Thirty years ago I actually had to learn the basics of how to run a sandbox campaign. It’s no coincidence that this was when Twilight:2000 was released in 1984.
I received a copy of Twilight:2000 from a friend in High School named Steve. He knew I was really into RPGs and this game had just been released and he wanted to play it. I still have that copy. I also have a few other copies in my collection because it is such a formative RPG for me. Ignoring the background and (often wonky) game mechanics, Twilight:2000 was unique for me because the initial adventure is specifically INCREDIBLY open-ended. It’s a set of starting positions for enemy forces, a map of the region, and a timeline of what those forces intend to do in the next few weeks. That’s about it. The little details (encounters, towns, vehicle breakdowns, trading for goods, finding friends and enemies along the way) are all handled by the encounter tables, and the big details (cities, major military forces) are basically quick little write-ups that you expand on when and if they become important to your game.
There isn’t even a real “goal” for the beginning adventure besides “survive”. It’s expected that the group will figure out their own goal based on how things work out for them initially. We’ve had teams that were solely focused on staying alive, others who were still actively engaging the enemy forces, and one team that set themselves up as local warlords.
In my spare time I learned to roll up encounters using the tables in the books and them detail them a bit with little things that weren’t included in the basic tables. For instance, finding a Soviet APC holed and mired in the mud stripped of everything… but throw in a couple of photographs in the crew compartment of loved ones, an I (heart) NY t-shirt, and pedestrian tracks leading out of the mud towards the west and maybe the next marauders they meet might have a connection to the wreckage, or in the next village to the west there’s a few guys hoping that their forces will (or won’t) find them so they can get back into action.
In the end, it was Twilight:2000 that taught me how to take a map and some random encounter tables and turn them into a campaign that could go anywhere.
Now that I have so many more tools for running a sandbox, I have this urge to pull out Jason Sholtis’ “The Dungeon Dozen” to totally fuck with a game of Twilight:2000. It would be like “Rifts: The First Year” or something like that. Weirdness and hostile military forces and more weirdness.