13 January 2012

"Missions" and Sandbox Play

What role does the "mission" have in sandbox play?

By mission I mean an in-game objective which the characters seek to achieve, arising out of their own motives or due to their taking on a task given to them by another.  I'll give a few examples to show what I mean:

1.  In the brief Stonehell Dungeon game I ran, the party captured some goblins trying to sneak out of Stonehell. They learned of the goblins' conflict against the orcs and decided to help the goblins out, mainly so they could use the goblins as fodder against the stronger orcs.  The mission: eradicate the orcs on the first level of Stonehell. (Voluntary, wholly player driven).

2.  In the lengthy and fun 2E game in which I played while I was in grad school, our party had some downtime in a big city during a festival.  During that time, we were approached by a few different sorts of people, each of which wanted us to do, find, or recover something and get some sort of reward in return.  We elected to help this magic-user named Rinver travel to a ruined temple of Oghma in exchange for payment and a big share of any treasure.  The mission: get the magic-user safely into the ruined temple.  (Voluntary, somewhat player driven.  That is, we were given a choice of missions and took one instead of just saying "let's see what's in this hex over there").

3.  In the same game, my character became cursed.  Well, it was mostly his own fault, but that's another story.  The point was, to remove his curse he had to travel to the distant desert of his youth and recover an artifact.  The mission: travel to the distant desert land and recover an artifact.  (Involuntary -- my character would have Bad Things happen unless he did this thing.  Not very player driven -- the curse was a consequence of my PC's actions, but the manner of the curse and its removal was not).

I'd submit that the mission has a vital role in sandbox/old-school play.  I believe all three types listed above can fit, if posed properly.  Missions that are offered as actual choices and/or consequences of PC's actions can fit quite well.  In #2, we could have turned down Rinver and accepted an alternative offer.  In #3, while I did not know my PC's actions would lead directly to a curse that would then necessitate a mission, I had a good idea that Bad Things could happen by continuing on the present path, yet I persisted.  The problem comes when missions are presented as meta-game imperatives, as in "You have to take this wizard's offer or we have no adventure tonight."

Thoughts?  Does the mission have a place in sandbox play?


  1. Ya, sandbox is all about missions or plot hooks or whatever you want to call them. A sandbox is players in a place with toys and in this particular case the toys are missions. Its a sandbox because they get to pick which toys that are scattered around in the sand to play with, not because your only allowed to play with sand. I don't think anyone who ever ran sandboxes said that you weren't allowed to put in lots of plot hooks, adventures, missions, quests and such, however a lot of people on the internet seem to think that the term sandbox precludes these things. It's the same people that won't let you like both DC and Marvel comics I expect.
    Also old school play isn't synonymous with sandbox style games, a lot of old games were railroads too.

  2. If I've learned anything about how I want my future sandbox to run from playing Skyrim over the winter break from school, it's that you want to have a combination of all of them. The key is to give enough options for the players to have the choice of their poison (or have their hand forced by consequences of previous choices).

  3. I'd say missions are fine. Like so many things, it's all in how they are used. In the game I'm playing now, our GM gives us at least one new rumor/plot hook practically every time we arrive in a new place and/or meet a new NPC (in a town/in a dungeon/in the wilderness, wherever), We've followed up on a few, ignored the vast majority -- but it was always our choice and our mission. Our GM has never imposed any course of action on us. What's more, these additional hooks pop up while we're in the middle of some mission we've already given ourselves, so we always have the opportunity to hop from one to the other if we want (we tend not to -- but again that's our choice too).

  4. Thanks for the comments, all! One thing they've made me think about is, perhaps, a difference between missions and plot hooks. The former are very explicit -- "go X and get Y" sort of things, where the later are more like campaign dressing until the players latch on: "The old man in the bar tells you about a great treasure in the Forbidden Mountain."