I don’t really like “sandbox” play – where a setting or location is provided with NPCs, some interactions, and the players are left to wander around finding an emergent plot. I think it’s some youthful games of Traveller where my fellow players just traded and avoided any kind of danger, but they’ve always been slow, unwieldy things where the emergent plot hasn’t been satisfying.
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But genuine choice is a real feature of one-shots, which can easily be railroaded affairs, so I’d like to get better at them. So, for one-shots or longer-form games, I present my solution – or at least, the solution to my problem with sandboxes – the Grand Theft Auto Sandbox.
I’ve named it after GTA as that’s the first video game I encountered that looked like this, but it’s generally how open world games are structured now, and I’m sure GTA3 wasn’t the first. In it, as the world opens up, you always have a few missions on your plate, that you can follow in whatever order, some main plot and some side quests. The choice and setting makes for an entertaining game where you really feel in charge of your characters destiny.
As it’s been developed, in games like Red Dead Redemption you have side quests that turn out to be main quests, and a few branching storylines – all immersing you in the world, and making your characters choices feel important even though they aren’t always.
What’s Wrong With Sandboxes?
Well, there’s a few things, in my experience. Some of these, to some players, may be more feature than bug, but for me they do my head in:
- PCs, faced with a dangerous and less dangerous option, will always choose the less dangerous first
- The sandbox often doesn’t change. Whenever you go to the town, it’s often the same location they saw before
- Side quests are either not present, or too independent of the main plot – they’re either too tempting or not tempting enough
- The players disagree about what to do. With too many options, it’s hard to see what to do
Building Your Sandbox
- Have a limited, bounded location. Give some interesting-sounding adventure sites – these can just be names for now
- Imagine an antagonist, and the plot your PCs will work against. Sketch out some possible escalations of their plan that can happen during the sandbox
- Add a couple of neutral/antagonistic factions that aren’t the main antagonist that the players can butt up against. Work out how they feel about the other factions, and what they want
- Prep a straightforward, action-oriented first session that introduces the main factions and locations and sets up a the next two or three options for quests
Playing Your Sandbox
- Give two or three missions at once. Missions that aren’t picked up may stay available, or may vanish as they pursue others.
- Steal published adventures for quests – either with or without the serial numbers filed off
- Have some side quests ready that the players can do at any time. Maybe these have a simple twist ready that link them to the main antagonist – or maybe they don’t
- Ask the players what they do next time at the end of the session. This way, you only have to fully prep what they’re doing next, rather than the whole shebang.
- Lay out tracks in front as you go. You might know where you’re heading, but you might also want to play to find out – especially if you’re running a more player-driven game.
- Occasionally, interrupt and put them on rails – especially if the antagonist reacts. If they’ve been particularly successful against them (or another faction), have the trouble come to them and them have to deal with it
So, there’s my basic principles of GTA Sandboxing. I’m going to provide some more examples later in the week of how to use this in action, and how it applies to a one-shot. If there’s any particular settings or systems you’d like to see use this method, let me know in the comments.