Sandbox GMing

The time has come for the third and last of my GMing style posts, and this one’s a doozy. the first thing that I have to admit is that I’m a sandbox cheerleader. I like it, I like what it tries to do, and I think it does a pretty good job. However, I’m not going to let that distract me from the challenges that it presents to a GM who wants to pursue that style. I designed a sandbox setting about a year ago, and run two separate games in it at the moment, and have been for about eight months now. I’ve had to adjust some of the ways I think about the game and the players, and it’s been an interesting experience to do so. That said, this is definitely the style I have the least experience with. This isn’t a post about how to design a sandbox setting, just an analysis of the the strengths and weaknesses of the style. So, sandbox!

What is Sandbox GMing?

The term sandbox comes from the idea that in a sandbox you can go anywhere and do what you like, so in a sandbox campaign, the only story is the one that the player characters make. There’s no track for people to get off of, and at its best it’s an exploration of a vital and robust setting that moves at the players’ pace and in the direction that they want, in accordance with character goals. This means that there’s no way of mapping out the future progress of a campaign, because it’s entirely dependent on the choices of the players, though the future of the setting is a matter of some import, as there need to be enough things going on that people can choose to get involved in them.

My Sandcastle!

Embracing this style means acknowledging that not only will players direct their characters to do things you don’t anticipate, they might direct them to do things you don’t like, such as demolishing the setting’s infrastructure or hanging out in town and becoming embroiled in the political enterprises of a bartender. This is not only fine, it’s expected. If they’re doing that and having fun, then it’s what they want to be doing. As with a semi-linear campaign, you have to be prepared for them to walk away from things. If their method of having fun in the sandbox is interfering with your interests, speak with them out of character and reach an accord, rather than trying to motivate the characters directly, which would impact their freedom.

 Sandbox vs. Parking Lot

A sandbox needs to have lots of toys, though. Fiddly bits to interact with, and interesting characters. In a sandbox, you can build anything anywhere you want, as long as you put in the work and planning. In contrast, a parking lot is a desolate asphalt landscape dotted with the occasional car, where in principle you can do anything, but in reality there’s very little fun to be had. The key to fun in a sandbox isn’t just freedom but meaningful freedom, where the players can interact with all kinds of setting elements and trust their internal consistency. Settings like Eberron and Ptolus are good examples of this in D&D, and most other pre-published settings demonstrate a similar strength, whether that’s Star Wars or Shadowrun.


 The biggest strength of sandbox GMing is the maximal freedom that the players have, due to the decreased restrictions they accept, in comparison to semi-linear and linear GMing. They’re not committed in any way to doing what the GM wants them to do, and instead get to pursue their own goals and set their own win conditions. That kind of freedom removes a lot of pressure to stick to a narrative, both from the GM and from the players. Moreover, in a sandbox, the players are agents instead of being an audience. No longer the protagonists in the GM’s story, as they would be in a linear or semi-linear game, they’re instead the stars of their own story, a tale about how their characters react to an interact with the setting elements. This makes their choices more meaningful by taking them out of the hands of the GM.


However, having no external motivation from the GM can sometimes tie people up with a paralysis of choice. There’s a lot they can do, and it can be hard to get started. One of the ways of dealing with this is working with players to create characters with strong and readily accessible motivations, and encouraging them to leverage their characters’ relationships to get things going. Once they start building ties to the setting, it gets easier and easier for them to keep going. Also, there’s nothing about a sandbox style that says you can’t throw them hooks, it just means that they also get to make their own. The hooks are asking, not telling.

Another issue is that there’s usually no underlying narrative structure. It’s hard to tell the story of Lord of the Rings when the Fellowship decides to set up their own kingdom in Moria. The lack of a track makes it more challenging to have a central theme or direction for a game. The flip side of this is that the theme and direction is provided by the players, which can increase their investment in their goals. They provide their own reasons for doing so. Also, it doesn’t mean that one can’t have narratives occurring in the setting that people can be part of. If a PC gets entangled in a love triangle, there’s a narrative there that’s not governed by the GM but by the dynamics of the characters involved, player or otherwise.

Also, I’m not going to lie, sandbox design is a lot of work. Designing a sandbox campaign probably takes the most time out of the three, because it involves constructing or familiarizing yourself with large sections of a setting. However, once this work is done, it stays. The initial investment is pretty high, but it can pay off for years as people explore the setting and it changes around them, and the setting itself just gets richer and richer as time goes on.

I think sandbox GMing provides the most fun because it lets the players make more meaningful choices than any other style while letting the GM focus on worldbuilding and interaction rather than driving a plot. However, whether the work is worth it or not depends on the scale and scope of the campaign in question. It’s probably not worth designing a sandbox for a one evening game. On the other hand, if you already have a sandbox, you can run as many games in there as you like, and keep evolving the setting and its populace. Next week, I’m going to do an overview of all three styles and see how they can integrate with each other. What experiences have you had with sandbox GMing?


  • Dave G _ Nplusplus

    While I like the open concept, I always enjoyed D&D being different to LARP… that is, I enjoyed the freedom of LARP, but when I sat down to table top, I enjoyed more storyline and being under the whims of the storyteller.

  • Intelligent Designs

    While I'd never GM any other style than sandbox, I find its also the hardest on us: You create this entire world of mystery and nuance, of subtle hints, red herrings and overlapping plot points meant to blow the players' minds when they piece it all together… and you often throw out a pile of notes because they figured out how to bypass the majority of it…

    That being said I write a story, and I write a RPG story. They might have the same premise, but only one of them has all the plot points I want to include

  • Dave G _ Nplusplus

    To use World of Warcraft as an example… it's sandboxed at certain levels. That is, it's an open world with tons of stuff to do.. level, grind, quest, farm, etc…

    Quest-wise though, there's bits here and there, maybe 20 levels later you'll have another quest that references something from your lowbie days… and it works.

    But I would rather play a game with a long involved storyline. Say, Dragon Age… multiple ways to tackle the story, but generally heading in the same direction.

  • @Intelligent Designs
    You're right, but that's the beauty of sandbox to me. It's asking instead of telling, so the GM is inviting the players to interact with the setting in the way that they want to, rather than in the way they're instructed to. You're also right that there's a world of difference between a story for people to read and a story for an RPG, because of the participatory nature of the latter.
    I'd argue (and have, in the latest post) that World of Warcraft is a sandbox at all levels. Not only is it okay for things to reference earlier events in a sandbox, that makes it better. Sandbox games have narrative, they just don't have a narrative the players are expected to stick to, or which needs to be enforced. There's nothing about sandbox that says you can't have a long and involved storyline. What sandbox says is that the players get to pursue that in the way that they want, and provide the direction themselves.

  • Dave G _ Nplusplus

    I think the problem might be a question of how many players have been asked about a preference of sandbox over semi-linear… I prefer semi-linear. Jim, you were a biiiig proponent about the problem with all our LARPs is that the STs don't directly try to involve players… but that's a big argument against sandbox.

  • I'm not sure it is. I think there's a distinction between directing the narrative and encouraging player involvement. It seems perfectly possible to do one without doing the other. For example, you can encourage player involvement by encouraging players to create characters with interesting goals and who have relationships to people, places, and organizations in the setting. Directing the narrative is a way to increase player involvement, but doesn't necessarily encourage its independent development, because the players are by definition not making meaningful choices about the its direction.

    Also, note that encouraging player involvement means talking with the players about their characters, whereas directing the narrative means impacting the choices of their characters directly. One of them increases options by encouraging players to create additional opportunities to get involved, while the other decreases options by hemming the characters into the GM's desired narrative (regardless of how branching it is).

    So for the LARP example, it seems that it would be better to directly involve the players by encouraging them to develop characters who are involved with the setting, and then rewarding them by having a robust setting to interact with, rather than scooping up characters into a narrative of the GM's choosing. Both of these are examples of direct involvement, but seem like two very different kinds of it, one of which focuses on respecting the players' autonomy, while the other disregards it in favour of the GM's narrative.

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