Wednesday 5 October 2011

S is for Sandbox Part I: What is a Sandbox?

I know that I said it earlier, but for those who missed it, these blog posts represent my opinions.  I am not going to write “in my humble opinion” after everything I write, or even the web-slang “IMHO”.  If you read something that you find offensive, apparently being promoted as fact, just assume the imaginary IMHO.  It will make both of our lives that much easier.

This exploration of sandbox-style gaming will begin to pull together some of the disparate threads of the other “alphabet series” blog posts in the Nest.  This is simply because the sandbox philosophy underlies many of the other posts in that series. 

So, what is a sandbox?  What exactly is meant by that term?   Why is it relevant today?

“Sandbox” is used in many ways, by many gamers, and the basic idea has been muddied by a generation of “Adventure Path/Railroad” players and GMs seeking to promote their particular modus operandi by obscuring the meaning and benefits of the sandbox.  Sometimes this has been done innocently; sometimes not. 

There are bloggers/posters I could point to who seem to make a career out of their attempts to rewrite the text and experiences of those who were involved with earlier gaming.  Some, of course, will fall prey to their bull----; especially among those whose experiences encompass only “modern” games and/or gaming.  Wiser, and more experienced, heads will not be fooled.

In the context used here, a sandbox is a gaming environment in which the direction of play is driven by the choices of the players, rather than by a series of encounters/game actions that must occur to meet with the Game Master’s chosen “plot”.   A sandbox is an attempt at a “breathing world” that the players experience, and that allows them to follow their own interests within its context.

A sandbox is not featureless – it is not an endless ocean without a star to steer by.  As described in earlier blog posts, choice requires both context and consequence to be meaningful.  A setting without context is not a sandbox.

A sandbox is always in motion.  This is a necessary part of both context, and of creating a “breathing world”.  A sandbox contains within it the plots and schemes not only of the player characters, but also of NPCs – both humans and otherwise.  Some of these schemes the PCs will seek to thwart; others they will seek to aid.  Still others they will never become aware of.  In some cases, some PCs may be on either side of a scheme, as fits their own interests.  It contains also natural events – diseases, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tides, etc. – that simply occur when and where they do, regardless of where the PCs are or what they are doing.  The GM does not decide what the PCs are “supposed to do” within the context they are presented with.  That is not his job.

A sandbox reacts to the PCs, to the NPCs, and to the events occurring within its “breathing world”.  Actions have consequences.  The way the world changes is part of the context for future choices, and is a clue as to the behind-the-scenes actions of NPCs and others.  

A sandbox is not without thematic elements.  It is not without motion.  It is not without plot, except in one special sense:  It is without the GM deciding what the PCs should do (i.e., determining the “plot” of the PC’s “story”).  It need not be infinite in scope; it need not allow any possible action (just as the real world doesn’t allow people to fly like Superman or time travel like the Doctor).  Within its bounds, and within its contextual space, though, it must allow the players to decide the course of their own character’s destinies.  It must give them the tools to do so.

Because it bears repeating, the only thing that a sandbox lacks is the GM making decisions for the Player Characters, either overtly or covertly.  And, that is a damn good thing to lack.

In short, it is the opposite of an Adventure Path.  And it is in opposition to a railroad.  A sandbox seeks not to limit choice to a narrow parameter, but to enable choice making that is rich in both context and consequence.  It does not tell a single story, known in rough outline even before the events take place, but provides an environment in which many stories take place.  And those stories are “what happened” rather than “what was destined to happen”.  The stories take place after play

There are people out there who possess amazing abilities as storytellers, who can hold a group so rapt that they are completely unaware of how narrow the range of their choices really is.  There are storytellers good enough that, although their audience is aware, they are engaged enough in the story that they do not care. 

Likewise, there are players who just want to engage in a table top skirmish game.  There are players who don’t want to make decisions, who just want to go along with the flow.  There are definitely people who want others to make choices for them, and who would prefer to engage in something far less than a “breathing world”.  Essentially, they want the limited palette of a computer game at the table, and often because they have never experienced anything more.

Yet, for those of us who actually enjoy role-playing games – even if we also enjoy interactive storytelling games, skirmish games, and/or computer games – the sandbox is the only format that even comes close to providing satisfaction. 

There is nothing wrong with wanting to tell a story or play a skirmish game.  They are just not the same thing as a role-playing game is.  Pretending otherwise started as a means to sell so-called “computer role-playing games” and continued so that publishers could more easily sell other entertainments akin to role-playing games.  "Of course it's a role-playing game!  It says so on the cover!"

It should be a no-brainer that, to the degree the Game Master restricts players from making choices for their characters from the standpoint (context) of their roles, he also restricts role-playing.  To fully experience a role-playing game, a sandbox is a requirement.  Anything less is…..less.  In many cases, very much less.

The sandbox remains relevant, because it is the singular important thing that table top gaming does better than its competitors.  Want to hear a compelling story?  The control an author or director has over characters/cast means that many novels and films will be better than your amateur storyteller.  If you want to experience the same, you will expect a “computer role-playing game” to limit your choices, and the railroading elements are therefore less likely to get in the way.   Want to be involved in a skirmish?  The computer does it better, crunching all the numbers for you.  Even hanging out with your friends can be more fun with a barbeque or at a pub.  And, if learning the game rules is work, running a game is exponentially more so.

If gaming has become less relevant than it was in its Gygaxian heyday, this is the reason why.   RPGs can offer many things in addition to the sandbox.  When they fail to offer the sandbox as the most basic mode of play, not only do they limit the “role-playing” allowed within the context of the “game”, but they also tend to limit the “game” allowed in context with the “role-playing”.  And they come into direct competitions with entertainments that do the same, but do it better.

(How constraining play in a non-sandbox mode limits the actual “game” is discussed in the “C is for…” posts in this series.)

NEXT:  Part II:  Why System Matters

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