the players could theoretically end up on any of those planets, to say nothing of the adventures to be had in deep space around abandoned asteroids and derelict void stations.

It’s this kind of heavy preparatory burden that might well have contributed to the decline of sandbox gaming in favor of smaller, more tightly-plotted story lines for games. Stars Without Number is designed to ease this burden by giving the GM a number of tools for the quick generation of a roughed-out interstellar sector with plot hooks, places of interest, and adventure frameworks ready for elaboration.