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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

dytrrnikl

Explorer
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.
To my perspective what you describe sounds an awful lot like Railroading and a rotten or inexperienced GM.
 

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scrubkai

Explorer
I have to say as a DM and a player, I prefer sandbox.
This actually mostly comes from the player side. I’m tired of wandering into what should be a really scary place and having a hard fight then winning and going into an easy place and having a normal fight and winning and wandering into an easy place and winning and winning and winning and winning. It’s been close to 20 years since we had a death in my game group not initiated by a player’s desire to change characters and probably 10 since we had to retreat from a fight.

I love the story, but the appropriate leveled area has lost all sense of risk. I read stories for the plot twists. Our games have lost that since 3rd Ed.

Note: just to be clear, we have avoided fights, when it’s clear there are overwhelming forces, but that’s normally telegraphed from a mile away, but once the dice come out and tactical combat starts, it’s always level appropriate for some reason.
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I have to say as a DM and a player, I prefer sandbox.
This actually mostly comes from the player side. I’m tired of wandering into what should be a really scary place and having a hard fight then winning and going into an easy place and having a normal fight and winning and wandering into an easy place and winning and winning and winning and winning. It’s been close to 20 years since we had a death in my game group not initiated by a player’s desire to change characters and probably 10 since we had to retreat from a fight.

I love the story, but the appropriate leveled area has lost all sense of risk. I read stories for the plot twists. Our games have lost that since 3rd Ed.
Sounds like you need to have a discussion with your group and your DM, because this seems to be a different issue than sandbox.

I always discuss this with my group during a session 0 - the game can be adjusted to any level of lethality that the group wants.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Right, so if notes can be altered at any time, then they're not any extra amount of real compared to making it up in the moment -- they cannot be. Instead, what's being smuggled in here is a GM's preference -- and it's perfectly fine to want to have largely unchanging campaign notes -- and this goes to my larger point: if you want unchanging campaign notes, the reason is not because doing so increases the "real feel" of the game, but rather for some other reason.
You guys been busy over the weekend. lol. Sorry I missed out.

I think your term "the fiction" might be where there is confusion. If you mean the story of the adventures of party X then fine of course you can't argue there story includes a dragon they didn't encounter. If though, and here is where a lot of taking it, you mean the reality of your world then you are just wrong. When I prep something and put it into the world it is in the world. It doesn't matter if the players ever encounter it or not. A lot of people are seeing you challenge the latter and of course as a result you are getting pushback.

Now, being able to change something merely because the players don't know it (yet?), doesn't mean a DM will change it. The DM will not change it in fact if they are playing in our style. And when I say won't change it, I mean for that particular period of time. The world moves along so the DM will move along all the PCs over time as well. But the fact on date XYZ, said character existed and was doing something is a truth of the campaign whether the PCs ever realize it or not.

So maybe we can call that campaign truth. I find I don't care for the term fiction anyway in regards to a roleplaying session.

I realize you have a style of play where you change things all the time even when you've prepped it. You have no regard for campaign truth. I accept that is how you play.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Except this isn't the real world, it's made up entirely, so we can't at all say what exists until it's shared with the group and entered into the fiction.
Perhaps, the fact the DM has experienced the "fiction" as you call it has made it real. When an author writes a book and no one has read it, the fiction exists. It's right there in the book.

The fact the setting is real-world Earth has either already been entered into the fiction, in which case we're on the same page, or it hasn't been, in which case the the GM can change their mind.
Well, some GMs give themselves that option and some don't. If a GM chooses to not change the fiction as a principle then he won't change the fiction. A theoretical ability to change the fiction notwithstanding. The fiction exists as we see it when the DM decides it is a campaign truth.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
To my perspective what you describe sounds an awful lot like Railroading and a rotten or inexperienced GM.
Really? You'd rather just roll the dice to see what level of threat you encounter? First level party can stumble into the lair of an ancient dragon with no forewarning? A level 20 party could wander into an area where the biggest threat is a goblin with a dull stick?

I don't do literal hex crawls, but when I give people options of what's next I've given them an idea of threat level and they can always propose something else. If they want to go after the BBEG at level 2 they can, but they will also know the level of risk they're taking. I don't see how that could be considered railroading.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
I kind of mentioned this elsewhere but let me elaborate on sandbox design.

If you remember, the megadungeons where each level of the dungeon gets increasingly harder as you go deeper, this is the way sandboxes work except they encompass both wilderness and disjoined adventure areas.

Near town, you are either in a fairly tame area or a near wildlands area. The movers and shakers of this town have dealt with the immediate threats right outside the walls. So it's fairly safe. As you get further out from civilization though you will encounter ever stronger enemies. For me the general level of bad guys in a true wilderness is around 5th level. Most 8th level groups should not have any trouble traveling overland on long journeys. A 3rd level group would be in serious danger of not making it.

In my initial sandbox area, I put the lower level stuff closer to the homebase and the harder stuff farther out. Most of the obvious for hire jobs are low level. They call you for the harder stuff. You don't advertise for a 7th level group. It's a waste of money. In any region the number available are known and you can directly contact them. Most of the time, a sandbox is there to get a group up to "name" level. 9th or 10th level. After that the group is fully ready to travel the world seeking adventure and you usually introduce them to a much larger sandbox. They often travel to a large city.
 


To my perspective what you describe sounds an awful lot like Railroading and a rotten or inexperienced GM.
not suggesting that is what the DM does do. I'm saying that is what a DM could do, and players would be none the wiser, unless they have a reasonable amount of information about the choices they are making.
 

S'mon

Legend
Really? You'd rather just roll the dice to see what level of threat you encounter? First level party can stumble into the lair of an ancient dragon with no forewarning? A level 20 party could wander into an area where the biggest threat is a goblin with a dull stick?

Why would there be no warning? People tend to notice when there are ancient dragons about. If the 3rd level PCs IMC want to go where the ancient dragons are, ok I'll run that for them.

Likewise a level 20 party can certainly enter a safe area, but the GM should use the appropriate play mode for the area - ie not tactical exploration mode, rather a brief summary. The goblin would likely not want to fight, but he might have info. I've seen PCs recruit goblin tribes to their side w good diplomacy.
 

Inchoroi

Adventurer
Yeah, I mix and match as needed. My current campaign is more of the Party variety with little in the way of Sandbox options. My last campaign was almost 100% Sandbox; there were plot elements, but they were contingent on the characters doing things. If they were too high level for it to be a challenge, that's fine, too.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Why would there be no warning? People tend to notice when there are ancient dragons about. If the 3rd level PCs IMC want to go where the ancient dragons are, ok I'll run that for them.

Likewise a level 20 party can certainly enter a safe area, but the GM should use the appropriate play mode for the area - ie not tactical exploration mode, rather a brief summary. The goblin would likely not want to fight, but he might have info. I've seen PCs recruit goblin tribes to their side w good diplomacy.

That ... was my point. To a certain degree I think sandbox vs party is not a particularly relevant question. Unless you're doing a hex crawl and you have no idea what's in the next hex so it's content may as well be random as @Paul Farquhar was stating, the challenges the party faces will likely be level appropriate.

The only thing that changes is how you get to that level appropriate encounter, and is it possible for the party to face a greater challenge than they can handle if they ignore the signs or somehow blunder into something too difficult.
 

Garmorn

Explorer
How do your players or characters know when to flee? Are you using only published monsters? It might be a carry over from Rolemaster, but in most of my games, the power of the monsters are not know to the players until they have fought them more than once and even then there are different power levels for the same monsters. Specially if the DM is using home brew versions of any of the monsters.
 

S'mon

Legend
That ... was my point. To a certain degree I think sandbox vs party is not a particularly relevant question. Unless you're doing a hex crawl and you have no idea what's in the next hex so it's content may as well be random as @Paul Farquhar was stating, the challenges the party faces will likely be level appropriate.

The only thing that changes is how you get to that level appropriate encounter

But I think that's an important difference.
1. The GM presents the party with a level-appropriate encounter. (Morrus 'Party')
2. The party seek out (what they hope is) a level-appropriate encounter. (Morrus 'Sandbox')

#1 suits some genres, eg super heroes, better than #2. 4e D&D is particularly tailored to this approach; 3e to a lesser extent - 3e PCs often tend to die very fast vs too-high-CR threats, but people have used 3e for successful sandboxing albeit within a narrower level range than 1e allows. My attempts to use 4e for sandboxing have been pretty dismal, whereas 4e is great for soap opera dramatics. :)

#2 is the more Gygaxian/Old School feel, and can feel more empowering. It also is more apt to surprise the GM with what happens, which I like. Pre-3e is built around this approach (though 2e AD&D got a bit muddled, with GMing advice often set to #1 while the mechanics remained the same as for 1e).

I think #2 suits an exploration/discovery game best, #1 suits a dramatic or melodramatic game best.
 
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S'mon

Legend
How do your players or characters know when to flee?

IME, it's either:

1. They are low level PCs confronted by some massive monster/overwhelming threat, eg 2nd level PCs spot a dragon. The PCs try to avoid combat. If it should be obvious* to the PCs in-setting I'll tell them "This red dragon is probably out of your league" or words to that effect.

2. The PCs start combat confident, but the enemy display overwhelming firepower. The PCs still standing try to recover their fallen & flee. Happened recently running a Kobold Press adventure where the 'CR 3' BBEG opened the fight with Insect Plague on the 8 level 1-2 PCs (ouch). :D

*IME the most dangerous level is 4th level. The players may be feeling quite cocky & powerful by now, but they haven't reached the Tier 2 break point yet and CR 5+ stuff or large numbers of weak foes can still easily be overwhelming. Often it's not clear the PCs will lose until too late.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
How do your players or characters know when to flee? Are you using only published monsters? It might be a carry over from Rolemaster, but in most of my games, the power of the monsters are not know to the players until they have fought them more than once and even then there are different power levels for the same monsters. Specially if the DM is using home brew versions of any of the monsters.
At my table, anything more powerful than it looks has a reputation. So (e.g.) an armored troll mercenary with 11 levels of Fighter is an infamous threat, and the PCs are likely to hear word of it long before they might encounter it.

(Note that since I run a sandbox, there is no conservation of detail: the PCs hear about the reputations of a lot of more unique foes than they end up encountering. I don't expect my players to have perfect memory or notes, so if they forget a particular bit of rumor they've already heard I will remind them.)

The most dangerous threats at my table tend to be high-level NPCs of the PC races, and there is plenty of rumor and gossip about them. If the PCs plan on confronting the archmage of one of the big mage guilds, it's pretty simple to find other mages willing to gossip about what spells the archmage is known for casting, and that can give the PCs insight into the archmage's approximate level. (I use the option in the DMG to build NPCs using PC rules, so knowing that the archmage (e.g.) routinely casts Project Image to attend nearby meetings lets the players accurately infer that the she's at least 13th level, and quite probably higher. Of course, it also lets the PCs know that since she casually uses high level spells for mundane purposes, with careful timing they may be able to catch her depleted in spell slots.)

For secretive foes, or foes that have moved into the area from far away, there will be less immediately available information from local rumor. This can be simply addressed by letting the PCs see the newcomer in combat against a third party. But it's also ok to leave an occasional foe with unknown capabilities: if the PCs are used to having intel, the lack of such intel will stand out, tipping off the PCs that active research would be a good idea prior to any confrontation. (Examples include using networking and Sending to try to find a contact of a contact who knows more about this foe, spells like Legend Lore, or even good old-fashioned scrying and mundane spying.)

Of course, all of these methods depend on a PC-driven campaign style, where encounters are drvien by the PCs' informed choices. At my table kicking down a door when you don't already know what is (or could be) on the other side is extremely dangerous, particularly at lower levels. (At higher levels the odds of randomly running into anything powerful enough to be a threat are low, and methods for escape are more reliable.)

I'm probably making it sound like my campaigns are mostly research and planning, but that isn't how it ends up. Inferring the potential range of opponents can often be simple and indirect. For example, when trying to eradicate a thieves guild, knowing that they, in aggregate, steal only a couple hundred GP-worth a year puts a pretty hard cap on how threatening (and rewarding!) their guildhouse is likely to be, because they won't be able to afford to hire or retain a large crew or anyone truly scary, nor are they likely to have much cash on hand. And the level of aggregate thefts can be inferred from the local merchants' willingness/eagerness to fund a reward. Sure, sometimes such inferences can be incorrect (maybe the guildmaster is an independently wealthy master thief who runs this crew just to stave off boredom during retirement) but foreshadowing the exceptions is straightforward.
 
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Sandbox. The other way is so unrealistic, are we playing Skyrim lol
sigh

And this is exactly why I took umbrage with Morrus' phrasing here. Skyrim is not best practices for this style of play, it is merely the most dramatically obvious "this is not real, this is a fiction" way of doing things. It's great for showing how a purely mechanic-driven structure is lacking in non-mechanical consistency, but that's both not very informative (you already knew it was purely mechanic-driven, it shouldn't surprise you that something which ONLY cares about mechanics ends up not addressing non-mechanic things!) AND attacking a strawman rather than an actual discussion.

I mean, for goodness' sake, this is equivalent to having a poll where people are asked what their preferred kind of ice cream is, and the choices are "chocolate, however you like it" and "nonfat nondairy artifically-flavored vanilla frozen dessert." Of course most people are going to say "chocolate, however you like it" and not the other one, you've gone out of your way to present the second in terms that will turn off plenty of people who actually like vanilla ice cream.

Like, I want to circle back to Tetrasodium's cited example of Torg's quantum merchant company, which doesn't exist anywhere until the DM happens to roll that it does exist where the players are right now. It's emphatically not the style you call "are we playing Skyrim," in that the company's location is completely unrelated to player choices, character level, or narrative impact: it's purely down to the roll of the dice. And yet it is just as much ungrounded (it is "so unrealistic" as you put it--I don't like that term myself), as this entity--which implicitly exists in the world, and must physically travel from place to place--exists 10% in any given town and 90% elsewhere (or whatever), and you only find out which one by opening the box.

Imagine if the choice given were between "narrative games, where encounters happen for logical reasons and get nudged forward by what will make the most satisfying experience" and "random play, where you never know what you'll fight until it happens." (Even that isn't a great comparison, because the latter at least has actual fans in D&D--the so-called "Skyrim" experience does not, and that's the whole reason I'm annoyed here.)
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
How do your players or characters know when to flee? Are you using only published monsters? It might be a carry over from Rolemaster, but in most of my games, the power of the monsters are not know to the players until they have fought them more than once and even then there are different power levels for the same monsters. Specially if the DM is using home brew versions of any of the monsters.
I always telegraph how dangerous creatures are in some form or another, plus characters can try to recall lore to see what they remember. My current sandbox hexcrawl campaign has all custom monsters so the players don't know any of them. They are generally tracking while they move through the wilderness, so if they find tracks, they can sometimes figure out what the monster is and its threat level before they encounter it, then decide if they want to avoid it or sneak up on it. If they fail to track and just stumble onto a monster, then there is usually some scrambling to determine whether it's worth fighting based on my description and any attempts to recall lore. If they decide it's too tough to fight (or just not worth it), they flee and once they are "off the map," we dump into chase rules to resolve it if the monster is the sort that gives chase.

So to sum up, this is all about the DM providing clues, the players taking active steps to mitigate risk, and having a means of resolving escape.
 
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