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Sandbox Games, can it be applied to RPGs?

Started by David C, May 10, 2009, 08:21:15 AM

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David C

Sandbox games are very popular in the video game world.  You have Grand Theft Auto and The Sims selling more copies than anything else in the market.  I know when I play tabletops, one of the things that can be a lot of fun is  a sandbox style game.  In this case, the GM is very free flowing with letting players pursue whatever goals they want. 

What makes a game a sandbox game is basically a whole bunch of hooks presented very quickly.  In the Sims, you have a whole bunch of mood attributes to baby sit and you have to pick and choose what to do to keep your sim "positive."  In GTA, there's cars driving around town to steal as well as a whole bunch of people wanting you to drive and shoot things for them. 

But I have to wonder, can you make a game *system* that does this well?  Hooks are usually created by the GM.  Even in very directed storytelling games, generally the GM presents a unique scenario. 

What are your thoughts?
...but enjoying the scenery.


There was a very comprehensive discussion on this a few months back.

I remember this because it was one of the things that helped to focus some of the notions of my Quincunx project.

If I remember correctly, the general consensus was that sandboxing is definitely possible, but most system require a lot of work from the GM for it to be effective, and very few have mechanisms that enable this sort of play.

I'll see if I can find it and I'll offer a link.

A.K.A. Michael Wenman
Vulpinoid Studios The Eighth Sea now available for as a pdf for $1.


Here's three quick links to "sandbox" threads I've been involved in.




Hope they help, otherwise we can always discuss new ideas.

A.K.A. Michael Wenman
Vulpinoid Studios The Eighth Sea now available for as a pdf for $1.


For me, a sandbox rpg is an rpg where the players choose what to do. Obviously, this is the case in most rpgs, but what I'm trying to say is, the players can choose the themes, the sub-setting (yes, this is a horror game, but it's a criminal horror game!) and what the game is all about.
To illustrate, something I'm adding to my game Dark Days is the option for players to ignore most of the setting and play a different kind of game. I mean, if you could sprout tentacles and see the future, what's stopping you from robbing a bank? Now the game becomes about pulling off heists and escaping the police, while still staying within the general theme (body horror, supernatural powers).


Sandbox games are easy to do RPG wise as long as the system is lite...
I use to do it all the time with an old homebrew of mine... but it was only with one player, so things were pretty easy to control. I did that for almost 10 years. @_@
I bet even some crunchier games are capable of this as well... it simply requires a GM on a creative kick and access to easily accessed pre-made enemies.
~*/\Matthew Miller/\*~


I'd say that the sandbox style of play requires a lot of improv skill on the part of the GM.  When the players decide to do something, the GM has to come up with suitable content on the spot, no preparing ahead of time.  Sure, the GM can prepare a few loose character archtypes and during the game apply the finishing touches and slide them into an appropriate role, but you can't prepare for everything.  It happens enough in "regular" RPGs that the players deviate from what the GM had planned and the GM has to improvise in order to keep the game flowing smoothly.

A system that lended itself to this sort of play would probably contain a lot of trivia type information, as well as tables of pre-generated NPCs of all types, maps of generic locations, etc., things to help the GM improvise, and also to know what should happen in certain situations (i.e. the reaction of the local law enforcement to a bank robbery).  It's doable, and it would be fun, but most the work would still fall on the GM.  There's only so much a system can do.  On the other hand, while some people may have a talent for this sort of thing, I think it's a skill that can be acquired, so even if games don't start off that great due to GM inexperience, they should improve over time.  At that point, it comes down to how creative the GM is.  The gameplay flow might be flawless, but do you end up doing the same thing over and over?

This is a type of game I'd be interested in making/playing, but it would not be an easy task.  If the GM is the one who designed the game, though, then he's already got most the trivia under his belt, it's just a matter of working on those improv skills.
Phillip Lloyd


I think such a game can be helped by the skill of the GM and the players as well, since players who don't want to do anything interesting will make stuff boring. It can't all be on the GM, especially in such a creatively demanding play style, the players can and should help with their own ideas and contributions.


Sandbox would be done well by any game that thrusts narrative control into the player's hands... like Mythic and Donjon. =) I think this particular aspect can be applied to just about any game with a tiny lil' house rule.
~*/\Matthew Miller/\*~