Friday, February 27, 2009

RPG Musings: The Sandbox Game

Every Friday, I'll toss an idea or two with regards to tabletop RPGs.

While there's a plethora of RPGs out there, most gamers play them in one of two ways. The first is what is typically called a "railroad" as it follows a linear path. For a lot of people, this is most likely the type of game you're most familiar with. Just look at most video games as they tend to fall under that category. Now some gamers view this method with scorn as it tends to limit options but I'm not of that opinion. The other type of game is the sandbox game in which the players are theoretically given absolute freedom to do what they want. Some even claim that this is the advantage of tabletop RPGs over the electronic kind since no program can account for all the possibilities that players might act upon.

Strangely enough, when I think of a sandbox game, the best analogy I could come up with was the NES/Famicom game The Legend of Zelda (and in certain ways, this was the proto-RPG of console systems). Unlike a game like say, Mario, in which you progressed left to right (or bottom to top depending on the game) and had a finite number of lives/continues to reach the end goal, the start of the game didn't really give you concrete objectives. You could go anywhere (provided you managed to overcome the obstacles) and possibly enter any of the dungeons whether you were just started out or played it for several hours. It's so free-form, considering the technology available at the time, that gamers were able to play variations of it without altering the game's programming. For example, one popular variant is playing the game without acquiring Link's sword (players must rely on evading enemies initially and then later on using items to overcome obstacles and enemies) or finishing the game with only three hearts.

When I first encountered The Legend of Zelda, it was honestly frustrating, mainly because I was used to the more traditional games. Where do I go? Who should I kill? What should I do? These were the questions that I asked and when I couldn't find the answers, gave up on the game.

In certain ways, I feel the sandbox RPG is like that, especially when you're used to the railroad method. Your GM throws enemies/encounters at you and it's up to you to react to them. In a sandbox game, you're forced to be more pro-active and it's the GM who has to adapt to you rather than vice versa.

Unfortunately, I also don't think the sandbox game is optimal for large groups. Part of the fun of Legend of Zelda is that I was alone and I was free to explore the game. When part of a party, what happens when the democracy doesn't go your way? Or on certain levels, there's some meta-gaming on your part as you don't want to split the group as it'll take time away from the other players (just watch Heroes--not every character is given ample screen time and not everyone is part of the same action).

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