Friday, July 25, 2014

What Makes a Great Sandbox Adventure Great?

For going on six months now I have been doing an on-again/off-again read/reread of favorite or suggested sandbox products. Unbidden the same driving question keeps popping into my broken brain: what particular set of things makes this product so damn good? (What makes it shitty or mediocre being an interesting and useful question for another time.)

I have something like 30 unfinished blog posts beating, beating in tell-tale-heart urgency from my draft box and some of them are various attempts to move those margin notes into a blog series. Reckon it's time to whip those recalcitrant posts into publishable shape.
Before I kick off the series though let me set the frame. Imagine the standard disclaimer here these elements are what make a particular sandbox pop me for me, your own mileage may vary blah blah blah. You will note that how I frame the criteria precludes a number of much beloved sandboxes and hex-crawls.

Lines had to be drawn.

That said I am curious to hear if you the reader were making this list what would you include? What particular thing inspires you or helps you run it? And what products would you through on your High Fidelity Top Five list?

What constitutes an exemplary sandbox adventure:
  • Main frame is a large, but bounded wilderness or outdoors environment.
  • Open ended and allows (may even explicitly plan) for different outcomes and play (though most often having loose overall goals or player motivations wired in).
  • Combines the adventure-site exploration with another deep axis (political maneuvering, interesting NPC goals, timelines or whatever) to make it multi-dimensional.
  • Site description is in my utterly subjective “sweet spot” (between terse hex crawl and baroque setting books).
  • Has distinctive color and texture.
  • Often has something that enhances or bends the system it is designed for (say mechanics for running particular natural obstacles or mythical wildernesses that bend standard rules).
  • Has a map that is either aesthetically inspiring or has interesting play choices built in. 

Sandbox adventures to be examined (ranked loosely by personal inspiration):
  • Griffin Mountain (Runequest)
  • Twilight 2000 adventures
  • Heart of the Sunken Lands (Midkemia) 
  • Vault of the Drow (AD&D)
  • John Stater's Land of Nod/Hex Crawl Chronicles
  • Pitzburke (Gamma World 2e)

Almost rans (ballpark goodish, that may or may not be thrown in):
  • Leviathan, Prison Planet, Tarsus and Beltstrike (Classic Traveller)
  • Isle of Dread (B/X)
  • Night's Dark Terror (BECMI)
  • Qelong (LoTFP)


  1. The wilderness book of City State of the World Emperor?

    1. Funnily I thought of you and that product (a shared love). Ok penciled in.

    2. Thanks! I don't actually know if it qualifies as a "sandbox" under these criteria -- too sketchy? -- but finding out might be useful. Also wondering about the First Fantasy Campaign as a big all-inclusive "sand bucket." Looking forward to seeing Balazar get LOVE.

  2. 1. Isle of Dread - Island provides for multiple entry points "into" sandbox and easier/faster access to previous areas. My first love.

    2. My own Gold and Glory Western Marches style everything and kitchen sink sandbox.

    3. B10 (playing at NTRPG introduced/convinced me of the excellence of this module). A "story" based sandbox.

    4. B2 Caves of Chaos (also HackMaster "upgrade") mini-sandbox. Again multiple entry areas / access. Factions. easily player perceived scaling risk/reward.

    5. Chaosium - Cities: tables and toolkits. Best way to do a city. I like CSIO, but the actual city portion is hard to run well. If I built that city up from tables and toolkits I would know it like back of my hand, know all the interconnections and places and nuances. As it stands I just don't know CSIO's city well enough to wing it let alone make it come alive.

  3. Some keys of good sandboxes

    - easily perceived scaling risk/reward
    - multiple entry (or at least methods for high-levels to skip newbie lawn rivers, teleporters, whatever)
    - something compelling players to explore
    - tools for DM to wing it. tables, toolkits, collection of "placeable" encounters, couple sentence description of every hex, etc.

  4. I'm a big softie for B2 and B10. Tbh I haven't played any modern sand boxy modules or setting except my own.

  5. To toot my own horn I would add my Scourge of the Demon Wolf. I don't think my Blackmarsh or Judges Guild Wilderlands would count as they are more settings.

    Griffin Mountain could be considered a setting but what sets it apart from the Wilderlands or Blackmarsh is the fact that many locales are fleshed out and ready to run as adventures.

    Judges Guild has one product like that called Verbosh. A small regions set in a large valley. A variety of locales are details and fully fleshed out.

  6. Love the sandbox, especially:

    TW2000. Great frameworks, but the maps were lacklustre
    Pitzburke. Had so much fun in the ruins.

    I'm thinking about running Boothill characters through Isle of Dread. Should be fun . . .