One of the core mechanics of the Assassin’s Creed series is the concept of the viewpoint: a tower or other high vantage from which the character can survey the nearby area. Getting to a viewpoint is typically a climbing puzzle. When the viewpoint is triggered, the map in a nearby radius is filled in: not just with terrain details, but with waypoints for different missions and other interest points in the area. It’s difficult to find your way around the game without gaining access to these elements.
In the sequel to the sequel, Brotherhood, the concept was expanded with the idea of Borgia Towers: many of the viewpoints are on fortresses that allow the game’s main enemy to project power around Rome and intimidate the populace. Not only do you need to get past the guards to use the viewpoint, you can’t interact with many of the elements in the area until you kill the guard captain and set fire to the tower. Until this point, map elements show up as locks, even if you can see them, indicating that the citizens are too afraid of the Borgias to help your protagonist. But once the Borgias are evicted, the entire neighborhood becomes awash in new options.
This is a pretty elegant way of solving a few problems with sandbox games.
The first is the fear of overwhelming your players with options; choice paralysis is a thing. By initially breaking the hundreds of interactive places in the game down to a couple dozen towers (and only a few near the starting location), the player can choose from a much smaller list of goals. Only once a major goal is completed do a bunch of smaller ones become apparent, and they are given out as if they were rewards for accomplishing the main goal.
The second is that each area of the map becomes a black box, with limited interactivity until the major goal is completed. This is a huge boon for GMs like me that would love to run a sandbox, but are daunted by the sheer amount of work required to prepare for the players to go anywhere. It’s entirely possible that this mechanism would allow a GM to come up with only high concepts for a handful of areas, and drill down on them once the players have expressed interest. Until then, it’s just a few notes and maybe a chart of encounters that it generates in nearby areas.
And, given that borrowing from Assassin’s Creed even further means that these areas are completely hostile to the players, you could profoundly govern the rate at which the players require unplanned new content. They have limited information-gathering and traveling abilities within the restricted area until they engage with the central conflict and try to open it up. And when they do, they’ve begun a potentially multi-session scenario that may be difficult to wander away from. After the area is opened, new opportunities in the area (which the GM didn’t fully develop until the scenario began) feel like rewards and are more likely to keep the players in the now fleshed-out section of the world for long enough to justify the time spent on preparation.
While this setup lends itself most easily to the same style as the video game—city-based areas where whole neighborhoods are outright controlled by a villain—it can be used for other types of sandboxes as well. A wilderness hex crawl is almost as easy as a city sandbox: groups of hexes can be assigned to some minor villain or other organization that patrols, intimidates nearby villages, and makes long-term investigation problematic until handled. The concept can even be expanded to a more metaphorical level: it’s not the physical space that’s firewalled, but the investigative paths through the story. Information may be gated by improving relationships with key NPCs or beginning other quests, at which point the information the players were after becomes available, as well as more plots related to the group the PCs just expressed interest in.
Ultimately, this mechanic may have the possibility of feeling railroady if used poorly, but if used well it should be an excellent way to maintain sanity for players or GMs daunted by the vast array of possibilities inherent in a sandbox. It also lets you make a map that you can update with tangible player victories.
Players love it when you update a map based on their victories.