Yesterday, Mr. Raggi posted an interesting rant against the use of supernatural forces, especially those of ultimate Good and Evil, in roleplaying games. He's since then gathered his thoughts into a more coherent, abbreviated form. I can see where he's coming from, and while I was considering a rebuttal, my own thoughts are casting out a broader net. So this is less an argument against what James has written, and more thoughts inspired by his recent exploration of good and evil and their place in play.
Unless the players are, in fact, playing rat-bastards, James is right that offering the players a choice between joining the side of Good or Evil isn't really much of a choice. It works in Tolkien because, in the novels, there is no Good side. Sauroman, who's supposed to be leading the good side, has decided that Good can't succeed without adopting the methods and tools of Evil. He builds an army of even-better-than-Sauron's orcs and then sets about to conquer his neighbors like he's playing some sort of RTS. The elves are too busy running like rabbits (in the books, they don't show up at Helm's Deep) to put up anything like a fight. The dwarves are fighting to keep orcs out of their caves, and the leaders of the free Men are either thralls of wicked agents or too fallen into despair to organize anything like a true resistance.
The choice for Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest isn't “join Good or Evil”, but rather, “Evil's all geared up to conquer the world, and there is no Good side. What do you do?”
“What do you do?” is the question of the sandbox. Can you tackle the big questions in a sandbox? Absolutely, though they do define a lot of the possibilities and the terrain if you bring them into the game. Granted, that's nothing new in sandbox campaigns. Sandboxing is like jazz; your players need something to riff from. The hardest part of running a sandbox is the beginning, when the players know nothing, but are supposed to make decisions about what their characters are going to do. After they've explored for a bit, they'll discover what the limits of the terrain are: these mountains can only be crossed with great effort while facing great danger, this ocean requires a ship to cross, this desert can be traversed only with excessive logistical preparation.
In the same fashion, as the players make friends and enemies, they find other doors opening and closing. They are free to visit the Duchess whenever they wish, ever since they exposed the plot to replace her son with a doppleganger. They avoid Kharé since the Master of the Thieves' Guild still wants to cut out their tongues and nail them to the guildhall doors. Or maybe they're afraid of running, and it's finally time to take down the Thief Master? Exploring those sorts of possibilities is what sandbox campaigns are all about.
The Big Questions are just more grist for that mill. Good vs. Evil isn't my personal favorite, but it works. Ms. Palette's Light vs. Dark is a fun twist on that old chestnut. So is Michael Moorcock's Order vs. Chaos, which has becoming something of a hoary chestnut itself. Just about any dichotomy will do: old vs. young, male vs. female, free vs. secure, heck, even dichotomy vs. universality, if you want.
And since this is a sandbox, there's really no reason for you to choose. Toss in a few threads and see what your players decide to nibble at. They will nibble, eventually, because these are the questions that interest all of us, the things we go to see in movies or read in books that give the cool special effects and amazing settings depth and meaning. These are the questions we enjoy poking at late at night with good friends, or that shape our creative endeavors, like, you know, making characters and playing RPGs.
Not only can you let the players choose their poison, but you can let them decide how they drink it, too. As a GM, your job isn't to provide answers, but to pose interesting questions. Yes, being too coy can lead to frustration, but nobody really expects a pat, easy answer when it comes to things like Order vs. Chaos. Evil may have been defeated in Middle Earth with the destruction of the ring, but as the hobbits learned when they returned to the Shire, it certainly wasn't banished. Elric never really resolved anything, and in the end was devoured by the apocalypse he'd set in motion. The players have to find their own way through these questions, and decide what answers are right for their characters. Maybe it's to die for a cause, or to fight on even knowing absolute victory is impossible. Maybe it's to surrender to uncertainty and become jaded. Maybe the answer is found in true love or just-good-enough love. You keep throwing interesting questions at them, and over time the players will find their own answers that fit their characters.
This is what we call character development in the sandbox. The character finds its place within the ever-shifting physical, social, and metaphysical geographies of the game. It'll take some time, but some of the characters in your campaign will stake out territory as their own. This isn't the end of the game, but the beginning of the end game, where they develop their position and you marshal threats to it. Whether we're talking armies of gnolls with siege engines or a green knight who calls into question a hero's courage and devotion to duty by instigating a game of beheadings depends on the sorts of choices your players make and how you all define a fun night of gaming.
Photo credits: Jorge-11, mikebaird, catsprks, and Oddsock.