Sandbox on Rails

Sandbox campaigns are a dream I have chased for years. A campaign where the players participate in the story, create memorable content and I act only as a referee. I know that many people chase the same white rabbit and I’m going to discuss my methods of catching it.

We finished our latest season of Eldritch Sigils just last night. It was one of the most epic season with game starting in 2099 and ending in 1770s after a detour in about 2300. When we started this campaign exactly ten months ago I had no idea where the story would take us. I was once again trying to force my players to play with me on my sandbox.

Since I can say with a fair confidence that I know my players and what they like I had a distinct plan: let them run an operational centre tasked to prevent the reality from shattering. Apart from making the playbooks beforehand decided to try a gentle guidance in a form a tech tree.

Tech Tree Road Map

After the game we discussed the hits and misses of this season. Even though most of the players felt that there was too much micro management  I feel that the tech tree did its job.

This was the last version of the Beyond research we had. In addition to this there was another tech tree for fringe science.

The exact nature of this tech tree is not that important for this discussion. It presented here as an example of the rails I chose to include in our sandbox game.

During the game each of the options was relevant for the characters. They had to discuss and plan how they would proceed and through these discussion I gained insight about what the players were expecting and wanted from the campaign. As I had made sure that they would not have the chance to reach all options their choices also acted as pointers for me what the players were looking for.

Idea for this kind of approach came from various sources. Fall of Magic uses a map to guide the story and Mansions of Madness uses “evidence” cards as a way to track the pace of the investigation. I also liked the ideas Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition was trying to do and consider them as a source material also.

During games my view of this kind of “road map” about the campaign evolved. I began to wonder if this could be used as campaign sheet, kind of like a threat sheet from Apocalypse World. Last night Jani (one of the players) said that he had played with the thought of using a somewhat similar mechanic to create the guideline for an investigative campaign.

We discussed about our ideas in short and though I had had some ideas about the future, I now realised the full potential and possibilities a “tech tree road map” could present. I have fair confidence that I will use these ideas in an upcoming season. I just need to wrap my brain around the idea and turn it to an actual gaming tool.

Eldritch Sigils also uses “Legacy Tokens” a gaming currency that allows the players to take bigger responsibility in narrating the effects for any event they are used in.

Making Lists

Another way to keep the sandbox gaming on the rails has been checkbox lists. I tend to take a lot of notes during the game. Most are used only to keep track of all the different things that are going on, but some are intended as ideas for future sessions.

In the past I have tried rigorously to limit my preparations to “play to find out”. There was a point where I enjoyed the not-knowing quite a lot. It challenged my creativity and forced me to think things differently. And even though I think it worked quite well most of the time, it became apparent that this wasn’t the right way to narrate these games to my gaming group.

In essence I realised that what we needed for our game was a sandbox on rails. To me this meant three things:
1) The possibility for the players to act as they would see fit.
2) The preparedness for me to create a believable world and meaningful actions as a reply to the characters actions.
3) Me presenting a route for the players to take each time they were having a hard time to plan the next course of action.

Now this is pretty basic stuff. It is the essence of Game Mastering any rpg. But this was the first time that I began to question the way I narrated the games. This was me thinking about how I had been gamemastering and how I could improve my style and the quality of our games.

Checklists were not the first thing to spring to my mind. But they proved incredibly useful.

As I said earlier I had scribbled some notes about threats but never felt like using them. I had ideas written down during the sessions. I had all the notes from previous seasons. And it had taken me this long to understand that I could actually use them.

My notes do not usually go into this much detail but these are for the season finale.

Thinking a thing could work is still a long way from making it work. But I knew I was onto something. As a preparation for an upcoming session I went through all of my notes and wrote a list of things that sounded like they would improve the session. These were ideas I might have had, notions stolen from the players’ discussion and new connections with seemingly random things that had been established in earlier sessions.

The list was a long one. And I wasn’t too confident about it. But it worked like a charm. I guess the most important part here was me thinking about what was going to happen. I was already going through possible scenarios in my head. In the past this has usually meant that I have prepared on things that would never take place because the players simply defied all the actions I would have assumed they would take.

But this time the list was not as strict as my earlier preparations for a session. The things I listed were as simple as they could be. “This session needs to mention the Black Citadel”, “the characters need to find information about the X”, “the characters are confronted by Y”, etc.

At the end of session I noticed I had managed to check most of the boxes. And those unchecked boxes? I just moved them to the prep of the next session and expanded that list from there.

Even with the way about I ramble this “list”-thing might sound simple. But to me it was nothing like that. In essence it felt like inventing a wheel. I know that there must have been guides for preparing scenarios this way, but since I didn’t remember any, I just struggled and in the end found out, that this was clearly the way I want to run my games.

Conclusion

I like sandbox games. I think I have learnt how to guide them (lists) and have interesting ideas (tech tree) to try in the future. Games are never as simple as the books present them for they cannot take in to question to preferences of your gaming group. If something works for you, it might not work for others, but once you have tried out a host of different ways to do things, you will find the most preferable one to you and to your group.

As always I hope that this rather lengthy post as raised some questions and ideas. Keep gaming!

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