Everybody loves sandbox video-games – Running around with a stolen car in Grand Theft Auto, building giant phalluses in Minecraft, stabbing templars in Assassins Creed, buying valuable real-estate in Fable. And everybody wants to transition that freedom of choice and adventure to their tabletop games.... Except the Game Master
You've constructed an entire world full of lush environments, historical points of interest, and territories for enormous clans to fight over. And chances are, your players will only see 2% of anything that makes it to pen and paper. More likely than not, the players will end up just wandering around the same city (or maybe two cities if you're lucky) while trying to kill every bandit and buy every business, only to replace the bandits and bleed the businesses dry as the power rushes to their heads. Eventually they will own the city, at which point (being well into their teens) now they will be bored enough to venture beyond the walls and into the vastness of the world.
Ultimately, as a GM it is your job to make the best of a bad situation. If your players want to experience the sandbox lifestyle then you need to be able to give them the best possible experience, while making the game fun for yourself as well. Often times, this means giving your players the feel that that they are in control of the game, while you actually control every moment of the game. This is where the illusion of choice comes into play.
In the glass tunnel that is a sandbox game, you just need to make sure that the players can see as far as the horizon while still walking in a straight line. The key for the GM is to be flexible in your approach to mapping. Say to yourself, "Next time the players travel outside of the city limits, encounter A will happen." It doesn't matter if they go north, west, east, or south – If they walk for an hour then they will be running into these orcs. If you want them to see the monument built to Vecna, then make them. Don't put it in one place and hope that they eventually come across it. Is it located in hex A or hex R? Yes.
It's the same as having that one person who has all of the vital information for finding that item – If you want the players to have it, don't make it practically impossible for them to get it
While a "sandbox
" game might take a bit more pre-planning on your part, this ultimately means that you'll be doing a lot less planning during the campaign. True, this style is front-loaded with work, but it doesn't mean that it takes any more than your usual dungeon crawler.
This also doesn't mean that you can just write up a few random encounter tables and think that you've created a sandbox experience. You still need to create your NPCs, your key encounters, bosses, and have a main storyline to tie everything together. If your players have no motivation to play, then you're simply going to run into the example that I talked about in the beginning – They will run around like a cockatrice with its head cut off.
In the end, you can't be afraid to give your players a little freedom, so long as you know where they're coming from and where they need to end up. In between, the path they travel is up to them, because all roads lead to the BBEG
. So they take two or three sessions wandering aimlessly in the woods – You roll a few d100 on your encounter table and let them fight a couple of bearhounds. Eventually, you'll get bored and throw that clan of bugbears at them that hold a map leading to an ancient crypt. Your players chose to ignore the map? Then guess what: They wander into it anyway.
You are probably yelling at me right now saying, "THAT'S NOT A REAL SANDBOX GAME!" True – this might not be a real sandbox experience, but let's be serious with each other. real sandbox tabletop games aren't fun
. Nobody likes playing a game where there's no story and no development in the world or with the players. Even when playing video-games, we all eventually go back to the storyline when we've had enough wandering around. As the GM, it's your job to decide when the story weaves back into the game. To find the balance between meaningless banter and constructive discussion.