The so-called “sandbox method” of gaming has always appealed to me. In theory, at least.

I think the write-up of time management in the 1e DMG is what got me wanting an open-style game back in the day and the West Marches write-ups really fired my desire to pull off a grand campaign in a similar vein.

But I’ve never really been able to make it happen. I blame myself, mostly, for this. I think my desire to “do it the way I’ve always wanted to do it” has meant we haven’t done much of anything at all. The perfect being the enemy of the good, and all that.

A prime issue has been gaming time. Or the lack thereof. If we were able to get in a few hours once or twice a week, I can see things taking off after a half-dozen or dozen sessions. But I don’t know that we’ve got in six or ten sessions in the past YEAR. There’s no way that an open world the way I envision it will ever take root in anyone’s mind at that rate.

And, sadly, the fact that the world hasn’t taken root in anyone’s mind is probably a contributing factor to our sporadic gaming. No one seems real fired up about it, and that includes me.

So I’m going to dump the “sandbox” approach and play it more like we did back in the day:

  • Players will have a number of PCs available
  • The DM will design “an adventure” and recommend classes/levels to the players
  • The players at the table will pick an appropriate PC from their collection
  • The gaming will begin

When “the adventure” is over, PCs go back into the folder and I’ll start work on another adventure. Or we’ll play a module or one-page or other pre-written scenario. The connection from adventure to adventure will be loose at best.

The key is that we’ll be playing. The elusive “sandbox world” I imagine may happen someday, and this new non-sandbox approach may even morph into a sandbox-like world at some point. But for the time being I’m going to ditch my efforts to make it happen.

14 Comments to “Abandoning the Sandbox”

  1. Greyhawk Knight says:

    I believe that this style is much more “old school” in nature than the mythical sandbox (or megadungeon).

    Folders of characters, “What do we need today? I’ve got an elf figther/magic-user level 1/1, or a human cleric level 5.” – “Please pick the cleric, I don’t want to play my cleric today.”

  2. Joshua says:

    If you’re letting them choose which PCs to bring adventure-by-adventure rather than railroading them through a grand quest story-line to a predestined confrontation with a big boss, you’re already more than halfway to a sandbox game. The only remaining thing is to make up more than one adventure at a time, and let the players choose which they feel like doing with the PCs they’re playing that day. For added sandboxness, just ask them at the end of the session whether they have anything in particular they want to do in the future, and if they do, work up some adventure that’ll take them closer to their goal.

    • Kilgore says:

      > you’re already more than halfway to a sandbox game

      I agree. Our play has always been more sandbox-like than a lot of later trends/styles anyway.

      > For added sandboxness, just ask them at the end of the session whether they have anything in particular they want to do in the future, and if they do, work up some adventure that’ll take them closer to their goal.

      Funny you should mention this. I already have a follow-up to this post which will outline my rough plan for how to handle something along these lines.

  3. Crose87420 says:

    Ironically I went in the opposite direction, a more sandboxy game if you will, which I felt kept my players happier especially when game sessions got a little sporadic. The players didn’t need to remember any particulars about the background or setting from the previous game and things just seemed to click back into gear even if multiple sessions were missed. (Granted some players like and remember the particulars but for the others it was no biggie if they didn’t really know what the hell was going on).

    Using Labyrinth Lord I have enough info at my fingertips, with thanks to some Kilgore Kreations and the LL community, to just say, “Where do you guys want to go today?” and easily roll out an adventure.

    Don’t give up on the sandbox!

  4. jdjarvis says:

    Nothing wrong at all with an episodic adventure campaign. If you weave reoccouring locations and elements into play it can become a pretty cohesive campaign the players are able to relate to. Have a couple extra adventures on hand and it needn’t feel railroady for the players. Discrete adventures also give folks a feeling of accomplishment.

  5. The Bane says:

    This sounds appealing to me as well and can’t wait to see what your “Sandbox Lite” approach boils down to! Awesome sauce!

    As others have mentioned, it almost boarders on a sandbox approach anyway, just a structured one ~ if that makes sense.

    Throw in a villain and a timeline for the villain’s master plan that is based on sessions, say you are averaging eight sessions a year for argument sake, with a motivation and end result. After each session determine how that session did/didn’t affect the villain and continue on. When your ready to wrap-up that campaign say, “This is the BBEG villain, and this is where he is within his plan. What are you going to do about it?!”

    Best,
    TB

  6. 1d30 says:

    Sandbox works, but it sounds like it wouldn’t work for you – in fact, anything with strong world continuity sounds difficult to keep track of with so widely-spaced sessions. While I was reading your post I was thinking exactly the solution you described: episode adventures contained entirely within the game session, players drawing from a stable of characters.

    Depending on how much time you have to develop adventures, you could set up a stable of adventures too. Adventures become available for play as you finish them.

    I’d suggest giving each player a set of PCs at various XP values: for 2E D&D I’d suggest one character at 0 XP, one at 8,000, one at 65,000, and one at 1,000,000. That would put a Fighter single-classed at 1st, 4th, 7th, and 12th. Other classes would have varying levels.

    You’d make adventures with an appropriate level and gives less XP if they use characters that are too high level.

    Alternately, they all can roll up 1st level PCs. You create a bunch of 1st level adventures. As they level up you create higher level adventures to keep up. They can stick with the lower level ones and outclass the monsters but not get much reward, or push it and risk loss of higher level PCs.

    Setting-alternately, you can use a megadungeon. It’s more confined than a wilderness sandbox but preserved a sandbox sensibility. If the players who show up have PCs level 1, 1, 2, 5, and 7 then they need to decide where in the dungeon they will adventure. It’s like choosing an adventure, except there is a coherent whole. And it’s okay to forget what happened last game.

    • Kilgore says:

      Oh, I have no doubt that “sandbox works.” I LOVE the concept and always have. Our two main issues are A) lack of playing time and B) players don’t seem to really dig it.

      I’ve thought about a true “megadungeon” setting, as it’s a sort of “confined sandbox,” and will probably have the one I’ve started work on available as an option.

  7. jdjarvis says:

    One feature to keep players involved with an episodic camapaign could be exp pooling. Let the player dump up to a certain % of exp into an exp pool to distribute among their characters as they wish. It cuts the tension of losing a pc for some and keeps the character pool progressing if the player so wishes. One could also distribute exp by player and not PC while allowing mulltiple PCs in a session without soaking up the points from other players.

    • Kilgore says:

      Something along these lines has been on my mind for some time. It was going to be part of the basic concept in our now-shelved homebrew, though it used the Roll To Advance system rather than traditional XP.

      I might have to ruminate on this a bit.