RPGs come in all kinds, but one particular distinction that bears paying attention to is if the game lends itself better towards mission-based play, or a more sandbox style approach.

Mission-based games are those that often have the player characters taking on a specific role relating to a group of PC types that are meant to achieve X goals via Y means.  Games like these often invest a lot of time and effort playing up the group that the players are meant to be a part of, to instill a clear range of acceptable behaviors and actions.  Some examples are:

  • In Flames by Greg Saunders – Features the Player Characters as the Exiles, a group of individuals working for a being calling itself Ghede to fight against abusive individuals known as “Barons.”
  • Eclipse Phase – At its default level assumes that the player characters are part of Firewall, a secret organization created to combat extinction-level threats.
  • All For One: Regime Diabolique – Assumes that the player characters are all part of the Musketeers, fighting against the darkness that is sweeping over France.
The advantage of Mission-based games is that it forms a common element that ties the group together.  This is excellent for games that rely on heavy teamwork and for groups that don’t care for that much player vs. player conflict.  Rather than spending time with keeping secrets from each other and otherwise politicking, the group can focus on a given objective.
Conflicts in this setup tend to be focused on external threats, and don’t leave a lot of room for introspective plot hooks.  This setup is also great for large numbers of players as everyone gets a chance to do something.
Sandbox style games are less specific about their arrangements.  Often, these games focus more on a situation rather than a mission.  While there are exceptions, one of the most common questions Sandbox games tend to offer is “Congratulations, you’ve just become a Vampire/Werewolf/Mage/Exalt/Godling/etc.  Now what do you do?”
White Wolf is notorious for catering to this form of game, but they’re definitely not the only ones:
  • Part-Time Gods – Has various factions, but certainly no unifying group and “mission” behind their existence.  The Player characters find themselves blessed (or cursed) with the divine spark of godhood and have to find out how to live in this strange new world of godhood.
  • Legend of the Five Rings – Is a game that is definitely broad enough to accommodate various sandbox themes.  While one could argue that a game about Duty, Honor and Sacrifice is bound to be mission-based, there’s arguably plenty of room for sandbox style play where one can track the life and significant events of the lives of the various Samurai.
Sandbox play is great for those who enjoy the concept of immersion.  Rather than having set goals and allegiances, the players are free to explore the social landscape of a game and make these decisions for themselves.  These decisions in turn, have consequences that manifest in various ways but always change the dynamic of the game.  Siding with one group will influence the world in one way, while siding with another will have other effects.
Between the two my personal preference falls towards Sandbox style.  Mission style stuff is convenient and fun, but I find Sandbox style games to be more rewarding from the point of view of a GM.  Mission based games are like a string of one-offs to me, barring a few recurring villains and NPCs, once a mission is done, it’s pretty much over.
Sandbox games appeal to me since it also involves the player characters in the act of changing the setting.  Everything they do and achieve alters the setting somewhat for better or worse.  While this means that some of the more wanton player types tend to make a mess of things, it also means that conscientious players can achieve far greater things with the right contacts and plans.
That said, neither style is “superior” over the other, and it’s purely a matter of preference.  I’m very curious to find out what people prefer to play though, and why.  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section!
  1. TheClone says:

    Nice summary. I as a GM tend heavily towards sandbox. With missions I for one always come to the point where it’s impossible to predict about the players decisions, so why bother with it anyway? And for me it’s much more work to always have the initiative and try to get the players hooked up. With sandbox you do a small part of the world and have rough idea for the rest and then things start to unfold. As a player I love to have an effect on the world. You can have that with both types, but it’s more common with sandboxes, so I like them more.

  2. I agree with TheClone, predicting player decisions is really hard. However, my setting and scenario practices (described in articles at http://www.kjd-imc.org/category/series/campaign-setting-design/) work well for building missions ‘into’ a sandbox setting, and the techniques work much the same (though at different scales) at both the ‘sandbox’ and the ‘mission’ levels.

  3. Hikkikomori says:

    It’s about Player versus GM convenience and satisfaction.

    Sandbox leans towards in favor of the players and inversely taxes the GM more. Since Players are given free reign over their actions, whereas GMs have to react to their whims and at the same time keep a plot in motion – individual ones alongside an overarching one. Where mission hands control over to the GM, giving Players only a few wiggle room to actually affect the reality they are in. Personal development giving way to plot and ultimately, GM, development.

    Personally, I dislike Mission-based styles since it just turns the Players into dice-rolling machines. Where Player action ultimately has no bearing to the plot. Since the story moves along at the pace that the GM wills it so. There are no side trips. If there are any, its part of the GMs plan and therefore calculated to give the GM the satisfaction, and not the Players. GMs that prefer this style are drivers who want to be passengers in his own game. There is a reason why drivers and passengers are distinguished from one another. Because if the everyone is a passenger – then who’s driving?

    And that’s how vehicular accidents occur.

    • That’s an interesting insight towards Mission-based games. Perhaps that also indicates the types of fun that certain players enjoy. Some players don’t like having their hands on the wheel and have no idea as to what to do with their freedom. Other players on the other hand, relish the opportunity to make a few trips to various subplots.

  4. TheClone says:

    @akismet: I just taken a quick look at your ideas and they seems really good. Putting mission into a sandbox is great way of giving the players more excitement and avoiding the problem of a arbitrary play, where nothing much happens. You then have a more narrow story over a certain (relatively small) timespan which effects the sandbox and after which you go back to braod sandbox approach.

  5. Shannon says:

    I run WoD so it tends to skew toward sandbox even though I’ve started enjoying running a more series-based game with a series of episodic adventures that start and end in one session with the odd more broader-based sessions in between that deal with the larger world.

    Of course, I don’t think that a mission-based adventure has to involve any railroading beyond: “Here is a hook … let’s figure out a way for your characters to accept the hook.” For example, in an upcoming ‘mission’ the players approach an issue of missing children that is more complex than they originally thought. Their options could range from more distant investigation to knocking on the suspicious door, and once they know what’s going on, they may kill the vampire, adopt her, chase her away from her pre-teen friends, or even leave them all alone. Each option they choose will have its own repercussions and none of them are more ‘morally right’ than any of the other choices.

  6. ZilWerks says:

    Long time reader, first time poster.

    I start with a setting and a first mission. This will focus the players and test their character creation. I allow a few revisions, and I have one player who is always the “my first character sucked, here is my second and final.” Here is how it goes:

    1) Brainstorm a few ideas with the group. Get their feelings on various ideas
    2) Work on game environment. For WoD I choose a real world area and extrapolate, but I have also done entirly fictional settings.
    3) Have players work on characters. They don’t ALL have to have them a few weeks early but I reward those that do with more background hooks and player time.
    4) First mission. Boom, start them on their feet. Action sequence. A villian to defeat maybe. Something to engage them.
    5) Introduce elements of the larger world, AKA the sandbox.

    As you see, I prefer a sandbox but like most computer games I do main-mission and side-quests. Sadly not all of my players create characters that have the motivation and story hooks for a sandbox game. Some of those players that can do that sometimes want to just bash bad guys and rescue the idol/girl/boy/family/reality/etc.

    Often, if the players are not enthusiastic I never get to stage 5.

    • Hello, ZilWerks and thanks for posting!

      I think your format is pretty good, it’s a nice way for players to get their feet wet and serves as a sort of sampler for them to experience the kind of things that you’ll be throwing at them, and if their characters will be a good fit for the campaign.

      I feel your pain with regards to players that don’t always create characters that have strong motivations and story hooks in a sandbox game (or any type of game for that matter) but sometimes that’s just how they are and I end up having to just run with that and make up specific hooks for them.

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