Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.
DM Solomani asks:
You seem to not like sandbox type games. Being an old DM I have used them off and on for 30 years. But usually as a one off adventure, rather than a campaign. I am curious – do you feel it’s possible to even run a sandbox adventure well, let alone a sandbox campaign?
People always do this. They take something I say repeatedly and loudly and assume that somehow means something about my preferences. Just because I say things like “sandbox games piss me off” or “Isle of Dread is everything that is wrong with sandbox games” or “I f$&%ing hate sandbox games,” that doesn’t mean I hate sandbox games. I say a lot of things.
The problem – as always – is that sandbox is a nebulous term and everyone THINKS they know what it means but everyone actually has a different f$&%ing definition. And that makes it hard to discuss. The problem is that sandbox speaks about the structure of a game, and game structure is something that’s on a spectrum.
For example, the true, pure definition of a sandbox game is one in which the players are given no objectives or goals but are merely placed in a game world and told to make their own fun. The game world simply provides tools for the making of said. The best example is a game like Minecraft, though even Minecraft does present a few goals (like kill the Enderdragon). In point of fact, there probably isn’t a pure video game example of a sandbox because the programmers have to choose a finite number of activities and interactions to put in the game and, in the end, those end up limiting the player.
A pure D&D sandbox is what I call a “f$&% around game.” The GM creates an environment. The players do whatever antisocial, pain-in-the-a$&, destructive things they want, and the GM responds to those choices. Those games tend to die out very quickly due to boredom, GM frustration, or the idiot players trying to kill one another until the game just self-destructs. There’s no narrative thread in such a game because as soon as there’s a narrative thread, it’s not really a sandbox anymore.
And that’s actually the deep, dark secret of sandbox games in RPGs. GMs and players THINK they are running sandbox games, but they usually stop being a sandbox very quickly once the players choose one or more goals for themselves.
Take a look at the Minecraft example again. I was playing Minecraft not too long ago. Every so often, I boot it up and start playing. I don’t know why. I just do.
If you’re not familiar, Minecraft is a game in which the world is basically made out of building blocks. You are dropped into the middle of the world somewhere and you start breaking things apart and combining them however you want. You break trees down to make a house, you mine ore to make tools, you build structures, farms, domesticate animals, whatever you want. There are some monsters that roam around the world too. But mostly, you’re just in a big ole world made of building blocks and you can use the blocks to build what you want.
Well, I decided I wanted to build an underground train that took me from my island (where I lived) to the neighboring Isla Del Pollo (which I named because it had chickens on it). If you came in and watched me play at that point, you’d see me hunting for iron, chopping wood, and digging for gold and mystical redstone, all of which were necessary to build a powered rail system. Or you’d see me digging tunnels, widening tunnels, redirecting lava, or bridging chasms. Or you’d see me laying rails. All of those things were parts of the process of building my little train system. But if all you saw was that part of me playing the game, you’d think the game was an elaborate train construction simulation with very oddly blocky graphics.
So, at that point, is the game really sandbox? You might say yes because I chose the goal. But if you compared it to a train construction simulator game, the answer is no.
Likewise, at various times you’d call my game of Minecraft a lighthouse construction simulator, a multi-colored sheep breeding simulator, or a skeleton and zombie hunting game.
And the same thing happens in most sandbox RPGs. The game is only a sandbox until the players choose a goal. After that, the game is a goal-driven, structured RPG adventure like any other. The only difference – and honestly, this is a really minor difference that people make a LOT of dumb noise about – is that the players chose the goal rather than the GM assigning it.
Most sandbox RPGs go even further and offer the players a choice of several goals. This is where properly designed hexcrawls tend to sit. You have a map filled with things to do and the players pick a thing and go do it. And while they are doing it, the game is generally indistinguishable from any other goal-oriented RPG out there.
So, do those things count as sandboxes? Does it even matter?
So, given all of that, why do I make so much noise about how terrible sandboxes are? Well, there’s a couple of reasons.
First of all, I’m sick and tired of the elitist morons out there screaming that a sandbox game is somehow more “pure” because the players choose their goals as the game goes on instead everyone building a game around a goal. That’s a load of bulls$&%. As long as the players and the GM agree on the goals of the game, it doesn’t matter where they came from or when. And once a goal is chosen, a sandbox game is indistinguishable from any other game.
Second of all, the confusion around the term sandbox has lead some GMs (and players) to believe that sandbox games must be devoid of ALL structure. And that’s terrible. In order to be satisfying, narratively, a game should conform to a good narrative structure. It should be well paced. And you lose that in the “f$&% around game.” I hated Arkham City as compared to Arkham Asylum because City had no pacing. Too much was going on and you were free to run around in whatever direction you wanted and could ignore or put off missions whenever you wanted. I know some people get off on that. But I’m too interested in a well-told story to like that s$&%. And I’m definitely tired of hearing how every game should work that way because “it’s more free.”
Third of all, that same confusion often leads to the “find the fun” game. A “find the fun” game is one in which all of the fun things to do are hidden somewhere on the map and the players can’t engage in them until they locate them. Some exploration is okay, but when the game gets bogged down in a “find the fun” slog, it’s gone too far.
So, I don’t HATE sandbox games. And I certainly think they can be done well. My games tend to be a mix of sandbox and structured gameplay precisely because new goals appear as the players discover them and make choices, usually in an organic way. But I hate what sandbox games do to people. I hate the fights around sandbox games. I hate how smug and superior they are. And I hate what happens when they are done wrong. And it’s easy to do them wrong.