Freeform worlds are a truly wonderful thing. They are extremely realistic and offer a lot for the players to explore. But they can also be a source of endless frustration and must be handled with care.
I both GM and play in sandbox world games. My world is a perpetual sandbox that is best described as simulationist. I know what the factions of the world are all up to and keep track of it and the players can do whatever they want. If they choose not to go play with the plot, then the world might be doomed. But since they can choose to do anything they want, frequently my players have stumbled upon unique solutions to problems. Today, I’m going to tackle the sandbox world from the view of a GM and a player.
The GM’s Perspective
So you want to run a sandbox. Here’s the first thing to realize. Your players are going to sit around lost for a while every so often. It happens. Give them tools for finding out where things they may be interested in may be happening. Make sure that when they first create their characters, that they know the world is a sandbox. Most importantly, be prepared for them to hare off in a random direction. Since you’re not railroading your players through a preset storyline, they can go anywhere. Sure, the plot may not be there, but they may really want to be. Lets take my world for an example. I run Nightshade Academy, a school for young magic users. Frequently, the characters run around doing normal student things, like getting in trouble. But sometimes, they end up saving the kingdom. Don’t expect your players to be able to find everything interesting in your world immediately, and don’t expect them to be drawn to your plot. Let them explore.
How do I tell my story if the players can go anywhere? Make them want to play it. My sandbox world started with an airship attacking the school, which was the precursor to a very large plot that the players are pretty much all involved in at this point. To go one step further, I made all the antagonists be adults and the people who needed saving be, for the most part, younger than the player characters. Give your players chances to be heroes and have the plot periodically come to them and they will want to play. Even if just one big event happens where they can’t avoid it, they may wonder why it happened and go looking for more.
They found the plot, and then they didn’t do anything with it! What do I do? Did they do nothing or are they confused? Its possible that your players are trying to figure out how to find more, but its also possible they just don’t care about your story. If they’re lost, give them a way to find more. An NPC to talk to or a way to do research works wonders. Either way, even if they don’t seem to care, then just keep track of how your plot is progressing and have it run its course, changing the world. Maybe they choose to get involved and maybe they will get involved later on or maybe they might get to spend the second half of the game fighting against what they allowed to happen.
The Player’s Perspective
So you’re playing in a sandbox world. One of the most important things you need to realize is that the GM is not going to spoonfeed you plot. You need to go out and look for interesting things to do. Your character has to have motivations and goals, they have to have a reason for doing things. Having a good backstory is even better, because it means that the GM can tie you into their stories, or write new ones about your character. You can also leave parts of your backstory open for the GM, just like in any other tabletop, but in a sandbox where everyone can be working on discovering or exploring whatever they want, it is more likely that your story will be heard.
I can’t find the plot! What do I do? Well, here are some things you can try. Is there any kind of divinatory or scrying magic in the world setting? You could do a general sweep for interesting things, the GM might just throw you something for trying. You can go explore, or try to achieve some of your character’s goals. You can see if any of the other characters have goals they are trying to achieve. Listen to rumors, if there are any. Go talk to interesting sounding NPCs, you never know who they might turn out to be. Whatever you do, don’t just stand around doing nothing. If you want to get the most out of a sandbox game, you need to get up and do things and meet people. Seize the day.
I have so many options! What should I do first? That depends almost entirely on your character, but it also depends on how you will have the most fun. Does something sound more interesting than something else? Then go try it. There are no boundaries to what you can do, so go do things that you will find fun.
Playing in a sandbox is like being in the woods when there are no trails. Its what you make of it.
Do you run sandboxes? Do you play in them? Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Leave a comment!