It happens that I wrote 4,000 words on my newest book on the weekend, all of it on the preparation done by gamers ... so if I tend to wax excessively on the present topic, please understand that I'm training myself not to sweep over subjects, but to get down to the nub of them. I have been thinking that the 'sandbox' is actually a fairly poor metaphor for freestyle roleplaying. Obviously it's very popular, and more or less understood by a wide audience, but as I contemplate what the sandbox is, and my memories of sandboxes, I'm finding on the whole that the equivalency is more than disappointing.
There were plenty of sandboxes around when I was growing up. The Holts next door had one and the Lukas's on the other side of us had one. The Nikoforuks down the street had one as well. I played in them all, and I can remember each of them; one had a child's seat that went all around, one had boards that were breaking loose, and one was strong will high walls. Since I grew up in an era were parks had sandboxes, and where elementary schools often had them - and even outdoor drive-in restaurants would feature them somewhere on the lot - I played in a lot of different sandboxes growing up.
Seems to me, though, that there were a lot of limitations.
Sandboxes are great for digging holes, or making roads for cars, or using plastic molds to make shapes ... but on the whole they are pretty limited. Being in a dry climate, most of the sandboxes would dry up in the summer months, so that you had to add water - and when you have kids adding water to a sandbox, the goal always seems to be to make mud, to add too much water and make a mess of it.
The sand, too, never seemed to be good for much. Any master of sand sculpture will tell you that no two sands are alike, and so they travel to those perfect sand beaches in the world where you can make sculptures that are twenty feet high. The sandbox of your average child just doesn't contain that kind of sand. And none of us were master sculptors, anyway.
My favorite 'sandbox' was a beach - Sylvan Lake Beach, where there was tons of nice, sticky sand all along the waterline. We did not just make sandcastles, we burrowed canals through the sand which filled with water, we piled up mountains as high as our chests and it was all made more interesting by the fact that there were hundreds of kids along the mile-long beach all doing the same thing. I made many friends for just one day with enthusiastic fellow sand engineers.
No matter how nice the sand is, though, no matter how enthusiastic you are, or imaginative you are, sand is transitory. It doesn't last. And that is why sandboxes ceased to be anything we were interested in after the third grade (though I did play in the sand at the beach, making larger and larger things, until I was doing it with my daughter in my 30s).
I don't like that my D&D is being compared to something the next storm rises up and washes away. Or something that crumbles to dust after two weeks of a dry July. I suppose my world is transitory on some level, but since I've been running the same world now since 1982, I think its a hell of a lot less transitory than than a sandbox. I think it demeans the game to compare it with something that, fundamentally, lost our interest by the age of ten, was limited in scope and ultimately doesn't describe something more permanent.
It's fruitless to imagine that I could change the metaphor, now that its buried in the consciousness of so many people ... but I'd like to advance one of my own. There was a sphere of play - included in the title of this post - which really does come much, much closer to D&D as a constructivist, imaginary, all consuming pursuit ... and one which in fact has resulted in a huge permanent location where millions of people go to play. I'm talking about Lego.
For my money, Lego is a far better representative format than the sandbox. To begin with, it is far more accessible to people with little or no skill. It is far more adaptable, imaginatively flexible and profound than what sand can provide. You can do anything with it. It can stand for anything. It never gets boring. I could play with Lego now. And it is as permanent as I want to be.
I have no fear of sounding like a Lego commercial. Never in history has there ever been a product where one can more honestly say you'd have to be a fucking moron to hate Lego. Perhaps that hatred might be an early way to identify serial killers in society, or other people who should be put to death quickly.
We used to play Lego in a friend's basement. His parents were - shall we say - excessive in their willingness to purchase blocks and everything else. Except where Legoland is concerned, I have never seen so much Lego, not before or since. What a heavenly place that was, the entire basement, wall to wall, ping pong table and floor, covered in Lego.
If we must talk about a game where the imagination is free, where what's required is the ability for the players to construct and develop the process of gaming as much as the DM, then surely we want to invest those players in a tool more comprehensive, no? And what is more comprehensive than Lego?
Well, the computer I suppose. This is fairly comprehensive - and I do believe that we won't truly free ourselves from tiny-thinking D&D until we ditch the paper and the pencil and embrace the computer like every other element of the world has. It's here, people. Get used to it.
Is the computer really the best metaphor, though? Perhaps ... and feel free to quibble if you must ... perhaps the best metaphor is life itself. The process of life. The complete and utter freedom to stand up, declare you're for or against something, and then pursue that decision to the best of your ability. That is really all we're trying to offer players who are not on rails. The freedom to live a life. To 'lego' the restrictions on what people can do.
But I suppose I made that point last week, didn't I? Meh, so what. It's a point that needs to be made often.