As a player I’ve seen many GMs get distracted by the seeming whims of a player. The plot wanders all over until the GM finally gets inspiration and starts asserting their creative direction on the narrative. It isn’t enough to come up with a setting and then thrust players together to get moving themselves, as a GM you’re at the table to provide guidance and narrative shove to the player characters.
When players have selective choice the campaign works well but when players are given complete choice they’re quickly overwhelmed with ideas for what could be and become paralyzed. This is much akin to the problems with giving the players too much time to plan a heist or assault, with infinite time they never need to choose. When players have a clear choice the group can come to an agreement and the narrative moves forward. If the interchange of choice giving and taking is done at a pace that everyone is comfortable rate then it becomes almost seamless.
Personally I’ve run most of my games with a specific goal in mind, and all actions within the narrative are retconned to getting closer to that goal. The players may go off and do something weird, such as walking as far away from a big flashing light as possible, but then are brought around to feeling the need to investigate it due to what they find in that direction. This isn’t quite a railroad of choice but an approach exemplified behind “all roads lead to Rome”.
As discussed last time, I am very improvisational in my GMing and I use my between times to figure out the fridge logic of what just happen and how it fits into the bigger story that’s being told. I’m laser focused because that’s the payoff for me as a GM, that the players get to the finale. With the players doing what players do and confounding all of my plans I work to make it so their actions and the responses to their actions are enveloped in the grand narrative I’m wanting to tell.
From the other side of things I’ve seen GMs have a tightly scripted, excellently paced introduction two – three session adventure and then plunk the players down asking “what do you want to do now?” In the most memorable one example I’ve played in the GM had the players start off by stealing a ship (for the system a normal part of starting equipment) and being chased out of the system which they created during setting creation. The villain/player power imbalance was played up so well that the players ran from what they had agreed to do since we didn’t believe we could win at all. We saw no path forward so we executed JOSHUA’s final option and decided not to play that adventure.
When you look at seeming sandbox video games there is quite a bit of design that goes into guiding the players to the next objective. In one form or another there is a list of quests that are offered to the players, this ranges from a board that people are logging into to a bar where there are several people you can introduce yourself to that they’re needing some form work done for themselves.
Each way of presenting options to the players needs to be shown off before you let them play in the sandbox. If you’re expecting the players to automatically know that the three people you described in the cantina they’ve entered have adventures, they won’t. Communication is key to this; offering a choice or a direction needs to be shown to the players, not just told to them. In an RPG like we’re playing there is little difference between IMPORTANT HINT and an engrossing scene description unless you show this off to people.
An example of how to deal with the situation I’ve described here would be to have the bartender mention that each of these people has an issue. This changes the location of the ‘message board’ from the bars description to the bartender and can help facilitate bringing the players more into the setting by giving arm’s length context. This can be reskinned from the tavern keeper to a bounty board the intelligence briefing (as pointed out by Seamus) to a job board akin to Craigslist or Kijiji.
The uses of these are all based on the willingness of the GM to commit to their use. At the conclusion of the adventure players will need new options to choose from, preferably towards the end of a session. This means that after your penultimate session for the current adventure you need to have the next NPCs or job postings ready for the players to peruse. Having them at the ready allows for an even flow of ideas and decisions instead of halting early and hoping that your players are going to answer your e-mails.
The reason to use this approach is to provide a choice, a true meaningful choice, for your players that let them take a very meaningful part in the story creation. The first time that they realize the bounty board has a bunch of new adventures on it when they’re done with the first one there will be more interest in how the campaign will unfold.
I’ve talked about how to use this, and it works, but there’s also a why. The why of using a bounty board system in a sandbox is that it helps guide your characters to build up history that you as a GM can use to propel consequences into the future. Creating the world with player input isn’t a onetime thing when you use a Begging for XP style world building session. This form of world building is creating a shared world that the players buy into in a far greater depth since it expands on their experiences and makes them relevant to them.