Jun 5, 2009

The light at the end of the sandbox is an oncoming train!

My goodness! In merging three of the more controversial elements of roleplaying, and then squishing them in a big ugly ball, I got some feedback!

First off, a big thank you to all of you for keeping it classy. While I sometimes fail utterly at this, it is still a bar I strive for when I can. Secondly, a big thank you beyond that for the constructive criticism. Even the snarks were well heeled - THANK YOU!

One session post in 3...2...1...showtime!

On to the meat. In the comments, I see three camps. One that agrees wholeheartedly enough to have nothing to add. One that disagrees completely - or near enough to count. And one that evidently sees some merit, but disagrees on specific points.

My question back to you Helmsman, would be "Is your game truly a sandbox game?" Or does it already incorporate elements of Linear plots, i.e. You've killed the priest in dungeon A, and a note leads you north toward swamp B? Would a "true" sandbox not be exactly what you described in your comment? WHY would the encounters make any sense in their placement at all, unless you were customizing (cough...railroading) them around to keep the training wheels touching the ground? Do the EL3 orcs feel a sudden urge to move closer to the PC's while the EL11 ones move farther away? Why wouldn't they terrorize a low level village? Why stick to somewhere that more powerful good guys hang out? Does the dragon decide he should go to a higher level area for a "real" challenge? Or does he stay where the pickings are easy?

I cannot get too specific about the background issue without actually having some hard info to go on. Are the PC's strangers to the area? Are they prisoners in a caravan? Are they merchants + guards? Are they bumpkins with a single magic sword? How far out DOES their information network spread out from their starting point? Are the villagers typical commoners - i.e. Int and Wis 10 or so each? Each answer changes the whole equation.

I am glad to see that you "do it right". But the unexpected ALWAYS happens in D&D. It's the only thing as certain as having to make saves :) In a living, breathing sandbox - with a little of uncle gary's random encounters, that dragon may be out looking for some white meat, or horseflesh. There are no rules dictating an all powerful CE monster's behavior. It does what it wishes, when it wishes. I should have been more specific in the last article, as a "true" sandbox would likely have lots of random encounters. The random part being my biggest beef with the older editions. I mean WOW, talk about disassociated mechanics!

And lastly, yes. You are using the middle ground quite well. Move here, now please :)

My article was meant to convey that a purist approach to GNS theory, Schoolism, or Gamestyle is nearly impossible. Making it's advocacy somewhat irresponsible.

Yes it is "possible" to have adventure paths in a sandbox, but you have an odd quandary by doing this.

Example: Deus Baaj (For you Sham :P) is working to release an eruption of necromantic energies that will kill every man, woman, and child on the continent - turning them into zombies under his control. Easy-peasy stereotypical "epic" adventure right? So what happens when the party misses a clue and goes off on a weird tangent? The clock should be ticking, and will eventually run out. Game over. That is, unless you send in the train to railroad them back in the right direction! Sure, you could say tough titties - but then you're technically just wasting everyones time watching them fiddle as Rome burns. The entire game derailed because of one missed roll or badly described action...Unless you intervene with a little DM fiat.

Make no mistake - DM Fiat IS Railroading. It just sounds better. The DM "deciding it does" is still an intervention more often than not.

Example: The party has been making a nuisance of themselves to the same BBEG. After a particularly good haul, they decide to kick back for a month or two and make some magical items and such. Does the world stop while they do this? Why doesn't a pack of highly trained assassins descend upon them? Then another. Then another. Why wouldn't Douchebag himself pop in for 10 rounds (60 seconds of his time + 2 teleport spells) to lay them to waste? Any bad guy with an INT of more than 14 has to realize that it would be a good investment of his time, right?

Are we railroading away from this encounter? Or railroading toward this encounter? Even in 1E, a 15-20th level wizard is a force of nature. If the slaves at his obsidian mine are released, wouldn't he invest a low-level scrying spell plus the aforementioned teleports and such to eliminate a threat? LOL! BBEG scry and die :)

As to poor games - I do not describe an actual game, but a logical extreme of one. A sandbox with a truly random dispersion of encounters of all kinds. Please forgive my somewhay jumbled prose, I write what I think, and sometimes it comes out in half baked chunks. I am working on this, but am a long way from publishing my first novel :) And Kudos for the author / editor simile, it was beautiful!

The black and white characitures (Bad sandbox and Bad railroad) used in the previous article were used for comparison purposes mostly. I posit that a "true" sandbox style game is a simulationist representation of a gameworld. You (as a DM) are trying to faithfully represent the impact of having a band of heroes moving in a random(?) fashion through an interactive environment. No "story" as such, until they decide to follow something that may or may not be what they are looking for.

A "true" Railroad style game forces the player to move from set-piece to set-piece. It is narrative in the sense that the story trumps all other considerations. That "chosen one" reference I made was based on experience. The character was a REQUIRED part of the endgame, so the DM had to make up all kinds of silly BS to keep the character alive. The rest of the world matters little, as gods (the DM's) magnifying glass is focused only on them - nothing else is really real.

While extreme, I would say that these silly cardboard cutouts are the reasons we, by necessity have to blend in other (sometimes contrary) philosophies to create a coherent game. Mashed potatos are alright, so is gravy. Add them together in the right proportion and you have a side dish that is more than the sum of it's parts. As opposed to flavorless mash and flavored schmoo getting all over our meat and veggies.

That brings us to the "gamist compromise" I brought us to yesterday. It is the Game that matters. And as we all know, the game is whatever in the hell we make it. This is where the houserules come in. Where we insert more G, N, or S (Or Dramatism - thanks Thanuir) into the homebrew we are serving up. Why doesn't the BBEG just take a short break to deal with the PC's? Add a little N with a dash of Railroading - he's busy with an involved ritual that requires ALL of his time. Why doesn't he send his slightly less powerful (but still more than capable of killing the PC's) Lieutenant to deal with them? A little S with a dash of Sandbox - he's a Blackguard and must travel for 3 weeks to get where he thinks the party is.

There's nothing wrong with this, I can't think of a lamer story than the party scoring a big victory, and then an epic bad guy shows up and sodomizes them with long pointed spikes.

As it stands, I disagree with Wikipedia's well referenced definition of GNS theory. I feel it suboordinates the true definition of the words themselves to make it relevant to too many mediums.

Gamist refers to decisions based on what will most effectively solve the problem posed. These decisions are most common in games which pit characters against successively tougher challenges and opponents. (Note - After this the definition descends into bullshit.)

Narrativist refers to decisions based on what would best further a dramatic story or address a central theme. (Note - same as above re - bullshit.)

Simulationist refers to decisions based on what would be most realistic or plausible within the game's setting, or to a game where the rules try to simulate the way that things work in that world, or at least the way that they could be thought of working. (Note - You get the idea.)

Anonymous, while I allow anonymous posting on my blog, I don't hold conversations with faceless entities. It puts me at a disadvantage - which is lame - and doesn't give me the chance to reconcile the comment with the poster's thoughts on other topics, which matters to me. If you live in a basement with a tinfoil hat, and refuse to make at least a blogger account, then I don't know if we can produce anything productive anyway. Start a blog! Tell the world I am a jackass! Just don't be faceless :)

Kaosdad, the "purist" sandbox is a totally simulationist approach. There is no story, that is, any story that does exist is always optional - simply another part of the landscape, to be pursued or ignored. This is contrary in every way to both published fantasy and every module ever created. While each and every encounter does not need to be linked to the same chain, too many optional side quests kill any impetus to advance at a reasonable pace. "Don't worry guys, the BBEG will wait for us, he wants an audience for his final victory, so lets take a vacation, go back
to that first town we partied in and kill the rest of those stupid goblins - then their mothers - then their aunts - then all of their distant relatives, just for kicks!"

MMO design gives this a REALLY bad name. You can pick up and drop the main quest as many times as you want. Go make potions. Go gather materials. Take the family to Hawaii for 2 weeks, It will all wait. Even games with DM toolkit like neverwinter nights are like this, the tools are finite, so the options and all that follow are as well.

Thanuir - The option you describe is my personal bane of all existence :) I don't know about any of you, but I have had the pleasure of watching the party discuss how to enter a garage door, secured by a mechanical lock for 2 1/2 hours. It was a d20 future game, with players wielding plasma cannons, mono-edge weapons, and hyper grenades, and yet they could not figure out how to get inside. If I could have swallowed my dice and choked to death - I would have! While it IS possible to free-form an encounter in most editions of the game, that tends to leave you very vulnerable to the "Diplomancer" of 3E and to a lesser extent 4E. With the older editions lack of structured skills to guide a conversational encounter, it leaves an awful lot to chance. I can see this working better with random encounters than plot encounters.

This is mostly a problem in terms of prep time. While I am not helpless when it come to improvising, when I get caught with my pants down, it tends to show. As to gathering information. This too is a good place to have randomness kick you in the balls. You either railroad them (just have someone spill their guts as to where you want them to go), or you sandbox them (roll on the random rumor table and they go in the direction the dice tell them to - stomping off blindly indeed :)

As to bloodshed :) With PC's it always come to bloodshed! They have pointy pieces of steel and want to use them to free the air trapped within their enemies abdominal cavities! Sure there is talking, but as one of my favorite book characters once said, "First there is smiling, then there is talking, after that the killing starts - don't be still talking when we get to that part." An orc is still an orc. A troll still just wants to eat you. A fire giant is still a great big red-skinned Nazi. Combat is too integral to D&D to remove, and while it isn't the only thing for sure, I don't think I would have any takers if I announced a campaign that consisted of being diplomats and trying to find compromises.

My goodness this has been hard. I've been working on this for nearly four hours now! My point (as it is clear I buried it well and often) is that the heart of any "good" game is always a compromise. On their own, none of the Schools, Theories, or styles can support a robust experience. There must always be an osmosing of fresh ideas, and as such, compromises to keep the desired game intact. You can't always trust your players to make the "right" decisions and more than they can trust the DM to always be right.

I hate to rush this out, but I am drained. Please let me know if I missed the point, jumped the shark, or deserve to be eaten alive by a pack of vicious snarks. This is a discussion, and as such - there is no right or wrong yet :)

Until next time, have a wonderful weekend, and wish me luck - those damn zombies aren't going to kill themselves!


Helmsman said...

Holy crap. Longness. Okay, I may have to address all your questions in a seperate post myself. Might take me til tomorrow to finish, but I relish the pending discussion, so I'll make sure to throw you another comment when the post is done. I'm fairly certain we'll both enjoy this.

Pobody's said...

No longer anonymous. :)

Side note about Sandbox. Perhaps its just me, but if you HAVE a BBEG, you aren't doing a sandbox. You have begun the game with a railroad, this BBEG exists and ONLY YOU can stop him or he ENDS THE WORLD. Nobody else can step forth and deal with him ONLY YOU. And if YOU (someone who is not qualified to handle Deus Baaj) don't act as the chosen one, YOU DIE.

Thats just railroad from the get go. Now there can be a BBEG, if its a WWII Spy Plot, thats Hitler. That doesn't mean if you personally don't put a bullet in his head he's going to load up his atomic mech suit and marshal his army of zombies and kill everyone. Unless you are playing Castle Wolfenstein, but even still thats a railroad.

That seems to be a big clincher I see alot in sandbox attempts. The want to try sandbox, but the refusal of the GM to not have an overarching epic need for the players to do something, to make a world where they players aren't forced to be in the center, a world where if they spend the first two years of "game time" running a farm the world doesn't end, hell no one even cares. People have been farming for ten thousand years, why is it all coming to a head now and requiring this one band of farmers to take on the archlich?

If the players go free the slaves of Deus Baaj maybe he will pop in and kill them.

In which case two options, one: Why didn't they protect themselves from scrying before pissing on his shoes?

two: There is no defense for scrying, thats poorly designed game for sandboxing.

In general, BBEG's don't work in sandbox games.

BBEG's are by their nature a plot device. Creating a good setting for sandbox play is critical, it has to be a setting that is fun to be in and more importantly, logical.

In the real game design tree (Retro, Stupid and Pretentious) that means some types of games (like the ones where Conan wrestles the bear in a canoe as it goes over a waterfall) don't work too well as a sandbox, even if the game is awesome and fun.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that Sandbox is not a play style that goes well for everyone, and its ALOT of front end work to set up. But if you don't like narrative elements in your game (like plot arches, or balanced encounters or BBEG's) then its the only way to go. Thats why they make multiple gaming styles. My only issue is the constant pointing out of how Sandbox doesn't work when you bring in elements that are the polar opposite of sandbox play (like BBEG's, or monsters sitting around in a hex waiting for heroes to wander in). Sandbox games have their own long list of turn offs, new ones don't need to be invented.

Graham said...

@Pobody's -

First, congrats for bringing in the RSP model. Most accurate threefold model ever! Woo!

But I have to ask:

Creating a good setting for sandbox play is critical, it has to be a setting that is fun to be in and more importantly, logical.

How is having powerful bad people who do bad things illogical?

Lets say the kingdom of Sandboxia is ruled by a tyrant (named Deus Baaj), who has enslaved the neighbouring halfling villages.

This is a place where a plot might happen, should the players choose to get involved. There's no immediate world-ending threat that only the players can stop, and left unchecked the slavery would only continue as it has for decades. The players don't NEED to deal with it.

But let's say one player is a halfling, or a paladin, or really just any sort of heroic archetype, and he finds this repulsive.

We now have a BBEG (it's a useful term, not a specifically non-sandbox definition) that grew organically out of a sandbox situation.

So the players want to help, but know they can't take on the armies of Deus Baaj, so they decide to help in smaller ways, contributing to the growing resistance movement that is trying to free the slaves.

At some point, it is very likely that Deus Baaj will find out the names of the resistance members and send people (or armies) to kill them.

(After all, if the PCs can spend some time gathering information and find out the local knowledge in a sandbox, Deus Baaj should be able to torture some names out of his slaves.)

So my question is, why would the players help? It is likely that they will be discovered and die.

So why doesn't every sandbox game turn into "move from town to town and avoid all semblance of trouble or heroics"?

I know they don't turn out that way. But if you never try to stop powerful, bad people from doing bad things, how is that?

(I'm seriously wondering. I don't quite understand it.)

kaeosdad... said...

Whoah, looooong post and some long comments.

First of all, I see the point of your post. It's to break down these mental walls of defined playing styles and just do what normal people do and play how you want to.

One thing stood out in this post and my response on railroading in a sandbox is that when the unexpected happens roll with it, if the pcs miss a vital clue and the world burns let them put out the fires. I figure this is where having no limits on your imagination has the advantage over mmos and boardgames.

The rest of my comments are just talking out of my ass, but it's what I think about play styles.

It all comes down to your local gaming culture and ego.

If one games with the same people in the same style with little influence one gets set in their own ways.

Most gamers are set in their ways.

At the same time most dungeon masters(especially dungeon masters) are of the creative type. They think themselves as writers, designers, creators, actors, storytellers etc. etc. etc...

Many creative types, and I can tell you this for fact, tend to have huge egos. Everyone wants to believe that they are original, or that they are innovative, or that they are influential all for the sake of ego.

The combination of a segregated gaming culture along with a self inflated ego is that all of a sudden everything needs a definition. Not just to learn more about how to play the game, I think most people do it to prove that they are in fact right.

Anonymous said...

Donny, I responded to what I see as your actual points over at my blog: http://thanuir.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/edition-and-playstyle-wars/ . Let's see if I have the energy to talk about railroading and other only marginally relevant things.

Anonymous said...

So, nitpickery. First, pardon for the terseness of my first comment; I had limited time at the moment.

Designing a sandbox is as much a skill as designing an adventure is. A good adventure is built so that the players will follow along it on their own. A good sandbox is built so that players can find interesting material and sufficient information. Good adventure assumes that characters are hooked in some way to get involved. Good sandbox assumes that characters are of the adventurous kind and hence will seek trouble on their own. Good adventure has intentionally balanced encounters (they may be very difficult or very easy, but it is intentional, not accidental). Good sandbox has enough areas of varying levels so that players can pick how difficult an area they want to engage and again information so that the desicions are not made blindly.

This all just amounts to setting suitable parameters for the simulation, to use your analogy. The parameters are set up so that the simulation will hopefully be interesting and non-trivial. Making a more extreme sandbox has nothing to do with random dispersion of encounters; at least I don't see any reason for it. Sandbox play is about player agency in a consistent world. Consistent worlds tend to not be overtly random.

As for my style of playing and combats: When I play D&D it is pretty much a sandbox. When I play something else, which is most of the time, I do it in my favourite style. There is drama and conflicts, usually including a combat or few, but they are in no way as common as they are in D&D. Come to Finland (Ropecon, the largest rpg convention in northern Europe, will happen as July shifts to August) and I'll run a game for you.

In sandbox play characters will get involved because they are the kind of people who get involved in things. Play will be boring otherwise. The process is similar to players biting plot hooks of pre-plotted adventures; the game would not be very fun without them doing so.

Pobody's said...

@ Graham

Players do have to take those kind of risks, perhaps they do have to look likely death in the eyes to help the halflings.

If they choose to be Heroes, that's why its heroic. You probably will die. If you join the French Resistance rather than just keeping your head down and waiting out the war, you might die.

But if you don't..well its pretty boring. Unless you choose to say operate a run of the mill black market instead.

Or maybe you go a darker path and become a collaborator.

You choose how risky of a path you want to take and the level of danger (and thus chance of failure) you want to take on.

To keep betting it all on black may be a sure recipe for failure..but man is it exciting and fun. Especially if you pull it off.

satyre said...

Re. BBEG not just teleporting in and laying waste to inconvenient PCs...

There are reasons for this.

1. They have their own plans.
Not every BBEG has the time to pop out and squish a few vermin - so they send a few competent servants to do the job. Sending assassins or an apprentice with a restraint problem is always good.

2. They have their own problems.
Tipping their hand may reveal to the other forces of good that the PCs are a threat and prompt action from them! (If you view a 5th-lvl party as a threat, the 10th-lvl paladin may decide to launch a crusade after all... )

3. They are unaware of the problem.
The evil lackey in charge of the mine may do a brilliant cover-up of the whole thing. "Yes My Lord, the mine is lost. The last five agents I sent failed to return - it would appear a tribe of xorn have moved in from their bodies."

Here's a thought - the sandbox can exist without DM fiat but carving the shapes into the sand already is intervention; as is putting in encounters.

A light hand is best.

Rob said...

The thing about powerful villains is that in a setting coherent enough to be sandboxed, they have a lot of things to do. That much power means the probably dominate a pretty large territory, which means Work.

He's got a lot to do. Evil staff meetings, overseeing the construction of Castle Bloodgore, supporting evil nations on the backs of brutally whipped slaves, stealing handicapped puppies from starving orphans to use as live sacrifices, and so forth A lot of that stuff requires him to be giving orders all the time. And let's face it - A D&D party - what, five? six unlikely heroes? - is not going to be seen as much of a personal threat until they've done something crazy enough to prove themselves dangerous. A quick scry 'n' fry probably ISN'T the best use of his time, until the PCs have been involved for awhile and presumably have the strength to face him down.

Until then, he has minions and similar resources. Initially, he will probably use weak minions - as with the villain himself, the stronger ones can be used more productively than hunting down minor annoyances.

And of course, once the PCs have captured and interrogated a couple of minions, or crossed paths with him a few times and done some research, they ought to be prepared for any sort of scrying, teleporting, or other shenanigan the villain might have in his arsenal.

That said, most sandbox villains are smaller-time than your BBEG. You don't usually devote your time to stamping out huge enemies that could eat you alive - it just doesn't mesh as a style of play. More often, you instead go Conan-style against a slew of smaller-scale foes, independent from each other. In general, your foes have limited resources just like you do, and you can learn about what they are capable of and be ready for most of it.

To answer to the question "Why would the players ever help?": It's quite possible they won't. Some sandboxes do end up as a bunch of scoundrels on the make, in which case, the players are liable to ignore the slaves and go find a dungeon to loot or a bank to rob. In terms of game design, it's all about the rewards being worth the risk. Nearly every player has *something* that will motivate him. Build a sandbox with a wide variety of clear and exciting rewards (and that goes beyond treasure: things like "whupping goblin ass", "scoring some tail from the miner's daughter", "the satisfaction of a good deed", or "a puppy" all count. That last has actually worked well for me.), and you will never have a problem with characters not doing things.

There are also a few things in a good sandbox that force the most recalcitrant PCs into dangerous action, too. Money is often the big one - see Traveler about that. It costs money, ideally a large chunk of it, to live comfortably, and if a player has a longer-term goal, like building a kingdom, paying the lease on a starship, getting rid of an extortionist, or paying a father's ransom, he is going to need the resources to accomplish it.

Another rather embarrassing one is community service. Every wizard burns down a tavern sooner or later, and if you can't pay damages when they catch you, you might get press-ganged into doing someone a big favor.

And ultimately, they are playing a game about risking danger and excitement for reward. Sooner or later, they will either choose to do *something* interesting or decide they are playing the wrong sort of game.

Donny_the_DM said...

My thanks for your continued comments, and welcome Pobody :)

Will digest this and try and bring it to a coherent point after a small family medical emergency is dealt with.

Till then, game well folks :)