Once upon a time, there were no sandboxes.
There were only game-worlds, with ten-by-ten rooms to explore and orcs to kill and pies to take. An adventure was "a session of play" (1e AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, "The Campaign," p. 86) and a succession of such adventures made a campaign. Whatever the players and their characters did last Saturday night was 'the adventure.'
That simple time was surprisingly brief in the history of the roleplaying hobby, however. Modules, many originally drawn from tournament games offered at conventions, soon defined an adventure. Early modules were most often organized around a location - a cavern, a moat house, a pyramid on a cloud-shrouded world, an alien starship. Some modules included the machinations of the denizens of a location, giving these adventures the semblance of a plot.
As roleplaying games reached their first, and arguably highest, peak of popularity in the early Eighties, the significance of these machinations grew to the point where adventures were less about exploring a location and more about interacting with a series of events based on these machinations. These events increasingly took on the structure of fiction. Adventures were expected to have a actual plot, with rising and falling action, reveals and reversals, and a climax. Many were - and are - organized in terms of chapters, or acts and scenes.
The idea that an adventure was simply, 'last Saturday's game,' all but disappeared, from rule books, from published adventures, from advice articles in the various gaming rags, and, most importantly, from the expectations of gamers who never really knew any other way to play. Those expecations brought with them baggage concerning the nature of the player character and the experience of actual play, and that baggage would profoundly affect many design tenets.
The release of 3e D&D, the tabletop roleplaying industry's flagship product, included the marketing tagline, "Back to the Dungeon." There was a conscious effort to tap into the experiences of roots-gamers, such as how adventures and settings were discussed in the rule books. The 3e Dungeon Master's Guide includes a discussion of "status quo" motivations for adventurers, in which a feature of the game-world exists and the adventurers are free to explore it or not as they wish. The 3e DMG also offers an explicit distinction between "site-based" and "linear" adventures.
The intrewebs allowed roots-gamers to talk with one another as well as with with the larger population of gamers generally. Some roots-gamers never stopped playing the early games of the hobby while others - myself included - grew increasingly dissatisfied with contemporary roleplaying games. Through gaming forums and the burgeoning blogosphere we talked about how we approached running and playing roleplaying games, of save-or-die and wandering monsters and random treasures and hexcrawls and, perhaps most significantly, the promotion of player choice and the absence of linear adventures.
And that playstyle received a name.
Sandbox is co-opted from computer games, and depending on exactly which definition is used, it probably isn't the best fit to describe this playstyle, which incorporates elements of open worlds and nonlinear adventuring as well. Nonetheless, sandbox has come to describe a playstyle in which the players and their characters are presented with a game-world and given the freedom to explore it as they please, without the expectation of an unfolding plot prepared in advance by the referee or the goal of producing a traditionally structured story through play.
So while I'm not wild about the term sandbox, it's what we have.
Now that I hope we have some common ground on what I mean by sandbox, in part 2, I'll discuss how I threw swashbucklers into mine.