The promise of sandbox play is that players can choose to do whatever they’re going to enjoy doing in a wide-open environment. In practice, though, it often doesn’t work this way.
Some of the problems come at the beginning of the campaign, when a lack of information prevents players from translating “what is there for our characters to do” into “which things will be fun for me as a player.” This is a pretty well-discussed problem, with excellent suggestions from the classic sources including the West Marches and Rob Conley’s Bat in the Attic.
A problem I haven’t seen discussed as much develops in a sandbox campaign that’s well underway. The players have made a choice about what their characters want to pursue, and they’ve really gotten invested in it. The problem comes when that investment turns the sandbox into a tunnel of the player’s own making.
In the White Sandbox campaign, we saw that happen between the second and third level of Caverns of Thracia. The players had identified “killing the Beast Lord” as the thing that was going to be fun for them. But the intense opposition they faced as they drew near his domain was pushing them towards a style of play they really didn’t enjoy. Hiring a big force of mercenaries and pushing these disposable troops in front of them seemed like the only solution available to them. They wanted to kill the Beast Lord with the same madcap brio they’d dealt with previous encounters, but the way the dungeon was set up made this difficult to impossible. (Ray Weiss told me that this is an emergent property of dungeons stocked using the OD&D procedures; perhaps, as Oban was saying, “saturday night specials” are assumed to become important in this zone, so that the generated treasures no longer have to carry the load of character advancement.)
As the referee, it was really clear to me that the sandbox was full of other dungeons that would support that style of play – many of them also designed by Paul Jaquays. As I watched the players becoming frustrated with Caverns of Thracia, I suggested in increasingly overt terms that they might want to try going on some side treks which I knew they would both enjoy more for themselves, and would also yield the gold and magic items that would allow them to become powerful enough to deal with the Beast Lord’s forces in their accustomed style. But there was a remarkably strong commitment to continuing to bang their heads against the same wall.
This seems to me to potentially give the lie to the sandbox promise: all the opportunities to choose what you’ll enjoy are for naught if you can’t unchoose a previous decision that is proving not to be enjoyable.
In the Adventurer Conqueror King demo we ran earlier, I refereed for characters who were about the same level as the Grey Company of old. The key difference was that the players had also previously played the characters who were the mentors and lieges of these “adventurer”-level characters. In this role, they chose which mission their low-level characters would be assigned to.
The intentional design feature was to highlight the ways that the different spheres of activity in ACKS come together. Over a long-term campaign this can become clear, but in a demo where each player might only participate for a few hours, we needed to highlight right away all the experiences that ACKS supports. Having players switch their viewpoint between three characters at different levels proved to be very successful in this regard. (I initially resisted the idea because I don’t love the troupe style of play in Ars Magica nearly as much as I love its noun-verb spellcasting. I think the difference is that in Ars Magica, a grog will never become a companion will never become a magus, so switching viewpoints feels like playing different games. In ACKS, the organic progression from adventurer to conqueror to king makes switching as natural as reading Conan stories outside the character’s internal chronology).
The unexpected design benefit of this is that it offers a way for players to switch out of the mindset that leads to frustration. In the Abandoned Monastery, the low-level party ran into bugbears tough enough that the characters had to retreat and rest after a single fight. Normally this is where the dogged “never surrender even if it becomes a bitter grind” approach sets in.
But because I thought it might be a good switching point, I said “OK everybody, your lieges don’t want to see you get killed and they do want you to come back with information. Do you want to try to return through the wilderness and report – in which case we’ll play out what the kings do with this new data at the domain level, and you’ll get a pat on the back? Or do you want to go back in the dungeon and get something for yourselves, whether that’s treasure or revenge?”
Framing it this way turned around their initial beat-head-against-wall tendency. I think it’s because it offered a choice where both results would be fun. A choice between admitting defeat and going back for another beating is never fun. So introducing the option of switching to play the characters who had a different range of things to do, related to but possibly independent of the situation with the bughears, restored the wide-open possibility of doing lots of enjoyable things that is, to me, the essence of sandbox play.
One of the design posts of Adventures Great and Glorious mentions that players will play factions instead of characters, which I suspect is going to afford the same kind of anti-frustration switching of perspective as we’ve evolved through the ACKS demo and the playtesting thereof.