Random RPG Thoughts #7: Ending the Sandbox

In recent discussion with a frustrated player, I figured that sandboxing may not just have points in favor. In fact, some players might even prefer a more linear game, at least some of the time. Because pure sandboxing has one major flaw. There is no built-in ending.

Those who have played MMOs, or Bethesda style “explore the world until you drop” style computer games might recognize this one. There is always another village to rescue, another enemy to blow away, another dungeon to explore, another treasure to loot, another creature to be slain by. Surely there may be small story arcs, quests, and even an overall theme. But typically there is no real epic ending which you would find in games like Fallout or Ultima Underworld. The goal of the game seems to be infinite growth. A bit like our capitalist economy. Infinite wealth and consumption, but no real fulfilment.

No really...
Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but most sandbox games have no set ending in mind. That's the whole point. A sandbox has the forte of having many possible paths to explore. The players choose which one, and that's what you start to develop and unfold as a Game Master. That's why I love sandboxing. You give the players so much more choice, and so much more possibility to go for what they like. They don't just pick their path to adventure, they can literally pick their own adventure.

However, when players cannot make choices, or when you give them too many options, a sandbox may result in a scattered unfocused game. Perhaps the players have taken on too many enemies at once, and they can't handle it. Perhaps as a game master you threw around so many clues that you yourself aren't sure to which subplot each clue belonged. Let alone that the players can still fathom what's happening around them, in such a case. When too many unfinished threads add up playing may seem futile. The sandbox game may then not only become rich with adventure, but also rich with frustration.

Solutions to curtail Neverending Story Sprawl?
How to avoid this? I'm not sure. Smart players will focus and choose their own objectives. If players talk with each other and agree on a course of action, the game will be good, if not great. It's also the responsibility of the player(s) to try to stay on track. And as a Game Master you try to help them.

Perhaps less focused players, or those susceptible to information overload need some more help. Choose for them. Give them stronger hints who is the enemy they should handle first. Choose the story arc for the session, or coming group of sessions, and lead them. The only thing is that smarter players, or ones more into the game, may be offended a bit. Or feel railroaded. That's what I found out.

In one session the loose plotlines seemed so out of reach of most players that I decided to tidy them up in a single session and just push the adventure into a final battle with the enemy. Most players seemed happy that they finally accomplished something in the mini-campaign. My wife was not amused however, and thought the adventure was a railroading experience. As a Game Master I was also slightly bored as I had the feeling I had to push the players forward. So, it seems solving the problem may at times be a trade off.

Various Players, Various Goals, Various Endings?
In addition, the frustrated player of the conversation I mentioned before, was not present at above session, and felt that his goals had not been met. As it turns out, he set different goals from the rest of the group. So, he actually would have needed another session to reach his own story climax – or ending. Which brings me to another point. Sandboxing allows different players to pursue different goals. But they'll also want different endings for these goals.

Conclusion for the moment: Ending a sandbox campaign means work. And... How to strike the perfect balance for all players between sandbox and linear... I'm not quite sure yet.


  1. I'm doing a variation of a Sandbox campaign at the moment where I had the player's design the world and the conflicts.

    This made the campaign less 'explore' over the next hedgerow because the players had already created that location on the map. Each person was given a turn in order to add things to the working map, to answer questions on their race, to make choices on religion and magic.

    They then made characters that were now invested into the setting.

    Each week, I try to work to further add to this by having the players answer questions on who is their enemy from their past, who trained them to be what they are, who is there friend in the area, what are some of the goals that they would like to accomplish in the next ten levels.

    I keep an interaction/relationship map of these things (idea taken from Smallville RPG) and use it to develop points of conflict.

    The player's goals help me figure out what kind of destiny they want to achieve which would be their 'final' story.

    The player's enemy choice helps me figure out who to make into BBEG accomplices. The enemy choices also give irritants into the player's life as most of the enemy do not do anything too criminal.

    My group is still 'young' in this campaign (level 2) but I hope that the list of goals will later provide me with the material for something like Dave Chalker and Sly Fourish's 5x5 Method for Campaigns and Antagonists.

    Campaign Mastery has some good articles on how to plan out player arcs and focus over a large campaign.

    Another thing that I am doing is borrowing from all the Sim and Farmville style games by giving the players early on things to build and develop (I had a patron provide a tower to start to develop and fill with things and made sure to include in treasure things they could then put in the tower or sell). Don't charge a 'feat tax' to have followers. Just make sure the followers are people that have useful skills but are not likely to go on the full 'adventure' (or only do non-heroic things like guard the backs, close off other tunnels, rescue a down person with a potion of healing, carry a torch).

  2. My aplologies for the lenth, there is a lot to think about in the piece.

    *gathers currage*

    Long time CRPG player, short time RPG player and I also play non RPG computer games a la GTA4.

    See the problem with sandbox games is that it trivialises its end goals (say: to stop/slay Saruman) to accommodate the player in doing other things not main quest related (help the Prancing Pony get around a dispute between breweries). The idea being that the world offers enough wealth and scope to keep them busy, without actually dealing with the inherent problem of that world (Sauruman).
    Skyrim is a prime example, but I also have to say Fallout 2.
    In Sandbox games the end goal only matters with one other factor, TIME. Like in Fallout 1 where your on the clock. If you don’t get McGuffin Y to Vault XIII before your timer runs out, your mission will fail. You can loaf about as much as you like but ever present is that in a set number of days in the world, you’ll be out of time. This drives you on and puts a need on the “open world game play”.
    Skyrim tells you there is a ginormous problem in its world but time is of no consequence. If you get a mission to save a farmers daughter because she’s been caught in a cave that is beset by orc you can just complete all the missions for the thieves guild, become a nightingale, an accomplished mage at the mages guild and get a wife and still go to said cave afterwards and slay you some brigand orc and save the daughter.
    In the world, narrative, scope and time will guide the player, because in an tabletop game you can’t cheat and pause the world when the player is not looking at the problem. What lies before them has to be handled.
    It’s the drive of the world that matters. If it creates epic situations these will have to be dealt with, you can’t placate gamers with the rescuing of a waify farm girl from brigand-ing orc when Saruman is over the hill digging up an army of Uruk-Hai.
    The notion that a game doesn’t have an ending…. Well “ending” is only something that applied to computer games because you want your monies worth in the end, the crowning moment to your questing. And that still does not need to see the game end and can still be made of epic and satisfaction. Same goes for RPG proper. You can have your small victories (“yay perfect heist, we got them copper boxes, woot”) to epic (“I avenged my father and thusly saved the empire… Lets party like t’was 999!”

    Imagine if you will that the game is a fantasy book, a book should have a goal. If you deviate too much and spend your interim chapters dallying around, no matter how fun that is, you trivialise your enemies/goal.
    Now this doesn’t need to matter if the story is good of fun but it can take away from the goal.
    It doesn’t always need to too terrible though, Harry Potter is a great example. Hogwarts is as much a sandbox as any. You have your place (School and grounds) structure (one school year), your McGuffin that drives this years mystery (that Voldemort wants this years stone, prophesy, magical toothpick). The tale is mostly an experience of a school year, but cleverly (cleverly yes I use cleverly in reference to Harry Potter) interwoven are subtle and not subtle hints to what is going on and the kids discovering clues along the way.
    TV shows have this a lot too, they need to fill in the eps till season ends big bad so they have random one off eps of a monster/problem of the week. But they also reach back quick and securely with eps that deal with their problem/big bad.
    Narratively it’s interesting because you can spin and spin and spin your tale, but in the end the problems you invoke in the world (and the GM does this, not the player) it’s still something that the player will have to be put on the track to deal with at some point.