I've been playing a lot of Terraria recently instead of paying attention to the community recently, so if there have been any kerfluffles or minor crises that you'd like to read about, you'll have to do it somewhere else, because I'm going to talk about adventure and mayhem.
Terraria is great because it's what Minecraft was supposed to be all those long years ago. It's an actual building and fighting adventure game, and it's absolutely brilliant. It's always got something for you to do, it's always got something for you to work towards, and there's always something awesome to discover.
Part of what makes the game work is that it has a certain structure to it, and it's sort of built into the game. You find natural caves and so spelunking for a while, looking for treasure chests and for valuable ores deep in the earth, which you mine and then transform into more useful equipment and weaponry. But unlike Minecraft, you eventually hit your peak with those weapons and armor. Where do you get more?
By fighting through the Corruption/Crimson and getting it, of course. And this entails you having built housing for a couple of NPCs, who form a town for you and provide their services. If you've built enough, you can get the Demolitionist to move in. And with his bombs, you can blast your way through the super-hard corrupt blocks and get to the Orbs/Hearts. Destroying them gets you gear, and also summons the bosses, who attack you with a vengeance. Beating the bosses nets you some supernaturally powerful ore, which you can make into weapons and armor.
But once you have beaten the bosses a couple of times, it becomes easy. Where to next? Why, the Dungeon, of course, where you'll fight the dungeon boss and make your way to a place with more treasure chests, traps, and powerful enemies than before. Eventually, of course, you'll master the Dungeon and where does one go next?
One goes to the Underworld and mines Hellstone and fights Imps and Demons. And the game continues like this for quite some time, all with a common theme; when you master the content you're given, there's always a place with greater risks and greater rewards around the next bend. And each place requires a different approach, a different style of moving and fighting, and different ways of building and digging. It's frankly brilliant, and it's always rewarding.
There's a lot we can learn about this sort of thing in our own homemade sandbox games.
Always Include Something ElseNot every game has to be about "progression" in the sheer gaming sense of getting new items and more levels so that you're strong enough to get new items and more levels. But it should be about progression in the real life term, where you're always trying to do something new and get something accomplished. A game where people sit around and contemplate their satisfaction with the way their life is would be interesting for perhaps a session, in a philosophical kind of way, but hardly the sort of thing you'd talk about with your buddies for the next ten years. It's kind of boring, right?
Similarly, a campaign where your characters sit around going "where do I even go next," is kind of boring for everybody involved. You're being entertained on a moment-to-moment basis, sure, but because you're not connected to the world as a player, neither are your characters. You're kind of aimlessly floating around, because you're not engaged to the world around you, and you don't know where to go next.
In Terraria, you're rooted to the world fairly quickly. You have to build a house to get shelter from the Zombies and the Flying Eyeballs, so you're connected to the place. It's not much, but it's alright. It's got a workbench and a door, and maybe a furnace. But soon you realize you need to expand, so you make it a little bigger. And then you realize there's a guy wandering around outside and so you make him a house, too. And then, next thing you know, somebody else moves into your house with you, and you realize that you need to keep building up your town so that more people move in.
And next thing you know you're part of the world. You explore and wander and discover, and then you go back to the town to store your belongings and sell them to the NPCs, who sometimes die and who have things happen to them. The world is its own character and has a very real impact on the way the game unfolds.
Speaking of which...
Put the Fiction FirstThe Corruption/Crimson are great in Terraria, because they spread slowly across the surface and actually change the world in its wake. The monsters are noticeably different, the ground itself turns into a strange and hideous color, and the background and music change. Everything is different, and it's obvious that you should check it out. If the monsters are too tough, you know you're not ready, so you head back into the natural caverns. This time you've got a purpose. You're not just getting strong so you can fight the zombies and flying eyeballs that were plaguing you, you've got to fight some bigger, tougher monsters.
And so you head back to the Corruption and head down the tunnels, fighting the monsters off at every step. And you see in the caves these enormous glowing things. What are they? What do they do? You try a couple of things out on them, if you can reach them (and if not, the Demolitionist that moved into your town will sell you some bombs), and when you smash them you get messages on your screen and a neat magical item. Smash enough, and it's boss fighting time. The boss, of course, drops more magical items and some magical ores that you can smith into improved armor.
You can see, naturally, how the progression is obvious and clear, and how the game is designed to present you with the next step not by some sort of shoehorned "OH WOW LOOK ITS THE NEXT BOSS AND HE'S HERE FOR YOU TO FIGHT HOW CONVENIENT," it's presented as a natural and insidious part of the world you live in.
I illustrate the entire chain of events because it's basically the way every good threat in your game should work. If your players aren't aware of it, it's not in the game. If it doesn't noticeably change the game world in a way that the players dislike, it's not a threat, it's background. And players probably aren't interested in attempting to change the background.
This leads me to my last point.
Use RewardsSome DMs like to use punishments to keep players in line. To wit, I recall reading a post chain on Reddit's /r/RPG board about "keeping it interesting," and what to do if the players are being boring in a sandbox game. The link to the pertinent part is here.
Ivaclue is doing fine until he says, in response to "but my players don't respect authority and would probably kill the guard captain for talking to them like that," that the guard captain should just be stronger and more powerful than the party, common sense be damned. And the worst? The advice "Make him and indestructable force. Make them stop disrespecting you." Frankly terrible.
What should happen is that you reward the players for everything they do. Not in the sense that they get rewarded in-game, but that they get rewarded with fun. Let them kill the guard captain- they obviously don't want to be model citizens. And they're rewarded with the fun of killing him, then the fun of escaping the town, then the fun of being fugitives who (as far as anybody can tell) blew up a tavern, killed a guard captain, and fled the city. Isn't that more rewarding than "you attack the guard captain but he counterattacks and knocks your weapon out of your hand and tells you to do as he says or else?"
That's what I thought.
Terraria, of course, uses the rewards of better gear and neat magic items to keep you on the right track. For the most part. Some parts (like when the flying skulls kill you when you're at the Dungeon without fighting the boss, or the way that the Underworld is almost silently hidden away deep underneath the earth) aren't perfect, and are of the "you just plain can't do that" section.
But most of it is ready for you at any level. You can tackle the Dungeon in wooden gear. You can ignore the Corruption and head straight for the Jungle. The game doesn't change based on what you do and it doesn't shoehorn you into a single path the way that Ivaclue from Reddit apparently thinks is the best way to run a sandbox game. The entire world is there for you. Some parts are harder, and some parts are easier. Take on the challenge you think you can handle.
Anyways, I hope this all gave you food for thought. This one kind of got away from me, so enjoy this unusually long and dense post.