The simple answer, of course, is that there is no game without players. For a very long time, I wouldn't even consider planning for a game if I didn't have a play group. My diverse tastes made me even more cautious. I didn't want to have a campaign half-written if nobody wanted to take the first step and learn new rules.
The downside of this strategy is that I wound up running games under-prepared. Almost criminally so. I've commented on this blog many years ago about how my players would exploit my lack of preparation as a sort of "fast forward" through my scenarios.
So, what has me thinking about this now? Back in July, I found a writing club meeting at a coffee shop. (Actually, I was at the coffee shop scouting it as a place to run a game. The writing club just happened to be there.) I wound up joining and used the place and time to work on my RPGaDay blog posts. That's why I was able to finish that project despite an awful lot of blog silence previously.
But with August over and all entries completed, I needed something else to write during that time. I decided to work on my campaign notes for my ever-in-the-future Star Trek campaign. I've had the ideas for the campaign for over 5 years but without prospective players, I held off on developing it too deeply.
What I did was just start writing the adventure scenarios just like I would if it was a game I was actively running. But instead of having to rush to have something done by this upcoming Monday, I have the time to let my adventure stew until some Monday (or whatever day that group decides on) in the future.
The big advantage is that I have more time to buttress my plots. When I only had the week between sessions to sketch out the plot, it tended to be weak, with lots of opportunities for “plot clipping” as I previously mentioned. By sitting on ideas and letting them stew, I can look at them from more angles and close the plot holes that I find. Sometimes, instead of simply plugging holes and filling in details, I realize that the story I’m trying to tell requires a different plot structure.
It also means that I’m doing more world-building. I still avoid world-building for the sake of world-building, but taking the time to flesh out my plots means that world details get filled in. For example, for the Star Trek campaign I want to run, I have a planet where science is a religion. The plot centers on a religious/technological artifact. Quite logically, it would be guarded by something like the Pope’s Swiss Guard. If I only had a week, I might not have put much thought into them. With the pressure off, I can flesh them out a bit more. There might even be a future adventure on this planet where the Star Guard are a major player.
For my “ultimate sandbox” D&D game, I’m doing everything randomly. The map is randomly generated. I’ve got some randomly generated dungeons for the players to explore. I’m even pre-rolling some random encounters. Originally, this was to reduce the time I spent rolling dice and looking things up in play. But because I have the time to reflect on things, some of these encounters are turning into stories of their own.
One of the craziest things I’ve rolled up yet is an encounter with four boring beetles (the kind that dig holes, not the kind that are dull). The beetles are in their lair, which means that they are adjacent to their treasure, which includes such randomly determined things as sheep and horses along with other commodities. Boring beetles are the most intelligent of the beetles and the bestiary I’m using even says that they can have a hive consciousness that is quite intelligent indeed. So, I make a reaction roll to determine what they think of anyone who attempts to enter their lair and I get “Friendly.” Instead of a simple monster fight, I get beetles that are intelligent and potentially keeping livestock and other commodities that are friendly and welcoming towards visitors.
Of course, the point of the ultimate sandbox is to give the players freedom of action in the world and see what they do with it. While they could interact with the beetles and maybe even trade with them, there’s also nothing stopping them from killing them and loading all those commodities onto the horses and laying claim to them. But from my perspective, my world just got that much more interesting because of that potential, whether it gets realized or not.