Saturday, August 25, 2012


It occurred to me: there's lots of talk about the vaunted sandbox campaign and its virtues. I'm a believer in giving players lots of plot hooks to follow and freedom of choice, etc. I do believe in the idea of the sandbox and all the "player agency" goodness that is supposed to come with it.

But as far as I can see, there's not a lot of talk on the RPG blogosphere about the consequences of player actions. There's a lot of talk about letting players do what they want, but I haven't read much in the way of follow-through when it comes to the repercussions of player actions.
So writes Drance at Once More Unto the Breach! In his search for consequences, he ends his post with a list of four questions.

  • What do you think of player agency/sandbox play and consequences?
In a post on swashbucklers' sandboxes last February, I wrote, "And that last touches on my final point, that the sandbox must react to the actions of the adventurers. The player characters' actions - and sometimes their failures to act - carry consequences. My simple rule is this: if the adventurers are winning, someone else is losing, and that someone may choose to do something about it. . . . Earning a friend may mean making that friend's enemies the adventurers' own as well, and if that holds true, then the enemies of their enemies may offer alliances as well. A swashbuckler's sandbox is marked by a dynamic tension as the adventurers tug, or simply brush against, the web of relationships they encounter in the game-world."

To expand on this a little, the "dynamic tension" I described drives the action in actual play. This is true to some degree in everything I run, but it's particulaly relevant to my current campaign in which 'hexcrawling' the game-world means encountering and exploring the relationships between characters, building and uncovering alliances and conducting and exposing intrigues in pursuit of goals, both personal and professional. Conflicts arise out of the interplay of personalities and pursuits, and a fair amount of my time and responsibility as referee is keeping track of these evolving relationships.

  • Do you have any examples of such cause and effect in your own gaming experiences?
Like most sandboxes, my present campaign, Le Ballet de l'Acier (The Steel Ballet) for Flashing Blades, is driven by the decisions of the players and their characters. Like ripples in a pond encountering rocks and reeds, their actions are reflected back to them in increasingly complex patterns.

A random encounter with a pair of duelists by one of the adventurers produced both an unexpected potential ally and a bitter foe eager to cover up his dishonrable conduct; the players and their characters suspect that this duelist is behind two attempts on their lives, an ambush by bravos and a gift of poisoned wine. In fact, authorities in Grenoble are investigating the attempts on the adventurers' lives.

Another random encounter resulted in saving a duchess and her English lover from a gang of bravos; the duchess remembers her discrete saviors and may call upon them again in the future.

An attempt to court a lady-in-waiting resulted in a duel gone sideways, and the adventurers found themselves exiled from Paris after they were defended before the king by the captain-lieutenant of the King's Musketeers.

Exemplary service on campaign in Savoy earned the adventurers recognition, and with that recognition came offers to capture a castle from a Spanish-sympathiser in Dauphiny, join a company of mercenaries, and ransom a captured nobleman; they undertook the last, but came away empty-handed, and instead of riches and rewards (including the offer of a knighthood from the duke of Savoy!), the adventurers are about to find themselves peremptorily dismissed for their pains. The captive charged the adventurers with protecting his wife and family, however, and should the adventurers choose to take this on - or not - their decision will carry consequences they may not, or perhaps cannot, foresee at the moment.

And then there is the matter of Cardinal Richelieu's interest in them, and the fallout of two other duels, and lovers to be courted . . .

So yes, I have a few examples.

  • Have you ever roleplayed where you found yourself in a consequence-free environment?
A Traveller campaign, a merchant ship operating well beyond the Imperial border. Hijackers attempt to take the ship while departing from a backwater independent system with no space force of its own; in fact, the planetary laws end at the edge of the atmosphere.

So there is literally no legal entity with jurisdiction other than the crew.

Two of the crew want to immediately space the captured hijackers; one objects strenuously to what she considers murder. The conflict between the characters is in fact mirrored by the players, and a very genuine argument ensues.

Finally, it's decided to hold a trial, in which the hijackers are convicted and sentenced to death by vote of 3-1. A deadock would've resulted in acquittal; instead, the hijackers are placed in a drug-induced coma, then spaced.

  • Have I missed other blogs that talk about consequences stemming from player agency/sandbox play?
I can't think of other blog posts off-hand, but among some of the 'old-school' posters at forums like theRPGsite and Knights and Knaves Alehouse, it's pretty common advice to those who mistake 'status quo' for 'suspended animation.'

For more answers to these questions, check out Eric Treasure's response at The Dragon's Flagon as well.

Addendum: Jedediah at Book Scorpion's Lair posted a reply as well.


  1. Consequences are certainly one of the most important elements of sandbox play, since they allow the world to feel real and "lived in" as well as give player choice meaning.

    Your examples, I think, demonstrate that pretty well.

    1. Thanks, Josh, and yes, consequences are important to all of those.


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