On Space Structure and the Sandbox Style in Adventure Design

This is part two of a multi-part post discussing adventure design. The first post covering Line Structure is here. The purpose of the structure and style posts is to improve your game design.

The second structure of adventure design is space.

Space Structure or the "Sandbox Style"

So what is Space Structure?
It is a bounded abstract region containing places, items, and people of interest that has minimal restrictions of any kind on movement.
Six Flags! America's Theme Park. (never been)
A good example of a Space Structure is an amusement park:

It's pretty clear what we mean by a "Bounded abstract region". It's our physical structure of our space. It's also fairly clear what we mean by "places of interest". But what do we mean by "minimal restrictions of any kind on movement". Isn't the whole point of sandbox play freedom? Isn't one of it's strongest traits it's 'non-linear' nature?

Open unrestricted creativity is actually limiting. If there are no restrictions of any kind, then you will actually make it more difficult for your players to make decisions.  Having some restriction doesn't mean that freedom doesn't exist - the freedom is the player makes the choice based off their own feelings, priorities, and thoughts. It's not decided for them. Having freedom to make a choices doesn't mean they can do whatever they want when they want.

Second, even in a very open Space Structure there are going to be dozens of limitations of all kinds. In this amusement park example, there are paths from various areas to another with fences, trees and other annoying stuff standing between them. In a traditional hex-crawl, there are differing kinds of terrain, political boundaries, wandering monsters, and more. All of these exert various resistances and cause the movement of the players to be restricted. This is neither negative or positive but is a factor you should be aware of when designing these spaces

Each of these causes a restriction or resistance to player movement, making their choice one of the cost of travel. We know that in life, often the thing on the other side of a stupid big mountain is a crappy swamp valley, but since we're playing in a game, there should be some sort of awareness between the cost of traveling to an area, and the results thereof.

So what do we mean when we talk about "Bounded abstract regions" and "places of interest"? Well, lets look at some examples of different sandboxes.

First, the classic wilderness hex map:
This is the traditional fantasy example of the sandbox. This example contains a variety of encounters keyed to the hexes, a selection of terrain, resources for players and all the elements of a campaign. This particular picture was taken from an excellent article from the Welsh Piper. It is related to an article from Microlite20. Please use these resources to discover how to go about producing a map in this style. Note this also works in an identical manner for a science fiction game, allowing you to produce star charts with a variety of planets available for the players to visit. The skin of the environment is irrelevant. The difference between those two options (terrain and star system) is too minimal to note. Both are representations of physical lands the players travel through, marked with sites where encounters or adventures take place.

Be sure to consider the scale of the sandboxes also. Instead of each of those sites being Line Structure: Traditional Mode they could be miniature sandboxes of their own.

So what other kinds of sandboxes are there?

The big party/ urban city:
In this the bounded abstract region is a setting instead of terrain. I doubt there are modifiers in game for hardwood floors versus carpet. And the places of interest are people who are attending the party. The important factors are that the players may choose to approach anyone they wish and start a conversation.

This also works for city environments. Why use the Space Structure for a city instead of Line Structure: Menu Mode? Well, one good reason would be that you intend on the city being the site of adventures. If the players are never going to have an encounter in the city, then just design it as a menu. If however you lay out a map for the players of the city, expect them to treat it as any other sandbox. They will spend table time walking around and poking into things. If you don't have a peasant there to have them kill rats in her basement, then they might very well get bored.

The signal you send when you create the sandbox is "Explore here".

 The Open Plot sandbox:
One of the key features of sandbox play is it's non-linear aspect. This works equally as well for an evenings adventure when the bounded abstract region remains abstract and the places of interest have to do with the character backgrounds. If you want to get technical, this is our first explicit example of a combined style. (The implicit example was the classic wilderness hex map, with each encounter possibly being of a different style).

This combines a three step scene flowchart with a scene based sandbox. How does this work?

Well, the very first thing after everyone gets settled, is the GM handles the scene with Mr. Johnson giving the players their job for the night. Then, the players, each representing real people with their own bills, problems, issues and needs sets out in whatever order they wish to accomplish as many as their goals while also taking the time necessary to prepare for the mission. They may take on these scenes in any order, and may leave out any of them that they wish. Then, once everyone is prepared they go do the job. 

The Player Preparation box is the sandbox - it's an extremely player driven selection of scenes that they may approach in any order.


As we've looked at the Space Structure we've seen the start of a continuing trend that none of these stand on their own.

It is trivial to realize that the Space Structure sandbox can contain Linear Structure styles as dungeons and adventure sites.

Can a Linear Structure contain a Space Structure

Absolutely. In this case the bounded abstract region is the dungeon and the places of interest are the various monster groups, colonies, and adventure zones within the dungeon.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Space Structure? The most important factor in any space style is player motivation. Because there is no overarching drive forward such as in Linear Structure, it is important that the characters have a clear list of motivations and interrelationships in order to have some metric for weighing decisions within the sandbox - even if those goals are as simple as "get rich".

If your players have no interest in the sandbox or are uncomfortable with the amount of freedom they are given then they may wander aimlessly around your setting looking for the next train (i.e. those that run on railroads). Working with them to find goals and other ways to make the players agents is a good way to combat this situation. The sandbox is about openness, non-linearity, and player driven game play, so you may spend some time listening to your players during character creation about what the would like their goals to be, and in play when they attempt to accomplish various goals. Adopt a permissive attitude and you will see empowered players. Don't answer "no", answer "yes, with this cost".

Space Structure Pros: Players given ultimate agency. Easy to prepare for a lot of sessions ahead of time. Non-linear structure is organic, doesn't feel 'forced'.

Space Structure Cons: Lots of pitfalls in running the game. If the players lack goals, they may become bored. possibility for a lot of wasted time at the table for an unfocused group.

What about more complex structures? What about a world outside of the actions that the players take? We'll look at that next time on Time Structure or "Schedule Style"

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