I came across a bizarre article by DM David yesterday on Sandboxes with the click-baity title “Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think.” His article uses an idea of a sandbox in a way that no DMs I’ve ever played with or who have written on the subject have used the term.

David seems to be using it to describe some sort of absolute free-for-all, nothing planned, no direction to go, the DM just runs with whatever the players decide to do at that moment. It’s nuts, so of course that notion of a sandbox doesn’t work and is not what players really want.

“Sandbox” in every case I’ve seen it used has meant a gaming environment populated with multiple locations to interact with and explore, as opposed to “Here is a dungeon; you are going to explore this dungeon; here is a town; when you’re not in the dungeon, you’re at the town.” The sandbox is typically full of toys; you can play in it and you play with the toys that are there. Sometimes you get more toys, which is always cool, or maybe you find a toy that was hidden under some sand.

Just because players enjoy exploring dungeons doesn’t mean that they’re not in a sandbox game or that they don’t enjoy sandboxing!

Yet David oddly seems to imply that there is some kind of ‘pure’ Sandbox that is devoid of adventure hooks for players to choose from.


“Herpty, derp, you put a castle to be explored in your sandbox? Looks like you’re going back towards the rails, friend!”

While there is some sound advice for open-world gaming in David’s post, it’s all derived from attacking a strawman notion of Sandbox gaming that doesn’t exist.

“I think seeding your sandbox with locations for PCs to explore may be pushing your story too hard!” said no ‘railroad-phobic’ player ever.

A sandbox may not have rails, but it has boundaries and things to do; David’s notion of a sandbox sounds more like a desert.

Anyway, ChicagoWiz has also written an interesting rebuttal to David’s piece.

7 responses to “Sandboxes?

  1. DM David’s Theoretical Sandbox does exist. I played in it. It’s as terrible as he makes it sound. And although it’s been years since I quit playing, I still remember the look everybody’s faces after we created characters and the DM said: “Okay, you’re all in Tantras in the Forgotten Realms. What do you want to do?”

    That’s it. No hooks. Nothing. We had to investigate. It took us two hours in realtime to find even a nibble of an adventure. In that first session we somehow ended up at ruined church clearing out zombies.

    The next session began the same way. “What do you want to do?”

    After another lengthy bout of investigation, we somehow we ended up sailing across the Sea of Fallen Stars to Cormyr to chase down an illegal magic item trade.

    Third session: “You’re in the capital of Cormyr. What do you want to do?”

    Freedom. Horrible freedom…

    • That does sound horrible. Still, strikes me more as bad and lazy DMing than the fault of sandboxing. Heck, by sticking it in the Forgotten Realms, it was auto-seeded! Did he assume you guys had enough of a familiarity with the setting that he thought you could come up with stuff on your own?

      • They may have been the case, but I wasn’t versed on Realms Lore. Maybe that was the issue. He did seem to make up stuff on the fly, but I’m not sure if this was because we went off track for what he had planned, or if he liked winging it. Or if he was trying to get us to push the story forward. But the first 1-2 hours each session became tedious as we pursued one dead end lead after another.

        Normally a sandbox-style DM would be like: “Please! Go ahead, explore my creation to your heart’s content!” But this guy made it difficult to even track down a decent rumor.

        By the third session (and my last), I asked: “What do you want us to do? Just tell us.”

        “Well, what do YOU want to do?”

        “We’ve already told you, and we haven’t been doing anything for the last two hours.”

      • Man, that is nuts! As you kinda imply, though, that’s also really far on the outside of the norm for what any sort of Sandbox DM would do, while DM David’s post seemed to approach it from the idea that what you went through is the norm for Sandboxing.

      • It’s really a matter of “Sandboxes take work on the part of a DM to make sure that there’s stuff for players to do, even if it’s relying on tables for emergent content” as opposed to “Players don’t actually like Sandbox gaming because real sandboxes are devoid of game content.”

  2. I have a contrary anecdote. For a couple of years now I’ve been running a game at my local game store. It began with the PCs (mostly pregen characters) washed up on the beach of an unknown island. I had a huge random encounter table and some ideas about what was happening in various places on the island, but that was it.

    They encountered pirates camped on the beach. They could have joined up, but instead attacked, making enemies who would bedevil them later. They encountered rebels against the King and decided to support them. All of this was entirely the players’ decisions.

    • I recently ran a similar game, where even the biome of a hex was randomly generated and determined the encounter table that would be used.

      Like with your shipwreck, there was an establishing situation and a basic premise for their being there, and that was more than enough for them to get started and dive into the adventure. Hooks emerged from play that players could pursue or not. It was not the paralyzing experience that David implies, in part because it was not the sterile vacuum world that he seems to imply are the nature of sandboxes.

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