Playing in the Sandbox

One of the first things I was told when introduced to tabletop roleplaying games was: “you can do anything”. Like many people introduced to TTRPGs over the past decade, I came to tabletop RPGs after many years of playing video game RPGs. To someone who had only ever played video games, the idea of a game where the only limit is the imagination of the players was incredibly appealing.

One of the strengths of tabletop RPGs is their ability to break down the walls (invisible or otherwise) that are required in video games. That mountain in the distance? You can go there! The valley beyond? Yeah, why not. On, and on, until the end of the world, if that’s what you and everyone you’re playing with would like. That NPC? Maybe just a placeholder, at first, but now you’re interested in them, and what they had for dinner last night, and what their hopes and dreams are, and whoops, now they’re your character’s best friend and you’re going to go slay a dragon together. This idea is what first made me excited to try TTRPGs.

Once I finally sat down to play, though, the reality was quite different. I can do anything! But, my GM has plotted out a whole long adventure, and it does sound pretty cool, so let’s see where this plot goes. I followed along, because the story was great and I got to hang out with my friends. It was a great campaign, and I was happy to play. Following a prepared plot, either from a purchased module or from a GM’s own mind, is common in many gaming groups today, and it can be very enjoyable. If you like this style of play, that’s great, and you should continue to have fun playing the way you like! This style of play, however, is not for me.

I get frustrated when my character’s actions are made for me in an effort to keep the story on track. What’s the point of a combat encounter that the player characters are required to lose, for the sake of the plot? It does not feel good to know that the actions you are taking are guaranteed to fail no matter how hard you try (unless you explicitly signed up for that). If I’m playing a TTRPG, I don’t want the player options to be so limited.

When I play in a game with a strict plot structure, I can’t help thinking: what’s beyond that mountain on the horizon (metaphorically, or literally)? How is the world reacting to everything us players are doing? What if we stage a coup and install ourselves as the new rulers? Why do we need a group of plucky adventurers to go defeat the evil wizard at all? Can we just convince the ruler of this land to send an army? There’s no rules for that, and it would ruin the plot. I’m always craving the freedom that I was promised when I was first introduced to TTRPGs. I want to do the things that I can’t do in a video game.

That freedom, I would later learn, can be found in the form of sandbox play. Before we continue, it’s important to define what I actually mean by “sandbox”, as there isn’t exactly a universal definition of the word in TTRPG contexts. When I use the term sandbox, I am referring to a style of play that features the following elements:

  • Player-driven adventures: The GM lays out the toys in the sandbox (the world, NPCs, Factions, problems/adventure hooks, etc.), and the players decide what to build with those toys (the shape of the story).
  • High player agency: Players are free to act and solve problems in whatever way they see fit, or not at all. There’s no need for the GM to contain the player’s creativity to meet their own expectations for the story. In fact, the GM should have no expected story in mind at all, beyond predictions towards how the world will react to the players’ plans.
  • A living world: The world must react to the players’ actions, and to the players’ inaction. Regardless of what the players do, the NPCs and factions should have their own goals that they are working towards in the background, which may or may not be interrupted by the players’ own machinations. The world should not revolve around the players, but must take their presence into account. The world must always be changing, not a static background that only moves when a light is shined on it.

My good friend, the GM who first introduced me to TTRPGs, discovered sandbox-style campaigns in the form of West Marches, around the time that my main gaming group and I all went off to college. He saw it as a great way to work around the scheduling issues a bunch of college freshman at far-flung universities are bound to have. Those scheduling issues were, unfortunately, not solved. My concept of how to play TTRPGs, on the other hand, was forever changed.

This campaign, and a subsequent Stars Without Number campaign ran by that same friend, showed me just how great it is to be a player in a TTRPG sandbox. Players in sandbox campaigns get to be active drivers in the story they are playing together, more so than in any other medium. The story is created at the table, as you play, rather than being planned out beforehand. The world reacts to your character, and your character can have major impacts on the world.

Sandbox play also means that there is no guaranteed outcome to your adventure. There’s no NPC that you need to successfully convince (or kill, or not kill) to continue the plot. There is no plot, there’s only the story that you are all building as you play. At no point do you need to consider the GM’s plans for the campaign, or contort your plans to fit into an overarching story, because your plans are the story.

For example, maybe you think the “Big Bad Evil Guy” actually has a point, and you want team up with them to tear down the kingdom. In a plot-driven game, this can’t happen because it’s not how the plot is supposed to go. It would ruin the game. In a sandbox game, it’s the start to a great story. Alternatively, maybe there is no Big Bad Evil Guy at all, just a variety of NPCs with their own goals and objectives, all working to further their own cause. In a sandbox game, you can align with these people as you wish rather than making the “right choice”, or ignore them completely to find your own path.

Sandbox play means player freedom, and there is no other way I’d rather play. If you haven’t tried playing in a sandbox campaign yet, and you are given the option to, I’d encourage you to give it a try.