Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Toybox Style Play

I think of all the possible adventure design approaches that are out there, I like the Toybox the most.

What is a Toybox?

It's giving players lots of stuff to play with in an adventure. You don't fight it, you don't loot it, you probably don't talk to it, and it probably has little to do with mechanics or any stat on a character sheet. It's interaction with the environment on a player level.

The absolute classic example?

B1, In Search of the Unknown. The Room of Pools and Cavern of the Mystical Stone are the most obvious examples of the Toybox concept, but the descriptions of the four books in the closet, the long description of the bat cavern, even the various storerooms having their contents cataloged down to the number of stone blocks shows that the players are supposed to care and perhaps do stuff with all of it.

Just inside the entrance is the aftermath of a battle. That could have easily been glossed over to give the "oh look, a battle was here, look at the bodies!" effect. But no, the bodies are all described in a way that allows the PCS to play CSI and puzzle out a bit of what happened.


Other classic adventures which feature a heavy Toybox element are the Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

For OSR releases, I think one reason why I promote and adore Cursed Chateau and Spire of Iron and Crystal so much is for the Toybox aspects of those adventures. Cursed Chateau is even a meta-Toybox as even if a room is just "oh, a bunch of monsters here" it plays into a greater scheme that the players have to figure out and then master to succeed.

My own adventures are very Toybox-oriented. Tower of the Stargazer, The Grinding Gear, and Hammers of the God are pretty much Toyboxes front to back. Death Frost Doom has a heavy Toybox factor, even if there are other things that overshadow it. In fact, these days I consider the adventures without a heavy Toybox element (Weird New World, No Dignity in Death) as being my weaker efforts, but even so there are toys to play with in each of those.

Long live the Toybox!


  1. I think there are probably step things going on here. First, the actual toy box elements. These are things the party can interact with. Statues, pools, fruits and such that will have some sort of impact on the pc''s. Hopefully some of it is positive or they will no longer be tempted to push w big, shiny shiny candy red buttons they encounter.

    The second is that 'lived in' feel. This is the sense that somethig was going on before the party showed up on the scene. The skeletons you mention are a good example of this, as are the lizard men guards in AA#7, who were takes with guarding a room but are fought by the party in the act of looting. These sorts of things breathe life in to a place.

    Both of those are things I look for in my reviews.

  2. I'm not sure about calling it "Toybox" style... but I like games where there is more focus on interacting with the environment rather than just fighting monsters or trying to act out some sort of story.

  3. Tomb of Horrors was kind of a toybox... except that messing with sh*t got you killed.

  4. Interaction with the environment is a key design element in our works at White Haired Man. Providing opportunities for players to make decisions and do things leads to very creative and satisfying sessions.

  5. I think I often set up "toybox" situations in my games (of any genre) without thinking about it or even having know of the term.

    In last weeks Knights of the Old Republic session, I had a side thing that the players could do before finally leaving the planet of Dantooine. An NPC asked them to go with him to the little town of Bashoo where they had a sort of "running of the bulls" situation with a local type of cattle, running the thousand or so animals down the main street to a pen of a thousand females down the hill. It had become popular with travelers, and parties happened on rooftops while brave/idiotic adventurer's sunk a few drinks and ran with the beasts. I was suprised by which characters got involved (no rewards other than bragging rights), and which ones sat it out. Bumps and bruised ensued.

    What I thought would be a quick throwaway bit of local color ended up being a lot of fun, with lots happening. And no fights, just rolls to avoid getting horned and trampled. I realized afterwards I could have made an entire session out of this. NPC encounters, intrigue, maybe a market with sinister offworlders around.

    It pays off to do things for the sake of color in a game, and many times players will take it and run with it.

  6. I'd call stuff like Tomb of Horrors Mousetrap play!:) Rube Goldberg Sandboxing!

  7. Hi,
    This post is truly enlightening! I'd like to make a translation for a French old-school RPG forum, would you be ok with this?
    Really hope to have your blessing! Thanks!

  8. Hello again!
    I finished the translation earlier than expected and took on me to post it here:
    Hope it's ok with you! Of course, source and direct link are given to your blog.
    Nice feedback from the French OSR crowd! If you want me to change anything (or remove the post), please tell me and I'll oblige.
    Thanks again.