The Motif Way 1: Emergent Sandbox Roleplaying

Emergent Sandbox Roleplaying is the 1st in a series of articles about “The Motif Way”,
the philosophy & design principles behind the Motif Framework and Runs On Motif games.

I know, the title sounds so fancy and even a bit pretentious. What on Earth are we talking about? What is “emergent sandbox roleplaying“? And why are we starting here for the first article?

sandbox photo

“Emergent” means things happen naturally in the course of play. The details get filled in and the story emerges as gameplay goes on. “Sandbox” refers to an free play or open world style of game. The setting is a sandbox for the players to play in. “Roleplaying” is the act of playing an RPG (roleplaying game).

We are starting here because all Motif products assume this as a default. The very nature of the Motif Story Engine, other Motif Framework titles, and Runs On Motif games lends itself best to this approach. It underpins everything else about the design of Motif.

Emergence: Natural Order in Chaos

Emergence is similar to the idea that the sum is more than the whole of its parts. A classical example is bird flocking. Despite forming extremely complex patterns, the movement of groups of birds can be replicated with a handful of simple rules. (For example, the minimum and maximum distances between birds.)

In a similar way, we assume that a story does not need to be plotted out ahead of time. It can naturally emerge as the game plays out. Most TTRPG gamers are familiar with it, even if they do not consciously think of it.

Even in a scripted “on rails” campaign with a pre-determined story, several aspects of it can be unscripted and “emergent”. Unique player created characters make it almost inevitable. Combined with the random luck of the shiny math rocks, two playthroughs of a firmly defined module can be quite different, even if the group choses the same paths and options. That difference lies in emergence.

Think about the greatest moments in RPGs people talk about. Most of them involve an unexpected die roll or players flowing with their characters in the moment. While the Big Bad might be the coolest ever, it is the natural chaos of the dice and players that create the order and story.

This is the point of view Motif titles are designed with. We embrace emergent results and their uncertainty. The primary oracles driving Motif engines and games are built around emergence.

Sandbox: Open Options

What distinguishes a sandbox is the freedom players have to explore and define the story. A classic adventure or module has a direct path or limited number of options leading to an inevitable conclusion. There are usually pre-defined hooks and pre-determined events. (To be clear, that is a perfectly valid preference and style of play.) In contrast, players can pick & choose plotlines and drive events in a sandbox.

A sandbox may come fully defined, a rich detailed world filled with people and places. It could be defined at the beginning by a setting guide, GM, or collaborative worldbuilding among the players. Sandboxes may also start with broad strokes and/or only low level or player character focused details. Those “outline” sandboxes are filled in as players explore the world and its people.

While a sandbox game may open with an organized meeting or starter hook, players are expected to choose what their characters do and seek after once play is in motion. The GM or an oracle may provide random results for missions, problems, NPCs, and so on. This framed as the world being revealed and often as a reaction to player activity.

If a group is playing an occult detective RPG and they have finished all their current missions, they have countless choices. They could decide to take time socializing with the community or getting some rest & recreation in. They may choose to hunt down rumors of the supernatural or hustle for clients. They could do followup and check in on previous survivors or make sure a magical prison is secure. The possibilities are endless. It is up to the players to create castles in the sandbox of the world.

Emergent Sandbox: Living Worlds

emergence photo

The most common way to combine the two features is the outline method. A setting, factions, major figures, etc are established in broad strokes. This “outline” is then filled in with the “text” (details) as the story goes on. Does a faction never really come into play? Then you never really need to fill it in. What does the protagonist-focused narrative involve? What matters to the player characters?

A lot of folks talk about “player agency”. But that comes with a lot of loaded preconceptions and old RPG baggage. Most Motif products are designed with a fluid flexibility across solo, GM-less, and no/low prep GM play styles. Instead, we prefer to think of our products as player-focused or protagonist-emphasizing. Characters are how players engage with the world. It makes sense for the story of a game to be focused on the perspective of and events around player characters.

Some players require more structure. However, that can be resolved by starting with a more detailed sandbox. The factions and figures most likely to influence or be involved in player character events are given active goals and typical methods. Using the occult detective example, a local police captain may lean on the player character agency to pick up “weird” cases the cops do not want to handle. In a typical fantasy game, the local ruling noble may offer bounties or request the help of the heroes. You can easily provide hooks for players who need them with a bit of focused detail, while still embracing a player-driven open world and emergence.

The big thing about an emergent sandbox is that it is an evolving living world. The natural consequences of player choices and various factions and NPCs working toward their goals hashes out as play happen. Sometimes, even just the simple results of time passing has a substantial impact. As the game goes on, the setting will become more fleshed out and more distinctive. The players will remember it as their world.

Scaling and Adaptation

Key elements of our preferred style of emergent sandbox are scalability and adaptability. Ideally, from this point of view, TTRPGs should be scaled in reference to PC level. (Others feel differently.) In essence, the system basic system should work equally well whether the PCs are low level minions or world-shattering powerful. The world scales to the PC level, rather than the other way around. Puny humans are nothing in the face of the damage a Kaiju can do. The world is Kaiju-scaled, from damage to perspective.

Scalability lets the narrative do the heavy lifting. The same basic setting can be used for low-level pirates and divine-tier dragons. How the player characters perceive and interact with the world will determine how it scales. A goblin warband is a very different thing for the pirates (a horrifying threat) and the dragons (a minor nuisance). Goblin warriors will do PC level harm for the pirates, but little (if any) direct harm to the dragons.

Rather that inflating numbers to handle all scales equally, scale the world to match the PC level. This keeps it simple and makes a sense of scope and scale easier for players to grasp. Everything is presented relative to the protagonists, reflecting the focus on their story.

Adaptability is also important. Players may decide to explore unexpected areas and take surprising actions. Perhaps rather than continue the dragon tradition of treating human shaped monsters like pests, the player characters decide to try uniting them in a new monster kingdom against the humans and elves. Maybe they decide their ancestral homes are too bothersome to defend and set out as nomadic explorers. The world needs to be able to handle such twists.

Emergence plays a large part in adaptability. What’s beyond the Horizon Sea? Who runs that neighborhood bar? How would that enemy react to diplomacy? What happens if the epic heroes take over the city and reshape it in their image? These are not things that rely on predetermined answers.

You can go with common tropes, obvious results, and your gut feelings in most cases. You can also turn to solo roleplaying oracles and GM-emulators like the Motif Story Engine. Or your group or GM can simply improv and create details on the fly. You may also use random charts or other tabletop roleplaying game tools. Regardless, you can fill in the details as you go along.

Wrapping Up

We hope this entry helps give more insight into our RPG design philosophy and offers some useful advice. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts with us! The next entry will be “Genre Rooted, Themes Supreme”, a look at how we frame RPG storytelling and use so-called “fluff” for heavy lifting.


The Motif Way Series

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.