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.
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.