Sunday, January 24, 2010

Castles made of sand, stories made from threads of many colours

A few days ago I read a very enlightening piece over on the blog Playing D&D With Pornstars. He writes about the way the "work ethic" of the rogue drives play, and gets the character into troubles and adventure.

As you might remember, I posted about how I had a bad experience of my players ignoring the hooks to adventure I dangled before them. This about a work ethic made me think.

I really think you can have a good and solid game which feels interactive, even if the GM have a story to tell. I also think that having a open sandbox sounds like it's liberating, but it comes with its own set of problems not advertised on the box.

One suggestion from in one of the comments to my post lamenting my experiences with adventure hooks has the key. Imagine a campaign where the outlines of the world are prepared, and there are forces at work in the setting. This will lay some groundwork for greater machinations going on behind the scenes. Now imagine how those machinations will manifest themselves on a concrete level, visible to the players. This is an adventure hook.

This makes me think of how Dogs in the Vineyard works. The players have a town in front of them, and if the go there they will be entangled in the webs of intrigue and the twisted relationships there. Also, whatever they do will have consequences.

If the GM wants to have epic stories play out in his world, this is how they evolve. Great changes are afoot, and if the characters interact with the results of those changes the players will help shape the future. The GM will decide how much he lets the players shape until they have stepped up their game to the global level.

Let's imagine for an instant that the players ignore that town, ripe with sin and glorious options for kicking ass. If there are more things going on in the world there will be more things happening soon which will hit the fan close to where the characters are standing. This is another adventure hook.

Our hard working GM might be a bit frustrated by now if the players don't take that hook. No worries. Keep moving your "story" along, and if you don't decide to kick out your players for not doing their job (go ahead and do it!) things will happen they can't ignore. Bring 10 000 orchs to their hometown.

What I'm imagining here is not a Sandbox as such, at least not the way it sounds like when its praises are sung on old school blogs. I don't think it's a railroaded Story campaign either. I suggest a new term is founded to express the idea of a campaign frame where there are a Story fuelling conflicts in the setting, an open world whereupon the players can leave their mark and finally a whole bundle of threads which tie into the bigger issues that they players can ignore as long as they take some of these threads and start weaving. I'd like to call it a Threaded Campaign, as a middle ground between the open Sandbox and the Story Campaign.

I realize I might misrepresent some of your holy cows here. Some is for emphasis, but I think my main thrust is interesting. Feel free to comment upon that, and other thoughts you have.


  1. If 10,000 orcs show up on the PC's home town, then no big deal, they flee with all the other refugee's or die.

    The nature of a sandbox isn't that bigger things aren't going on, its that it isn't the PC's destiny to thwart them.

    Picture a sandbox game of 1939 France. The Nazi's are coming, the PC's can fight them. If they don't, it doesn't mean they die and lose and should be kicked out for not playing the game.

    It means they can flee to Spain and then book it to Haiti and live out the war as mobsters and ignore the hook about massive and epic battles. If something big happens in Haiti they can leave again and keep "ignoring the hooks". And the only way to stop that is to really railroad them, to hold them down and jab the hook in their cheek and say "now play my game damnit!"

    A simpler solution would be to just, you know, be honest with your fellow players from the get go and treat them like adults.

    "This is a game about fighting the Nazi's in WWII, you have to fight the Nazi's, once you decide thats no fun the game is really over cause that is what I feel like running"

    The idea of hooks always strikes me as dishonest in MOST (not all) cases. Just be honest and tell players "You can go wherever you want, but the only game Im running is in this direction"

  2. It's kind of is what I ended up with my last post. I think the procedure above is how most games really play out. Like you said, the honest way would be to say that the game is "religious lawmen", "fighting the Nazi's in WWII" or something like that.

    So, the puzzle I have been trying to resolve the last few posts is how that happens. I guess the solution is Social Contract.

    It is good news I guess, since it means that sandbox play actually don't have anything at all to do with old school games. Sometimes they are used for sandbox play, but it's not anything inherent in those games. Hmmm.

  3. this sounds to me what actually a sandbox should be. The DM should make things move. the players should move the pc. The evil empire invades (nazi germany, hobgoblin warparties, whathever) the players either react to it (let's flee the country), let things go unhindered (i guess we can live under the heel of an evil empire), or just become "smart" and proactive (we can try to murder their leader to stop the invasion or slow it).

    The real point is that we should take notice that the traditional player role of "stirring up the status quo in the campaign" is now also a responsibility of the GM.

    Consequences of changing the status quo are what make sandboxes interesting, but if the players don't want to change things, the world will keep on moving around them.

  4. In my current 4e campaign I've given my players an outline of the basic campaign world, then used a character survey to generate specific background from my players. I've taken material they provided and generated hooks that I've then planted in the game world. I'll run it sandbox style, letting them choose their paths, but the hooks are personalized. Hopefully this will make the hooks more attractive, and thus keep the players interested in playing along with me.

  5. Yeah I guess it sounds like how a sandbox should be. Maybe it's just been misrepresented?

  6. anarkeith,

    That sounds how I envision adventure hooks working, in a non intrusive way.

    Sounds like my fumbling around in the dark might have rediscovered some ways its actually done. Go figure.

  7. I think an elegant way of merging the open nature of the sandbox with the dramatic potential of scripted plots is to prepare different plot strands running in parallel and to advance those that the players are not dealing with.

    Imagine the PC starting location threatened by three or more separate entities - say an orc horde planning a raid, an evil wizard creating undead and lycanthropes being spotted in a nearby forest. All these are largely level-appropriate challenges. You dangle these as adventure hooks in front of the players and run and conclude the one they go for, or feed them random encounters or little set pieces if they decide to just go walkabout.

    Meanwhile, time passes and all the remaining threats get worse: The orc horde swells in numbers and stages raids on outlieing farms; the evil wizard creates a wraith; the lycanthropes nab a few villagers that become infected themselves etc.

    Again, the players get a choice of which threat to deal with, the other ones get worse (in step with the PCs getting more powerful). Rinse and repeat until the sole remaining threat is strong enough to attack the PCs or their home base, concluding the campaign in a climactic battle.

    This gives the players free choice while providing a dynamic campaign environment that nonetheless has a built-in climax.

  8. I think you express roughly what I meant to convey, Jorunkun.

    These last posts about sandboxes have been a bit rough and stream of consciousness. Much of how I see this is still fermenting, but I needed to get it out of my head somehow. Sadly, it meant I wasn't as clear on communicating my ideas as I would have liked.

    Apparently I have rediscovered some of the way people actually play.

    I still think it hasn't come across much in the sandbox discussion online. Maybe I've missed it.

    I still like the idea of the "threaded" campaign. :)

  9. Well, I think your "10.000 orcs" comment is easy to misunderstand, like you're saying "of course you're free not to take my plot, but I'll pull some random uber-enemy out of nowhere if you if you don't".

    Of course throwing uber-enemies at our players is what a good GM does, but I guess the sandbox paradigm is that a) the orcs must have been there all along and b) the players should have a fair chance of knowing or at least guessing the consequence of their choices for it to be fair.

    At any rate, good post - and agree that there is surprisingly little deeper thinking on sandboxes and what kind of plots they can bring forth. Speaking of which, the term "emergent" may be closer to the kind of plots you are looking for than "threaded". It's not just about having parallel plot lines in a static sandbox environment, but to interweave plot strands and have them change in response to what the players (don't) do.

    Btw, check out "The Vault of Larin Karr"; it's the closest I've seen a published adventure come to the sandbox-with-plot ideal.

  10. Emergent is a good word. Thanks!

    I agree that those orcs should have been that from the start. You should definitely be able to guess the consequences of character actions on some scale. I guess muddled thinking resulted in some muddled writing. I am working with this, though.

    I guess I have to check out "The Vault of Larin Karr" after all. I've heard much good about it.


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