There’s a lot to be said about the wide open world. It’s evocative, full of opportunity for your players to leave their mark on the landscape. If you’re looking to make a sandbox game, hopefully you did it right: leave plenty of details unfilled so the players can introduce elements and you have room to work around them.
But it can be a daunting experience, and not just for the GM. Your players might balk at the thought of playing in such a game for a variety of reasons. Unless you’ve talked it over with them already and gotten their consent, preferably written and notarized, you might be better served keeping the focus of your game narrow and purpose-driven.
Here are a few reasons why.
It lowers the amount of player responsibility.
Maybe you think your players will relish the chance to have a say in worldbuilding. Maybe you can’t comprehend a universe in which anybody could say no to the chance to have their ideas made manifest by you, the almighty GM. Maybe you’re just exceptionally lazy.
We’ll get to that last possibility, but here’s the truth about the first one: unless they’re also GMs, your players don’t want to deal with doing the GM’s work. In my GM credo, I have a simple rule about not forcing the players to do more work than the bare minimum expected of them. That bare minimum? Maintain their character, try to show up on time, and for God’s sake just pretend like your character had an emotional reaction to her dying mentor’s speech, no you don’t get experience points for it, the orcs were technically the ones who got him.
Yes, you get experience points for the orcs.
Having to help you build the world means they need to put more work into the campaign, and they don’t feel like they take enough notes as it is. Worse, if their contribution ends up clashing with the theme of the game or derailing the entire plot, they’ll almost certainly get the blame even if it’s the GM’s fault for not properly adapting it to his own vision. Worst of all, what they come up with might not even show up: the GM might decide to take the game in a different direction, and then all of that work has been for nothing.
By not forcing the players to contribute to the setting, you’ve freed them up to do what they’re best at: play. When they can play without distractions, they play even better. Think they’re not staying true to their motivations now? Imagine what it would be like if they had to also devote headspace to a caste system of their own making, trying at every step to subvert the written description just to give themselves an advantage.
Now, how about that laziness option? Having others do your work for you probably sounds pretty good. Well, read on.
It lowers the amount of GM prep work.
Ha! Didn’t expect that, did you?
But it’s true. If you narrow the focus of your game, you’re actually cutting down on the prep work you need to do per session. Granted, it probably means more work in the pre-game stages, before anyone has rolled up characters, but even then things will be clearer for you. It’s easy to foresee where the game will go and how the players will solve their problems if the game’s premise is about a mercenary company or a diplomatic mission.
It also cuts down on in-game distractions. I’m the last person who would say that backstories can ever possibly “interfere” with a game, but having an ironclad premise helps keep the characters on track. Does someone want to explore their Force sensitivity and walk the path of the Jedi? That’s nice, but this is an Aces-only starfighter squadron game, so either work it out in time skips or come up with a new character. Is a character getting hung up on his new girlfriend and you need to figure out how to work her into the plot? Sounds like someone just discovered the latest femme fatale in their espionage game, and a double-agent, no less.
As you can see, not only does having a narrow premise cut down on prep time, but it also helps when you have to think on your feet. Everything should tie back into that premise, and if you make the effort, it’ll be come almost reflexive.
Creativity comes from careful restriction, not absolute freedom.
In high school, I took an online class on how to write a science fiction short story. The teacher told us that we couldn’t write anything that had to do with war or fighting. At the time, I didn’t understand and felt affronted that he would restrict my writing subjects, but he later explained that, by limiting my writing to non-violence, I would be forced to think creatively about how characters could solve their problems.
We’re all familiar with the phrase “art from adversity,” but adversity here doesn’t refer to a general malaise afflicting the writer. It’s instead the limits, self-imposed or otherwise, that force artists to get creative with their expression. Absolute freedom is crippling, to which anyone who’s ever stared at a blank page or canvas can attest. You’ve probably felt it yourself when coming up with your campaign. What makes it easier are the restrictions you face: what system you’re using, the kind of game your players want, the stats you have available.
The same goes for your players. Some might be initially put out by restricting their characters to one or two classes, or one species, or however you foresee your campaign moving forward. However, this would be a good time to remind them that their characters aren’t (necessarily) defined by their job. In an all-divine Pathfinder game, there can be such a thing as a sneaky cleric or a philandering paladin. In a starfighter game, there’s no reason Sally can’t still use her down-on-her-luck Colonist idea. It’s all about how they can be adapted to the premise.
It’s good practice for the GM, too.
When all else fails, bring it back to the premise.
If you start with a strong premise, when things go off the rails later, it’ll be easier to bring everyone back to the center. At least, in theory.
Oh, don’t give me that look. You know as well as I do that players jump at every chance they can to worm their way out of bounds. It’s part of what makes them players, and the best of them are very, very good at it. Indulging them in their desire to expand their characters and by extension the world of the game is a good thing, but sometimes it goes too far. When you have a narrow focus on your game, a gentle (or not so gentle) reminder of who they are and what they’re supposed to be doing can quickly and organically get them back on track.
However, it’s worth noting that there’s no one to blame but yourself if your premise allowed them to wander off-track in the first place. If you decided that your job-of-the-week Shadowrun game was actually a more sinister affair, with all of the Mr. Johnsons tied together in a massive corporate conspiracy, and your players picked up on it and ran with it… well, that’s your own fault if you want to go back to disconnected adventures but your players aren’t receptive to that. It’s still your responsibility to come up with a premise you’re willing to follow and to have the discipline to keep to that, no matter how alluring another idea might be.
Once you have that, dealing with wandering players should be simple, even if it’s not easy. If you’re running a Cowboy Bebop-style mercenary campaign, remind the players of their need to work by having their lack of funds become an issue. A politically-charged thriller campaign can get back on the rails by having the opposition make a big move, emboldened by the PCs’ recent distraction. Are the PCs supposed to be tracking down an international thief? Well, maybe it’s time the thief paid them a visit and took something of theirs. That will definitely motivate them.
Finally, it’s also a great way to shunt stuff you don’t want to cover in the game to the sidelines. I touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating. Anything that doesn’t fit with the premise shouldn’t be on the table, at least not for very long. A PC developing a romance with a supporting NPC might threaten to take the focus of the story away from blasting space nazis, so by citing the premise of the game you can reasonably ask the player to keep details of the relationship to one or two sentences per game and the occasional e-mail between sessions.
The Limits of Limitations
I hinted at this already, but don’t over-limit your game, or else you really do risk strangling the creativity of the players or — worst of all — yourself. Don’t choose a premise that’s so limited at the beginning that it can’t lift off on its own, or one that can’t grow over time as you want it to develop. Leave it open-ended, because a narrow premise doesn’t mean a small and static world. Your game should still be dynamic, have NPCs with their own motivations and agency, feature a landscape that changes in response to both internal and external pressures.
In other words, don’t use a given premise as an excuse to not do your work. Your players are still counting on you to deliver the goods, but having a strong premise just means there’s an expected flavor to it. But even the same flavor can be made new and interesting: chocolate can be double chocolate, or chocolate and peanut butter, or chocolate chips in vanilla, or chocolate with raspberry syrup, or cosmopolitan, or a banana split, or a sundae, or hot chocolate sauce drizzled over literally anything, god dammit this metaphor needs to end before it makes me any hungrier.
A premise is not the be-all, end-all of planning a game. If you’ve read my blog this far, you know that. There are a lot of moving parts. The trick is to find a premise that works with your game and stick with it. It’s better for your players, it’s better for you, and it’s better for the game.
Now I have to go see if the diner here in town is open late.