I'm no game designer, but I've felt like one lately as I try to wrap my head around the dynamics of my sandbox Pathfinder game. I wrote about it in March and we've been playing over six months. Here's an update on how some of the sandbox game conceits have been working.
Preparation. I put in three months of design time into my world, including writing over 500 pages of setting material and mini adventures. So of course, I'm fully prepared and don't need to write anything else, correct? It's true I wouldn't have needed to do that, but I've found myself adding even more detail, more side quests, more adventures as the party progresses. Their wonder in exploring my world entices me to add more wonder.
The adding wonder as you move forward is how it's supposed to work; the heavy prep is what most sandbox designers discourage. This week I compiled my fourth book, mostly of adventures in a region the size of my palm on a map that takes up my dining room table. I did this mostly because I got tired of the various manila folders of material floating around the house. So my best answer is: If you're disciplined, don't over prepare. If you gain enjoyment from the process of creating new content, you are in for a treat.
Character Levels. I'm playing with an old school rule that nothing is free, especially levels and travel. When they travel, there are always the possibilities for random encounters unless they've thoroughly explored and cleared a region. As for levels, everyone starts at first. This worked well initially, until the spread got too large. In that case, I ran a couple side sessions to raise up the newbs. After that, it was possible to have game between a party of disparate levels.
That said, the play style is different, as in the low level guys occasionally hide behind the skirts of the more powerful characters as they progress (faster) to the higher levels. If as a player, you're not on board with this conceit, possibly being younger and having never played in that old-school style, or you're a power gamer, you might describe this as "not fun." I can report to you that it's possible, but the "not fun" element had me give in on this issue recently and accelerate the new player experience progression. "Not fun" is not an acceptable state for a game.
Area explored after six months, 8 hours/month (not pretty, but effective)
Also, random encounters and other encounters not of their choosing feel much deadlier. There are often cries of "we're not worthy" when they're getting pummeled by a powerful monster they've accidentally come across. So far, no casualties. Another conceit is I roll all dice in front of them, so give them the credit for that.
Finally, they've been able to over prepare for bigger threats. They acquired that previously mentioned ship by convincing the town guard that a few men would go a long way to taking out the smugglers plaguing the town. They took out a tribe of satyrs with the help of a squad of elven archers, acquired by convincing the elf king of their shared enemy. They also brought along a clockwork golem they liberated from a shipwreck. There are ways to bring it to the bad guys beyond the typical 4-5 character party of identical level. In some ways, if they know in advance, the party is determining the threat level (but this is rare).
Encounter Structure. Regardless of the power level, one thing I learned is encounters need to have a traditional structure. There needs to be leaders, spell casters, some mid-level mooks, and then the low level fodder. Otherwise, the encounter epically sucks. Every encounter should be broken out like this. We did a satyr encounter where their spellcaster leader was away on business with the big bad guy, a fine plot point, but a couple dozen mid-level mooks, that all do the same thing, didn't stand a chance once the encounter was dialed in by the party. Without support from a leader, they could run or die, but being Pathfinder, this happened in slow motion over a couple hours. This was a really boring encounter derived from weeks of build up. Don't do that.
Regional Power. One thing that has worked well, something I'm told that's used in video game design, is the conceit that the more powerful stuff is farther away. There's a rational reason for this. Civilization wouldn't have survived or tolerated nasty monsters close by. That said, as the party gains levels, there are other lower level regions they've skipped that will need to be buffed to make them interesting (breaking my design rules), left alone to make it a cake walk (boring), or saved for later with another party. In other words, because I over-prepared, I have too much content. There is plenty of higher powered stuff for them to do, but not being a campaign, there is far more low to mid level stuff waiting out there. There may be entire regions they just "acquire" without a fight, if they eventually take the place over. That's not a bad story element, but it sucks if you spent weeks designing that acquired space. As other sandbox GMs have suggested, feel free to recycle.
Overarching Story: Rather than a completely traditional sandbox, I have a slow moving plot and a narrative for the good guys that's happening in the background. There are half a dozen NPC groups in play, including the town the PCs live in, a kind of NPC patron they're trying to improve and develop. This tends to give them a larger motivation to uncover what's happening, but being a sandbox, the players have their own motivations.
One is trying to build an extra-dimensional, plane traveling pyramid while another has a griffon he wants to train. These various back stories never see the light of day in traditional campaigns, but being a sandbox, this is encouraged. The key for me is to work lightly with my overarching stories so they don't impede these character indulgences. I've got a "consider yes" philosophy on character story elements, provided they don't greatly effect in-play activity. Want to create a Tardis like time-travel machine? Why not, as long as the Tardis is an NPC that's taking you to new adventures and and not a weapon to fight monsters.
Gear and Wealth: With no encounter levels, I've been able to ignore a lot of the rules on wealth. After a quick character audit, I found some of the characters had as much as four times the wealth in magic items than what they should have had at their level. I've been able to introduce artifacts, albeit ones that don't help in combat, and I've been able to allow them to quest for powerful items that wouldn't normally be available to them. They've also taken on and beaten some very powerful NPCs, in near suicide fashion. That tends to bump their wealth as well. Again, because there is no power level, this should be fine.
Finally. We're having a great time. I'm especially enjoying myself as ideas flow readily in a world I created, with interconnections firmly established. I am writing traditional, quicky adventures for them, my goal being things they can accomplish in 1-2 sessions. In power, they seem to be a level or so higher than normal, although some players are a couple levels lower, which skews things a bit.
The giant satyr battle
Liberating and restoring light houses for a brighter tomorrow.™