Friday, August 24, 2007

Playing in the Sandbox

Three weeks ago, Jeff blogged about sandbox play, and I said that I'd address it here at some point. Between then and now was a New Orleans trip, moving, and GenCon. Now, I am trying to get caught up.

The basic idea of sandbox-play is that there is a world around the PCs and that the PCs can go anywhere in that world. In Jeff's post, this is set up as the alternative to having all encounters be scaled in difficulty to the level of the party. The idea is that in sandbox-play, it is possible for PCs to get in far over their heads if they aren't careful.

I think that the dichotomy here is false and is conflating two separate things.

On the one hand, you have unrestricted play versus restricted play. In unrestricted play, PCs can go anywhere. In restricted play, PCs are restricted to a particular subset of locations in the game world. This restriction might be by GM fiat, social contract, plot pressure, or any of a variety of things.

On the other hand, you have encounters that are set in particular locations without respect for the abilities of the PCs versus encounters that are scaled to the PCs.

The sandboxers seem to be in favor of unrestricted play with set encounters. Personally, I strongly prefer (as both a GM and a player) unrestricted play with scaled encounters. That doesn't mean that I think that PCs should be able to defeat any monsters they encounter... but they should have a chance of survival if they are resourceful.

In unrestricted play with set encounters, low-level PCs can walk into a dragon's lair. They'll be quickly killed.

In unrestricted play with scaled encounters, low-level PCs can walk into a dragon's lair. The dragon might be meeting with a powerful wizard - and the PCs can overhear their plans (and pick up some plot points) and sneak away while the dragon and his guest are distracted. Alternately, the dragon might confront them and let them go... if they agree to perform a quest for it.

The second sounds a whole lot more fun to me.

Part of this involves broadening the definition of what 'scaling to PC capabilities' means. In the post that Jeff originally quoted on this topic, Melan (on EN World) said:

Of course, none of this preserves the party from random encounters, or accidentally stumbling into something way over their heads. Here, responsibility gets divided between the DM and his players. The players must shed the mindset that challenges in the world are tailored to their abilities. They must be prepared to say "We are not going there", they must be prepared to declare "RUN!", and they must be prepared to negotiate or, yes, grovel/surrender before an obviously superior and intelligent foe. Getting out of an unpleasant situation imposed on them by a demon, lich or dragon (who could, for example, take their valuable equipment, even spell books hostage to prevent flight, or use a magical sort of compulsion) is always possible, while death is very final.
See, I think that if it is possible to get out of a situation then the situation was, in fact, scaled to their capabilities. In d20, the Encounter Level is based upon defeating the foes. Scaling a situation doesn't necessarily mean that the resolution of the situation involves your foes' defeat. It might just involve your survival.

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