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D&D 5E Do You Prefer Sandbox or Party Level Areas In Your Game World?

Sandbox or party?

  • Sandbox

    Votes: 150 66.7%
  • Party

    Votes: 75 33.3%

  • Total voters
    225
So these are two approaches that campaigns can (and do) use. They have various names, but I'm using these names. I've used both approaches in the past.

Obviously there is more nuance than the definitions below, but these are two possible extreme ends of the poll when voting feel free to choose whichever end you tend towards, or embellish in the comments.

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Sandbox -- each area on the world map has a set difficulty, and if you're a low level party and wander into a dangerous area, you're in trouble. The Shire is low level, Moria is high level. Those are 'absolute' values and aren't dependent on who's traveling through.

Party -- adventurers encounter challenges appropriate to their level wherever they are on the map. A low level party in Moria just meets a few goblins. A high level party meets a balrog!

Which do you prefer?
 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

daviddanitan

Låne Penger
I couldn't agree more! :)


BR
David Danitan
Lånepenger.no

I like sandbox but with story opportunities. For characters at any level.

The Troll Bogs are full of trolls, way too dangerous for 1st - 3rd Level Characters. But there are other exploration or social encounters they can have there, such as hiding from trolls, gathering strange plants that grow there, etc.

I actually do kinda both.

If I have setpieces, they'll be whatever level made sense when I created it. The Vampire is still CR 13 even if the party wants to challenge them at level 4.

But for stuff like random encounters or something I'm preparing a week or two in advance, I'll have things appropriately leveled so that the party doesn't randomly encounter the Elder Brain at level 1.
 

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I know right? It's easy to get swept up in an argument and forget what we're actually trying to accomplish. Last week, @Morrus asked us to pick our favorite of two different (and equally-valid) approaches. It looks like most of us prefer Sandbox, and that's cool.

But now we're insulting each other for not picking the correct answer, and making each other angry over "shared fiction experiences" or what-have-you, and that's not cool.
Personally I prefer to don’t know how my DM runs its game.
When I heard a DM talk about CR, random encounter, sandbox, I wish that he hide them a little bit more.
DM choose whatever they feel best to run their games, but if it don’t work I just hope they don’t stick on a style for ethic or philosophical reasons.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I'm not sure if this topic has been brought up, but I feel like there are different "modes" of Sandbox Games.

I feel like the West Marches style is on one end of the spectrum. If I understand it correctly, the West Marches style relies almost entirely on the players choosing areas to explore and organizing other players or characters.

But I also feel that more story-driven games can also have sandbox "areas." In my current game the valley the characters are in is divided into areas, each meant for a different level. There are towns and such that the characters can go into, but if they wander the wilderness or try to attack local enemies they will be facing threats out of their reach. It means a lot of fleeing or stealth instead of straight-up fighting. It also means when they return to a low-level area they feel very powerful!
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I'm not sure if this topic has been brought up, but I feel like there are different "modes" of Sandbox Games.
For sure. In some Sandbox games the DM needs to still dangle hooks with whatever items of interest are local to where the PCs are at. In other Sandbox games the DM does not have to do that. Usually when he has one or more very proactive players that set their own goals and go at the world. There the DM is very reactive to player desire. And I'm sure there are other Sandbox varieties.
But I also feel that more story-driven games can also have sandbox "areas." In my current game the valley the characters are in is divided into areas, each meant for a different level. There are towns and such that the characters can go into, but if they wander the wilderness or try to attack local enemies they will be facing threats out of their reach. It means a lot of fleeing or stealth instead of straight-up fighting. It also means when they return to a low-level area they feel very powerful!
Areas meant for different levels go against what I know Sandboxes to be. In a Sandbox, the world is set up with stuff from low level to high level mixed where appropriate and the PC can go wherever. Take the Forgotten Realms for instance. That world is very in depth and has low mid and high level stuff set out already. A 1st level group can decide to wander into Hellgate Keep or Myth Drannor if they want to. The group will be rolling new PCs if they do, but they can decide to do that. In Waterdeep there will be common thugs on the streets, and vampires. There really isn't a low level safe area to go back to.
 

Ogre Mage

Adventurer
It depends on how clearly marked and defined the boundaries are.

If the high, mid and low level areas have very clearly defined boundaries -- i.e. the players know exactly what sort of area they will be entering into -- then sandbox.

If the boundaries are not clear then I prefer party level.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well that's not because one is more real than the other, so what's the reason?
Except that it is, or at least I can't think of a better term for it. Solid, maybe? Or, solid-feeling? The sense, anyway, that the setting isn't shaping itself around what I do or what my dice roll (1); instead the setting is what it is and I have to shape my actions to suit it (2).

Thus, if I'm looking for Prof. Higley no amount of fancy dice-rolling on my-as-player part is going to put him in Singapore with me-as-PC (1) if he's in fact in Manila. Instead, I-as-PC have to go to Manila and start looking there (2) if I'm to have any hope of finding the guy.

The (1) and (2) designators are just to link the example to the corresponding statement above.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
@Lanefan it feels like your turning a blind eye to things in order to split hairs needlessly fine in defense of unintroduced gm notes=just as real as introduced shared fiction. Earlier you talked about the setting specifically so I'll stick to that path with an example. In the eberron setting there are a bunch of reasons behind what caused the day of mourning & many of them have been very strongly implied as the possible cause in various printed eberron books. This makes for a good example of something that can exist within a GM's notes & never be "real" until the shared fiction somehow proves one or starts disproving others
I'll have to take your word for this as I've never really looked at anything Eberron. :)
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
I'll have to take your word for this as I've never really looked at anything Eberron. :)
Fine....
Except that it is, or at least I can't think of a better term for it. Solid, maybe? Or, solid-feeling? The sense, anyway, that the setting isn't shaping itself around what I do or what my dice roll (1); instead the setting is what it is and I have to shape my actions to suit it (2).

Thus, if I'm looking for Prof. Higley no amount of fancy dice-rolling on my-as-player part is going to put him in Singapore with me-as-PC (1) if he's in fact in Manila. Instead, I-as-PC have to go to Manila and start looking there (2) if I'm to have any hope of finding the guy.

The (1) and (2) designators are just to link the example to the corresponding statement above.
So what happens when the notes about the guy say
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Are you still not seeing the difference between in notes & introduced into the shared fiction? Under that situation the npc is schrodinger's cat both in & not in every town but the one the players are in until he's found.
 

cbwjm

Hero
Except that it is, or at least I can't think of a better term for it. Solid, maybe? Or, solid-feeling? The sense, anyway, that the setting isn't shaping itself around what I do or what my dice roll (1); instead the setting is what it is and I have to shape my actions to suit it (2).

Thus, if I'm looking for Prof. Higley no amount of fancy dice-rolling on my-as-player part is going to put him in Singapore with me-as-PC (1) if he's in fact in Manila. Instead, I-as-PC have to go to Manila and start looking there (2) if I'm to have any hope of finding the guy.

The (1) and (2) designators are just to link the example to the corresponding statement above.
I do like to have things progress in my world, in much the same way the Prof. Higley is moving about, people in the world are also progressing their plans. If the players spend a bit of time doing X, Bad Guy McVillain is off doing Y so if the players aren't stopping him then I can keep track on how well they are doing. I might only do it on a fairly local scale depending on the game, but it's something I like to do. It also means the players can impact the villain's plans if I've foreshadowed it correctly so they know about them and work to stop them.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Except that it is, or at least I can't think of a better term for it. Solid, maybe? Or, solid-feeling? The sense, anyway, that the setting isn't shaping itself around what I do or what my dice roll (1); instead the setting is what it is and I have to shape my actions to suit it (2).
And this goes directly to the skilled play motivation I was talking about!
Thus, if I'm looking for Prof. Higley no amount of fancy dice-rolling on my-as-player part is going to put him in Singapore with me-as-PC (1) if he's in fact in Manila. Instead, I-as-PC have to go to Manila and start looking there (2) if I'm to have any hope of finding the guy.

The (1) and (2) designators are just to link the example to the corresponding statement above.
The thing is, the difference isn't one of realism, but rather expectation. You expect that you can, with skilled play, discover the location of Higley through learning and deciphering the clues yourself. This is what you jam on. So, when the game does this, you're happy. You're not happy when the game instead presents fiction to you that isn't because you deciphered it but because it "reacted" (for want of a better term) to you. This violates the sense of skilled play because D&D doesn't really provide the levers for skilled play in this environment, and it's a different kind of skilled play anyway (although not that different, really). This isn't about the world being more "real" but rather what kind of game you prefer to play.
 

Xeviat

Community Supporter
Supporter
I voted for party. Though I have most of my world designed to some degree, adventures are usually designed to fit the PCs. Especially because we're running online and I'm heavily into using maps, there's an amount of railroading that we've come to accept, so I can't run entirely sandboxy games unless it was a premade adventure with tons of material made for it.
 

I do a mix. I set events in motion and the player's are always free to pursue or abandon whatever thread they want. On the other hand, I'll make it clear if they are biting off more than they can chew.

I also dangle plot hooks and events for them to choose from that are level appropriate. I don't have a problem if they need to do a valiant retreat now and then, but I also want them to get a sense of accomplishment.
Exactly this.

@Morrus I think you have badly misrepresented the way the "Party" method works. IMO, you have fallen into the trap of assuming a Skyrim-like "absolutely everything dynamically shifts to be perfectly within a +1/-1 level range of the party." You generally wouldn't (for example) have radically uneven difficulties over a handful of nearby hexes in a hexcrawl sandbox, by which I mean "level 1 and 2 adjacent to level 18 and 20 adjacent to level 3 and 4 adjacent to level 19" etc. in such WILDLY swinging values, even though you COULD do so, because doing that is emphatically NOT best practices for an enjoyable sandbox. Likewise, a world where everything is in perfect lockstep with the players by DM fiat is not best practices for an enjoyable "party" game as you call it.

Instead, as Oofta says, you plan some things out with an eye toward what makes sense, but that involves two opposing patterns: ecology, and behavior (both from and toward the PCs). Ecology says that situations exist, independent of PC participation or observation. If I know an enemy faction is active in an area, and I know the party has been informed of this, I don't feel bad making things tougher if the party decides to focus their efforts elsewhere. I don't punish focusing on Big Serious Problems or the like, the PCs have a lot on their plates and can't solve every problem in a day. But serially ignoring an addressable threat means that threat can and should advance, fester, intensify. For more passive things, problems may stay the same or get worse, depending on their nature: a rat infestation that's been around for a while likely won't suddenly get horrific, but if giant bees have been moving in from elsewhere, bee attacks will likely increase over time.

On the flipside, there's the behavior of people toward the party, and of the party toward the world. The party doesn't want to be always doing stuff beneath their skills, they want to make good money, fight problems that will make the most difference, and help allies as much as possible. It is in their interest to avoid wasting time on small fires when there are big ones to put out first. And both enemies and allies, potential or actual, will want to account for the party if it's reasonable to expect their involvement...and NOT account for them if it wouldn't be reasonable to. A crooked shopkeeper doesn't buy the absolute best locks money can buy; he buys locks that he feels confident no robber is likely to break, within his means. The PCs, even early on, are more skilled than random thieves, and thus a challenge meant by the shopkeeper to be beyond the reach of Jane Doe thief is likely NOT beyond the PCs' reach. And if they're being hired for jobs (which is quite common), the contractee is almost certain to be filtering out applicants who seem too weak to do the job, or those who seem overqualified and thus likely to demand higher payment for their skills.

So, on the one hand, some things in the world may fester or stay the same, whenever they aren't tackled by the party. On the other, the party AND agents in the world can both set rational principles for why a particular scenario or challenge is at, below, or above the party's skills. The interplay of these two forces is what makes a vibrant, enjoyable "party-style" game: the players have every reason to expect that a quick warehouse job will be easy (though extra wrinkles or perks* may come into play!), while also expecting that if they get a job it will reasonably fit their skills unless they've acted to prevent that, and knowing that if they ignore a threat it will often get worse.

*e.g. that warehouse job: for a lower-level party, simply getting in and getting out alive may be the challenge. For a high level party, they can instead shoot for a perfect ghost run: not just getting the goods/secrets, but doing so without anyone being the wiser? Absolutely a wrinkle, but one that befits the skills of a talented party and which can fully justify a higher-difficulty challenge in a "low-level" situation.
 

Except that it is, or at least I can't think of a better term for it. Solid, maybe? Or, solid-feeling? The sense, anyway, that the setting isn't shaping itself around what I do or what my dice roll (1); instead the setting is what it is and I have to shape my actions to suit it (2).

Thus, if I'm looking for Prof. Higley no amount of fancy dice-rolling on my-as-player part is going to put him in Singapore with me-as-PC (1) if he's in fact in Manila. Instead, I-as-PC have to go to Manila and start looking there (2) if I'm to have any hope of finding the guy.

The (1) and (2) designators are just to link the example to the corresponding statement above.
IMO, as I said above, this is comparing best-practices sandbox style to worst-practices "party" style. You have ensured the former features the groundedness, while ensuring the latter cannot, even in principle.

Working off the example of the quantum target, which 10% exists and 90% doesn't exist in any given town, we can see an example of an intensely ungrounded but clearly in your terms "(2)-style" (it has no care for what actions the players take!) situation. By comparison, a best-practices "party" style would figure out a rational idea of where the target would wander to and then place both carrot and stick prompts in front of the party to encourage them to run into the target when it would be thematically appropriate to do so. This preserves the grounded nature of the target--its movements have nothing to do with the party's choices--yet naturalistically encourages events to happen in a narratively and mathematically appropriate context.

Just as with best-practices sandbox play, you cannot GAURANTEE perfect success without creating problems and weakening the groundedness of the experience. Accepting that your solutions will always be approximate and needing player buy-in is arguably the first step on the journey of learning best practices for either style. But it is perfectly possible to play a highly grounded "party-style" game, just as it is perfectly possible to play a highly non-grounded sandbox-style game--and, in general, best practices for each style lead toward more, rather than less, groundedness. There may still be some lingering differences, but they will not be nearly as extreme as the example you gave.
 


R_Chance

Adventurer
Well, jumping in to the far end on this one...

Sandbox. Areas have a given level of danger, but there are clues as to what it is and border zones where you can get your toes wet and decide if you want to proceed forward. My players are pretty good at taking hints, researching areas etc. So, generally not a problem. In original D&D the classic example was levels in the dungeon. The deeper you went the more dangerous (and rewarding) it got.

I do plant adventure "seeds" in areas that may take the PCs on an extended adventure leading them from point to point to point. Not one of those "level 1 to 20" adventure path things though. Generally aimed at a closer level grouping (i.e. low level , mid level, high level) and started in an appropriate area / way. Players are free to follow up on these, or not and may abandon them at any point (which may have ramifications / consequences of course).

I also have campaign events that alter areas changing the danger level, type of encounters etc. A war / conflict for example, be it between 2 local barons or an invading force against local forces. Plague is another good one. Well, my players wouldn't describe it that way. Diseases are spirits in my game, so it's kind of an invasion... natural disasters are good too, although nature is pretty much a matter of spirits in my game too.
 

S'mon

Legend
I voted for party. Though I have most of my world designed to some degree, adventures are usually designed to fit the PCs. Especially because we're running online and I'm heavily into using maps, there's an amount of railroading that we've come to accept, so I can't run entirely sandboxy games unless it was a premade adventure with tons of material made for it.
I find online VTT play is brilliant for sandboxing as I can have umpteen maps, including generic ones, set up and ready to use wherever the PCs go. Covid-Times is the first time I've run a multi party sandbox in the same campaign area, got 3 groups in my Faerun/Damara campaign and it's Roll20 that makes it possible.
 


dytrrnikl

Explorer
Sandbox. Areas have a given level of danger, but there are clues as to what it is and border zones where you can get your toes wet and decide if you want to proceed forward.
This right here. It all comes down to choice, whether it's to go traipsing off towards TPK level danger or to go to stomp on a few ant hills first...GMs give you the information make a choice, you've got to accept the consequences of that choice regardless of the outcome.
 

The thing about choice is it's meaningless without information on which to base your decisions. It is, in effect, just random. And player side there is no difference between random and "the DM chooses". The DM could create a series of encounters, and no matter where the players go on the map run the encounters in the order written. The players would have no way of telling the difference.
 

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