Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Solving the sandbox problem in D&D

Much of the discussion of role-playing games, both pen & paper and computer versions, revolve around the question how linear or scripted the story should be. There are a lot of very fervent fans of the so-called "sandbox" mode of play, in which a player can do everything he wants to, and has complete freedom. Unfortunately this idea is mostly appealing as an ideal, while the practical implementation of it is always running into major problems. The most fundamental of which is that any content in a game has either to be prepared or has to be randomly created. When the content is random, players usually don't care about it very much, because the randomness is frequently quite obvious. Don't like this random dungeon? Well, move on to the next one, it doesn't matter! But if the content is hand-crafted and prepared, this implies that there is some thread in it that players are supposed to follow, which limits their freedom.

Several of the official WotC published adventure books have clearly been written with the idea in mind that because sandbox is popular, the adventure needs to be presented as a sandbox. But the dungeons and encounters are prepared, and so the adventures are never completely a sandbox. Furthermore the 5E books are spanning a wide level range, going for example from level 1 to level 15 in a system that only has 20 levels. So not even the order of the dungeons and encounters is sandbox, because you don't want the level 1 characters run into the level 15 dungeon or vice versa.

Now one possible solution of this would be to throw the sandbox part out of the window and just present the dungeons and encounters in the order in which they clearly are intended to be run. However that would be falling from one extreme into the other. It would be better to come up with a system in which players have choice, but also enough information about the difficulty of various locations to be able to predict the consequences.

That isn't as easy as it sounds. I remember from playing Everquest that there was a /con command (for "consider") that told you whether a monster you saw ahead of you was of an appropriate level. In WoW and other modern games there is usually some other sort of indication or outright level information. Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have anything like that in the rules. And even in a given dungeon of a specific level, some encounters are much easier and some are harder than the average. So the first monsters encountered might not yet give you the information whether this place is too hard for your group. It is also a bit annoying in terms of flow of the game if you have the choice between various dungeons, don't know their level, and need to find that out by trial and error, running away and trying another choice if your first guess wasn't correct.

What I think I will do is give players a partial choice; not every dungeon in the book, but an awareness that there are several places where they could go. By adding some information about which of these places is easier and which is harder, the players can choose whether they want to do the dungeons in order of their levels, or whether they want to skip ahead for some reason.

One final remark on the WotC "sandbox" adventures is that they are frequently a mess with regards to presentation and finding information. I will have to read the adventure several times and take notes just so that I as the DM know where everything is. The one adventure that I found really well presented is the Lost Mine of Phandelver, which is the adventure in the Starter Set of the 5th edition. Unfortunately that standard of helpfulness hasn't been sustained through the rest of the published material.


If the goal is to create the illusion of freedom more than freedom itself - if it is well done, there is no difference from the player perspective - you can select the "good" dungeon, whatever dungeon they choose to enter.

I have limited experience with DM (only once for now) but I was able to make them feel that there were a sandbox, while in fact most on the "dungeon" were pre-prepared. ( as a note, this was easier as the setting was a Survival zombie set, directly set in the surrounding city of my home).
My 4th ed. game is 75% sandbox because i need to prepare encounters in advance. So i prepare a lot of encounters and most of these arent used. Its a lot of work so sometimes i reuse an encounter that was unused telling myself the players wont see a difference.

Dungeon-wise, thats harder. I tend to give visual hints about the difficulty of a dungeon :

- Some smashed adventurers corpses a few meters inside the dungeon tend to make my players think before going deeper in a place.
- A roar from a beast that the player can identify with a skill (dungeonering?) makes them know that beast is at least 8-10 levels higher than them...
- I also used a high quality lock (that the rogue cant pick unless exceptionnal roll) to bar a level of a whole dungeon.

I also place some dungeons in remote territories where higher level monsters like giants are known to roam.

Its not perfect but its some of the ways i found that give some sense of danger to my players.

Things have undoubtedly changed since I last played(3rd edition), but why all the focus on sandbox issues? One would think that WotC has data that suggests how D&D is being played in the present, and at the least, should be willing to allow adventures to be tailored to the average play session. When I last played, players wanted adventures that were well structured and offered a structure where segments were shorter and offered quicker challenge/reward cycles. It's almost as if WotC has forgotten that its audience has grown older, and as a result, have less time to commit to lengthy play sessions. In my present situation I could never commit to starting an adventure that I knew could take months to finish. It's sounding almost as if the DM has been relegated to a more mechanical, almost automated position, than being allowed to provide some structure when players are feeling a bit lost.
I think D&D has been moving away from sandbox gameplay and towards a default style of crafted stories for a long time, massively sped up by the recent influx of new players who expect this - largely because of the massively successful Critical Roll show. WotC is indeed well aware of this.

This is fine, but personally I see a form of sandbox play as the ideal. The freedom the players have to engage with the elements of a sandbox game gives rise to stories in an organic way. No one, including the DM, knows what’s going to happen in a session or in a campaign. Tabletop RPGs are the only medium that can do this.

But as the article says, it’s a spectrum. The pure sandbox with total freedom would have no structure, and without a structure the DM would have to work insanely hard to make the players’ choices meaningful. There have to be limits and assumptions, the most obvious being “you are adventurers who explore and look for treasure”. Within these limits the players have freedom, but they are broad enough to hold the potential for stories to emerge out of the players’ choices and interactions.

Freedom for its own sake is worthless. Freedom for the sake of organic storytelling is divine.
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