Monday, April 12, 2010

Can Newbs Start With a Sandbox

Z's comment on Grognardia's Dungeonworld post asked about Sandbox D&D post by Gabe over at Penny Arcade.

Like I replied in Grognardia's comments I believe Gabe has discovered the key to sandboxes --
I sit down at the table with no idea what they will do or where they will go that night. The adventure ends up being just as much a surprise to me as it is to them.
I wanted to discuss and see what my readers had to say about this quote --
I honestly think that I could not have started out running this type of game. I think having a year of running more structured adventures under my belt gave me the skills I needed to open the world up like this. I think the same could be said for my players as well.
I'm guessing that is true of most people. Whether it's inherent in our psychology or we've been accustomed by books, movies, other playstyles to storypaths is moot. I certainly see it with new players.  Ignoring play style just being comfortable with the rules and your role (DM, player) can take time.  I see inklings of in myself, when running new systems/settings I don't wing it or run the game nearly as well as when I'm intimately familiar (that might be just cause I'm a suckass DM).

It's an interesting point for those of us actively trying to grow and popularize sandbox style gaming. Maybe we need to do a little more hand holding in the beginning, or even run hybrid style.  The Western Marches, in retrospect, seems if not a hybrid at least a sandbox with some structure and direction.  Instead of 100% open.  Western Marches have big ol' signs "the stuff, it's over there". And there are aides to direct and motivate players; table map, competition with other groups, the increasing danger "bands".

Maybe we should suggest that new DM's get a year of one-shots, running modules, etc. under their belts before they dive into the sandbox? I'm more or less doing that with Labyrinth Lord.

What say you all?


  1. I'll agree with this, both regarding players and GMs. It's the curse of Having Too Many Choices. Not knowing what to do or where to go, new players tend to freeze up and "turtle", and wait for something to happen.

    Not every new player is like this, but many are, and it is especially true when players are presented with a setting guide that's either too sparse or too densely detailed. I remember once I spent my Christmas break writing a fairly hefty campaign guide for a new campaign setting, got the campaign rolling, and quickly noticed that not one of my six players had read even half of it; when asked, they simply didn't have the time and/or energy to invest in reading all that much. Since then, I've kept player campaign setting guides to one or two pages, at the most.

    Not to be all controversial and all by comparing old school gaming and computer games, but I recently played some of Elder Scrolls IV, and it's introduction to the game is a sort of mix. You've got a short (maybe 1-2 hours of game time) "plot" adventure to get through, which gives you a couple of levels (you have to escape an underground warren and get word of something to someone), but once that's over with, you can either continue to follow the "plot", or just go off and do whatever you want. However, the game has done its due diligence in introducing you to the mechanics and the world.

  2. I would agree it's good to have a few "structured" games under your belt before you start winging it. You also need a little experience with your group to see what kind of playing style they have; trust me, there are groups that will have a very hard time with the sandbox style and it won't be a fun experience watching five gamers wait for something to happen to them if they are accustomed to that type of gaming.

  3. I don't know. It might be a good idea, however, I doubt it should be a requirement. After all, I started playing with just the 3 LBB and Greyhawk. I had no adventures or settings to start with. I wasn't the only one in this boat, so its certainly possible to start without running (or even seeing) "structured adventures" first.

    Perhaps what we need are various sandbox setting modules. Verbosh from Judges Guild (and to a lesser extent, their "Portal" adventures) comes to mind as an example of what I'm thinking of.

  4. First, the terms sandbox and railroading blow HARD.

    Why? They are false dichotomies that don't exist.

    Every adventure involves open and close-ended choices and that doesn't make them one or the other.

  5. I think Newbs can start with a sandbox. By sandbox, I mean give them some clues to several adventure locations, and then leave it to them to choose their path.

  6. The Moldvay box with B2 = sandbox as much as anything, no? And it was all my pre-teen brains required.

    It can be hard for us to imagine now, but without an instant interactive community like we indulge in, even someone beginning with a manual and a highly scripted adventure winds up going "sandbox" as soon as the adventure concludes. Once the reins are in your hands, that is.

    Pickled in the internet-and with the publishing model the big guys use-there is an endless flow of content that means new players never need to go unscripted...

    but if they should choose to, it's just as easy now as it was in 1982.

  7. The very first adventure I ever came up with, for the old West End Games Star Wars RPG, was a site-based sandbox. I didn't use that naming convention at the time——rather, I just sketched out a super cool space station that would appeal to my 13-year-old buddies, then turned them loose to explore it. What's old is new again, methinks.

  8. I think players can hop right into a sandbox with little difficulty, unless they're new to RPGs altogether. The DM can always throw hooks their way, with increasing transparency, and let them bite where they will.

    DMs probably benefit more from experience before running a game, simply because they have so much more to handle. I think this is magnified when you're dealing with a rules heavy system with a lot of moving parts.

  9. I think some of it depends on age. When I was a kid we were pretty sandx-y in our play from the get-go (though it was often a pretty small sandbox). Introducing adults to gaming, I often find they want some structure.

    There much more self-conscious about doing something "wrong."

  10. I'd say it's easier for new players to deal with a sandbox than a new DM. The tricks of making a sandbox believable take quite a bit of skill, but if it's how you introduce the game to players - they'll deal with it better than an experienced bunch will.

  11. "The Moldvay box with B2 = sandbox as much as anything"

    It's a bit like the West March, isn't it? Big sign saying ADVENTURE THIS WAY. "Keep on the Borderlands", obviously you're heading to the Borderlands.

    If you want friendly sandbox, I'd say have one or more really obvious hooks, but be friendly to creative ideas/recruitment/odd directions.

    I was in an Exalted one-shot where we were probably expected to fight Fair Folk and then Abyssals, but my Immaculate decided it was worth negotiating with the Fair Folk to get them fight the Abyssals with us, as the greater evil. GM was good and rolled with it. One-shot isn't a sandbox, but I can imagine a longer game with a (heretical?) Immaculate and his Fair Folk allies who have been convinced they can live a cool story this way. Bam, adventure path -> wacky new direction.


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