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Max and I had a conversation about sandboxes. He’s said his part, so here’s mine:
First some history: I grew up with AD&D 2e and the Planescape campaign setting. My younger gaming days were not spent with ten foot poles, poking through dingey dungeons, but on strange planes parlaying with powerful creatures. In this style of play, prep didn’t include maps and set pieces, but was focused more around creating interesting NPCs.
What I’m getting at is that, the way Max uses the term “sandbox” is my default assumption when gaming! I have always prepared a scattered amount of stuff and thrown them into a blender when the PCs juke an unexpected way.
So what is a “sandbox game” to me then? To me, a sandbox is game is one that is player-led. The players have created characters they find interesting with drives and goals and they tell the GM what they are doing. This is decidedly not how I grew up gaming – in those days we all sat by looking for The Plot so we could solve The Story. And there’s nothing wrong with that – I think this is the opposing side of a player-led game – a GM-led game with a focus on crafted story arcs rather than character goals.
But often when you talk about a game like this, people hear “railroad.” And that’s bullshit. A GM-led story doesn’t automatically mean the game is railroaded. Railroading is a naughty word in gaming because it removes player choice from play. In a GM-led game, there’s still choices – there’s just right and wrong ones. “Oh well now Hogni is the king. You guys spent seven weeks on that quest…”
tl;dr a sandbox is a game where play is driven by characters with strong goals, as opposed to a game driven by an overarching story.