Over on Monsters and Manuals, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Yoon-Suin, one of the starred recommendations on my big list of RPG stuff on Lulu) wrote a neat post about a rule of thumb for sandbox games: Two Problems for Every Solution.
David shares an example from his campaign that explains it well:
For example, in one of the games I am running, the PCs solved the disappearance of a group of villagers – but as a result of this they now have a vengeful demigoddess to deal with and a magic potion to track down, not to mention having to act as a go-between for two power centres and becoming entangled in an apparently unrelated issue to do with the enchantment of a young noblewoman.
Emergent play with a high degree of player agency is my jam, and I love this rule of thumb. It reminds me of last Sunday’s Star Wars World session, which makes sense because, as David points out, Star Wars is full of solutions that only beget new problems.
One bad roll popped us out of hyperspace in the wrong place, and we crashed our ship. We survived, and learned of a settlement not far away . . . full of dangerous poachers, and about to be attacked by angry natives. Problem > solution > problem, problem, and so forth. It’s a good fit.
For where I’m at in terms of sandbox experience, though, I’d like to offer up a related, but not identical rule of thumb: one problem, two consequences.
Making meaningful choices which have meaningful consequences is a hallmark of sandbox play (and other sorts of game with no predetermined plot), and “problem” is just another way of saying “meaningful consequence.” Reminding myself that choices ripple, and those ripples don’t lead to a single new choice, or consequence, or problem, should help my sandbox stay vital and alive.
When I’m stumped for how the world might react in my DCC RPG hexcrawl campaign, I’m going to keep both of these rules of thumb in mind.