Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Story Games + Sandbox = Storybox.
Check it...


When old school gaming is discussed, there is usually a preference for a Sandbox style approach to campaign design. What exactly is 'Sandbox'?
According to the RPG StackExchange website, (excerpt quote) "a campaign that does not have a specific prescribed storyline, but one where the GM sets up a world (or at least a small section of one) and the PCs are free to wander where they will, and find adventure where they will. It's about freedom of choice."
While I am sure we can all agree there is a bit more to it than that (and there is - you are more than welcome to read the linked article), I think we can also agree that this is the essence of the idea.
New school games are often referred to as Story Games. What does that really mean?
According to the RPG Glossary of the well known website BoardGameGeek.Com (which incidentally has no reference in its glossary for 'Sandbox'), Story Games (quoted) "are RPGs which focus more on the overall story than character building or rules enforcing. Most RPGs can be made to be more story driven given the predisposition of the GM/Players, but clearly some RPGs are more tailored to this style of play."
When I read or hear discussions about these two avenues of gaming I often feel like an alien trying to comprehend Human thought processes. I don't see the two as separate or different in the way others do. I understand the two descriptions above but they honestly do little to explain to me why the two do not function in tandem all the time.
I am then reminded of something my friend Dave said recently, my friend Martin said many years ago, my friend Will said in high school and another friend said to me in junior high school..."Most GMs don't think like you."
So if my style is so unusual (which in truth I don't think it is), it needs a name. If its got a story and it's a Sandbox, I will call what I do...Storybox gaming.
How Does Storybox Gaming Work? 
When I design a campaign, one of the first things I do is think of a good story. Something with a strong, basic premise that I can elaborate on during the campaign.

Next, I create between three and five smaller stories, subplots if you will, and place them in different places on my Storybox world/sector map. Very often (95% of the time), these subplots are based on ideas or background material supplied to me by the players participating in the game. This gets them directly involved in the game should they come across the subplot. More about that in a moment.

Now my world map (or sector map or city map or whatever type of map I need for the genre) is given some general parameters (the Elves are in this place, the galactic frontier is to the left of the map, this part of town is the factory and warehouse section, etc.) and I create or assign some adventures to each part of the map along with where the PCs can find elements of the main plot and subplots.

The PCs are then welcome to explore the map as they like. They can also ask an NPC what is happening of interest in their present locale. They can also go to a tavern/spaceport bar and pick up rumors or get hired by a mysterious patron. Looking for wanted posters and trying to bring in bounties is also a common past time in many of my games (especially the earlier ones when we really didn't know the difference between the 1100s and the 1800s).

Here you have the typical Adam game.

It starts with a map whose general layout is known but its specifics aren't.

You can go anywhere on the map your current mode of transportation can take you to. You are limited only by your mode of transport (from feet to starship in some settings) and the time it takes to get where you're going.

Some of the locations on the map, unbeknownst to the players and their PCs, will unlock a major plot or subplot. New stories that happen on the fly lay in waiting in every location that isn't already harboring a plot point. All plots are either general and design to be detailed as we progress in the campaign or they unlock a pre-planned adventure (for example: On Aerth there is a place called 'The Borderlands'. A Keep is located at the Northern Edge of the region. The Borderlands extend to the South and Southwest. Stop off at the Keep and you've stopped at 'The Keep on the Borderlands' and unlocked the potential of running through Module B2).

As the players and their PCs display interest in various elements of the campaign, the game's story (or stories actually) change, contract and expand, allowing the parts that excite the group to gain importance over ones that just don't tickle our collective fancy.

This goes for NPC relationships as well. Those NPCs that the PCs like working with and talking to become reoccurring guest stars. Others  may appear once or twice but if no one goes to see them again they are 'written out' of the campaign in favor of new ones.

I could go on and on about this subject and I will probably end up writing a follow up to this post before long but for now, that is a good summation of how I do things. I do not view Sandbox games and Story Games as things that are mutually exclusive and I never have. I see all my games as a combination of the two.

My Sandbox has stories buried somewhere inside it. My stories can go anyway you want to take them.

There are no locks on Storybox...

Barking Alien


  1. I would like to think I work the same way.

    1. I think more people do than don't. Or at the very least, more GMs popular with their groups do. The idea of one style over the other actually seems sort of uncommon from what I have seen.

  2. Story games are those where the DM conspires (with the story) to ensure the story takes place as closely as possible to the pre-written plot. You've described a (living) sandbox... what you're calling stories are the events that would take place if the PCs didn't exist. Just because your campaign world is alive doesn't mean it's plotted!

    1. I'd second this - what Barking Alien has described seems to me to be the perfect sandbox set-up. Players and PCs given plenty of choice, and even if they decide to farm turnips for another season, things will happen in the world/subsector.

      I'd also add that storygames also tend to have mechanics designed to ensure that the GM and players can make things happen that support the story, while games suited to sandboxing tend to be focused on mechanics that provide a story-neutral engine for the world and actions within in.

    2. I disagree to some extent on this...

      "Story games are those where the DM conspires (with the story) to ensure the story takes place as closely as possible to the pre-written plot."

      I have played and run many a Story Game where the plot was not 'pre-written'. I have also played a few D&D games where if you veered from the Module script the DM had a hissy fit. No game I've played of Apocalypse World, for example, had a pre-determined outcome.

      What I am saying here is sort of the opposite of traditional thinking on the subject. As in...

      "Just because your campaign world is alive doesn't mean it's plotted!"

      And just because it's plotted doesn't mean it isn't alive.

    3. In addition...Dr. Bargle notes:

      "I'd also add that storygames also tend to have mechanics designed to ensure that the GM and players can make things happen that support the story, while games suited to sandboxing tend to be focused on mechanics that provide a story-neutral engine for the world and actions within in."

      I will agree here for sure but note that if you were running a Sandbox game with a system featuring these rules and mechanics, aren't you essentially creating an open ended world that lends itself toward story development once the PCs decide on a course of action?

    4. Rereading your post and our comments, I think maybe the issue is simply that we use the term "plot" differently. What you call plots and subplots I would simply call locations and encounters. That these locations and encounters have internal motivations is only natural... they are as alive as the PCs! Thinking on it, I guess I'd argue that tabletop RPGs, by their social nature, are all about story telling; the difference between the styles is one of who is writing the story. I don't design "story arcs" for my players, I provide the world. The story emerges from play, and it's not told at the table, but after the game is over... much like the world we live in.

    5. That isn't really what a story game is, Dave - at least not how it's described any more. None of them assume a pre-prepared plot, and indeed in most of them you couldn't have such a thing, because the players are able to say what happens to an extent not possible in a traditional game.

  3. Everything I needed to know in life, I learned from the Chuckle Patch.

    1. Agreed.

      Also, Carole (Demas) was probably my first TV/Celebrity crush. Actually at that age I should say she was probably the first girl I didn't view as icky.

  4. very much agreed.

  5. You're describing things as the campaign level. How do you work things at the level of individual adventures? When the players unlock a plot, what does that mean?

    My impression is that there's a kind of heavily-plotted playstyle (associated with White Wolf's games, but I can think of tendencies in that direction as early as the adventure-design advice given in Champions) that forces PC actions to conform to a planned storyline, that became popular in some circles in the '80s and '90s. You know, railroading. The kind of game where the GM has a big set-piece battle planned, and nothing the PCs come up with, no matter how clever and plausible, will keep the GM from having that set-piece battle.

    Both the OSR and Forge indie movements are, I think, reactions against railroading, but in opposite directions. Railroading was invented to invest RPGs with drama. Advocates of sandboxes (which most OSR games seem to be) reacted by saying "the story is what happens in play", and rejected the idea of forcing drama into play. The Forge, out of which Story Games emerged, reacted by distributing dramatic authority around the table, developing games that bring themes directly into play, and granting players greater narrative control.

  6. Alright, I'll bite:

    Story-centric campaigns tend to restrict player actions, from travel (because they are set in a specific location) to character advancement (because there are level ranges or gear restrictions to allow the story to work as designed). If everyone agrees to this, or just flat doesn't notice, then all is well. Examples:

    Marvel Civil War: Certain things are happening in the U.S. and the players are forced to react or deal with them. The players can't go jetting off to fight the Kree for a year just because one of them decides to or the whole campaign is shot. Now a skilled DM could, if the players demanded it, run something similar to what you have described above with multiple things going on at the same time all over the world - besides the events of Civil War maybe Atlantis causing trouble and Latveria going to war and something happening on the moon, but at that point the players may just get lost anyway.

    Red Hand of Doom is set in a specific location with a clock ticking as events happen. The players' actions can affect the timeline, but if they decide to walk out of the Elsir Vale and go attack the Temple of Elemental Evil for the next six months then if they ever bother to come back to the Vale the old adventure is no longer applicable - that story is over.

    Time of Crisis - well, since all of reality is destroyed your options are limited anyway, but you really can't opt to not save the universe and go do something else - a very neat way to handle things, but a plot railroad nonetheless.

    I think the defining characteristic of "Sandbox" is "freedom to travel" while "Story" tends to sacrifice freedom of movement in exchange for a more defined plot - that definition demands some restriction, which is not automatically a negative.

    Another quality may be that in a pure sandbox the world does not initiate actions against the PC's except in the most basic, reactive level - the orc tribe tracks you down, the town council exiles you, etc. It does not include a demon worshipper who is building an army and planning a ceremony to open a portal to Heck and lay waste to the world - the party might discover one at the bottom of a dungeon, but until then it sits and waits for them to arrive. The Sandbox world tends to be passive, reacting to the players actions only. The story campaign involves outside forces taking actions that affect the PC's regardless of their situation or desires.

    I don;t think I'm fully expressing some of these concepts but a lot of this revolves around published adventures, which tend to be story-driven these days. Deviate from the story and the DM loses the use of that material. If the DM never uses published adventures, then he doesn't have a big book o'stuff waiting to be used and doesn't feel pressure to drive the party towards a specific resolution. Example:

    Keep on the Borderlands is a sandbox. It describes a wide area, multiple places of interest in that area, and f the PC's decide to stay in the keep and interact with the NPC's for a full year then nothing else happens - the monsters in the caves do not attack the keep, a troll doesn't move into the ogre cave (because the ogre never dies), etc.

    A modern version of this adventure would probably have some of these plot elements - sequences of events and set piece encounters that lead up to some big bang at the end - the high priest of the shrine of evil chaos performs a big ceremony and the monsters all line up and head for the keep, leading to a big battle and a throwdown with the EHP and his minotaur sidekick at the end.

  7. @Avram and Blacksteel - Thank you both for coming by to discuss this. I appreciate it and value both of your opinions very much.

    I will try to answer and clarify as best I can but (A) it maybe that I can't quite explain my views in a satisfactory way and (B) Blacksteel's response is so big that I may not get to all the elements.

    So...Lord Blacksteel wrote:

    "I think the defining characteristic of "Sandbox" is "freedom to travel" while "Story" tends to sacrifice freedom of movement in exchange for a more defined plot - that definition demands some restriction, which is not automatically a negative."

    Hence what I said, Storybox! See, my players' PCs are free to go wherever they want. Done protecting the fishing village from that Wereshark you heard about? There's rumors of an army of Orcs massing near the Southern Kingdom. What's that? You'd rather go East and check out that country forever cloaked in dark clouds and constant rainstorms? Sure, go ahead.

    Now, the idea that freedom of movement is sacrificed in exchange for a more defined plot is...not exactly true in my Storybox games.

    In the example above I had no idea the PCs would want to go to Stormoveria (heheh) but I do know (since Stormoveria is on my map that the players can see) that the Czar their is merely a figurehead, a puppet ruler with darker masters.

    If one of the players mentioned upon creating his character that he hates Vampires because they took over his homeland many years ago, those dark masters are Vampires. If he notices clues or digs into the rumors of the Czar's nature he will learn this.

    One the other hand, if the players arrive and are more interested in why it's always raining and dark, why, I know what that is as well and they are welcome to investigate. The Mage in the party seems particularly curious because he thinks it's a magic spell of sorts. It is and if he pursues his investigation he will learn more about that magic than any one else (because he's a Mage and is interested in looking).

    As Blacksteel notes here:

    "Keep on the Borderlands is a sandbox. It describes a wide area, multiple places of interest in that area, and f the PC's decide to stay in the keep and interact with the NPC's for a full year then nothing else happens - the monsters in the caves do not attack the keep, a troll doesn't move into the ogre cave (because the ogre never dies), etc."

    OK, but in my Storybox (which is still a Sandbox), the Ogre could die if the PCs kill him. Then he will be dead. A Troll could move in. If the PCs decide to stay at the Keep I will have to consider that. If the PCs head for other lands and adventures...well I will still consider it and leave myself a note should they ever return.

  8. It also seems to me that "Sandbox" and "Story Game" aren't really parallel terms. "Sandbox" generally describes a campaign style, while "Story Game" describes a family of mechanical approaches. Dogs in the Vineyard is a Story Game, but it could be easily played as a sandbox, just by generating a bunch of towns, giving the players some hints about what's going on in each one, and giving them the choice of where to go next. I'm pretty sure Apocalypse World is designed to be played as a sandbox, and it's a Story Game too.

    1. Ah! I not only agree with this but in my twisted view it proves my point. At least it provides support to a point I'm trying to make.

      Many seem to view the two as mutually exclusive when in fact, by definition (especially as defined by Mr. Grumer), that can't be the case. One is style, the other a mechanic. At the same time, Story Games definitely have a distinct style to them.

      What I am saying is just this...I like to run Story Games presented as Sandboxes or Sandbox games with mechanics thrown in to support reward players who partake in or help generate story. At any point in a story the PCs can, if they so wish, abandon it but there could be repercussions depending on what is logical for the scenario.

      Good if not perfect example:

      In one Star Frontiers game the players did a job for a corporation that then attempted to eliminate them to prevent the trail from leading the authorities back to the company.

      While exchanging shots in a firefight in a bad part of town, my friend Pete's character says, "Screw this" and calls the group's ship at the spaceport. The Co-Pilot robot answers and is told to fly the ship around to a nearby construction sight. Pete and another PC cover a third, who runs to the team's vehicle, a gravcar, and pulls it around behind the PCs.

      The PCs all jump into the gravcar and peel out, head for the ship, board and fly out of the atmosphere. While contemplating where to lightspeed to, one player says, "I think we just left the adventure." Pete blinked and looked at me, "What do we do now?"

      "I don't know," I replied with a sly smirk, "it's your ship. Where do you want to go? What do you Want to do?"

      There was a story, an 'adventure' if you will, but the PCs left it behind. And I was totally cool with that. That situation is still there if they go back to that planet but the entire galaxy was open to explore. There are a lot more stories out there.

    2. I think the issue is this: Old-school games generally have fiction-first mechanics, at least from the players' perspective. By this I mean that it's up to you, as a player, to decide what you want your character to do, and the dice decide whether you succeed. It's rare for the dice to decide what you want to do (the occasional Fear or Charm person spell). To use Vincent Baker's "IIEE" terminology, old-school games usually let the player decide on Intention and Initiation, and the rules and dice decide matters at the level of Execution and Effect. Though I can think of cases where the GM vetoes Intention: "I don't care if you know how to make gunpowder, your character doesn't!"

      A lot of Story Games use mechanics where the rules and dice let you (or even require you) to roll back Initiation, and even Intention. That feels like "the dice are telling me what to do", or what people used to dismiss as "roll-playing, not role-playing". (Keep in mind that description predates the Forge and Story Games by over a decade — I think I first saw that dismissal used about Pendragon in the late '80s or early '90s.)

      So I think what may be happening in some conversations is that people are taking the anxiety they feel about Story Game "roll-playing" mechanics at the action-resolution level and projecting it onto the campaign-design level. Or something.

    3. That's a very interesting take on it and one I can't completely disagree with.

      I can partially disagree with it though. ;)

      OK, maybe not disagree but I never got the impression while playing some of the newer 'Story Games' that my Intentions or Initiations were controlled by the dice rolls. At least not Intentions. I don't like roll-playing as much as role-playing generally speaking and yet I've like a lot of modern indie games that would seem to lean that way based on your description here. Of course, that may well be another point. That is to say, if it doesn't feel like that even though that is what's happening, you've just discovered a very well desgined game.

      Pendragon fits that bill for me as well.

      Great stuff Avram!

    4. OK, concrete example: the Smallville RPG. A Contest (the conflict mechanic) can end with one character being "Stressed Out", which means they can no longer participate in the scene, but the exact details of that depend on what kind of stuff was going on in the Contest. If it was two people punching each other, then maybe the Stressed Out character is knocked unconscious, which is the sort of thing we're all used to in RPGs. But what if the Contest was a verbal argument? In that case, the Stressed Out result can represent a character storming angrily out of the scene, or standing in the corner silently fuming. Those are cases where your Intent is determined (or at least tightly constrained) by the game mechanics — you can't just choose to have your Stressed Out character stick around and continue to argue.

  9. Yeah I can ramble at times. On this topic I have that feeling of knowing-it-when-I-see-it but not being able to clearly articulate it right now, so I will leave it at this:

    I don't see it as a mechanical thing as much as it is a campaign style choice and a game system choice.
    Some games publish supplements and adventures that use a location-based approach - old D&D, Traveller, Gamma World, Twilight 2000, Runequest, etc. they describe a location: the inhabitants, the major players, the terrain features, all of which are basically a snapshot of the place as it exists. It's useful information whether you are passing thru the area or planning to live there. Everything tends to be connected by physical proximity.

    Other games (TSR Marvel, Current Marvel, Shadowrun, Star Wars) publish adventures and supplements that tend to be structured as "Act 1 Scene 1, Act 1 Scene 2" etc. They may cover a multitude of locations, a wide variety of characters, and a lot of interesting situations and may reflect multiple changes over time - the connections in this type of material are not necessarily physical or geographic but are connected by plot.

    Those are the two major approaches I see and while neither one forces a DM to solely choose one over the other I think it shows the intentions of the game designers and publishers and has a big influence on how people play and run that game.

  10. Stumbled across this great post some time ago and it made me think. This is what I got: I believe the core difference between storyteller role playing games and games that could entertain a working sandbox scenario is that in story driven games a characters background/history is part of the character creation process and an active part of a characters surroundings. So if a player creates a powerful witch with a drug problem and hunted by the authorities, this will have far wider implications for a story that evolves around such a character than playing a level 1 sorcerer in D&D will ever have. And this is - how I understand it - the point where a setting could be arranged like a sandbox, but with story elements replacing what makes a sandbox work. Which would than be a storybox. Something like shifting the focus from a "simulated-world point-of-view" (for a sandbox) to the social surroundings of a group (it's more personal interaction and how your surroundings react to a character ... or how he is connected to it) ... Right? I mean, I agree that such a thing as a storybox should exist and is useful, the question is if what I described is what you had in mind (as I'm not quite sure).