In spite of these modern trends, I’m still trying to discuss issues, especially in gaming, by looking at them from both sides. And today I would like to talk about sandboxes and linear stories in Dungeons & Dragons, especially in the official Wizards of the Coast published adventures. Now none of them are perfect sandboxes or completely linear, as neither of the extreme cases works very well in pen & paper roleplaying. But if we compare the shades of grey of today with the shades of grey from the past, the current selection of adventures since the release of 5th edition is way more on the sandbox side as adventure modules from previous editions were.
The sandbox style has certain advantages. I believe that the best 4th edition adventure that Wizards of the Coast released for Dungeons & Dragons is Madness at Gardmore Abbey, which is more sandbox than the other 4E adventures. And so I am currently playing a 5E adaptation. However from the adventure books that WotC released in 5th edition my favorites are the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the Starter Set and Curse of Strahd, and both of these are more linear story than the others. My experience with the more sandbox adventures isn’t so good: As a player I watched a less experienced dungeon master flounder with Out of the Abyss; I spent hours to prepare Storm King’s Thunder, only to finally give up because the adventure was just too bad; and the Princes of the Apocalypse took me many hours of rewriting and changing into something a bit more linear in order to make it playable.
Much of the problem is one of presentation. A computer has no problems running a sandbox game, because he has perfect memory. In a game of D&D the information has to go from the adventure book into the head of the dungeon master first, before it can then be told at the table to the players. Humans don’t have perfect memory, and our brains can more easily remember stories than lists of unconnected facts. Human DMs are simply better at stories than they are at sandboxes. Madness at Gardmore Abbey works because it is basically a collection of stories which can be tackled in any order you like. That freedom makes it feel like a sandbox to the players, but the story content is easy to remember for the DM. When I prepare a session for Princes of the Apocalypse, for example my players currently breaking into Rivergard Keep, the presentation of the place by location number and the bits and pieces of story being distributed all over the location descriptions makes finding the stories much harder. I need to read every location back to front, locate the story bits, then read them again to puzzle them together, and finally find where the book simply doesn’t provide much explanation or story and invent some of my own.
I do like the fact that a place like Rivergard Keep has many different options for the players to tackle it. I’ve looked at YouTube videos of people playing that part of the adventure for inspiration, and various groups have done everything from negotiation, to charming the door guard, to infiltration by water, to frontal assault for this “dungeon”. But a better presentation of the power dynamics in that place and their likely response to attacks sure would have helped: In those YouTube videos I also saw DMs overdoing the response, ending with a near total party kill, and some improbable Deus-ex-machina intervention which saved the party but severely mauled the overall story and credibility.
Talking of credibility, I found that many WotC adventures of the sandbox style have a serious problem with experience points and levels. Fundamentally WotC is cheating: If you add up the experience points in Princes of the Apocalypse (the only one for which I have actually done the exercise, but I’m sure the problem is the same for the others) and apply WotC’s own level by experience points table, you fall far short of the levels required in the adventure. WotC sells you an adventure that says “level 1 – 15” on the back, but doesn’t actually have enough content in it to actually get a group from level 1 to 15 if you play by their own rules. The “fix” is a so-called milestones system in which the group gains a level at the end of a dungeon in order to have enough levels to tackle the next dungeon. However such a milestones system only works really well with a linear story and order of dungeons; it falls flat in a sandbox adventure where people can do the dungeons out of order, or do them only partially at one visit to come back another time. In my own campaign I had to double the regular monster xp and hand out bonus xp for certain story achievements in order to make the level system work. If I hadn’t done that, the latter dungeons of the adventure would have become quite impossible to beat.
Overall I believe that the focus on sandbox elements in WotC published adventures is more one of ideology or marketing than one of good game design. The result is that for many of these books as a DM you can’t just take the book and start playing. Even as an experienced dungeon master you need quite a lot of hours of preparation time to first understand all the elements in the book in spite of their chaotic presentation, and then to modify them in order to make them actually work. There is a huge gap in the offer between the very well done Starter Set adventure that can be played by a first time DM with no problem and the following books that can drive even an experienced DM to despair. For an edition which is designed to bring a lot new players and dungeon masters into the game, there really is something missing here.