Last time, we continued our look at why system matters, and I left you (still) partway through a list of features that a good sandbox game should have. We also reiterated the important point that those who say “System doesn’t matter” either have ulterior motives, or have not examined the relationship between system and play experience very closely at all.
We continue with:
6. Speedy World Creation: If it is important for the poor, overworked Game Master to be able to create NPCs quickly, the same holds true for vast swathes of world creation. The more exacting the rules are, the more the Game Master must look up and record in order to create the setting, and the more time it will take. D&D 3e was the epitome of this, with its statistics for walls, floors, etc. A game suitable for sandboxing should not require the Game Master to look up information just to put a flight of stairs on a map.
To put it more directly, if two hours of prep time is all you have, and you can only create a few encounters in that two hours, then you (as a Game Master) are going to be heavily invested in ensuring that the players use those encounters and none other. OTOH, if you can create several dozen encounters in the same time – far more than the players are likely to need in any given session – you are far more likely to allow them to make choices that determine which encounters get used.
7. Encourages GM Fiat: This is related to the speedy creation of characters and setting, as well as speeding play. It is often better for the game to make a decision and move on. You can look up the “official ruling” later, if it is important to anyone at the table, but that shouldn’t be the priority during play.
Encouraging GM fiat also allows for customization of NPCs, monsters, and game effects without requiring the GM to do homework. How much easier to write, “Is blind, but can fight as though sighted” as part of an NPC write-up, than to try to discover the sequence of feats and skills that allows the character to be created “legally”! How much easier to just an ogre’s stats the way you think they should be to fit a particular concept than to have to look for a particular template (and do the work of applying some of them)!
But encouraging GM fiat isn’t all about speed of play, or even cutting down on the GM’s homework. The very idea of a sandbox includes within it that the world is worth exploring – it is not simply a generic expression of the rules, but rather a combination of the ruleset and the vision of the Game Master. Playing in that sandbox allows for real exploration in part because the GM’s vision is as important as the game rules themselves.
This is not to say that the players are unimportant – by exercising choice within the whole, they create the actual focus of play as an amalgam of all participants plus ruleset. And encouraging GM fiat means that the GM can hold the rules as secondary to the imaginations of all participants. A cool, and appropriate, character concept need never be set aside because the rules do not account for it. Likewise, an inappropriate, but “legal”, character concept need never be allowed to drag the game down for all other participants.
Finally, if the Game Master must adhere slavishly to the rules, either there will always be a chance to fall down stairs, break bones, etc. – or such things simply will not, and cannot, happen.
Finally, a good game for a sandbox
8. Encourages Long-Term Thinking as well as Short-Term Thinking: If your game is going to last beyond a single session, or a single “adventure path”, the players must be encouraged to consider their characters’ long-term goals.
To be clear, I do not mean “long-term build” here. I don’t mean how the character will look at various character class levels. I mean, how the character wants to shape the world around him.
The ability to shape the world around you is a major feature of sandbox gaming. The game milieu begins life as the domain of the Game Master, but it does not stay so. It changes in response to PC actions, and wise players can and will learn to make those actions count. Characters clear wilderness, found towns, create castles, and become lords of the land. They determine policy, sway kingdoms, and lead men. In short, they wrest some level of control over the milieu from the Game Master, and make parts of the milieu their own.
And, if the Game Master is actually running a sandbox, this is encouraged. This is the big reward of the game. Beyond levels, beyond character power, beyond gold and jewels, is the opportunity to make your choices matter in persistent and important ways. You may be frustrated trying to do the same in the real world. You will be frustrated trying to do the same in a railroad. Your efforts may be resisted and thwarted from time to time in a sandbox, but they should also be rewarded.
After all, that’s one of the biggest draws of the game….and one thing that computer games cannot come close to matching.
The minute you accept that system matters, it then follows that you should have a system that helps meet your goals…or at least avoid systems that work against you!
For my money, the absolute best system for sandbox games available today is Stars Without Numbers, which contains such a plethora of well-made tools targeted at making and running a sandbox that it is simply without peer at the moment. For science-fiction gaming, the classic Traveller game would be well worth considering as well.
The original Gamma World game works very well in a sandbox format, as does Mutant Future.
Any early Dungeons & Dragons is good, up to (but not including) the introduction of the Player’s Option books. WotC-D&D is right out, but the “retro-clones” are right in. OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, and Labyrinth Lord (among others) are extremely sandbox-friendly.
Not only is WotC-D&D right out, but it is hard to see how either 3e or 4e meet any of the criteria for a good sandboxing game. At each turn, it seems as though the designers made choices specifically opposed to that playstyle, either through ignorance of the ramifications of their decisions, of because of a different conception of what “fun” or “the story of D&D” is.
Although the language of 3e (for instance) was inclusive of sandboxing (or “status quo” gaming), the ruleset is not. Interestingly enough, an examination of WotC modules for 3e and 4e show extremely linear adventures…and I would argue that this is an artefact of the rules as much as of the designers’ conscious decisions. Perhaps 5e will be better…..?
In any event, I would be interested in hearing the recommendations of others re: good systems for sandbox games.