If one problem with Adventure Path play is that the Game Master may block the players in setting objectives for their characters, the reverse problem can occur in sandbox play. The players are left struggling to find an objective, with little or no input from the Game Master. Both of these two extremes are to be avoided.
Within a sandbox campaign, the Game Master should be guiding the players toward potential objectives, without actually choosing objectives for them. This is actually far easier than it might sound.
Within a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, for example, players tend to be motivated by a few common things: A big treasure, a powerful item, an intriguing puzzle, some prize to gain, some ally to help, some enemy to thwart.
Assuming a reasonably developed campaign area, it is fairly easy to place rumours about all of these things. There’s a ruby the size of a man’s heart, it is said, in the Tower of the Elephant. Danger abounds in the ruins under Zenopus’ tower, although some have come out with bright gold and gems for their troubles. Mercenary companies looking for plunder and titles flock to the banners of Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister in these troubled times.
Implied threats raise potential objectives as well. The wildlings have come over the Wall, and are raiding the North. Evil humanoids spew forth from the Caves of Chaos to threaten the nearby Keep. Folk bar their doors at night in fear of a creature that stalks the city streets.
If these things happen one at a time, then the Game Master is choosing the objectives for the players. If they happen all at once, the players must choose. Do we explore the ruins, or do we deal with the wildlings? Both choices have potential consequences, which will change the context of the campaign area. Perhaps while the PCs explore Zenopus’ dungeons, another group stops the wildling raids, and gains glory for themselves. Or, perhaps, no one does, and the wildlings become a larger threat.
What’s the most important thing right now? The players must decide. How are we going to deal with it? Again, the players must decide. An objective is set.
The objectives of an initial adventure/play session are especially important. Even in a sandbox game, the Game Master must provide the players with a strong initial objective. If they discard it, and pursue an objective of their own, that’s great. If they don’t have one of their own, though, providing an objective gives the players an interesting game while providing the Game Master ample opportunity to seed each session with hooks and rumours to allow the players to choose their own goals.
By the time the initial objective has been met, the players should know enough about the setting to be eager to pursue at least two or three other objectives of their own. They know of ruins they may wish to explore, prizes they may wish to obtain, and threats they may either deal with or avoid.
Throw into this mix two important types of NPCs: The Ally and the Enemy.
The Ally is a character that the players actually like. The Ally provides backup, council, discounted merchandise, spell support, etc. The Ally doesn’t travel with the players; the players must come to her. In some cases, the Ally is not available, because she has a life of her own. In some cases, the Ally asks the PCs for aid….But, generally speaking, the Ally is of benefit to the PCs, giving them more than she asks in return. An Ally is an asset.
Elrond and Beorn in The Hobbit are good examples of Ally characters. Simply reaching them can be an objective. Likewise, the Eagles of the Misty Mountains are Allies of Gandalf, repaying him for an earlier kindness. Inclusion of Ally characters is important, because it gives players a motive for such a kindness…and it prevents players from treating every NPC like an Enemy.
The flip side of the Ally is the Enemy. The Enemy is not necessarily the Big Bad Evil Guy of the campaign setting, and he is not necessarily someone that the players can deal with by means of combat. Properly used, the Enemy can last for many campaign sessions, with many reversals where the PCs sometimes defeat the Enemy, and the Enemy sometimes defeats them. An Enemy can be an officious little man with political power – like a tax collector or a customs inspector. An Enemy can be a rival adventurer who is friendly to the PCs, but tries to beat them to every prize. An Enemy can be an individual or an organization.
In my current game, a clan of vampires controls the organized crime in the city of Ravenglass. One of the PCs, in an attempt to glean information about an unrelated manner, started beating up members of the vampires’ organization. So, the vampires took notice, becoming an Enemy. Since then, the PCs have defeated them in combat, been jailed as a result of a vampire charming a city watchman, had their home infiltrated (and a staff that could cast daylight stolen), met one of the vampires at a social function honouring two of the PCs, had dinner with a vampire, considered eradicating them, and considered converting them to Allies.
No player ever hates a creature that is truly dealt with when first encountered the way that the player will hate a creature who dances a long dance of many encounters before its final defeat. Nor does any player ever offer a “one shot” creature the grudging respect that eventually is accorded a long-term adversary.
As another example, I once played a swashbuckler character in a 2nd Edition AD&D campaign. The DM at the time, Jesse, included an encounter with another swashbuckler. We dueled, and I lost. Rather than have the NPC kill me, the DM had the NPC take pity on me, relieve me of my blade, and leave me alive. Needless to say, I had a great desire to meet that NPC again, defeat him, and leave him alive with my pity.
It is the back-and-forth of repeated encounters, that fail to resolve a rivalry, that gives added emphasis to an Enemy. This is one of the major reasons why Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was so effective, while Star Trek: Nemesis falls so flat. I have seen players shift their course 180 degrees if a chance to deal with an effective long-term Enemy presented itself.
These things together: Allies, Enemies, Prizes to be won, Threats to counter….mix them well, salt the game setting with them, and it is easy for players to have objectives. What becomes difficult (and interesting) is choosing which among them are the most important to deal with right now.
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, a persistent location where adventuring is known to be had – such as a megadungeon – supplies an option when nothing else “feels right”. Obviously, this could also be a stretch of wilderness, a bad part of town, an arena, or anything else that is “always in play” when the players want to take their characters there.
Taken together – along with a healthy dose of encouraging & empowering your players to set objectives – these things ensure that your players will be winnowing through their options instead of seeking desperately for “the plot”.
And if you do hear “Now what are we supposed to do?”, it’ll be because the PCs are in a jam and haven’t found a way out, rather than because they are sitting at an inn and haven’t found a way into the campaign milieu.