Open-Ended Campaigns: Sandbox Trouble

In the various campaigns that I’ve run over the years, I have always tried to get close to the sandbox approach of storytelling. However, as all GMs who have tried it can probably attest, a wide open world has its issues. This is a cautionary tale to anyone looking to run their campaign wide open and simply follow the PCs. It has a few advantages, but wow can it go wrong fast.

Back in the mid-90s, I ran a campaign in my Immortals’ Wake world, which is a traditional fantasy world with some superhero elements thrown in for good measure. (More about the IW world will come out over time here eventually.) I was playing with Sean, the co-creator of Moebius Adventures and a couple of other guys.

I introduced what I thought of as a simple concept at the time… “Dust.” This Dust was only created by one particular event and thus very rare, but it was found to have an effect on people who inhaled it, much like cocaine. Yes, I was stupid enough to bring drugs into a fantasy roleplaying campaign.

Over time, I watched as a player took a low-powered character in the Thieves’ Guild and began to create his own drug and crime empire right under my nose. His friend became an enforcer/bodyguard type character and suddenly I found myself in the middle of a gang war. Thief vs. Thief. Guards vs. Thieves. And as it escalated, things got further and further out of hand. It was no longer my campaign – it was their campaign.

Before long, we ran into other issues with those two gamers and eventually we stopped gaming with them entirely. But the upside was that my in-game drug war went away.

And now, probably 12 years after that campaign, I understand what I did wrong… As others have pointed out recently in blog posts, you can’t just create a world and set the players loose. One of two things happens… either they get bored or they start causing trouble. Or perhaps it was the boredom leading to the trouble-making. Who knows?

The trick I think is to make sure that there are things going on that affect the players. In my next IW campaign, I want to start the players off getting comfortable in the setting and then pull the rug out from under them. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I have other evil things in mind. [Insert Evil Laughter Here]

And the other lesson? Don’t introduce a drug war in a fantasy campaign… Sort of like Vizzini in The Princess Bride

“You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha… [thud]”

For another take on sandbox games, check out Gnome Stew here.

Any lessons about sandbox gaming you guys have learned over the years? Leave me a comment. Let’s get this conversation going!

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3 thoughts on “Open-Ended Campaigns: Sandbox Trouble”

  1. @BigWhiteGuy_27 – Totally agree. I seem to recall a “Last Stand” with a dwarf or halfling in a suit of plate armor (lovingly called “Tin Can” or “TC” for short) who was hasted with a potion of speed who was basically a machine gun archer firing madly at the oncoming army… Ah the good old days. The “Million and One” campaign. 🙂

  2. For me the lesson has always been, the world can be a sandbox, but the campaign is telling a long story in that world. Without that latter piece, the story has no shape, which is very life-like at times, but not so good for telling a “novel”.

    In your specific case with a drug war, if 2 out of the 3 players were along with it, I would have worked with the third player to get him/her involved, and then ran with it. They probably would have eventually lost between the guards and other institutions getting heavily involved with a lot more resources.

    Heck, maybe even a true hero group would have gotten involved to solve the drug issue.

    The other thing I would have done is introduced side-plots that maybe eventually got the campaign story on track to something less about the drug war and more focused on bigger picture things.

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