Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Accessible Sandbox

My conception of a sandbox has always involved a "starter" village that has a few roads or routes to bigger settlements all set in a wilderness that get increasingly dangerous the further from civilization you get.  The difficulty of the sandbox could be seen as concentric circles emanating from that first village, because even the roads and big urban areas they lead to could have encounters and dangers.

Morrowind has me re-thinking this.
Map edited from here.  The red dots are the Mage guilds which all can be accessed from each other.
You start the game in Seyd Neen in the South West.
From the very beginning, as a weak first leveller, you can access a huge portion of the existing sandbox, and safely.  The world has Silt Striders that look like big fleas which you can ride from some towns to others.  There are also boats that can be taken from most coastal towns which allow for circumnavigating the island sandbox completely.  This is all safe and relatively cheap.  With a tiny bit of effort you can even become a member of the Mage's Guild which allows for teleportation between the five guilds on the island (again, for a small fee).

Magic available in the game helps with the ease of travel too.  There are spells (and magic items) that allow for teleportation to both native and Imperial temples.  Crafty use of these can let you take shortcuts in travel-- popping over to a temple that is near a Silt Strider port, for example.  There is also a Mark/Recall set of spells that allows you to set a specific anchor you want to easily return to later.

The danger is still present between these points of civilization, but there is much more flexibility in travel and exploration than I have experienced in any other video game sandboxes.  If you don't want to mess about in the grimy swamps along the coast you can spend time in the dry ashlands further inland, or head to the grassy grazelands far to the west.

Danger is fairly well signaled; any old ruins are likely to have things you shouldn't mess with and as you near the center of the island more of the creatures are blighted and contagious.  So your choices about where to travel can be informed choices.

The settlements offer pretty much redundant services, for example temples and Imperial garrisons.  This means if you have a particular kind of character you like to play, you can take of advantage of all these travel opportunities without being penalized.  The cities aren't identical, though, and you often need to travel around to find a spell or item you need.

I think one way this is possible is the sandbox is circular and several hops of travel doesn't take you so far away as to be unable to still access other environments.  In a more traditional rectangular map, traveling towards a desert environment most likely leads you farther and farther from your original location.

I suppose a traditional D&D sandbox is also bigger, though, in-game this world feel huge.  I wouldn't want to have to walk across the island real time.

I guess it all comes down to how much prep you can do.  The video game all has to be ready for players from the moment play starts.  So, as long as you can compartmentalize real danger (shove it into ruins and underground) you can let the player amble about all over.  For a DM, having multiple areas that players could choose to start from sounds like lots of work.

But I will certainly think more about safe, clearly marked, ways players can move about so they can have choices where they want to explore.


  1. "I suppose a traditional D&D sandbox is also bigger, though, in-game this world feel huge. I wouldn't want to have to walk across the island real time."

    I totally agree. Morrowind had pretty much convinced me that I should design smaller worlds with more travel options and more frequent encounters.

    Did you know that the world map is supposedly less than 10 square miles? That is, if this math I found is correct.

    Morrowind Vvardenfell World: 2688 x 2816 [ 84 x 88 TES4 size cells ] = 4.8km x 5km = 24 sq km = 9.3 sq miles

    I was rather surprised when I saw that figure.

  2. I suppose a Morrowind type map with safe long distance travel would allow the players more freedom to choose where they want to explore. Freedom to explore is a hallmark of a sandbox campaign. To keep campaign prep down you could restrict the travel by making certain routes too expensive for beginning (usually poor) characters. Some modes could be restricted to only members/allies of an organization, requiring the players to earn membership through quests, etc. As they gain wealth and prestige, doors will literally open up for them.

  3. Definitely something to think about for my next D&D campaign.

  4. Oh, and I should add... I never did finish Morrowind. I didn't have the attention span to follow the main quest. The prophecy can wait; I want to become Grand Master of the Fighter's Guild. Hey, what's in this cave? Is that a shipwreck? Etc.

  5. I lived on Planet Morrowind for an extended period of time while in graduate school (why, yes, I was avoiding my dissertation...).

    No surprise that the lead designer on Morrowind was Ken Rolston, author of many different tabletop RPG products in the past.

  6. @Nick: I wonder if the slow movement adds to that feel. I forgot how horribly slow you start out. I've got my Speed over 50 now and still run everywhere to move faster. I do think part of it is the way the terrain is laid out. You aren't prevented from going anywhere but steep hills and lakes make straying from the curving roads troublesome. So you get a sense of things being bigger from having to travel the switchbacks.

    @EPW: Yeah, easier travel as perks of different organizations is cool. What struck me about this was how much you could move around without any of that. I think the way I would try to achieve it is to make several start areas with simpler but more efficient set up.

    @DungeonMastahWieg: I know that just exploration doesn't satisfy me-- I need some kinds of quests and tension to interact with different factions-- but I have no use for the default "You are the One" the Elder Scrolls keeps telling. Also, for single player games I enjoy a lot of messing with the system itself to see what is possible. I'm still exploring alchemy and enchanting right now.

    @Victor:Props to Ken for what he achieved with Morrowind, but I think with Oblivion he threw out a lot of what he'd done right in chasing a bigger audience. I suppose they succeeded with the popularity of Oblivion, and now Skyrim, but it really doesn't compare to what they threw out to get there. I might write a blog post about this later.

  7. Yeah, Morrowind is a wonderful sandbox. It is hard to set up the same degree of detail in terms of number of organizations, number of encounter sites, number of quests, and so forth in building a tabletop sandbox... This discussion has got me thinking about running a somewhat less post-apocalyptic sandbox than my current one, where there are no questgivers, few organizations, a bare handful of towns, and most travel is on foot (with river travel being the exception, and my PCs are now rich enough to own a boat, so there's no organizations dependance there).

    Alchemy is a lot of fun... arguably the strongest skill, because of the 'action economy' of being able to down a great heaping pile of potions while the game is paused, then regenerating through almost any combat (in addition to utility capabilities like flight, fatigue restoration, and intelligence boosting loops).

    Also agree completely that MW did a much better job of sandboxing than Oblivion or Skyrim.

  8. Thinking:

    The Morrowind/Elder Scrolls idea of easy and safe travel is more important if you're designing for someone else. With one's own group, chances are that one knows them well enough to cater to their favourite activities. When designing for other people, however, chances are one has no clue as to what they prefer doing.

    Thus, the Morrowind approach seems to me like mostly about providing an illusion of freedom and diversity to make up for the lack of true freedom and diversity. But I'll admit that at least for an island it has some virtues.

  9. Thanks, Olav. Yeah, I'm not so confident I know what my group wants at any one time probably because my group might be composed of different people on any one night.

    I don't think Morrowind's illusion is the travel, but when you get down to the level of quests and find out, that you *have* to kill someone or that you *have* to steal something. Then it feels very video gamey and unsatisfying.