Breaking the Cycle

August 26, 2008

A Look at Roleplaying in a Sandbox

The gaming group has been meeting for years, they’ve had their triumphs and their tragedies in their exploration of the World of Darkness. Their Storyteller has promised them a new story is starting tonight, one that will shake the very foundation of their Vampire: the Requiem game. So they gather around the table, their character sheets in front of them, their dice at the ready. The Storyteller looks at them all and says:

“You have been called before the Prince this evening. He knows you’ve proven your loyalty to him on more than one occasion and feels that you are the only ones left that he can even consider trustworthy. He has discovered a plot against him, the Carthian Movement’s Prefect has gained the support of the Ordo Dracul and are going to try to displace him. You have all been chosen to-“

“Again!” One of the players interrupts, “Didn’t we do the same thing with the Circle of the Crone’s Hierophant last time we played Vampire?”

Another player chimes in, ”Oh yeah, and don’t forget the time the Deacon of the Silver Ladder asked us to take care of the Scelectsi that were setting up downtown.”

“I was really hoping that my Sanctified would get a chance to seek out the beginnings of a hidden Theban ritual,” the third player adds.

“I’m sorry guys,” the Storyteller tells them, “But I thought you all would like this. I’m not really prepared for anything else right now.”

It really happens more times than Storytellers care to admit. Sometimes the well of ideas runs a little dry and the pressure of giving another great story leads to recycling or rehashing previous plots or even just coming up with something that feels forced and out of place. Add to that the fact that many roleplayers have their own set of desires and goals for their characters that can often be accidently ignored in favor of the plot of the Storyteller.

What is the solution then? Crafting storylines can be very tough, especially for any set of regular gaming groups. The storyteller is usually under a lot of unseen pressure to put on the best story he can that will entertain and engage his players. But the burden can be shared, the players can become nearly as responsible as the Storyteller for making sure the game is engaging to them and challenging to the storyteller.

The answer is an advanced setting design called a “Sandbox.”

What is a Sandbox

A sandbox setting is a video game term originally, a reference to the open ended nature of certain goal oriented games like Grand Theft Auto and Massive Multiplayer Online games. In the context of a roleplaying game a sandbox setting is a reference to a setting with no single story, instead it is a setting that deals with tiny plots and scenarios that are laced through the entire setting (in most World of Darkness games this tends to mean a single city or region of the world). Instead of a single overarching storyline, the default assumption of most roleplaying games, the players are let loose in a living setting that reacts to them just as they react to it.

The goal of the sandbox setting is to allow players to stretch their legs and think for themselves. In this setting the only time the players are told to do something or ordered by the higher ups is when their own actions cause it to happen. It is a new type of contract between the Storyteller and the players. The players seek out action, the Storyteller gives them the action they desire.

Defining the Sandbox

A true sandbox setting has many advantages over what is considered the traditional “storyline” based system of roleplaying. The sandbox setting allows players to feel like their decisions and goals are listened to and are more important. The Storyteller rarely has to worry about the much-hated issue of railroading. With the sandbox, the setting seems to come alive as things to be constantly happening.

Players love to think that they matter the most, and its true. In all honesty, the players are a needed aspect of any game, and without them, there is no game. Often however, the players feel somewhat lost in the liner stories that are placed in front of them. With the freedom of the sandbox the players drive their own plot, make their own stories and seek out their own goals. In this sense, the players become the true main characters of the story, with their actions driving the story rather than being driven.

The elimination of liner storyline in favor of a player driven plot system there is a general elimination of the concept of “Railroading” in the game. Railroading is when a Storyteller’s plot becomes so inflexible that they players feel like they have no alternative but to blindly follow it. It is a very unpopular gaming tactic that basically makes players feel as if they are just along for the ride, hence the nickname. Once the sandbox setting is put in place, the ability to railroad generally disappears as the plot becomes the tool of the players just as much as the Storytellers.

A interesting illusion is created by the sandbox, one that can breathe new life into a setting. That illusion is literally a sense of evolution and growth. When the players control and own the plots around them, their issues will create ramifications and consequences that could not be foreseen. These complications create new plot to a Storyteller who is ready to pick up the ball and run with it. As this happens the players find themselves reacting and being reacted too. A sense of a true living setting, that grows and changes all the time is created from this exchange of reactions.

Much time and effort goes into the creation of a sandbox styled setting. It, as said earlier, can seem very daunting to the Storyteller. So how do you make it manageable? By breaking down the process and making sure you make a solid foundation for the sandbox. A sandbox setting lives and dies by its creation process. Without the NPCs, the plots and intrigues and the adaptability it will easily fail.

The first thing to note about any sort of sandbox design is that it isn’t an on/off switch. There are different levels of “sandbox” to put into your setting. The tone of the article has been and will continue to be that you are creating a true sandbox where all plot is initiated or stumbled on by the players without the Storyteller’s prodding. However it is just as possible to make a sort of hybrid where you have a sandbox setting sitting underneath a large plot that the Storyteller prods the players into entering.

Every group will find their own happy medium between freedom and structure and its important to discuss with your group what they feel about it. Its all about everyone having fun, Storyteller and players can and should work together to makes sure the setting achieves the goals of everyone involved.

It is honestly beyond the scope of this article to completely detail the process of making a setting. There are some very good books out there for helping a Storyteller build his setting, in particular is the Vampire: the Requiem book “Damnation City.” So this section will deal more with what is most important to a sandbox setting, trusting in the Storyteller’s who

  1. NPCs

It is a given that in any good setting needs good and compelling NPCs. The NPCs are the backbone to any story, regular or one run in a sandbox. In a sandbox however the NPC plays on additional role. Plot Hook. Every important NPC should be a plot hook in and of itself, one that when they show up, the players will be able to interact with them and have it lead somewhere. This alone can seem like too much.

The trick to it seems to lie in the ability to interrelate NPCs. The players in a sandbox setting may control the plot but they do not live in a vaccum. The NPCs should have their own goals and desires on top of the ones of their various organizations and groups. They NPCs should know each other at least by reputation and have plans and schemes in their minds. They should have their own friends and enemies and cabals that can be used to initiate conflict and plot.

Once every important NPC (the movers and shakers here, not the mooks) has this sort of detail attached to them it becomes significantly easier to have every NPC matter to any story or plot the player seeks out on his own. They form a true foundation to the setting that will be their to fall back onto in any situation.

  1. Plots and Scenarios

The life’s blood of a sandbox setting is the tiny plots and scenarios that lie in wait for the players to stumble upon them. These tend to be tied to the players in some way through their group affiliations, their templates or even their personal lives like friends and loved ones. These plots and scenarios are more or less triggered by the players depending on their needs to the story.

The role of these plots is to create complications for the players outside their own types of schemes and aspirations. Without these additional monkey wrenches the players would easily find their goals attained and not have anything to side track them from their desires. They become speedbumps for the speed and pace of the stories the players begin to create. With them the game stays interesting and fresh even as their goals and achievements continue to climb.

  1. Repeat

Working on a sandbox setting is never done. It has to constantly evolve and react to the events that have occurred during play or else it burns itself out. The best way to keep the setting alive is to repeat the first two steps, continue to build on introduced NPCs, continue to add new NPCs, find new plots and scenarios to be uncovered. If the possibility for story is constantly replenished, your players can always find more to do with the setting.

Once you have established the setting and built in the sandbox the game is ready. Besides the upkeep from session to session there is very little pressure on the Storyteller to be constantly churning out new stories, specifically because the players are doing just that on their own. Instead the Storyteller needs to refresh his bag of tricks from time to time to keep up with the expanding plot.

The Pitfalls of running a sandbox

The sandbox setting in many ways is very hard to get running correctly, besides just the disadvantages of the style, the difficulties of creating the setting, there are other pitfalls that can stop the game dead in its traps. They are overcome by continuing preparation and cooperation between both Storyteller and players.

When a sandbox works, it works well; when a sandbox fails, it fails horribly. Sandbox settings take much more planning and preparation on the front end by the storyteller. With that preparation, the planning of the setting becomes equally as important; easily being the death knell of any sandbox setting. Improvisation and adaptability are just as important to a sandbox setting as planning does. The players also play a huge part of the sandbox and an apathetic player can be the bane to the setting, rendering it inert and lifeless.

Sandboxes take much longer to put together and design. It requires the Storyteller’s willingness to detail out most everything while also knowing the setting enough for the players to be able to go anywhere and find conflict. The very idea of making a setting that detailed can be daunting to even the most experienced Storytellers. Since it is the most important part of a sandbox, it is also the first stall point. If the Storyteller cannot put the effort on the front end of the setting, then the back end will simply, just fall flat.

Worse yet is the idea of not truly thinking everything through when designing the setting. This issue becomes one where the Storyteller makes their setting but it loses a sense of internal consistency do to small nagging problems in the design. These mostly appear in NPC design and plot lines, they seem to not truly seem connected and fall flat. Since the sandbox is dependent on these aspects of setting design more so than a traditional storyline setting, when those aspects are badly designed, the whole setting falls.

Improvisation represents the most important aspect of the sandbox setting. Usually when a game in a sandbox setting begins there is no set opening storyline, only an opening scene. This means that every moment past that opening is completely improvised. A Storyteller running a sandbox setting needs to be able to adapt quickly and improvise things he is not fully prepared for. If he is unable to make changes to fit the needs of the story’s progress he will find himself stone walled with no real direction on what is to occur. When this happens, the entire game falls apart.

As stated earlier, the players take a huge amount of power in a sandbox setting; if the players aren’t up to the challenge the game will quickly flop. In a traditional setting the Storyteller tends to control the flow and direction of the game. Determining where it goes and how quickly it moves. In a sandbox setting the players have just as much influence in the game, since it is their actions and desires that direct the story. In these cases the sandbox can quickly devolve back into a more traditional type of game as the players are lead around, once again, by their Storyteller because they are unsure of what to do on their own.

Experienced players can usually take to a sandbox readily, specifically because they already have their own ideas of what they want to do with their characters and are waiting for the chance to take the lead. However an unprepared player in a sandbox can be just as much trouble as an unprepared Storyteller.

When beginning to run a game using any sort of sandbox level make sure the players understand their obligations to the type of setting. They need to know that their proactivity is expected and encouraged for the story to continue forward. Also each player should considered both in-character and out-of-character goals that they have for the characters. These goals can help them decide on the actions they wish to take in game.

The players’ group also plays a more important role in the sandbox setting. If the players do not have mutal goals that can achieved together, a gaming session can easily be reduced to nothing more than a Storyteller going to each player separately to determine what they are doing and run their scenes. The slow down in the game is nothing but a drag on the other players who do not get to stay active during these scenes. Therefore it is imperative that the players’ sit together before starting a sandbox styled chronicle and determine their reasons for being together outside of “we’re all the players.” The goals of the group need to be expressed as much as the individuals.