Underappreciated genius Mark Delsing just used the best turn of phrase and I wanted to unpack/restate the conversation for further discussion: Sandplot.

This was in reference to my prepping for a pass through The One Ring over the next few months. I love the idea of a wide-open setting for the players to poke around in! That’s the sandbox, obviously, setting aside varying definitions of “sandbox” play and how it’s experience in tabletop and vidya games because fuck your definition fights. 

I also like when fictional events continue to create new play context. That is, or can be, the “plot.” But I also super-hate railroaded plotlines. The Great Pendragon Campaign came pretty close to hitting the ideal mix, except when it fucking railroaded everyone. Maybe the occasional heavy-handed railroad is an inevitable compromise to keep the Big Picture moving forward. Maybe having a plot in a sandbox is the Other Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.

But I don’t think it has to be! 

I guess it depends on what we mean by both plot and sandbox. (Haha that’s right, we get to have our definition battle anyway!) The spectrum I’m most comfortable with is the Darkening or Great Pendragon Campaign end, which is that shit happens that’s really big and mostly out of the characters’ hands (barring murdering a major NPC). I feel like that’s barely any plot at all, but at least Big Things are happening in the sandbox that may require the characters change course. Probably that’s what I like about the approach: a static sandbox feels like a beatable/winnable construct, rather than a credible, unpredictable, living thing. But I don’t love that the characters aren’t really making things happen; the big picture fiction isn’t really accreting around them like it would in a more-narrative game (Burning Wheel, PbtA, etc.). Obviously the actual experiences of the characters are accumulating, arguably into a narrative of sorts, but I’m not sure I’d necessarily call it a “plot.” Maybe. Maybe.

So I guess the other conversation worth having is, if the players aren’t going to, or can’t, engage with or don’t know about the Big Things, why bother having them? And here I’m just not sure there are many best practices developed yet. The outside events have to matter and they have to be transmitted somehow, but they can’t narrowly constrain the sandbox otherwise it’s not a sandbox any more, right? 

Anyway, I loved the turn of phrase and I’ve been gnawing on it all morning.

0 thoughts on “Sandplot!”

  1. Would you say the basic MYZ campaign is an example of a sandplot? It’s clearly a different approach than what you describe in GPC, but it’s also clearly a plot within a sandbox, and it sidesteps the issue of disallowing the players to be the proactive force driving the plot forward as it paces along with their discoveries.

    In my view, the GPC type of sandplot you describe – also see Vampire’s Giovanni Chronicles – really need to not be about the plot in order to be satisfactory. The elements of the plot need to interface with the player characters and change them in meaningful ways, but the game has to ultimately be about something parallel to the grand events driven by NPCs. Idk, like redemption or a love triangle or something.

    (edit: jeez, I did not mean to indicate that the Giovanni Chronicles had any sandboxy elements to it at all – it’s just a railroad – but it does have that element of “everything important that happens happens to other people, mostly high-powered NPCs, and your PCs are really only involved through their inertia”)

  2. Re: “if the players aren’t going to, or can’t, engage with or don’t know about the Big Things, why bother having them? … The outside events have to matter and they have to be transmitted somehow, but they can’t narrowly constrain the sandbox otherwise it’s not a sandbox any more, right? ”

    My (early and poorly organized) thoughts on this: The purpose of having the Big Things going on in the background is to partially alter the nature of the sandbox.

    Not too tightly, as you point out, but somewhat. This changes the nature of the playing field, and allows for a feeling that the world is dynamic and changes. Partly due to the PC’s actions, but partly because it is ‘alive’ (or at least, that’s the illusion we give.)

    Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely) the example that comes to mind is from Lord of the Rings Online MMO. Human characters begin the game in this village, where you do the usual tasks and is kind of sandboxy… until an Event comes to pass, and (spoilers, I guess) the village is attacked and goes up in flames. Now the PC’s intervene in the battle, and some fun things happen, but the aftermath is that the village is burnt. You can’t go back and play in the area anymore. At least not under the same circumstances.

    I think this is fun in the tabletop RPG sandbox setting too. Your players have made the Village of Home-let their home base? After a while, maybe it’s fun if it burns down. Now they’re no longer settled in, and have to move and perhaps encounter a new village or city to use as a home base. Keeps things fresh and interesting and moving along…

  3. Not sure what to say (Garycon crud gave me fever so I’m even dumber than usual) but:
    I’m not sure whether you like third agents in the sandbox. Usually I have several faction/Gangs/whatsits do things at the same time as PCs, and the PCs can decide to interact, ignore, evade, suffer the consequences. This approach to agency is what makes pbta games completely useless to me.

    As for the latter: I’m not sure. What of there is a secret that the players do not discover? Why putting it there in the first place? But if it can’t be discovered, it’s mostly useless unless it provides utility to a third party.

  4. Mikael Andersson _Mutant: Year Zero_ is the finest sandplot game ever devised. Yes. Absolutely.

    God I wish there was a procedural way to generate Mirkwood. Just barf out endless hexes worth of Tolkieniana that don’t get completely weird.

  5. This reminds me of two things.

    1. The Civil War campaign for Marvel Heroic, which I suppose is not really sandbox-y at all, given that it’s a linear set of scenes with a little bit of branching. But! When we played through we had two PCs (sometimes three, depending on attendance) that were not Marvel characters, and some additional scenes grew organically out of play. In the end, it was simply an alternate-universe version of Marvel’s event, which I guess was the intent, but it felt like there was actually a lot of leeway in how the characters experienced the event, despite the fact that specific scenes were going to happen no matter what. So, maybe on-topic or not.

    2. I’ve had short conversations with Ron Edwards (plus him in if you want, Paul) about how he feels that sandboxes don’t even really exist. IIRC, meaning that the players’ choices are still limited and certain stuff prepped by the GM is going to happen, just in a yet-to-be-specified order. I’ll admit I’m a little fuzzy on his reasoning, but it came to mind, because I think it’s making the point that either “story” is emergent or it’s not, and maybe “sandbox but there is a plot” is genuinely an impossible breakfast thing.

  6. Mark Delsing I’m pretty sure it’s not impossible other than when constrained by certain very specific definitions.

    The Mutant: Year Zero thing for example is fucking awesome. The Zone is procedurally generated, you can absolutely just wander around in it, and yet part of the procedure is to kick out bits and bobs of the campaign metaplot as you go. 

    God damn it now I just want to run The One Ring under MYZ. Swap Rot for the Shadow and run.

  7. Eloy Cintron “The purpose of having the Big Things going on in the background is to partially alter the nature of the sandbox.”

    I’ll throw this out, then: how is this functionally different from a random-event generator? Meaning, you don’t need a Big Picture, right? You can just roll on a table and generate: “Town gets attacked by orcs and goes up in flames!” Since that’s all the players will see, the net effect is the same, isn’t it?

  8. Mark Delsing one assumes the random events are still constrained by whatever you put on the table. Just like the tables and card draws and stuff in MYZ. Which does not refute your point at all. I guess I’m just editorializing that you can still shape what happens in the sandbox, and that a truly limitless/infinite decision space is of course impossible.

  9. (There is probably a dream, maybe more than a dream, of a sandplot generator that starts with nothing more than a randomized seed and organically generates related material from there. I’m thinking a little about how Stars Without Number kinda-sorta starts with a blank-ish page and a lot of random inputs. I’m also thinking that the line between “plot” and our natural human ability to draw patterns and meaning out of chaos is blurry as fuck.)

  10. Mark Delsing  I don’t know… I haven’t really crystallized any of these thoughts. Now mulling over the Ron Edwards comment you made.

    How is it functionally different from the randomly generated event? Well, the only thing I can think of offhand is coherency and the event being linked to a larger chain of events… 

    With the random chart, you’d need to think:Why this town? Why now? Why not somewhere else?

    I tend to develop these things sort of like PbtA fronts… there’s the necromancer with his orcs… I know his agenda maybe a rough course of action. 

    What I could do is put the ‘trigger’ for his invasion on a random table, or link it to the PCs actions, like a PbtA clock… But I have a rough idea of my bad guys and their motives. The list of baddies gets added on to by the PCs actions, or perhaps their agendas get modified, though.

  11. I don’t think I know what plot means, at least the conversation so far is indicating I don’t know what it means, and I certainly don’t want to have a definition argument. But it seems to me that most of the plotty stuff you’re mentioning Paul is always important to a good sandbox. (Also I probably don’t know what sandbox means either.) Big Events happening are, to me, important because they’re a part of the setting and make it feel dynamic. And who knows, maybe the players will begin to be more involved with them if they choose.

    But I do like “sandplot”. Not to overwork the metaphor but I like the idea of stuff happening in the sandbox. Take a scoop of sand out here, surrounding sand shifts into place. Move it there and it spreads out impacting the sand around it. Neat term!

  12. This describes everything I want in a sandbox. This is what happens if you ignore adventure hook A and instead pursue adventure hook B, etc. I tried to do a little of that when I GM’ed Stars Without Number.

  13. Chris McNeilly there’s probably a bit of conceptual crossover, or maybe just a lack of intellectual rigor, between “hexcrawl” and “sandbox” that’s easy to trip over. My understanding of hexcrawl — and this is an outsider perspective — is that the content is just there waiting to be discovered but otherwise it’s static. Ish. I understand there’s a slider on facilitating dungeons as well: fixed challenges versus dynamic environment.

  14. Paul Beakley​ that difference is valid only for the West Marches, and it was a design choice. The hexcrawl and pointcrawl are just structural techniques to abstract terrain and make navigation easier

  15. Woo, I’m awesome!

    I feel like what’s being described here is maybe ideal, 21st-century trad play. If “plot is what happens if the players do nothing”*, and so the GM has a “plot” in mind awaiting interference from the players, and players have agency, and their characters exist in a setting that a) responds to them and 2) has “secrets” waiting to be found that were placed there by the GM, then you have… a functional campaign?

    I guess it’s less the emergent play that games like PbtA or BW produce (though those games certainly have prep), but rather everyone — GM and players included — prepping a bunch of stuff they can’t wait to show each other (the GM’s setting bits and NPCs, the players’ conceptions of and hopes for their characters) and then revealing all of that stuff over time, sort of like playing a hand of poker. Eventually all the cards will be on the table, but there will be a lot of back-and-forth first, i.e., the meat of play.

    * I think maybe Dave Noonan or Chris Perkins said this about ten or more years ago.

  16. The West Marches ( ) were a seminal early OSR hexcrawl sandbox. They had one city and sprawling wilds. The wilds did not have agents (as in, stuff happened in them only when PCs were around), nor there was an overall plot. It was a exploration/survival/adventure kind of game, and this was by design.

    Hexcrawl and pointcrawl are two terms that define spacial relationships between locations and how you move between them. The pointcrawl is similar to a hexcrawl, but instead of being a regular grid the connections between the locations are ad-hoc.

    First link here explains it well:

  17. I forgot to mention that many people have taken completely different design choices for their hex/pointcrawls. For example in Chthonic Codex a pointcrawl is used because it’s only possible to travel in canyons, caves and portals, and it’s an academia-gone-sour setting so there’s a lot of things going on when PCs are not looking.

  18. I’m following along now I think. Mark just executed a perfect description of what I am considering sandplot. That was the ideal for which we always strove.

  19. Interesting articles. I had read West Marches a while ago, but didn’t know about pointcrawling.

    It seems that both are intrinsically geographically based. As in, the map is essential. Which I guess is why it fits so well for TOR, given the gorgeous maps.

    My own preferred way of playing (and I think there is a spectrum here, between Hex/point crawling, Sandplotting and BW style play) is less map-heavy. Or maybe its RELATIONSHIP-map heavy? 

    I prep situation and plot ‘triggers’? leads? linked to different people, items and/or locations. When the players ‘move’ (interact and show an interest in pursuing the lead) then it becomes active. Plotcrawling? I think I’m just confusing myself 🙂

    In my BW game, I’ve got invaders poised to take over a mine, secret missives addressed to the Archbishop,  a foreign ambassador, a rival knight, prisoners in the keep’s dungeon, a couple of mysterious wizards, and a young prominent Heir, as well as the mine itself, as well as offers to bargains of questionable morality all floating before the players. That is my map. They choose ‘where’ to go next 🙂  *EDIT:* They choose what to pick up on and what to ignore. I’m happy either way. I provide a wealth of options, and develop what they seem interested in, while ignoring what they’re not interested in…

    I’m rambling… I think that’s just normal BW play, and I’m overthinking it…  😀

  20. Eloy Cintron​ I tinkered with plotcrawling a bit by building a network of triggers and events. It was interesting but i never got it anywhere playable

  21. Paolo Greco It may be that this works because of Burning Wheel Belief system. The players pick up on what interest them, write Beliefs, and then drive in that direction.

    It’s more a collection of loose ideas, underdeveloped, because players will inevitably change them as they interact with them, pursuing their own agendas, as described by their Beliefs. This may change preconceived notions I had about the nature of that particular ‘plot lead’.

  22. Paolo Greco  Also, I should say, it takes a proactive player mindset. If they are reactive all the time, then it doesn’t work. You wind up throwing your plot at them and them reacting. 

    It’s a balancing act, particularly at first. I’m teaching a friend how to play BW, and we’ve been at it a while, but he comes from a long traditional gaming background. Sometimes he drives and sometimes I see him slow down and wait, ready to react. 

    So I throw stuff at him when I see him floundering and encourage him when he picks up stuff and wants to pursue that…

  23. Paul Beakley I think your sandplot generator would need to use a general randomizer to generate more specific randomizers. A bunch of tables that output a new set of tables for a specific setting/town/whatever. It could totally work.

    Eloy Cintron I like the idea of plotcrawling. It feels like you’re saying everything in the world is frozen in a game of freeze tag until the players come along and tag them, so then they can start acting. If so, that’s pretty similar to how I run Dungeon World

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