Disclaimer: This is not the ultimate truth (as if something like this could exist without suffocating), but only my take at several ideas floating around our little corner of the woods. As always, I might be on the wrong track, hoping that the wrong way might lead to some interesting conclusions, too. This being an exorcism of ideas, it's bound to be a bit incoherent, but maybe readers'll find some interesting bits and pieces ...
I'd like to challenge your perception of what a (sandbox-)campaign/world-engine really is ...
Why? Because mine was challenged by testing the ideas that echo through the OSR blog-o-sphere like hungry ghosts of a past that never was. But let's start at the beginning.
The game, the rules, the preparation and the result.
At the very beginning is the idea of what a roleplaying game is. At it's very core it's an attempt to simulate skirmish scenarios with individual characters instead of units, that led to adding aspects of exploration and social interaction as part of the game. This is the first stage.
How to implement something like this introduced several sets of rules that resulted in D&D as a first remarkable (and recognizable, I guess) peak, but never stopped developing alternatives. This plethora of game-options (be it genre, theme, rules, flavor, hybrids of those things, etc.) is the second stage.
Either which of those options is our first encounter with this hobby defines how we prepare the game in the beginning and, to a certain degree, how we grow with it. This investment in the hobby allows for different levels of commitment, which, again, results in an even wider array of interpretations of what the game is. This I'd like to call the third stage.
Now it's the level of commitment that might let a hobbyist go full circle by questioning the rules he is using and starts making his own, ending, in it's extremest form, back at that first question: what is a roleplaying game? The resulting process might lead to a full (individual) understanding of all aspects of a game and an opinion of how those options should be interpreted via rules, adding to the abundance of rules in the second stage.
Eventually the own result might be challenged, closing a circle, starting another one ...
|A Zen Circle (Public Domain)|
You get the idea. Where we are in our understanding of the game and how we recognize that standing will inform our opinions about the hobby. As with all things, no opinion mirrors another, but there's most of the time enough overlap to communicate those interpretations and form alliances of consensus (like the OSR).
The Result And The Right Questions
One iteration of the above described stages is the public (online) part of the DIY-movement: a huge variety of small publisher's, presenting their ideas online (for a price or not). If it has legs, it will get an audience and, even better yet, will find some use. How is this important? Other than giving a creator the chance to see if he is on the right way, it allows access to the diversity of aspects the game has to offer. It's like the collective conscious is chewing all those ideas, spitting out results every once in a while, ever searching for a new and better interpretation.
This is of course a good thing (and what I described as the second stage). But it's way more important for a DM to realize that he has to make the game his own. It's something most product won't deny but will merely suggest, neglecting to show what this really means: a DM should design his own game!
There is no sandbox without the OSR ...
I mulled this over and over, always following some bread crumbs that ended at the wrong destination or lead to more questions (as it should be, I guess). At some point the following occurred to me: depending on your point of entry in the stages described above, several aspects of the game are already done for you. The rest is what generally is perceived as either fair game for a DM to develop himself or something that might be completed with some supplement or another.
This gets problematic where the already established parts and the parts missing are never really defined, leading not only to discussions of what is missing and lacking, but also (often enough) to the wrong conclusions about what should be done about it.
Again, even further back to the basics. The original D&D rules were never assumed to be complete and a DM was encouraged to make his own game out of the guidelines presented in the first books. At the time, Fantasy was just assumed to be the default setting, but everything else proposed as a possible follow up in future campaigns. Here are some quotes from the third print of the 1974 edition of D&D:
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity ..." (OD&D, Men & Magic, Introduction, p. 4)
"With the various equippage listed in the following section DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future, but such expansion is recommended only at such time as the possibilities in the medieval aspect have been thoroughly explored." (OD&D, Men & Magic, Scope, p. 5)
So every decision in the game starts with the reflection of what is proposed and the addition of what a DM might want/need in his campaign. The sky is the limit and all that. Here are the closing words from the OD&D Underworld and Wilderness book:
"There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing." (OD&D, Underworld & Wilderness, Afterward, p. 36)
and Empire of the Petal Throne
are prime examples of early attempts to do just that (but really every published role playing game that followed was written in that spirit). They all started from scratch and went on from there.
Internet, desktop publishing and the OGL
finally brought (among others) the OSR to live and with it a very specific access to the hobby. As I understand it, the OSR discusses all role playing games as potential material to loot for all DMs. This includes that a DM is encouraged to build his own game from all the parts available or completely new. It's not so much about creating simple or complex rules, it's about offering a hub to exchange ideas to help producing a diversity of games that are all
more or less D&D as outlined above (that means, an interpretation of the first stage
, not a brand).
Everything is fair game in the OSR ...
To build a roleplaying game from the very beginning, one does not assume a specific setting or genre or set of rules. Sure, you can just take what's there and be done with either or all aspects of the game, you might even take D&D as a default and go from there, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about conscious and informed decisions to produce systems that, to some degree, produce reliable and repeatable results of a general nature (weather is an easy one, random histories or cultures would be far more complex).
Now, one interesting effect of this was that some very old ideas got new impulses. Two of those are the megadungeon and the sandbox.
It turned out that how to develop rules for either of those goes far into uncharted territory, because it touches on very underdeveloped areas regarding a DMs work. And this is not about inventing some kingdoms and politics, but (as far as I'm concerned) about finding some underlying patterns and randomize them in a way that produces a set of rules that work like an engine to produce coherent random settings without much effort.
In other words: the structure we assume to be the starting point for creating our own stuff within what we know as D&D, is actually several steps ahead in the process. Sure, you can take a random hexcrawl and make it work, you might even do your own from scratch and it's good to go. Nothing wrong with that.
But there are, for instance, several rules still active in D&D that are relics from the war-gaming heritage of the game, like Movement Rates and Alignments (to give but two examples) and ability scores are way to fixated on a human range instead of making fair estimations for every creature (like giants, dragons,etc.) easy to access (as it should be). NPCs are a big problem, as in you just can't have the same effort and depth as a character has. The list goes on and it all leads back to sandboxes/world engines/etc..
Where now, in my opinion, is the problem with sandboxes?
So what's really lacking is a game in the game, a part of the rules that are only for the DM, an analogue world-engine, that, when started, will first create and then shift power balances, alliances (and in general builds some surroundings that the DM didn't tamper with) as a starting point to build on.
I'm not saying this is an easy task, I'm not even saying it is possible (although I've seen it done with Vornheim
). All I'm saying is: question what is being done and ask yourselves what could be done instead. Build your game from the very beginning. Let cities evolve, kingdoms rise and fall, all that good stuff. And then propose it as a campaign and start playing.
Because that is the thing to do. It's the Way of the DM.