One unfortunate aspect of the increased privacy Google+ offers is that by allowing you to share your posts with certain circles only many interesting posts end up being undiscoverable by new readers and hard to link to – I linked them below but if you haven’t seen them before, chances are you’re not in the circles of the the two respective authors and thus you will not be able to read them.
In You ate the sandbox, Stuart Robertson wonders how people run their Sandbox games. He argues that if you don’t have things set down before play begins – if you improvise everything – then the decisions players make don’t have significance.
In the comments there is a whole lot of debate on the wording: Does that make decisions by players meaningless? Is this really how improvisation works? I’m with Zak Smith, I guess. He says “That’s why in true sandboxes the GM gives the PCs information about what’s in what direction, and this information can be used to inform the PCs decisions and avoid railroading.” He linked to two excellent blog posts on his blog. One is a huge Ontology for sandboxes – it provides a shared vocabulary for anybody wanting to talk about sandboxes: Chokers And Chandlers. (I think my own games mostly fall into the “Sandbox With Triggerable NPCs or Plot Events” category.) Anyway, this is a super awesome post. Read it, if you want to write about sandboxes. Using the terms suggested by Zak will make it easier to understand for your readers.
The other article Zak linked to is Conan Knew More About Cimmeria Than Howard Did. The most important part of that blog post is that one of the techniques to make a sandbox entertaining is to emphasize the tension between two opposing ideas: the gameworld is defined as the players explore it and the players need information in order to make meaningful decisions about which way to go. There is a lot for players to explore, but there is also a lot of information that allows players to make meaningful decisions.
The other Google+ post that got me thinking was Authored role-playing and so-called "story games" by John Allder Stephens. He cites some conflicting definitions of Story Games. I liked Graham Walmsley’s comment, It's not meant to mean anything. It's just a label for "The games that people on the Forge and Story Games tend to like".
My impression is that most people seem to agree that there is no significance beyond a personal preference in the term. There is an interesting discussion in the comments comparing Story Now and Story After. Story Now is where the story happens right now, at the table. Play focuses on conflicts that would make a good story. Random encounters are a hindrance to the story unless they are immediately relevant to the character’s struggles. Story After is where events happen at the table and as players look back, they see a story has emerged. People make decisions based on their character’s goals, based on the imagined world, and as they look back, what emerges is a tragic road to failure and death, or a heroic sacrifice, or victory over ones enemies, etc. The important part is that nobody planned this. It just so happened and surprised everybody. As Stuart Robertson says, “that’d be a fixed game!”
Here’s an example of how I see it. Assume the old school D&D party is encountering four dwarves in the wilderness – a random encounter. In a Story Now game, this only makes sense, if the dwarves are relevant to the characters and their issues. Is one of them a dwarf? A fugitive running away from his obligations? Are these scouts that are trying to return a rebel son to his father? In a Story After game, the dwarves may have totally unrelated goals. They’re here to set up a copper mine. This adds a potential mine to the map. Do the players want to help or hinder this endeavor? It’s just another plot hook. Looking back, players might say, remember those four dwarves and their copper mine? Funny how that made us visit the dwarven king in the western mountains and break the sleeping enchantment… Story emerges later.
I think I prefer Story After games. I feel they encourage perpetual play. The campaign grows and turns and creeps and tumbles forward, the world expands, characters come and go… A game that is focused on the drama of a particular set of characters and their issues is basically over when those issues are resolved. I guess I’ll see for myself soon enough as I’m switching my D&D 3.5 game to Solar System RPG where characters have keys and get experience points when they hit those keys. Perhaps characters can keep switching keys and the campaign has the potential of going on in perpetuity. My suspicion is, however, that once those keys are resolved the campaign will automatically begin coming to a close.