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.