One of my Gencon quests was to escape Indianapolis with plunder - valuable treasures liberated from the OSR gaming booth. I was successful. One such prized book is Red Tide. While an actual content review is still forthcoming, the book offered a lot of interesting ideas on sandbox structure that warrant their own discussion.
The sandbox is both a method of structuring information about the game world, and a technique for running a free-form player-driven game. There are tutorials out there on structuring a sandbox setting to get ready for play - most of them involve building a hex crawl map, stocking the hex crawl with settlements and lairs, creating a home base location in details (both maps and information), detailing some ruins and lairs, and then planting ideas for plot hooks for the initial game.
The Sine Nomine approach divides sandbox prep amongst four basic pieces of sandbox content - Courts, Cities, Borderland Sites, and Ruins. The book provides random tables to generate ideas and spur creativity for creating these locations, but the DM still needs to put in creative work writing up each location. There are lots of random tables in the blogosphere, but what I was most impressed was the way these tables are optimized for quickly generating ideas that answer this question - What makes this place different and interesting to adventurers compared to other places?
Courts, for instance, are social locations. Each settlement where there's the potential for social interaction might have a court site - it could be the local temple, seat of government, powerful merchant interests, and so on. Generating a court is about relationship dynamics and the conflicts amongst the important people - details on who are the movers and shakers, where do they get their power, who are their important allies. I can't rightly recall seeing a D&D supplement with a simple approach to quickly generating the social side of a sandbox.
Cities and Borderlands are both settlements that rely on the "tag system". A tag is a quick label that describes one of the settlement's defining elements. Examples are places defined by a malignant slum, corrupt officials, ethnic unrest, or a slave uprising. The tags further describe ideas for friendly and enemy NPCs related to the tag, items and objects, twists and complications, and the types of locations implied by the tag.
It's not to say the DM can't take the traditional approach to building out a settlement - drawing a map, laboriously keying and stocking all the streets and naming the buildings - but the tag system efficiently and economically lets the DM generate those key factors that differentiate this settlement and make it interesting and unique to adventurers.
Ruins are also addressed, with tables to generate the type of ruin, how it was destroyed, and the primary inhabitants. Since ruins will likely see tactical use in play, its likely a map will be needed, and there are ideas for using reusable and conceptual maps to ease the need for a detailed, stocked map. The stocking section is loaded with value, providing time-saving sample encounters that provide a range of difficulty levels for each encounter type, and a series of ready-made twists to differentiate standard encounters.
The Sine Nomine approach to structuring the sandbox excels in campaigns that are a bit more wide open. In a typical D&D "points of light" micro setting, where the group will return frequently to a single home base, laboriously clearing the nearby dungeon, the traditional sand box approach of highly detailed town maps and a carefully stocked local hex crawl is probably fine.
Where the Sine Nomine Red Tide approach shines is in a free-wheeling campaign that covers a lot of ground. If you have a sprawling hex map with lots of places to go, this type of approach quickly generates the important characteristics of a location and provides practical advice on what's important to run adventures without wasting time on trivialities. Similar to how Vornheim has provided simple tools for running adventures in a large, unmapped city, Red Tide offers tools for a loosely defined wide area sandbox. Actually, the two products would be complementary; the DM could sketch out a distant city with Red Tide, using the tags to generate the idea behind some interesting city neighborhoods, and courts to generate the social centers of power. Once the party gets there, Vornheim has lots of ideas for narrating travel, crossing neighborhoods, and managing spatial relations in a large unmapped city.
To provide a sense of sandbox scale, consider that the roots of the system come from the predecessor product, Stars Without Number, which details sandboxing in entire sectors of space. The Red Tide setting involves a sprawling hex crawl across island chains and an archipelago - much larger than a points of light homebrew. The Red Tide approach excels any time there's a lot of ground to cover. I'd love to work on something similar for Gamma World or Mutant Future. A post-apocalyptic world, where lucky characters might plunder ancient vehicles and start zooming around the landscape, is ideal for the Sine Nomine approach.
There's a fair amount of useful advice in the book on how to get started building the sandbox for the first game, managing it, and keeping track of information at the table - it's prosaic, but the advice on manila folders and sheets of paper and note keeping is down to earth and effective. I've got a soft spot for improving information architecture, and could see myself adapting the Sine Nomine paper folder structure. When creating a geographically diverse environment and allowing free travel, its invariable the group will head off the map; there's advice on content re-use and reskinning as well (some of which inspired recent discussions about Sandbox Triangles, and Quantum Ogres and Shell Games).
If you have a huge hex map, run a free wheeling campaign that includes lots of travel and covers a wide area - this is a resource you need to check out. Even if you're running a standard sandbox, you might find these techniques enhance the quality of your designs by focusing your time.
I'll post an actual review of the Red Tide setting in the next day or so - the chapters on sandbox design are secondary to the fact that this is a published campaign setting, with maps, history, races, classes, new monsters, et al. What is the Red Tide? Tune in shortly.