The built-up sandbox

Sandbox games imply that the world the players enter is not a strictly defined environment, and that the world will evolve in a collaborative way between the DM and players, based on decisions made during play. [1] Not just in terms of the map, but in behaviors. 

Different players approach the game with different underlying assumptions about that world and how it works.  This is both an opportunity and a challenge for the group as they collectively decide how the world works, what is normal there, and what the group can expect in the future.   How hard is it to recruit hirelings?  Can you effectively negotiate with orcs?  Will the high priest help us if we are not of his alignment? 

As those matters are hashed out and the sandbox world develops, a shared history and environment emerges that the DM and players have created together.  It becomes a set of assumptions that guide further actions and possibilities.  Much of this shared history is tacit, not necessarily easy to share, and it can create an obstacle for new players who wish to join in: lacking knowledge of the underlying assumptions about the world, they may feel a bit shut-out.  Established players can tend to want to build on what they have created and “protect” the facts they have established.  The knowledge that experienced players are taking for granted can seem impenetrable at best and clubby at worst. 

There are ways to mitigate this: keep a record of events that new players can read; counsel new players that there is a learning curve and help them with it; remind long-time players that nothing is set in stone – just because the last group of orcs wouldn’t parley does not mean this one will not. 

Still, there is a basic trade-off: do you de-emphasize the investment long-time players have made in creating a world, or do you accept that it will be harder for players to join as time passes and they have more to learn about the world they are joining? 

How do you try to balance this? 

[1] Obviously there are degrees.  DMs vary between the DM who starts with only a bag of dice and some random-generation tables to the DM who has a completely detailed world for the players to explore.  Players can insist on helping to imagine a world and add color, or they can passively let the DM determine flavor and context, etc.

13 Responses to “The built-up sandbox”

  1. 1 James_Nostack
    November 23, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Maldoor, are you familiar with collaborative world-building RPG’s like Universalis and Shock: Social Science-Fiction? Both of these are attempts to systematize and democratize the process of world-building, the first through the use of a “fact economy,” the latter through stages of brainstorming.

    One of my occasional frustrations with the AD&D Era (i.e., “the silver age” if we take Malizewski’s categories) is the assumption that (a) world-creation happens prior to play, and (b) world-creation is the province of the GM alone (or rather: players are nominally encouraged to assist, but are given no incentive structure to do so and are explicitly marginal in their influence). I find both principles kind of abhorrent, and one of the nicer things about the last ten years is that on the fringes of the hobby people have been screwing around and challenging these requirements.

    But specifically as to bringing a new player aboard: this is certainly a problem with any setting that involves a lot of canon material (whether home-brewed or store-bought). It’s probably best resolved through a one-page set of bullet points describing the setting in broad terms, who the immediate friends and enemies are, and what the players are up to. (I think if this can’t be handled in 2-3 sentences at most, there are problems.)

  2. 2 maldoor
    November 23, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    I am not familiar with those games – but I will check ’em out. Thanks!

    As I understand the Golden Age vs. Silver Age that Grodnardia defines, the push for DM-defined settings was driven by the desire to sell the settings, so they tried to commercialize the creation process. Happily, that is about when I got distracted by wine, women, and song and began my 20-year D&D hiatus.

    In addition to issues around what I think of as “maps and setting” world-creation, is the built-up series of assumptions developed through play – it is those assumptions that are harder to communicate to new players, I think. A lot of it is precedent – deciding how a given spell works, or that previously an action was tried and found not to be possible under certain circumstances (e.g., moving silently while drunk).

    But I suppose anything really significant can be added to the setting info…

  3. 3 Mr. Grengoat
    November 23, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    I too have been thinking about how much “pre-baking” should be done in a sandbox style game, particularly with my current stint of random table rolling and procedural world creation. How much world info is solid enough to play at the table smoothly, and how much should be left for later development when the players can have a say in the matter?

    In the two campaigns I am in with Tavis and Eric, the amount of player narrative effect on the shared game world is somewhat feeble on account of several factors, mainly being the flux in characters(mortality)and players through the multiple sessions of the game and the centering of the main dungeon crawling in pre-written modules. The highest extent of player control over the story seems to be the formation cults and organizations, the development of character’s extended family lines in certain cities, and other stronghold building and carousing activities. It is hard to create and set into stone a whole nation or key piece of game culture when the PC it was developed around might die a quick death by stirges in one session. And as Maldoor mentions, the first-come-first-served development cuts out the players who come into the campaign later.

    I guess the fun of the sandbox experience for me is the improvisational “reading of the tea leaves” by the DM when the charts are rolled upon. Negotiating more opportunities for the players to interpret the rolls might add more fun. Right now the main narrative power that the players have is describing how they kill someone when they finally do the last bits of damage to a monster or succeed in a daring stunt.

    I had a blast collaboratively coming up with my character’s trashy extended family in the Redbox Glantri game. The session ended up more fun on the carousing side of things over the dungeon slogging.

  4. November 23, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    “One of my occasional frustrations with the AD&D Era (i.e., “the silver age” if we take Malizewski’s categories) is the assumption that (a) world-creation happens prior to play, and (b) world-creation is the province of the GM alone (or rather: players are nominally encouraged to assist, but are given no incentive structure to do so and are explicitly marginal in their influence).”

    While I wholly agree that world-creation should be opened to the players, and I see the utility of currency systems in this regard, I don’t necessarily see the need for an incentive structure. Why would a player strive to assist in building the world if doing so isn’t enjoyable? Incentivizing this sounds much like bribing your non-roleplaying friends to come to your D&D game; if they don’t enjoy it for its own sake, there seems little purpose in coaxing them to participate.

  5. 5 maldoor
    November 23, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Funny; I am less worried about players participating in world creation – especially at the “map creation” level, and more worried about how to get new players involved once the creation is animate and lurching forward, living in the collective imagination of the players and DM.

    One example – James forgive me if I am misquoting you: James mentioning that he felt out of it in one of our games, since he had missed a lot of sessions, he had lost the thread of what was going on.

    I see players coming into some of the White Box sessions and getting frustrated when many of their suggestions (hey, let’s ally with the dark priest!) are shot down (“see, cause we stole this stuff from his chest, and then there was a plague of insects, but it’s ok cause Lotur freed the people of the local town…”).

    This is no fault of the DM, or the players – the details build up, are hard to communicate, and eventually create a hurdle that new players have to overcome. I am wondering how we can help players bridge that gap.

    (For the record, I tend to be more old-school about letting the DM provide the vast bulk of the narrative and framework of the world, as long as I am allowed to explore it the way I want to.)

  6. November 23, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    “I don’t necessarily see the need for an incentive structure”

    Eric, how many of your players have created wiki pages under the Principality of Glantri, even though it is free and easy to do so?

    I will tell you how how many people created pages for the Black Peaks game: one, Ska-Tay, who suggested a character named Sherlock von Hercules (who really deserved to make an appearance). Some players may have made a few minor edits, but I believe that’s the only substantive addition.

    I like to imagine this as a one-act play:

    ME: “Hey guys, here’s this wiki I created about the game. You can create all kinds of material for our sandbox.”

    MY PLAYERS: “(silence)”

    ME: “No, look, it’s easy! I totally encourage you to get involved in creating this world with me!”

    MY PLAYERS: “(silence)”

    ME: “Oh come on, people! You’re on the forums all day anyway.”

    SKA-TAY: “Well, what about . . . . Sherlock von Hercules?”

    ME: “Er… Sherlock von Hercules is cool, he just lives very far away. But good effort, though!”

    For whatever reason, creative collaboration doesn’t happen with this sort of top-down, volunteer-based structure, even when there’s no barrier to entry. It’s nice to say that in principle players shouldn’t need incentives to collaborate, but in practice that seems to be necessary.

  7. November 23, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    James, no one has created a wiki page, but several players have created material that’s been incorporated into the game. Pete has been especially assiduous in this regard, creating several NPCs and at least one shady conspiracy that I expect the group will cross paths with at some point. Others have created sleazy nobles, weird gods and shops specializing in the sale of bizarre enchanted cheese. And there’s even your own contribution, the ochre jelly lords of House Aubergine, whose locale I’ll place on the map once I persuade Chris to draw it up.

    I think it’s less a matter of incentivizing collaboration as it is of letting people know that it’s an option and hashing out just how much creative control they have, which, though not total, is quite a lot. Once that’s out there, people who actually want to contribute will do so, and those who don’t want to won’t feel compelled to do so in order to earn an incentive.

  8. April 5, 2011 at 2:43 am

    May I suggest Dawn of Worlds? I realize a couple options had been mentioned up thread, but this is a quite simple/fun world building ‘game’ that you and your players can hash out in an evening. The created time-line is great for new players to the group as well.



  9. 9 maldoor
    April 5, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Thanks TB, that is a fun looking game. It reminds me of How to Host a Dungeon in that the game helps you build a playable product, if you want to look at it that way.

    Looking back at this post now I think I will add something to my DM ready-bag: a pre-made sheet for recording on-the-fly rulings/decisions/house rules. Having something there on the table to remind us to record stuff as it goes by from the very start will make it easier to keep track of rule-history and share with others.

  10. April 6, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    Maldoor, is this a problem that comes up a lot for you guys? We don’t have nearly the same player base as you all do, but it’s really never been a problem for us. Mainly because when there’s a newbie and they want to ally with the Dark Priest, we just explain it to them as needed. Ditto for things like past rulings and customary ways of resolving things.

    On the other hand, we don’t have anywhere near the amount of carousing that you guys do.

  11. 11 maldoor
    April 7, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Good question. I think this was more of an issue back when I originally wrote the post: the party had spent the greater part of a year returning to the same large dungeon and we had a lot of accumulated “knowledge” about the place and our relationship to it, which was factored into every little move we made.

    Our current sessions involve more new places and NPCs. This allows a new player to begin contributing fun ideas and co-creating immediately, instead of having to wait a session or three picking up back-story.

    So maybe a lesson to learn about recurring content: it can be fun and absorbing but also create a barrier to entry for new players. Ultimately you are right though: a quick explanation works for most stuff.

  12. October 15, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Thank you for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and
    I am waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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