I believe that the ideal state that every worldbuilder aspires to is to have a setting so vivid, so well-realized, so real, that their players will immerse themselves in the game so thoroughly as to not require any GM guidance at all. This theoretical ideal state is exemplified by a style of campaign design known to most as the sandbox.
The idea is simple: if a world has enough detail and enough conflict, a GM shouldn’t need to intentionally place plot threads and hooks, they’ll evolve naturally from overarching world events and player interactions. On the surface, many GMs (including me at one point) see this and think of it as a way to avoid a contrived story, or even to avoid writing a story at all. I’m not entirely sure how true or not true this is, as there are certainly ways to keep your players entertained without a big plot (some players, at least). What is not true is that you can avoid a story and therefore avoid some work. No, you’re in for a lot more work, in fact.
There’s two things that players want in a game, insofar as event resolution goes. The first is power, and the second is agency. Power is what all of the basic GMing articles talk about, and what most published GM guides talk about. It’s reflected in the rules of all games, and it’s fairly simple. Players want to be able to do things, and see the results of their actions. Railroading is the classic example of bad GMing because it takes away player power by making the player’s abilities irrelevant. The GM does what he wants, whether the player could defeat it or not.
The second thing to keep in mind is that players want agency. This is a bit more subtle. Both power and agency are at their core about players having impact, but they’re different. In my mind, most amateur GMs ignore agency, or implement it in hamfisted ways. But before I continue, an attempt at a definition: while power is the physical ability for a player to impact the world, agency is more of a player’s ability to impact the world in a narrative sense.
So let’s give a basic example. Imagine for a minute that you are playing a sorcerer, going through a dungeon of some sort. You encounter a troll, who turns out to be a shaman (bear with me here, I’m the modern GM after all). If the troll were going to be an important NPC later, the GM could declare that the sorcerer’s fireball is useless, denying him of power. More likely, though, is that the sorcerer will kill the troll, and return to town to sell off his treasures.
This scenario alone gives the player no agency. He’s stuck in the dreaded D&D adventure treadmill, where the monsters are in the rooms because that’s what it says in the module, and the treasure is worth such and such because that’s what it says in the module. I hate that, and that is, in a nutshell, what a lack of player agency looks like.
Let’s think of a counterexample.
- The sorcerer kills the troll. The troll is the shaman of a tribe, who had gone off to the castle for some ritual. After the trolls find their shaman’s body, they lay siege to the town, demanding the shaman’s killer.
- The sorcerer sells the treasure in the town. After one or two artifacts, the merchant, who has never seen this much gold in their life, immediately buys a horse and leaves for the big city. No other buyer currently exists.
- When the trolls reach the town, it’s around the same time that this sorcerer is desperately trying to pawn the troll shaman’s treasures. Townspeople aren’t that dumb, and figure out what happened.
- The next combat is with the town guard, or an angry mob. The sorcerer now has a reputation that follows him…if he escapes town alive.
That’s agency. While power is about seeing the character do something, agency is about seeing the impact of the character’s actions. So why the long example? Because agency is the only thing that will make a sandbox work. As the GM, you are ceding your role as storyteller. You are, instead, taking a referee role, looking at the characters’ actions and figuring out what impact that would have. And this takes a lot more work. A lack of agency in a narrative campaign means you make the story move forward regardless of what the characters do, which isn’t an ideal situation. In a sandbox, a lack of agency means nothing happens. And it should be clear why that’s worse.
When it comes down to it, you don’t have a core plot, so you better be ready to let the PCs do whatever the hell they want. That being said, the players are going to tire of wandering around looking for trouble. You need a starting point, and you need some sort of direction. The players can provide the direction, but they can’t provide the starting point unless you let them. Exalted has character motivations baked in, and GURPS has advantages like Destiny and Enemies that give you some immediate conflict threads. These are only starting points, though, and won’t do the work for you when it comes to pushing the game forward.
Your players aren’t going to feel agency unless the world around them is changing due to their presence. With a strong narrative, this is effectively faked with the storyline, as the characters are in theory advancing the plot through their actions. In a sandbox, you need to show the characters’ impact in a more direct way, and one you should put less forethought into. My preferred way comes out of Mike Pondsmith’s playbook (which shouldn’t be surprising given my previous post), and involves treating relevant organizations in the game as characters. To move back to my awkward D&D analogies, each organization should have a set of powers, similar to daily, at-will, and encounter powers from 4e. Depending on how much the characters’ piss them off, they use progressively more impactful abilities. A police department may start by sending a patrol car to monitor the PCs’ hideout, but if your games are anything like mine, that escalates to SWAT team pretty quick.
Your players should also see indirect impact of their handiwork. If an evil lord is vanquished, maybe their Barony starts to become more prosperous. Maybe people start talking about them, maybe they start getting recognized places. Maybe they have paparazzi dogging them, or maybe some kid takes a potshot. In one of my Cyberpunk games, I had a player who ignored all common sense when it came to wielding and using firearms in public. Eventually, he became “the most famous assassin in the world”, which is a pretty bad title for an assassin to have. That’s a heavy-handed example, but it goes to show: in these games, your characters are exceptional people, and exceptional people almost always get recognized by society at large.
Of course, what will make a campaign successful is if in all this agency and power, the party feels a cohesive goal come together. You wrote a world filled with conflict, started the players off with a good thread or two, and now the party’s role in the world is becoming more defined. In my mind, if a successful narrative campaign is like a movie, or miniseries, then a successful sandbox campaign is like a TV show. There are new challenges in each “episode”, but the intent is not to reach an end. This does change some things when it comes to advancement (it’s hard enough to keep track of everything and make things interesting while still fighting power creep), and it makes it more important to make the challenges unique. Of course, if there is an overarching plot line (think Burn Notice), it’ll be much more fun if you occasionally put your narrative cap on and run a season finale. Similarly, there will be a point in time where the series will end. Let your players bask in how things have changed in their universe, and the part they played in it. Then you can build your next sandbox.
In short: Sandboxes require writing. Let your players do things, and be prepared to show them the consequences. Keep all NPCs up your sleeve, and be prepared to make anything interesting a conflict thread. Encourage your players to do things by making the consequences and subsequent events interesting. Even without a plot, don’t fear the presence of natural conclusions. We’ll see if I can pull that off, I’ll be reporting on the first session of my new game after it happens on Sunday.