In Literary RPG Theory I write that the Encounter is the basic building block of an adventure, the scenes that make up a larger structure. How does this hold true in a sandbox game?
In the Hexbox system there are two sorts of encounter: the relatively static encounter keyed to the campaign’s map hexes, and the free-roaming random encounter players can run across while traveling. Though their natures vary considerably, they do share the commonality of being scenes. They have a story to tell.
Sandboxes and Storygames
There’s a certain notion that the tabletop role-playing game industry is sharply divided between “OSR-style games” and “storygames.” In many ways this is untrue; an old-school game still has a story. A sandbox hexcrawler has a story. These stories aren’t procedural, they aren’t plotted out. They’re stories that emerge through gameplay.
All games have stories, even if that story is “a bunch of strangers travel together to murder and rob monsters.”
But we’re dealing with games on the level of the scene here, and each scene is either a story that stands on its own, or a component of a larger story.
Scenes and Stories
A Scene is a mini story, and even if it is linked together with other scenes, has certain elements that stand on their own. This particularly suits a sandbox game, where the players are driving and can have encounters in any particular order.
In any given Encounter the protagonists – the player characters – want something, and there’s something or someone standing in their way. This essential conflict drives the scene.
What do they want? Depends on the game, and their context. And, ultimately, it depends on what the player wants his character to want. But that’s okay. It’s not your job to provide the PCs with internal motivations.
In many games the acquisition of treasure is a constant, and player psychology leads them to pick at any puzzles or mysteries you drop in front of them for the sake of solving them, even if no reward is offered at the outset. The desire to “not get killed by the monster in front of me” is another good one.
But in planning a scene, consider that first. What do the players want? If there’s nothing obvious, provide them with a thing to want. Tempt them.
But what stands in their way? Who is the antagonist? It might be an actual character or monster. The most basic conflict involves killing monsters – either to protect themselves or to acquire what it has. But the Antagonist might be an informant who is unwilling to spill the beans, a guard who won’t let them crime it up, or a trapped chest. Whatever stands in their way.
The best scenes will force a choice upon the players. And not an obvious choice with an obvious answer. Make the choice hurt. Make both options equally good (or equally painful) and prevent them from choosing both. Make sure they know the stakes, and have a good hint at the outcome – that way, they have full responsibility for the outcome.
So. A well written encounter is a well written scene. There’s something at stake. There’s something the players want. There’s something they need to overcome or sacrifice to make it happen.
That’s not the story, though… the story comes from how the players interact with the situation you’ve given them. That choice they make, the success or failure they find is collaborative.