The many types of Sandboxes and Open-World Campaigns

Yora

Legend
I've been pondering over the last couple of days about what people really mean when they are talking about sandboxes, hexcrawls, or West Marches campaigns. In many cases, people are simply repeating a term they've seen used for a specific campaign described with more or less detail, and assume that everyone using the term is thinking about the same parameters as in that one example. That does lead to some discussions about whether the campaign someone outlining is really a case of X as claimed, but I think even more often than that people assume they are talking about the same thing but appear to have some significantly different assumptions of what is actually being discussed.

The most simple example would be the term West Marches. That title is literally the name of one specific campaign that the creator described very well with a good amount of detail. But in addition to the play procedures and game structure, that campaign also included the aspect of being an open-table game in which the GM left it up to players to organize parties for essentially serial one-shot adventures, which have to be completed in one go, and the players can't set up adventures with identical groups for metagame reasons. Are the organizational procedures of that group an integral part of the game structure? Some people assume it is, others assume that this has nothing to do with a campaign being a West Marches campaign or not.

But you also have hexcrawls, where there isn't a clear consensus whether any campaign that uses a hex map is also a hexcrawl, or if it has to be a dungeon crawl shifted to a wilderness environment with a hexmap. And does sandbox mean the campaign just has to be open world, or does it include the additional element of the PCs changing the game world towards their desired state through their actions?

No clue where all of this might be going or if anyone has anything meaningful to respond to this. But I think that when it comes to open world campaigns, there are actually many more unspoken assumptions than commonly established parameters regarding what kind of campaign people are actually talking about. Sandbox as a term covers such a wide range of different things, that calling a campaign a sandbox might actually introduce more confusion than narrow things down. Can we do something to bring a bit more structure into this very open space of vagueness and ambiguity? Are there actually distinctively different approaches to setting up and running open-world campaigns that would make useful categories to work with?
 

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Reynard

Legend
There is also the issue of whether the "sandbox" is fleshed out or procedural. Did someone (the GM or a publisher or some combination) create all the sandbox content and now the PCs are discovering it, or do random tables and whim fill out the sandbox as the PCs explore? Or somewhere in between, with some defined locations but procedural generation in between.

As you said, there is a lot of room in the general idea and people should probably be specific when discussing what they mean.
 

payn

Legend
When folks say sandbox I just take as a general term for open world. Maybe its a strict West Marches game, a hexcrawl, or an AP like Paizo's Kingmaker. The specifics don't matter to me until they do. At that point, either the person clarifies, or I ask questions so I better understand. I just assume that's natural discourse.

Back in the identify more than linear/non-linear campaign styles thread, I didn't think you needed to define them any further. Though, your post shows that there are ways to dial it in further for understanding. So, we got some loose terminology that I wont fret over unless the person is way off like calling an adventure league module west marches for example. I do think the terms should be generally understood, but I fear the conversations here (online) often get bogged down in the weeds. Where how a person constructs their campaign is the interesting bit, but we argue over how to name it for dozens of pages instead. YMMV.
 

Yora

Legend
Which is why I've been increasingly avoiding using any technical terms over the time. Describe the thing, but don't classify the thing. Because you're only going to get people debating the classification but not contributing to the thing.

Creating more terms surely isn't going to help. Somehow people are debating what railroading is, even though the term couldn't be any more clear.

But I still find it interesting to take a closer look of what meaningful differences there are between different types of campaign within the greater sphere of open world games.

I think perhaps the most significant one to me personally is "Are codified procedures for overland travel between settlements and sites an integral part of the campaign structure?" I occasionally keep surprising myself when I remember that the answer isn't automatically yes.
 

payn

Legend
Which is why I've been increasingly avoiding using any technical terms over the time. Describe the thing, but don't classify the thing. Because you're only going to get people debating the classification but not contributing to the thing.

Creating more terms surely isn't going to help. Somehow people are debating what railroading is, even though the term couldn't be any more clear.

But I still find it interesting to take a closer look of what meaningful differences there are between different types of campaign within the greater sphere of open world games.

I think perhaps the most significant one to me personally is "Are codified procedures for overland travel between settlements and sites an integral part of the campaign structure?" I occasionally keep surprising myself when I remember that the answer isn't automatically yes.
Part of it is the hang ups. I dont really believe in the idea that something is or isnt in these campaign terms. I think of them in degrees. So, railroading may seem obvious because some folks have so little tolerance for it, but others have such expansive definitions that many playstyles are just considered bad. I have my own preferences, so I get why that's important. However, if somebody is more liberal in their definition I'm not going to argue that in the long term. Eventually, for conversations sake, I'll just go with their definition and terms if conversation is to be had. I just see alot of the terminology as a starting place and not the end point.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Mostly I think the difference between a "railroad" and totally open is like a number line, and if zero is the railroad, and ten open, most games at the table usually vary between three and seven. Sort of like freedom, everyone wants it, until it becomes anarchy.
 
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Yora

Legend
Part of it is the hang ups. I dont really believe in the idea that something is or isnt in these campaign terms.
That's just the thing that kept my up last night. "Railroading" is a thing that a GM can do. But does that mean that "a Railroad" is a thing that actually exists?
This is getting weirdly onological very quickly. :unsure:
 

Reynard

Legend
That's just the thing that kept my up last night. "Railroading" is a thing that a GM can do. But does that mean that "a Railroad" is a thing that actually exists?
This is getting weirdly onological very quickly. :unsure:
There are certainly modules that are written as railroads, but you are right in suggesting a GM has to be on board to do that. A GM can make an open world into a railroad and vice versa, regardless of the author's intent.
 

payn

Legend
There are certainly modules that are written as railroads, but you are right in suggesting a GM has to be on board to do that. A GM can make an open world into a railroad and vice versa, regardless of the author's intent.
I also think there can be mini-railroads, as in, a single dungeon crawl might have forced outcomes on the party. This might be a one time thing, or an only during these times thing. Where the campaign usually allows player agency in most other parts of the game. That is what I mean about degrees. Some folks assume GMs who railroad do so obviously, in all aspects, and thats not always the case.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Can we do something to bring a bit more structure into this very open space of vagueness and ambiguity?
I like the Alexandrian’s definition of sandbox: A sandbox campaign is one in which the players are empowered to either choose or define what their next scenario is going to be. It doesn’t nail down a specific type of sandbox, but it can be suitably descriptive when paired with an appropriate adjective.

For example, I usually refer my campaign as an “exploration-driven sandbox”. That’s because the basic premise is going out into the wilds to find out what’s there, and the PCs are empowered to decide how to go about doing it.

Are there actually distinctively different approaches to setting up and running open-world campaigns that would make useful categories to work with?
Yes. Some approaches are very high prep. They demand a lot of detail, so the GM always has an answer when the players go somewhere. In that type of sandbox, play is about experiencing the details of the setting. The approach I fell into for my game is lower prep than that (except for the part where I decided to create a homebrew system to support it, but I don’t think that’s strictly required).

Before we started, I intended to have much more detail than I have been using. I generated a setting using the procedure described in Worlds Without Number. I put it into a mind map and then never bothered to write it up into anything. I also created a hex key, but it’s remained skeletal 10+ sessions into the campaign. I’ve added details here and there, but the plan going forward is to lean into the system and what the PCs discover to add details.

One part that I think is important for an open-world campaign is having some way for the world to continue in motion outside of what the PCs are doing. There are various structures to manage this (e.g., threats/fronts from PbtA games, factions in SWN or BitD, the GM determines based on various factors, etc). What works best will probably depend on one’s inclination as a GM as well as how the rest of the campaign is prepped. For my game, I’m leaning towards something faction-like (but the details are still a bit sketchy).
 

Yora

Legend
Historically speaking, a sandbox is three dimensional representation of an environment for oppperational planning.
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When running a wargame or early proto-RPG in a sandbox, the defining characteristic is that players have full 360 degree freedom in moving their units/pieces to chose where they want to engage or avoid engagements.
In RPG terms, picking the sites and situations the players want to engage with seems like a pretty good analog. It's not just that players can choose between adventures for their next activities, but that they can pick a spot on the map and go there, and also aren't compelled to see anything through to the end once they engaged with it.
Obviously it would be good form for players to not say they want to explore the giant black tower of evil spikiness next week, and when the GM shows up with a stack of dungeon plans decide that the first hall is too spooky and go somewhere else. But taking that into consideration, they still could.

This is something quite different from when the GM asks at the end of an adventure if the players want to play Adventure B or Adventure C next.
 

Reynard

Legend
Obviously it would be good form for players to not say they want to explore the giant black tower of evil spikiness next week, and when the GM shows up with a stack of dungeon plans decide that the first hall is too spooky and go somewhere else. But taking that into consideration, they still could.
That's never a problem I have encountered. more often, the problem is:

GM: Where do you want to go?
Players: Where should we go?
GM: That's the thing -- you can go anywhere! You could go to the bandit camp you guys heard about from the smith, or to that weird obelisk on the horizon. Anywhere!
Players: So, you want us to go to the bandit camp?
GM: [prepares random dragon attack against party]
 

payn

Legend
That's never a problem I have encountered. more often, the problem is:

GM: Where do you want to go?
Players: Where should we go?
GM: That's the thing -- you can go anywhere! You could go to the bandit camp you guys heard about from the smith, or to that weird obelisk on the horizon. Anywhere!
Players: So, you want us to go to the bandit camp?
GM: [prepares random dragon attack against party]
Yes, the sandbox can have a two sides of the screen problem. The players who are not proactive and want to be lead around, and the GM that offers no hooks.

GM: Where do you want to go?
Players: Where can we go?
GM: That's the thing -- you can go anywhere! East, West, North, or even South.
Players: So, you want us to just wander until something happens?
GM: I thought you wanted a sandbox campaign!?
 

Reynard

Legend
Yes, the sandbox can have a two sides of the screen problem. The players who are not proactive and want to be lead around, and the GM that offers no hooks.

GM: Where do you want to go?
Players: Where can we go?
GM: That's the thing -- you can go anywhere! East, West, North, or even South.
Players: So, you want us to just wander until something happens?
GM: I thought you wanted a sandbox campaign!?
Yup, that too.
 

Well, the classic motivation to do anything was (and still can be) treasure. There can be other motivations, but players have to bring that to the table via their character. Stopping or helping a faction could be it’s own goal, with the dm not having a pre-set path on you the players can/should accomplish that.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Something I do to mitigate the “What do we do now?” problems is solicit goals from players. I use both individual goals and group goals (referred to as missions for clarity) to help direct play. I also tie completion of both into XP rewards.

Individual Goals: What you want to accomplish in the session. A good goal should be something concrete and attainable. If the group thinks a goal is inappropriate, you should replace it with a new one.

Group Mission: What everyone wants to accomplish in the next few sessions. A good mission should change the status quo. Adopting a mission requires group consensus.
 

Something I do to mitigate the “What do we do now?” problems is solicit goals from players. I use both individual goals and group goals (referred to as missions for clarity) to help direct play. I also tie completion of both into XP rewards.

Individual Goals: What you want to accomplish in the session. A good goal should be something concrete and attainable. If the group thinks a goal is inappropriate, you should replace it with a new one.

Group Mission: What everyone wants to accomplish in the next few sessions. A good mission should change the status quo. Adopting a mission requires group consensus.
Do you have set XP rewards or do you make them up depending on the quest?
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Do you have set XP rewards or do you make them up depending on the quest?
I have set XP rewards. Gaining a level requires spending new level × 5 XP. I’ve used variants of this in different systems. Sometimes I’ve scaled it to the system’s native XP progress, but I don’t feel it’s worth the effort unless one really wants it. Those below the median level of the party receive double XP for the session.

Individual Goals: Reward 3 XP at the end of the session when you complete either (or both) of your goals. You also gain 1 XP for each goal you help someone else in the group complete. The group can give you feedback on your decision, but you decide what counts as completed for your goals and helped for other goals.

Group Missions: Reward 3 XP at the end of the session when the group completes its mission. The group (excluding the referee) determines by consensus whether a mission was completed.
 

Yora

Legend
Yes, the sandbox can have a two sides of the screen problem. The players who are not proactive and want to be lead around, and the GM that offers no hooks.

GM: Where do you want to go?
Players: Where can we go?
GM: That's the thing -- you can go anywhere! East, West, North, or even South.
Players: So, you want us to just wander until something happens?
GM: I thought you wanted a sandbox campaign!?
The answer to that is to not give the players a blank sheet of paper with only one circle that says "you are here". With that setup, you really only can wander off into a random direction and wait for the GM to tell you that you found something.

At the very bare minimum, you need a circle that says "you are here" and an X saying "dungeon". But if you really want to give players agency, there should be three Xs that don't just say "dungeon", but rather have an evocative name that suggest something interesting, and the locals in You Are Here should be able to provide some more information about them when askes. And all three should sound meaningfully different. "Haunted Grave Mounds", "Monster-spawning abanoned mine", and "Bandit camp in the Spider Woods" for example.

However, all of this only works if the players have made characters who are looking for places that are crawling with monsters and promising treasures. Which brings up another important differentiation of sandbox campaigns:
"Are the PCs exploring the land or are they trying to accomplish something?"
A sandbox that provides plenty of opportunities to find ancient treasures has to be designed quite differently from a sandbox that provides opportunities to found a new settlement. You can even have a quest based sandbox with the established goal of "Free the land from the rule of the evil sorcerer lord." If it's up to the players to gather allies and weaken the sorcerer's forces, that'd still be very much a sandbox. But it would require a very different kind of setup in regards to what sites and people populate it.
 

Reynard

Legend
Also, a good sandbox isn't static. It's a living thing with multiple powers interacting with one another regardless of the existence of the PCs. This not only helps you figure what to do when the PCs wander off in a random direction, it also gives the PCs things to do that aren't just location based. There's a shadow war between the Assassin's Guild and the Necromancer Academy? Pick a side!
 

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