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!