Thursday, April 28, 2011

The sandbox problems and the DM skill level

Yesterday's cross-blog discussion with JB of B/X Blackrazor over his post on sandbox gripes went surprisingly civil [1], so I thought I'd continue the discussion with some points that he brought up in his comment. They're good ones but most importantly, they reflect that issues with sandboxes end up being DM and DM skill specific, not necessarily a reflection on sandboxes in general. I tried to be very careful in disupting the myth about sandboxes, not to bash on JB's DM skills.
See for me, I AGREE that sandboxes should be "living/breathing/moving" things...that's exactly WHY I say they're a crap-ton of work! Or as I said in my whole quote:
"It requires a crap-ton of energy on the DM’s part to keep the campaign world LIVING/BREATHING/EVOLVING/RESOLVING..."
See? The work (and I'm just as lazy as the rest of y'all if not moreso) comes from trying to make a "living world;" that and the "keeping a couple steps ahead" of my players...which I don't do.
JB, I think you're overestimating how much work is involved - it's not as much as you might think, or made it be in your previous games.

The living/breathing world is a combination of how I see the world and how the players see the world. In so many ways, the players themselves shape the coming adventures. And while this may involve writing a sentence or two in a notebook as compared to the work of:
Players were expected to play their character/role in whatever scenario (I hesitate to even call them “adventures”) that the DM devised. The DM was expected to come up with adventures.
 I'd be willing to bet it's about the same amount of time. In truth, the time I spend ends up being more reactive than proactive.

Here's an example - I had a dungeon full of ko-balds in an area held by ko-balds. The players wiped them out. A few weeks later, the players wanted to go back. I grabbed an encounter table and rolled up an owlbear and goblins. Since goblins are in the next forest over, and once the owlbear was killed by the freaked out players, the players wondered out loud if the goblins were going to move in. BOOM! There's my future story line "GOBLINS MOVE INTO FORMER KOBOLD BASE - WAR IMMENENT?" That added flavor and set up stuff for the future.

My point is that staying ahead of the players, for me, has been a combination of some prep (probably about the same time it takes to prep a module or grab the latest ScoobyDo adventure and rewrite it in fantasy format) and more of figuring out how the world reacts to the players. I listen to how the players see the world and it helps me to guide my hand. It's not always the truth - my players have come up with some crazy shit that just doesn't fit the bill, but that's OK. Heroes often get derailed on red herrings and I'll let them, they'll figure it out.

There's another quote I want to pull and this one is from Matt Finch's first adventure design book. I'm bastardizing it a bit, but it's the same jist: "Meaningful player decisions should have meaningful results." (Actually, his full quote is: "A good adventure should maximize meaningful player decisions." but you can see how I derived my interpretation.)

The players guide the sandbox a lot more than I let on because that's my job. I'm a con artist. I'm a scammer. I have this great sandbox with all the pieces, but in truth, the players do as much of the building as I do, through the things they do, or the things they don't do. I'm not some improv wizard, if I was, I'd be making money in comedy than being a boring IT manager. When my players make meaningful decisions, I want it have consequences, even if not right away, but it will in the future.

So what constitutes a meaningful decision? Well, that's one of those things that each DM and each player is going to differ on. For me, meaningful decisions involve - where are the players going? How do they interact with the elements of the destination (monsters, important objects)? What do their actions result in? What would be the reaction of all those involved who are not PCs?

Each adventure is not a meaningful decision kind of adventure in a world sense. Sometimes a "kick the door, grab the loot, kill 'em all" is exactly that. That doesn't mean that the weird sword someone grabbed from a kill/loot game now doesn't have meaningful results later on. It could. I planted a magic sword a long time ago and then in a place of Chaos, it shattered. Nobody has asked why, or what to do, or how to pursue it, so it remains open, but there's that potential. I'm not going to beat the players about the head with it, but at the same time, that thread is there. It's a line in my notebook.

This is a long winded way of saying that the two steps ahead thing and the Just In Time creation doesn't have to be about DM skill in crafting worlds - it can be just as simple as letting the players do what they do best and then letting the world react to that. And if you really need inspiration, grab that d12. 1-2, the world reacts badly, 3-5 the world is unhappy, but waiting, 5-7, the world is neutal, doesn't care, 8-10 the world is OK, but wants to see more, 11-12 it's the best outcome for the players' interest. Done. Next!

Whew. OK, JB continues...
And while I WANT my players to be independent and "go off doing their own things," I have a shit-hard time reconciling MULTIPLE players wanting to do DIFFERENT things at once...ESPECIALLY in a campaign world where the "maps" are static, even if the "world" is not.
Uhh, don't. Let them do it. It's not your job. You set the stage. They play in it. If  they want to go in different directions, LET THEM! They'll figure it out, or they won't. Either way, you've done your job and you'll do your job as impartial referee.

Here's yet another example.

I have two main themes in my world - Chaos (the Dark Ones) is on the rise and the Bestials (orcs, goblyns, ko-balds) are wanting to kick human ass. My third theme is "you need gold. Lots of gold. There's riches out there. Go get it." but it's not the main oppositional them.

The first two YEARS of my campaign have seen the players wander from goal to goal. First, they wanted to clear out the monastery. No, they wanted to raid the ancient dwarf mine/kobold outpost. Wait, no, they want to explore the woods and rescue New Hope. No, wait, let's dig through the Inn and find the rumored magic sword. No, wait, wait... there's a second level the dwarf mines. Let's loot it! No, I found a map to a gold mine out in the Plains of Irecia. Let's go there! No, no, we should find my god's holy site! No, the chaos is stronger in the monastery, we have to clear it!

You get the point. :) They've finally focused lately and it shows. They've decided the orcs are too powerful right now and they want to eliminate the nearer threat of the chaos under the monastery.

And that's OK. They wandered, they had a good time, they learned and their skills as players have improved. My skill as a DM has hopefully improved.

Please forgive the length of this post, but there's another aspect I want to explore from JB's reply:
I was writing how they don't work for ME (at least the last three or four I've tried), and how there may be another "primitive" way of playing that still has some merits.
I think it's cool that you guys all do the sandbox thing...I think you have a lot of good tips for a newbie sandboxer like myself. So long as my players get to develop their own characters over time...strange as it might sound (coming from me) that's what I prefer to see more than the development of a campaign "world."
When I read your post yesterday, my goal in the rebuttal was to address the underlying myths that get perpetuated,  you just happened to hit a crap ton of them. There's no way in hell I can judge you for being a good or bad DM unless I play in your game, so I tried to be real careful about not coming at you, but at the underlying themes.

I think all good or skilled DMs have that same approach - allowing the players to develop their characters. I know I do. I'm perfectly happy to let the players farm mustard, go genocidal on the countryside or even let Enonia burn while they set up their own new town. I've been happy to let them figure their world out for the last 28 months because it's been fun, we've all been learning and we all are getting invested in what we do. That's independent of how we construct the world we all play in.

I'd also like to say that there is no primitive way, no better way, no ONETWUEWAY of making a world tick. Sandbox is a tool, just like story telling is another tool. I've happily and liberally stolen as much shit as I can from all the blogs I read and all the games that I've watched or played in. Every DM has their thing that works and their thing that doesn't. I know that each game I walk away from, I feel like there's a dozen things I could do better. I could describe rooms/exits/layouts better. I could set better atmosphere. Hell, my fucking combat rounds sometimes are like keystone kops because I get so excited about fighting that Philotomy's sequence falls out my ass and I can't remember who is doing what. But I try to learn and improve my skills.

We keep coming back to that skill thing - and each style of play takes a skill but I think all these skills can be learned. It may not be easy, but it's worth the attempt, if you're interested. I have about zero interest in running a plot-driven campaign, but I will stick my toe in it now and then to see what I can learn from the experience. If you don't like sandboxes, think they're shit, cool... but I hope you learn something from learning about them. To me, that's no different than trying new video games to learn tricks, or trying a new sport to exercise a different part of the body. I'm a firm believer that if we don't push at the envelope, we don't grow, we don't find new areas to explore - and that at the end of the day is what drives me to do the things I do... to grow, to learn, to learn new things and express the crap in my head in new ways.

Well, if you read all the way through, you're a trooper and thanks for hanging in there.

[1] Not that JB isn't civil, but my experiences in the past haven't been so good on these in other areas, so this was nice that I could say "bullshit" and someone got what I was saying. :)

12 comments:

Will Douglas said...

I was glad to see that your discussion was indeed civil, because I could relate to both positions.

You were each describing how sandbox play actually works for each of you. And I've seen similar things in many games over the years.

I've also, sadly, seen people get way too bent out of shape just because someone else posted an opinion.

I think part of what made this exchange different might be that your viewpoints each come from actual play -- there are a lot of theorists out here, and a lot of times they have deep-seated convictions based on no actual play whatsoever.

So kudos to both of you, for an enlightening discussion and for the civility with which you carried it out.

Let civility reign!


Verification word: lionses Answer to the question: What's that out on the plainses?

Rob Conley said...

Uhh, don't. Let them do it. It's not your job. You set the stage. They play in it. If they want to go in different directions, LET THEM! They'll figure it out, or they won't. Either way, you've done your job and you'll do your job as impartial referee.

The reason this an issue is because many referee have difficulties at managing split parties. Not because they think idea itself is bad. In short if they understood how to handle split parties.

While I agree with your comment it is ultimately unhelpful because there are details that a referee need to learn to manage it.

I think a lot of your readers would be interested in how you manage split parties and asking questions about it.

bliss_infinte said...

Great post and most of your sandbox comments are spot on (at least in my experience).

"the time I spend ends up being more reactive than proactive"

The players are just as much a part of the world creation as the DM which is summed up in your statement above.

As the characters develop, the world develops too but it's a very organic process if you just 'let it be'. Let the players get themselves into enough trouble to last sessions!

I'll have to catch up on the general conversation at B/X but you brought up good points.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Rob - Ah, interesting how you saw his comment implying a split party during play and I saw it as the debate that goes on prior to play.

Let me first say that I have very little real-life experience at split parties beyond them going off in a dungeon in two groups.

Let me also say that my games start and end in "town". There is no "wait, we'll pause in the dungeon or out in the wilderness" stuff. If that happened, I would roll against the Jeff Rient's Table of Terrible Doom. No players have dared it. I like it that way.

I also require the players to have a quorum before I run a game. That means 4 to 8 players and a defined mission. Now they can give me two tracks but I need to know what they're going to do prior to them doing it. That method encourages them to come to some agreement prior to sitting down at the table.

Now if two different parties/groups go in two different directions in the overall campaign, I don't care. So if one group adventures to the monastery on Tuesday, and the other group adventures to the dwarf mines on Sunday, I just run both adventures. I don't run them at the same time, on the same day.

To me, that's not so hard to manage, or even if two groups go to the same place on different days. Just keep notes on what happens and what the outcomes are. If the group on Tuesday stirs up the Chaos in the monastery and the group on Thursday has a random encounter, maybe it's a result of the Tuesday meddlers, maybe not.

I think that may be a key difference in my campaign as well... there's no "party" in that there's an unbreakable group. These guys can hop in, hop out or wander around, as long as there's 4 to 8 of them. Now there's a nucleus of core players that have made reputations and their mark in the game, but the game moving forward doesn't require they all be there. If Mazlor doesn't play this Sunday, the game still goes on, he's just not there. His absence or presence may influence where the party goes for that adventure, but it doesn't "split" things to where I feel like there's two separate campaigns.

I hope I'm explaining this well. Does that make sense what I'm saying?

@Will - thanks! And out on my plainses of Irecia are the orcses who have a planses. Oh yessss, preciousssss ...sssss...

-C said...

Excellent post, The length was no bother.

I agree that the whole sandboxing aspect makes for a longer play experience. It takes a while for players to find their way. It does not mean that they aren't having fun in the meantime.

I also appreciate the addressing of 'it's a ton of work' myth. It certainly is, if you try to lay it out like a traditional 'plotted' game - just like a megadungeon is too much work in the same way.

The players do the work, you track and react and weave - the same skills you'd use in a heavy story based non-combat RPG.

Rick Krebs said...

"because that's my job. I'm a con artist. I'm a scammer..." I get so delighted when "folks" figure out DMing. And, I can't resist adding what Stevie "Guitar" Miller sang, "Cause' I'm a picker, I'm a grinner, I'm a lover, And I'm a sinner ...." Aah the music and games of the 70s.

Arkhein said...

I've enjoyed this back-and-forth. I think one of my favorite parts of sandboxes is what the players can bring to a campaign, without even trying to. I can toss a bunch of random things at them and they know it's a bunch of random things - they see me roll for them - but they will do what is natural and try to make sense out of the events - try to get a handle on them. For example - the party was attacked by a randomly generated dragon in the wilderness. Now they refuse to walk directly on the roads because they are sure the dragon they escaped from is after them. They have built up a whole mythos for this dragon, without me having to lift a finger. They've even decided what territory he claims. The current dungeon they are exploring? That has to lead to the dragon's lair. In their minds, anyway. I don't want a TPK just yet. :) But who knows - I might just end the dungeon that way. I just don't know what is in store because the dungeon is random too. I have no idea what will happen - or how - and that makes it all the more exciting for me. That excitement rubs off on the players, and this whole cyclical excitement feedback loop chugs along. I'm very happy I rediscovered this way to play - the linear 'lead by the nose' method got old quick.

- Ark

- Ark

JB said...

@ Chgowiz: I’m a civil guy by nature. I don’t rant at individual people (usually). Life’s really too short for that!
: )

So, yeah, it’s starting to appear that I DON’T have a good handle on sandbox play…or, at least, EFFICENT/EFFECTIVE sandbox play. What you’re describing is…well, pretty weird from my perspective. It sounds like (and feel free to correct me if I’m off-base here):

1) Your primary creative agenda is a SIMULATIONIST one.
2) Your adventures consist of your own neat ideas heavily influenced by “riffing” off player suggestion (specifically in the form of their “meaningful decisions,” i.e. choosing directions to go and actual action taken).
3) You have a very loose set of world parameters (the “campaign world” is in an on-going state of development in response to your players’ exploration of said world).
4) You have fairly tight parameters on what players can and can’t do (for example, requiring a quorum, not running separate adventures simultaneously, not running “in-town/in-kingdom” adventures).

If this is correct, the disagreement might simply be due to us NOT being on the same page with the kind of games we run.

1) My primary creative agenda is a GAMIST one…I want to throw challenges at the players and force them to overcome or get stomped. I would never, ever run a “mustard merchant” campaign.
2) At the same time, if I’m going to force players to play “high adventure” (i.e. if I’m going to force my agenda on the players at the table), I’m not really interested in having them “work for it.” That is to say that while I DO like “in-town” adventures, combing the taverns for rumors of adventure is NOT “adventure” in and of itself. It’s simulationist padding that I could give a rat’s ass about.
3) Here’s where the “hard work” then comes in: I (me, the DM) am keeping a TIGHT reign over what’s going on by trying to keep an ACTIVE WORLD that has PLENTY OF DRAMA to STIMULATE THE PLAYERS INTO ACTION. You wait for the players to go back to the ko-bald lair before determining what’s moved in and taken over…I’M spending my waking nights trying to figure out what the consequences of them cleaning out the place is, REGARDLESS of whether they go back or not! My (imperfect) understanding of the “sandbox DM’s role” led me to believe I needed to keep these loose ends going…even when they were superfluous to the actions being taken by the PCs.
4) Furthermore I had LOOSE parameters on what the PCs could do…basically “the sky was the limit.” Again, this comes out of my origins as a serial/episodic DM. Telling players they can do anything (without boundaries) makes the “tight” world management an impossible task…or at least one that strains ME (the DM) to the point of burn-out.

YOU say that what I’m doing is perpetuating “myths” about sandbox play. I’m telling you: they ain’t myths; these are WHAT HAPPENS when *I* run a sandbox. Perhaps these negatives would NOT happen were I to run a sandbox campaign in YOUR style; but that’s not what I’ve been doing (to date).

You grok what I’m saying?
: )

ChicagoWiz said...

@JB

Man, I'm sorry, but I didn't grok most of that. I recognized the words "gamist" and "simulationist" and had a flashback when I attempted to read the stuff on Forge and promptly fell asleep. I'm pretty familiar with labels and such, but I'm not grokking where you're going because I think we're still not hearing each other maybe?

Let me try by answering your questions.

1) Your primary creative agenda is a SIMULATIONIST one.

Uhh, if I use the label as defined on Wikipedia's GNS Theory page, I guess? My "creative agenda" is to create a world, plop the players down and let them and I discover where the world is going to go. If they and I create a little havoc now and then, it's all good. I'm not into creating drama and conflict just for the sake of conflict itself, but when things are done, I'll present situations that do go beyond hack/slash. Actions do have consequences.

But I also gotta be honest, and this is totally on me - I'm really disinterested in the whole theory of gaming. I know, it probably makes me a shitty DM, but at the end of the day, I feel my way through a good game. It's like a mechanic who "knows" how the engine should sound, and the mechanic who has all the doo-dads and gizmos and latest theories and shit -- both get to where they want to go.

2) Your adventures consist of your own neat ideas heavily influenced by “riffing” off player suggestion (specifically in the form of their “meaningful decisions,” i.e. choosing directions to go and actual action taken).

Yes and no. "Heavily influenced" only if the players have made contributions or done things to affect the world, but my adventures can spawn independent of their decisions, but the outcome and the way it goes is indeed heavily influenced by their actions.

There are some things that I've put in place that happen whether or not the players get there, or when they get there. Those are things like what my NPCs are doing, what certain BBEG's are doing, and so on.

Not sure that's the same thing as what you're saying?

3) You have a very loose set of world parameters (the “campaign world” is in an on-going state of development in response to your players’ exploration of said world).

I have a set of what I call "broad brush strokes" that serve as a framework. When the players get to those points, then they become well defined. There are also things that happen that are things I develop - like the world map. Like how some religions work. Sometimes I'll add some extra meat because it occurs to me.

4) You have fairly tight parameters on what players can and can’t do (for example, requiring a quorum, not running separate adventures simultaneously, not running “in-town/in-kingdom” adventures).

Yes, and that's an important distinction - player/social guidelines vs. what the characters can do. I think tight parameters over a small area is probably where I'd go.

I'm curious that you made a distinct of "running separate adventures simultaneously" and I'm not sure what you mean. During the same session, as in if there's 8 players, 3 go to A, 3 go to B and 2 go to C? It's not a "feature" that happens a lot, but I do that within a broad context, like within the same dungeon or town. If 4 want to go to Irecia and 4 want to go south past Valenia, no, I don't do that. Is that what you meant?

(continued next comment)

ChicagoWiz said...

1) My primary creative agenda is a GAMIST one…I want to throw challenges at the players and force them to overcome or get stomped. I would never, ever run a “mustard merchant” campaign.

There are challenges in my world and there are things that will stomp them if they don't do something about it. The Chaos at the monastery and the Bestials. These are threats that the players could ignore, but it would catch up to them. If my players farmed mustard, at some point, chaos will turn it into mustard gas and orcs will be sleeping in their beds. That's a living world.

2) At the same time, if I’m going to force players to play “high adventure” (i.e. if I’m going to force my agenda on the players at the table), I’m not really interested in having them “work for it.” That is to say that while I DO like “in-town” adventures, combing the taverns for rumors of adventure is NOT “adventure” in and of itself. It’s simulationist padding that I could give a rat’s ass about.

Uhhh... lots of big words. I feel the presence of Joesky :)

Force an agenda? Man, that's a bit squishy for me. I don't think my players feel 'forced' to do anything. Are you saying I force my players? Cause man, the only thing I 'force' them to do is abide by the rules and guidelines we've got and don't force their fun at the expense of someone else's. If you mean in the game, as in "You must go questing for Princess Fiona, there is no other option today." well, fuck no, that's not me.

And rumor gathering is role playing, but I don't see rumor gathering as the sum total of my session. If I pulled that on those guys and gals, I'd have 400 page OSRIC bricks being thrown at me.

3) Here’s where the “hard work” then comes in: I (me, the DM) am keeping a TIGHT reign over what’s going on by trying to keep an ACTIVE WORLD that has PLENTY OF DRAMA to STIMULATE THE PLAYERS INTO ACTION.

Here's the part we can discuss - I don't need a tight rein to keep an active world. I don't think it's necessary. Sandboxes can have plenty of drama - it's up to me to make sure I put drama in place. Then I react to what the players do or don't do.

You wait for the players to go back to the ko-bald lair before determining what’s moved in and taken over…I’M spending my waking nights trying to figure out what the consequences of them cleaning out the place is, REGARDLESS of whether they go back or not!

Why? I may do it for the hell of it, but in my experience, it's not necessary. The players don't know and I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't mind even if they did know.

Can I take a stab at something? You were putting forth those definitions earlier. It sounds like, to me, you were trying to simulate a living world in a sandbox... when I think I do mine in more of the gamist manner, if I'm understanding how you're using the definitions.

Meh, that's probably not even close, so forget it.

(continued next comment)

ChicagoWiz said...

4) Furthermore I had LOOSE parameters on what the PCs could do…basically “the sky was the limit.” Again, this comes out of my origins as a serial/episodic DM. Telling players they can do anything (without boundaries) makes the “tight” world management an impossible task…or at least one that strains ME (the DM) to the point of burn-out.

Oh, I get it. You thought you had to nail every loose end down, and instead of just hopping on the bike and going out and seeing where you end up, you plotted every course outta town, then wondered if the players were going to construct a Star Trek transporter (which they would).

"The tighter your grasp, the more systems will slip through your fingers."

Can I make a suggestion? The next time you want to do a sandbox, grab a piece of hex paper and do the microlite20 campaign hex map system. Each hex is an adventure, an episode. Agree with your guys that they go no further than 1 hex, whatever that means. Fuck, make it scale-less. Make it as loose as possible. 7 hexes. That's the limit of your planning. Have 3 "places" that are easy hooks, have 3 that are not. That's it. See what happens?

Don't tightly manage, think of your hexes like episodes. If you start planning outside of those 7 hexes before the players are done, smack your hand. Put down the pencil and go paint minis or something. :D

I know, we're just yakking here and it's cool. My stomping on the myths wasn't a reflection of YOU, but I wanted to say "no, that's not how all sandboxes are, and they don't have to be that way."

But you know what, like I was saying in the post, it's also about what you're skilled at. Shit, not every game I run is a sandbox, but I know what I like and what I'm good at... and like Jeff and I agree, not every game has to be one nor is it the be-all, end all.

JB said...

@ Chgo: Sorry...didn't get a chance to read your responses till just now.

Forget the "Forgey-Speak;" that's more for MY benefit (explaining it to myself so *I* can understand it) anyway. No, I don't think "game theory" is necessary to be a good DM...even as it's not necessary to have an "Business Management" degree to be a good manager (or a college education to be a good officer on the battlefield). Forget all that noise.

However, it's useful to you, after reading your explanation, I think you're "plenty gamist" (if that's a good thing in your book...to me, it's just a "thing").

OTHER than that, you've understood most of what I wrote with the exception that I don't think YOU "force your agenda" on your players...I think *I* do! That part was about me...but "force" is probably too strong a word (we set up campaigns in our particular styles and players respond...or they wouldn't bother showing up to the table).

Anyway...yeah, I think I need to take everything down about a thousand notches. Right now, I'm actually in the middle of turning the old B2 module into a mini-sandbox campaign. We'll see if it ever gets larger than the wilderness map in the module.
: )