There’s been a lot of talk this week about sandbox-style games after Gabe from Penny Arcade posted about shifting his game to a sandbox-style, particularly influenced by Ben Robbins’ West Marches game. Possibly with just coincidental timing, Zak from Playing D&D with Porn Stars pointed out that sandbox games work better with PCs that are roguish rather than completely morally upright, as the more strict a character’s moral code, the more likely he or she is to require being acted upon, rather than acting.

The shared definition in all these cases of sandbox-style game is one where the world simply exists independent of the PCs, and it’s up to them to interact with it in a way that tells a story. The GM sets up as many areas of interest in advance as possible, at least to a degree necessary to logically extrapolate them into an adventure location when the PCs take an interest, but, specifically, doesn’t secretly move the same material around to make sure the PCs see it. That is, the PCs have meaningful choice driven by their own agendas: for example, if they choose between the Cave of Eldritch Horrors and the Tomb of Ancient Evils, they have have some idea of the differences so they can make a decision, and they have to trust the GM not to just have one dungeon prepared that gets slotted into whatever place they pick.

A West Marches-style D&D sandbox also has some specific requirements: a home base that’s primarily for bookkeeping, not exploration; the PCs as the primary actors of the setting, unable to run to a greater authority for aid; an understanding that dangers will be laid out in at least a somewhat simulationist manner, so lower leveled PCs can get in over their heads if not careful; and multiple parties of PCs that can intermix members, and replace dead characters with brand new PCs.

It seems to me that, in particular, these requirements are very well served by Epic 6th (E6) or Epic 8th (E8). Both of these are variants on an idea proposed a couple of years ago about the “sweet spot” where D&D 3.x is Heroic Fantasy rather than more akin to Wuxia or Superheroes in power level. In both, maximum level for PCs is the level at which the GM feels most comfortable with their power level – typically 6th or 8th level. After reaching this maximum level, PCs simply gain additional feats when they should level, drastically slowing their power creep while still introducing variant capabilities and character broadening. In particular, it limits the exponential growth of caster power at a point where they’re still not too out of line with other characters (few save or die spells, limited room-clearing AoEs, less capability to control the beginning of fights and alpha strike), stopping short of spells that allow major changes to the flow of the game world (teleport, raise dead, earthquake, major creations, walls, fabricate, etc.). Under E6/8, PCs should continue to play like typical fantasy heroes like Conan or Aragorn for much longer than in typical D&D.

For a standard D&D 3.5 sandbox, I’d stick with E6, but Pathfinder introduces a number of classes where mid-level “capstone” abilities are awarded from 6th-8th level, so going with E8 prevents some builds from getting their coolest mid-level power while others stop leveling just short. E8 also means that some of the 5th level spells like Teleport and Raise Dead are within range to allow their use as rituals for “epic magic” within a setting, without making them commonly available for use.

E6/8 should have several benefits for a West Marches-style sandbox:

  • It already assumes a dearth of leveled NPCs, and even if it didn’t, once PCs hit the level cap they know there’s no one an order of magnitude more powerful than they are. There are no situations where the PCs will worry that they might as well get a character in the teens to deal with (though they might want to try to get an army).
  • The GM can distribute CRs throughout the map with much more freedom, as even a low level party will have a chance to escape when accidentally confronting a threat for max-level characters in a way that they wouldn’t if the world was designed for up to 20 levels or more.
  • Similarly, rearranging party members and taking on 1st level characters should be far less onerous for higher level PCs, as a spread of no more than 7 levels is much less dismissive of contribution than a spread of 19+. A 1st level character can do something useful in an 8th level fight in a way he can’t in a 20th level fight.
  • Finally, the lack of high-end magic should make preparation much easier for the GM: players don’t get access to the truly amazing travel spells to ignore overland travel through threat areas, they won’t just drop an Earthquake on top of a dungeon, and they can’t make major adjustments to the environment in a way that invalidates standard mapping and monster tactics.

Were I to run such a sandbox, I’d probably have a host of other rules tweaks (like the Trailblazer suggestion of removing permanent item creation and sale, and a return to a variation on level-by-wealth to encourage tactical play), but using E6/8 would seem like the key way that such a playstyle could function for an extended period.