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.