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Title: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on September 25, 2008, 07:02:16 PM
Over on Craig's site the topic of "Sand Box Adventures" was brought up.  For this discussion the term meant game modules, adventures, story arcs, etc. where the GM was simply given a well described/mapped setting and the players "play" within this setting making of it what they will (like an old school dungeon exploration).

Last summer, during a run of my Century's Edge game I tried to develop one of these "sand box" adventures.  This was a little out of my nature (I tend to like plot-driven stories/adventures as a GM).  The adventure was entitled "Son of Nemo" (remember my game's set on a Victorian Earth).  The basic synopsis was that the players were celebrating the launch of one character's "upper atmospheric weather observation station" (called "The Jacob's Ladder").  Through a espoused prologue and other events they learn of an escaped mental patient and come to find him stowed away (he was thought to be crazy because he believed in "atmospheric beasts" -invisible creatures living in the air.  This was a real 1800s phenomenon, and used by Lovecraft...I know.  Back to the point...).  Well, of course, the mental patient in a deranged attempt to prove the existence of the air creatures sabotages the station and takes it up too high.  The players fight to keep it together but finally have to succumb to the rescue of a strange airship (using anti-gravity "cavorite" material from Wells's The First Men in the Moon).  Long and short, the whole lot of them are taken to a floating palace and subject under the protection of Sultan Quisquis (who they later learn is the remorseful prodigal son of the now dead Captain Nemo).  The situation was a total homage to 20,000 Leagues, with the main contingency being that the PCs were ultimately captives and needed to escape, "but how?..."

When I wrote this adventure out I made full maps of everything, detailed all the pieces of the fortress and Quisquis men/court.  I placed within it a wide collection of characters and conflicts that could be resolved (for instance, there were a set of Congo natives at the palace that were being treated as second class citizens.  There was a harem of women being held by the sultan against their will in a well-guarded part of the complex, there were all sorts of mysterious technologies being implemented by the sultan that the players would want to muck around with -like the cavorite and the Herakleophorbia formula from the "Food of the Gods" book).  On top of that, there was a series of a half dozen "happenings" that would stir the players to some kind of action if the session began to bog down -for example there were stop-overs in the African savanna for a safari, prison rescues of individuals Quisquis wanted from Devil's Island, experiments gone wild, an actual run in with the atmospheric beasts, even mysterious murders (did I mention one of the Jack the Ripper suspects was working as a surgeon on Quisquis fortress?).

So I got all this stuff and my players are all unleashed and doing all sorts of stuff on this place, and though there are lots of great moments of discovery and action, there is never a moment in which it seems like the adventure should climax.  We played this one for around 2 months, and even though the PCs devised some explosives and a general plan to escape, they never once attempted to and never broke the "laws of the land" to the extent that I could justify the Sultan sentencing one of them to death (which might have triggered their escape plans).  I finally had Dr. Gull (Jack) frame the PC doctor for the murder/disfigurement of a harem woman and set him to be executed.  But instead of a rescue/escape attempt, the PCs decided to work through the problem of proving their friend's innocence and confronting Dr. Gull so they could stay aboard the palace.  At that point I'm like d*mn!  Finally by the end of the second month I had an experiment of Quisquis run a muck and destroy the fortress causing the PCs to HAVE to escape.  It was a sensible ending and tied up some of the loose strings as it was played out but did not have the resonance I wanted after all the great vignettes played out prior to the end.

Now, I forced the hand -you can tell that I'm too plot-centric as a GM.  But, is there a good way to bring a "Sand Box" adventure to a culmination?  Or do they always risk the dead pan ending?  I've played in several and ran several (especially all the old D&D stuff) and this seems like a pattern for this type of game.  I am wanting to redo this adventure and offer it on my website, but I almost feel like it is broke as-is. Like there is nothing to put before the final period of the thing.  Am I making any sense?  Maybe its enough for the PCs to have toyed around (the game was by no means a disappointment, but I could tell the players were ready for a change of setting -and I wasn't going to wait for them to get bored and THEN start working toward it).  Is an ending in gaming that important?  I sort of think it is...  How would/have you written the ending to a Sand Box adventure?

Louis Hoefer
Whole Sum Entertainment


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Vulpinoid on September 25, 2008, 09:35:05 PM
I tend to run short stories, over a session or two, or sandbox play.

The thing I love about "Sandbox" adventures is that they can go anywhere, and everything comes down to the actions of the players. Places are designed, relation maps are laid out, agendas are deployed...then the characters are let loose.

I always try to ensure that in the background, there are events constantly underway. Stories that arc through the exploration in those vignette scenes, each momentary glimpse of the larger picture takes the back-story a step closer to resolution (or prolongs the effects, depending on the characters action/inaction).

Allowing the players to make decisions of their own, they can choose to affect the destiny of the world...and if they don't, the intertwined stories will unfold in a way that you've predetermined.

Villains will move toward completion of their grand goals, allies will aim toward thwarting them.

But one of the things many people have troubles with in Sandbox play is the notion that carefully crafted background plot may not be intersected by the exploration of the players. A story might unfold in the southern part of town when the predefined story is meant to occur in the north. The great scenes might revolve around development of character, rather than development of plot.

This is one of the talking points regarding the season finale for season 4 of the new Doctor Who. Heaps of background development, heaps of intersecting storylines...some would say that there is the presence of too many lesser characters...others would say that dormant parts of the mythos should have been left to rest in peace. While the episode had many detractors due to a mish-mash of plots, it had just as many critics praising it for the depth of characterisation and the revelations it brought to the screen.

Not all finales have to be about the conclusion of an epic plot. It's just as valid to wind things up by resolving a piece of character tension for each of the PCs...possibly to help lay out the groundwork for a later campaign, or even just to give a sense of closure to the players.

Well defined characters will always have something lacking about them, an area where they need improvement, a regret that they need to face, or something similar. Perhaps these issues have come up during the course of play, or maybe they were written into the character from the outset.

Either way, when the fire of the campaign has died and many of the players feel it's time to move on, it's probably a good idea to give a countdown. This week we're having the penultimate session, and next week we wind everything up. Consider the characters and the things they've encountered along the way. If you can weave them together in some way, good work. If you can weave them into one of the background stories that was encountered but never resolved, then that's even better.

End it with a bang, end it with a cliffhanger that pulls a new sense of focus to the setting (consider the ending to "lock-stock-and-two-smoking-barrels"), just don't let players get tired of it.

This isn't an easy way out, it takes a bit of work; but it will certainly make the campaign more memorable. If you pull it off right, you can even kill off all the characters and the players will thank you for a great campaign.





Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: NN on September 26, 2008, 01:23:34 AM
In an "old-school D&D sandbox" the reward system is telling the players "Get xp and gp. Go clobber the monsters (or the good guys!)". Generally theres a hierachy of monsters and sites, and the "climax" is pasting the nastiest monster.  Id think about rewards and perhaps a different metaphor.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on September 26, 2008, 05:49:22 AM
I always try to ensure that in the background, there are events constantly underway. Stories that arc through the exploration in those vignette scenes, each momentary glimpse of the larger picture takes the back-story a step closer to resolution (or prolongs the effects, depending on the characters action/inaction).

This is exactly how I set this thing up.  Lots of sub plots whose basic beat amounted to “Sultan Quisquis is a narcissistic tyrant who runs by an ethical code that is contra to the player’s mores and culture.”  There were at least 4 sub plots going, each of which were delved into by the players, but they never wanted to push any of them to the point of making them “boil over.”  A for instance is the “damsels in distress” sub plot where the players learn of the Sultans harem of captive women (most of which were “paid to him” by other rulers for his help/intercession).  They go through this whole sequence where they are awaken in the middle of the night to find a shadowy form being chase through the palace gardens by the sultan’s elite men.  They go to investigate learning the form is a woman (the first one they had ran into during their month on the palace).  She explains that she was traded to the sultan by her father for help rescuing him from a Siberian prison (she’s Russian).  They learn from her that part of the “off limits” area in the palace is a tower containing the captive women.  She begs for their help in escaping but a new thrush of elite guards intervenes and takes her away from the players.  The Sultan summons them to his court the next day and explains to them how the woman is his rightful property and that the women must be locked up for their own safety (that the lesser guards would do unsavory things to them should they find out about them/be given access to them).  With this the players were willing to “leave it alone until later.” 

Now, these are good players and they typically play in character, but I almost think that they were having too much fun dabbling in other parts of the game to push a resolution for any one conflict.  Perhaps they were developing their own characters…  I don’t know.  Maybe the issue is that as a GM I wanted to take my characters (NPCs, setting, plots) and develope them beyond what the characters had explored…

Allowing the players to make decisions of their own, they can choose to affect the destiny of the world...and if they don't, the intertwined stories will unfold in a way that you've predetermined.

This was the reason I put these background plots in, I guess maybe the game needed one outlying plot that was a “world is at risk –must take action now” sort of pot just to use as a back up

But one of the things many people have troubles with in Sandbox play is the notion that carefully crafted background plot may not be intersected by the exploration of the players. A story might unfold in the southern part of town when the predefined story is meant to occur in the north. The great scenes might revolve around development of character, rather than development of plot.

This was a big factor.  Now I want to market this game (not for sell, but for free on my site as a reason for people to buy the rules, and as a reward for doing so, etc…).  How do you help narrators (through the adventure write up) deal with multiple “plot starters” that can be used/connected in multiple ways to build the game to a satisfying finish.  Or how do you help the narrator to understand that the players just exploring and satisfying their own interests is enough of a culmination for the game.  I thought maybe some kind of storyboard flowchart with “emergency exits” (do this to bring the game to a climax now –i.e. “Have the experiment run amuck and damage the hydrogen-fueled power generator”)

Either way, when the fire of the campaign has died and many of the players feel it's time to move on, it's probably a good idea to give a countdown. This week we're having the penultimate session, and next week we wind everything up. Consider the characters and the things they've encountered along the way. If you can weave them together in some way, good work. If you can weave them into one of the background stories that was encountered but never resolved, then that's even better.  

I could have been better with this.  I should have firmly said, “Hey guys there are other places in Century Earth to explore than just Quisquis’s palace.  Let’s make this our final session and I’ll five bonus Plot Points to anyone who ties up any of the lose ends we have floating around.”

End it with a bang, end it with a cliffhanger that pulls a new sense of focus to the setting (consider the ending to "lock-stock-and-two-smoking-barrels"), just don't let players get tired of it.

This I did.  The palace began crumbling apart and the players narrowly escaped leaving off stranded in the middle of the Amazon Plateau (the jungle from Doyle’s Dino-thriller The Lost World).  Now the trick is communicating how to do this to narrators who run this sand box adventure –though you sound like you wouldn’t need any help there are many GMs who would, a non-linear game seems to challenge a lot of them, but it shouldn’t.  Even with me, the game ended and had a climax of sorts, but seemed lacking compared to my more linear-plot games.  This is true of most sand box games I’ve ran.  Is it just the nature of the beast though?

Louis Hoefer
Whole Sum Entertainment


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on September 26, 2008, 05:54:41 AM
In an "old-school D&D sandbox" the reward system is telling the players "Get xp and gp. Go clobber the monsters (or the good guys!)". Generally theres a hierachy of monsters and sites, and the "climax" is pasting the nastiest monster.  Id think about rewards and perhaps a different metaphor.  

I will give you that the old D&D games seemed centric on XP and Gold, but if played under the right Creative Agenda its Sand Box adventures usually climaxed with some out-right siege on a "goblin race" or their master (the nastiest monster).  I've only been in a few hack-n-slash D&D groups and found them to be the exception to the standard for the D&D games I've been it.  Still, your point is taken, that finding the "metaphor" for "rewards" is important if you are going to draw a group through one of these games into a finale.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on September 29, 2008, 07:46:00 AM
Well, after toying with it for a while, I think I may write this game up more like a gazetteer then my traditional “Chapter/Scene format” adventures.  I would just insert the subplots in their own section and reference them in the write ups for the personalities of Quisquis’s palace and the map keys.  At the end of the “book” I could then have a section that story boards how the subplots would intersect and a few suggested points of “Climax.”  I still think there’s probably a better layout out there for a sandbox-style game…I just haven’t run into/come up with it. 

I also sill believe that sandbox-style games seem to lack climactic appeal.  Is there anyone out there that can refute this?  Is there a particular sandbox game you’ve played where the end of the sessions felt like a “high note” and wrapped up a lot of the loose ends?  If so, do you attribute this to the skills of the narrator, the movement of the players, or was there something about how the adventure was laid out/prepared that aided in it having this sort of finish (this is my target fellas, how can I, as a writer, produce a sandbox game that is more likely to result in a nice climax for most GMs…)

Louis Hoefer
www.wholesumentertainment.com (http://www.wholesumentertainment.com)


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Markus on September 30, 2008, 09:20:28 AM
Hi Hoefer, I'm writing this to give you a quick answer to your main question, which is the following:

I also sill believe that sandbox-style games seem to lack climactic appeal.  Is there anyone out there that can refute this?  Is there a particular sandbox game you’ve played where the end of the sessions felt like a “high note” and wrapped up a lot of the loose ends?  If so, do you attribute this to the skills of the narrator, the movement of the players, or was there something about how the adventure was laid out/prepared that aided in it having this sort of finish (this is my target fellas, how can I, as a writer, produce a sandbox game that is more likely to result in a nice climax for most GMs…)

The problem lies here IMHO:

For this discussion the term meant game modules, adventures, story arcs, etc. where the GM was simply given a well described/mapped setting and the players "play" within this setting making of it what they will (like an old school dungeon exploration).

Well, according to my experience, the above elements are indeed not enough to guarantee "climactic appeal". I'd also say that with only the above elements (just a situation basically), I'd struggle to collaborate with my fellow players towards the creation of what I call "a story", as opposed to "a series of events". This is valid, IMHO, regardless of the complexity/detail/coolness of the setting/situation. Reading your posts, I suspect that you link (as I do) "climactic appeal" to the emergence of "story". So the big question is, what are the minimal elements you need to add to those you mentioned above to have "story" instead of an endless (and pointless, for my own personal esthetics) sequence of events? My personal answer is: characters who have conflicts hardwired to them. The resolution of *those* conflicts will provide the climaxes you're searching for, *regardless of the actual emerging 'plot'*.

Nothing terribly new I'm afraid, but it really works for me!

bye

M

P.S: I'm unsure, however, if by "climactic end" you mean a *nearly simultaneous* resolution of all the issues for all characters, in the same session. In this case, I'm not sure about how to help you.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on September 30, 2008, 12:14:36 PM
My personal answer is: characters who have conflicts hardwired to them. The resolution of *those* conflicts will provide the climaxes you're searching for, *regardless of the actual emerging 'plot'*.

Your take on this (endless/pointless sequesnce of events) is exactly where I'm coming from.  "Personal, hardwired conflicts" may indeed help.  How would you develop this for a game you were writing that could be played by any group of gamers?  Perhaps the intro to the "module" should include a some kind of plot-card gimmick that tells the players(based maybe on their character's Archetype) what it is they need to accomplish by the final "Chapter" of the adventure...  This seems stilted though.  One option the system offers is that each character has a list of Archetype goals set up by the player and the narrator that must complete to continue advancing "Ranks" in their Archetype.  Maybe there should be some allusion in the "module" to having the narrator rework the goals for the characters going on this adventure to focus on issues that would work towards a climax.  This might be a valueable part to setting up a sandbox adventure that ends climatically.

P.S: I'm unsure, however, if by "climactic end" you mean a *nearly simultaneous* resolution of all the issues for all characters, in the same session. In this case, I'm not sure about how to help you.

That is the problem.  This game really played out like 20,000 leagues (as it was supposed to) -up to the end where it sort of fell flat.  If I were writing a novel, I could control the character's actions to bring it to a head all at once.  In a "sandbox" RPG this doesn't work so well.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: E on September 30, 2008, 05:46:22 PM
It feel like that a sandbox and a scripted finale are kind of opposed design goals. Since the players play in the sandbox, maybe they should have the tools to trigger the big finale. If I was a player in a sandbox game I would want the big finale to be directly about the events I have triggered or influenced as a character.

I must say that I have never played in a sandbox game that offered me something different from a standard scenario, except a unfocused still scripted story. When I was playing this kind of game I wish I had more tools to experiment and to play with the setting. 

When I was playing Morrowind Elder Scrolls III, I dint really like how the main plot was used, it felt like a different game was placed in the sandbox. I wish I could have used some tool to put the spotlight on different plot elements, characters, locations, etc and see how they interact together and how I could have an impact with those element using my character.

If I have to choose between a good scenario or a sandbox who in the end will have to be played like a standard scripted game, I think I would maybe choose to play the well scripted game. I don't want to play a sandbox game that need to feel like a scripted scenario in the end. But what is a satisfying sandbox game ending? I don't know, I need more gameplay experience with sandbox games to have a good idea of what I would like or want in the end.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Vulpinoid on September 30, 2008, 06:30:40 PM
The worst "sandbox" style games that I've run are during the period when I was the main GM for an ongoing live-action campaign based in a modern gothic world.

The worst issue here was that half of the players expected a good climax to a story, while the other half wanted to keep roleplaying the minutiae of their characters daily lives in this alternate setting. Looking back on it now with a bit more experience and a new lexicon of terms to draw on, I guess it was a conflict of narrativist and simulationist goals.

Those who wanted to tell a good story resented the fact that those who wanted to keep their characters were always thwarting any storylines that evolved the world toward a climax.

Those who wanted to get into the psychological depths of their character resented the fact that there were other players pushing the dynamics of the world before they had fully explored their characters responses to this part of it.

In the end, we started developing a dual play concept, where players could exist in their normal lives and role-play the aspects of their day-to-day lives with bizarre powers and weaknesses. But all the while, hints were dropped about things that lay in the shadows. Players who picked up on these hints, and who actively made decisions regarding the backstory, would be offered the chance to become lured into sinister plots and more dramatic moments.

In this way, the players were offered the decision whether to continue the sandbox exploration, or whether to step up to the narrative aspects. Players were also encouraged to develop their own hidden agendas which could sweep other players up into narrative arcs of their own.

Based on my experiences, I'd have to agree with Evlyn here. The two goals can seem opposed. One style seems to be based on the narrative control of the GM, the other style seems to be based on the exploratory drive of the players. Earlier comments I made about players intersecting the backstory developed by the GM are still valid in this context. I guess it all depends how open the players and GM are to creative freedom.

If the GM is too focused on getting their story across, then sandbox play just isn't really an option. It may be called sandbox play, but it really just a loose form of narrative that gradually constricts the players into a pre-meditated story.

If the players are too focused on exploring the world and ignoring any hints, then the GM is just going to get frustrated that his concepts are being ignored.

Neither of these are conducive to enjoyable sessions.

This all links back into social contracts; written, verbal, or even instinctive. If the collective is interested in telling stories with a climax, then the basis of the game can come from a sandbox style where pieces are gathered through exploration of the world. There is no problem with that concept, as long as everyone is aware that this is how the sessions of play will proceed. It exists somewhere between the two extremes of linear narrative and open exploration, but it's a happy medium where I've found quite a few enjoyable moments and sessions.

Of course, the biggest problem is getting the collective to agree on anything. That's where the ongoing live campaigns with 40+ players had their biggest issues...

V


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: opsneakie on October 14, 2008, 02:05:55 AM
Well, sandboxing can be a fun time, but it does usually prevent anything from going the DM's way. If you have a big final fight planned out, the players might just skip out on it to beat up some villagers, and there's nothing you can do about it. However, I think you can hit a happy medium between scripting and sandboxy.

In advance: ok, ok, I know I seem to be the only one who does this, but I think it leads to really fun and engaging game experiences, both for the players and the DM/ST/GM/whatever

So, I like to get my plot to run, but I've long since gotten used to the idea that nothing will go quite the way I imagine it. Instead of trying to go fully sandbox or railroad the players onto my plot, my reaction to this was to stop prepping games. I ran a short D&D freeform where everyone was a member of one of a group of warring orc tribes, which got me used to generating content on the spot. This is where I think the games I run get to be a lot of fun. I throw a couple plot hooks here and there, and see which ones the players bite. Then we follow that one, and I just drop hints here and there, and they do the rest for me. No one feels like they're railroaded, and they really aren't because I don't prep much more than thinking of a couple NPCs that the players might encounter or a couple places they might visit. While I'm running whatever encounter they're in I'm thinking an encounter ahead. It keeps me really focused on the game, and it seems to suck the players in because the world seems to live a little more if there's always content wherever they go. It takes a detailed setting to do, but I've detailed out the setting for my current sci-fi game well enough to keep making stuff up as we play, and let the players decide how the game flows.

For example, the game I'm running right now, I dropped some hooks about an icky region of space, and that a character's missing son might be out there. They follow this hook, and end up exploring all over the place. When the players arrived in Dead Space, all I knew or had prepared was that there was a group called the Brotherhood that helps protect the people stranded out there. The organization got much more fleshed out and the players had a great time talking to all these NPCs I was pulling out of the air. I'm focused on getting my story (about alien stuff in Dead Space) across, but the players are getting there in their own time and on their own path, so it feels very sandboxy, but really does (eventually at least) follow a plot line I had planned in the beginning. Apparently I'm also now able to make up NPCs and encounters that seem as if they were planned.

I've found that instead of trying to get players to do what you want, they are surprisingly susceptible to simple splot hooks, and letting the players guide the story around is really a fun way to play. If you're having trouble with sandbox, try to kind of 1/2 sandbox it. I'd say run a game completely sandbox for a little bit so you get very used to building cities, NPCs, and encounters on the fly, and then give it a whirl. I think it's really a great way to do things. Obviously what works for me might not work for everyone, but eh, it's a thought.

Hope that helps,

Sneakie


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on October 14, 2008, 01:01:56 PM
Sneakie,

I must say you sound like somewhat of a mutant when it comes to GMing.  Most GMs I've played under who started a game with just vague plot threads and a few NPCs do a pitiful job of running anything that has any semblance to a story.  This is largely because it is so hard for many to adjust to player actions and realize how a plot can be foreshadowed and developed in a given impromptu scene.  Kudos to you for being one fo teh few that can do this.

I think my vision of layout would suit the style you play to though.  It will give details of important places and people as well as some plot hooks, then have a story-board section where GMs who aren't as apt to think on the fly can follow the plots/characters' actions on a flow chart and be given suggestions on how to pull a climax from them...  My biggest fear is disappointing the GMs that would download this thing.  As a GM I would be disappointed if I got what I thought was a ready-to-go adventure and it wound up being just some "adventure notes" that I still had to do a ton of planning and on-the-fly thinking to make work.  Just my opinion, and I know this really contradicts the "game as a living developing thing between players" mantra that many of this sites regulars espouse (note, I am not disagreeing with this sentiment, I prefer a more plot-driven, cinematic game).

Louis Hoefer
www.wholesumentertainment.com  (http://www.wholesumentertainment.com)


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Vulpinoid on October 14, 2008, 07:04:33 PM
If you want to apply foreshadowing into sandboxy adventures, there's a few simple tools.

1. A notebook.

If you quickly write some notes about events that come into play through player suggestions, these can often be linked together later.

2. Story Influencing Currency.

Allow the players to introduce a story element through a form of finite currency that exists outside the scope of the characters. Let players introduce NPCs that might be useful, then make note of these NPCs, it might costs 2 points of currency to introduce such a character the first time, but only one point for another player to introduce that same NPC later in the campaign. Players can build up these NPCs with every appearance scene, and in this way the more commonly faced NPCs really develop a life of their own. The same could work for place visited, the more currency a player spends on the place, the more descriptive they can be about it, and the more impact it may have toward a climax.

This ends up taking even more narrative control out of the GM's hands, but that's one of the aspects of Sandbox play isn't it?

V


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: opsneakie on October 15, 2008, 04:02:54 AM
Louis,

I must admit I am a bit of  GM mutant. I don't know quite how I do it, but I certainly don't do any prep except maybe a little day-of thinking along the lines of "this could be fun..."

I think the trick is to listen to your players and get a good feel for both the setting and the characters, then drop plot hooks you know they will like. I've noticed my games getting more cinematic as time goes on as well.  Now that I know how to tug the players a bit, I can brainstorm quickly and make an encounter very cinematic.

I am, however, a big subscriber to the "game is a living developing thing" idea though. This game is already very different than I anticipated, and we're kind of about to go off on an alien religion tangent. You do sacrifice some control over the plot, but I wouldn't say the game is any less plot-driven. It's just that the players are deciding a chunk of the plot instead of you, and you have to take that and run with it. Although this game, I really feel like I'm running six solo adventures every time because of all the sub-plots.

Anyways, long post short, I think the trick is in detailed characters + detailed setting + knowing how to tug on those characters --> perfect game. I'm still working on making it all come together, but it's been getting closer and closer.


- John


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Susan Calvin on October 16, 2008, 08:39:50 AM
Most of what I've written is for conventions, so I usually have to set a very definite timespan in a limited environment, even if I like open-ended scenarios. The world doesn't stop, and eventually some kind of climax will develop. I like to pre-plan as much as I can, so there is usually half a dozen alternate endings depending on what they do. And when someone inevitable does something else, there must be leeway for improvisation. A typical scenario has a rough, detailed timetable for the groups, individuals and events in the world. If the Danish secret agent has been discovered (which is quite unlikely because he doesn't take any action before the last half hour), all events involving him are altered.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Vulpinoid on October 16, 2008, 03:20:56 PM
Anyways, long post short, I think the trick is in detailed characters + detailed setting + knowing how to tug on those characters --> perfect game. I'm still working on making it all come together, but it's been getting closer and closer.

I was going to make a comment here saying that Sandboxing just requires a whole lot more preparation than regular play.

But re-reading through the posts, and reconsidering my thoughts on the topic, I'm not sure that this is the case at all.

Good sandbox play seems possible from a number of sources.

1. A very well detailed and mutually understood setting.
2. Players who are willing to take some initiative for themselves.
3. A GM who isn't too precious about where they want the plot to go.
4. Fully realised NPCs with their own agendas that could easily change based on the actions of the players.

Having more than one of these present seems to increase the potential and quality of the session. Having all of them would epitomise the concept.

Unless people think I'm missing something.

(And yes...I'd like to hear some responses on this, because I'd always considered this to be "my" style of GMing, but any ideas that could help improve a game are always welcome).
 
V


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on October 17, 2008, 07:34:14 AM
Good sandbox play seems possible from a number of sources.

1. A very well detailed and mutually understood setting.
2. Players who are willing to take some initiative for themselves.
3. A GM who isn't too precious about where they want the plot to go.
4. Fully realised NPCs with their own agendas that could easily change based on the actions of the players.

Having more than one of these present seems to increase the potential and quality of the session. Having all of them would epitomise the concept.

Unless people think I'm missing something.
 
V

I would say (temper this with the fact that I am very narrativist in my style of GMing and my expectations of play), that there does have to be an understood nexis of the NPC's individual plots/motives.  Perferably (this is what I'm going to be keying in on for this adventure) there will be several points of intersection (nexis...nexies...nexises...???) that can be pressure-cooked into a final climax.  I know that there is the sentiment that the players should force the climax, but the more I play these kinds of scenarios and review them, it seems to me that they will typically shy away from large conflicts and thus the game bleeds out a slow death of intersting interactions and cool encounters that lead nowhere.  Even if characters accomplish personal goals, they sort of feel like "Well, I did what I wanted...  If you guys are ready, let's just mosey on to something new..."  -Just my summative thoughts after working on this point for awhile.

Louis Hoefer
www.wholesumentertainment.com (http://www.wholesumentertainment.com)


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Ron Edwards on October 17, 2008, 07:47:04 AM
I swear, I've been following this thread very closely and have been repeatedly blocked by urgent other posting needs. I'll be weighing in as soon as I can. This isn't to say that the thread lacks anything if I'm not in it, but rather to say how much I want to participate and soon will.

Best, Ron


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Ron Edwards on October 27, 2008, 07:47:44 AM
Hi Louis,

I've been composing this post and getting interrupted for a long time. I'm finally able to get to it. (I wrote those sentences over a week ago! This is really embarassing.) I'm really glad you began it, because this thread topic is serious business. I've been seeing versions of this question appear over and over for a couple of years now, and it's a big part of my re-write for Trollbabe. One of the many delays for this reply has been my effort to get that portion of the new text written to my satisfaction.

I don't think there's been any confusion about your topic so far, but it might be helpful to define sandboxing as a technique, to distinguish it from techniques that might or might not be used within it. Let's call it play with a rich setting, with lots of situations and NPCs with strong roles in those situations, and without any specific linear planning for the events of play. That rules out a number of things: a single-track plotline as found in most adventure modules, a Roads to Rome approach which is pretty much a bunch of possible linear tracks, and any sort of play which dictates player-character actions based on withheld and then suddenly-provided information. If unknowns and secrets are present in the situation, as they often are, player-character actions are still left open to the players when the information is revealed.

That definition raises some questions for some other time. For instance, although I'm most familiar with sandboxing relying on a central GM with full Content Authority, I can't say for sure whether that's necessary for it to work at all. But that's getting experimental and off-topic.

Anyway, the question at hand seems to be, how do relevant and engaging crisis situations arise when sandboxing? Since the essence of those situations is part of how Creative Agenda gets expressed and satisfied for a given group, clearly we have to specify which CA is involved for them. You've done that here already, fortunately. The jargon is Story Now, or Narrativism. "Story games" isn't a defined term, in fact, it's left undefined by Andy Kitkowski's deliberate design. So that issue's settled for this thread. (I'm saying that sandboxing is great for the other agendas too, but the techniques for having relevant crises arise would be different. If someone wants to talk about sandboxing in other Creative Agendas, we can do that in other threads.)

Most Narrativist play benefits greatly from sandboxing; it's a key technique if not necessarily universal or required. It's also really hard to present as a textual
setting-situation package, and published adventures or settings that actively promote it are very rare. Probably the best example I can think of for a successful presentation is an old RuneQuest adventure called The Haunted Ruins. I had a rough time, although ultimately functional I think, adapting some of my sandboxing play to a HeroQuest adventure publication, as discussed in Designing Final Days at Skullpoint (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=11691.0).

In my experience, probably the single worst way to try to sandbox but also "make story," is to alternate between irrelevant Brownian motion and brief instances of overwhelming railroading. Terry Gant called this the Panama Canal technique: let the player-characters wander all over and do whatever in the Atlantic Ocean, but when that becomes boring, herd them all through the Canal to get them in the Pacific, where they do what they're "supposed" to do. I described a version of this long ago in Narrativism and Bobby G (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=820.0), which got way up some people's asses for some reason.

Another way that doesn't work very well is to expect purely fictional input to prompt desired actions or especially insights on the part of player-characters. I wrote a bit about this in [trOS] Help! How to promote progress in discovery (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=9076.0) and [Rust Belt] Cruel cargo; also, more GM clumsiness (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=25948.0); the latter also includes some recommendations which are relevant to this thread.

And finally, one way to make both of those problems worse, as GM, is to drop "climactic scene!!!" upon the players out of practically nowhere, expecting them to be as invested in every NPC and issue as you are even though they're only encountering most of them at this instant. There's a distinctive look of disappointment that can be seen on a GM's face when he springs the big bad villain upon the characters, finally, and the players are wholly unimpressed and treat what was supposed to be the climax as basically a wandering-monster encounter. I felt that look on my own face too many times, a couple of decades ago.

The only way for sandboxing to produce real stories rather than endless aimless wandering, then, is to play with full commitment to the richness and integrity of the fiction-so-far, and yet also with mindful attention to the breaking-points of characters in terms of drastic, responsive action. What promotes this mindfulness?

In Hero Wars/HeroQuest, the main intersection between character decisions and the setting-based situations is found at the stated character goals. I've found that this technique is unfortunately not very reliable, if the "Goal" blurb on the sheet is not treated as a vital part of the Positioning for the character. So as an isolated technique I don't think it's the answer. Here's what I think is the answer.

I'm currently calling it the Screwdown because I'm talking about an ongoing, heightening, ramping-up process rather than as a single "wham!" moment. It's best described as the developing, ongoing transitions of characters' attitudes, and thus their dialogue and actions, throughout the changing events of play. By "screwdown," I'm referring to the higher and higher likelihood of characters feeling as if they have less and less room for compromise. That doesn't mean less and less choice, but rather less and less option to stay sitting on the fence about various choices, or to wait and see what others do next.

From the GM's point of view, it's almost all about playing the NPCs as characters who can change their minds, and also to have enough conflict-rich material in the situation that removing a given NPC or changing a given NPC's mind about something does not drain the whole situation of available tensions. Another, perhaps optional element is any large-scale event or series of events that affect everyone, such as the threat of bandits attacking, or some kind of magic storm brewing, or whatever.

I developed two terms for some powerful techniques in exactly this type of GMing. In Sorcerer, I introduce the concept of Bangs, which are strong shifts in situations (basically, "this happens!") which demand action but do not dictate specific actions. The Screwdown has a way of generating Bangs with practically no prep and without any need to plan or hope for what might result from them. In The Sorcerer's Soul, I introduce the concept of Relationship Maps, which are notp organizational charts or emotions-connections, but rather ties of kinship and sexual contact. School me on relationship maps (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=23698.0) probably does the best job of explaining their use.

From the player's point of view, it's all about playing one's character with immense drive and yet also responsiveness. Not responsiveness to what the GM wants (often abominably called "the story" or "the plot"), but rather to what's going on with and to that character as of this particular moment in play. Instead of looking at the sheet and seeing a fixed entity with fixed responses listed and ready to be applied, one looks at the sheet as the door to discover for what this character will do after he or she encounters tensions and confrontations which are different and new. Many of the new independent games feature very powerful player-driven reward mechanics to facilitate this process, such as the Spiritual Attributes in The Riddle of Steel, which inspired the Keys system in The Shadow of Yesterday.

With both, or rather all of this, going on ("all of this" because the GM plays multiple characters and usually there're multiple players too), many of the conflicts that arise after a certain point in the Screwdown will have tremendous resolving power for the in-setting, in-situation concerns of some of the characters. And furthermore, to arrive at those conflicts and also to see them resolved serves to fulfill what I, at least, informally call "story" - fictional conflicts that genuinely resonate with us, the real people, and whose resolutions produce a degree of catharsis for us. That doesn't have to be a highbrow thing; I consider Die Hard movie to be one of the clearest examples available, for instance.

Whew. What a bitch that post was to write, and yet how important it felt, to me anyway. Louis, I apologize again for the ridiculous delay, and I'm really interested in what you think of what I've written here.

Best, Ron


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: James_Nostack on October 27, 2008, 11:55:37 AM
Hi hoefer,

I have two questions about scenario design for you. 

1.  Did you come up with this idea--"Son of Nemo, on the Moon"--before or after players created their characters?

2.  Were the players told about the overall situation before making characters?  (Something like, "Your characters are going to get yoinked onto the Moon, and have to make the best of it/go home" or even, "Naughty Nemo Jr. is on the Moon causing problems on Earth")

3.  How extensive are each player's goals/motivations/desires in this scenario?  Are these characters just hanging out, trying to see what comes next, or have some of the players really gotten involved in a particular area (even if it isn't one you expected) so that, for example, someone has decided to help train Nemo's army and is now elaborately plotting to overthrow him?  In other words: how reactive / pro-active are your players?

===========
Because it seems like what's happening here is that you created a really cool Setting: Fin de Siecle Moon + Nemo, with several very weak Situations.  Meanwhile, it sounds like your players have created characters with weak Situations too.  So: the players sort of explore stuff, having a fun time interacting with your cool Setting, but they don't have any goals beyond this, and aren't too keen on interacting with your side of the Situation (the big plot you want them to interact with.)

Just to clarify: a Situation has three elements:
1.  The status quo
2.  A serious change to the status quo which opens up a whole can of worms
3.  A reason for the players to care what happens

Thus, the fundamental Situation in your sandbox is this:
1.  You guys were having fun on Earth
2.  Oh no!  You're on the Moon!
3.  The King of the Moon will execute you on the next "full Earth" (Alternately: Something you care about on Earth will go awry.)

With #3, the players are under pressure, and they have to explore for a purpose.  Trying to fulfill that purpose, and the challenges/obstacles/whatever, puts everything the players encounter into a larger story, which concludes with the creation of a new, stable status quo.  (You can generally sense when the players are reaching the crucial point, then supply the opposition as needed, and that's your climax.)  But without #3, there's no purpose beyond what the players bring on their own.  So there's sort of an aimless non-story wandering going on.

Note that you've tried to supply several smaller Situations, but based on your description there's no #3 either:
1.  There were these nice girls on Earth
2.  Oh no!  They're in a harem!  (On the Moon!)
3.  ______________.

Players generally aren't going to care about injustice "just because."  It has to sit up and bite them.

None of this directly relates to sandboxes in the abstract, but I think they're relevant to some of your frustrations with this particular game.

==============
Regarding sandboxes in the abstract, I think you guys are maybe getting off-track with your "detailed Setting" requirement.  I think sandbox play does not require a detailed Setting, though the two often go together. 

It's entirely possible to create a great sandbox game that uses one Big Situation, 3-4 Little Situations which are like spokes out of a hub, and that's it.  As the players explore any particular Situation, add more Situations onto it, with the necessary Setting Elements.  In other words, it's a "dynamically expanding sandbox" (this is a stupid name) with the players' activities always on center stage.  Situations can be contributed by the GM or players, either prior to play or in play.  I'm doing this now with my current D&D sandbox game (http://redbox.wikidot.com/black-peaks).

The main GM skill comes from slowly advancing the Big Situation to the point where the players become highly aware of it--and then--cannot safely ignore it.  (I think this is what Ron's talking about by the "screwdown" but it's also related to really hammering the #3 aspect of Situations in general.)


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on October 28, 2008, 03:18:41 PM
...Well...A lot to respond to here and Ron and James's posts have even made me question what CA I'm really operating from. 

Let's start there...I've always assumed (possibly with through a misunderstanding of GNS) I (and the majority of players in the groups I'm in) was a narrativist gamer.  That is, the priorities of our games center on "Story" after story comes the element of "character" and from there we slip into seeking realism and rule use.  So now, what we want when we play is a sort of thrill-ride of plot, character development, and suspense found in good books and movies.  In the same breathe we absolutely hate games where it's all about the "real-life" of your character, or GMs who just want to "wing it" and leave it to the players/characters to get things going.   Again, we want "story," we want foreshadowing, development of NPCs and interplay with the PCs, and a plot that cycles up the further the PCs play into the story. Give us either a situation that begs to have action taken on it, or a situation we can react to.  The plots come to a head, the game is resolved and the characters reprise their roles in another subsequent plot the next group of sessions.  Relationships that the characters form are carried over (so far as they are necessary to the plot of the next game, or entertaining/expected).  The plots, antagonists, and goals are typically directed toward the interests/abilities of the characters/players a head of time.  However, we do (when playing games off the shelf) use adventure modules and just adapt the story to better integrate the characters the players are taking into the story.

...SOOO, is this narrativsit play?

Now, back to the regularly scheduled thread:

Ron, I would be very interested in reading a excerpt from your Haunted Ruins adventure or the Skullpoint one.  I followed your threads there and have a vague idea of what the format might have been like, but some of it still seems mysterious.  And that is my real interest here, How do you best present a sandbox adventure for publication and ensure it can be used by various players with varying CAs and ensure is can come to a nice climax?

I get what you're saying on the points of what doesn't work for sandbox games (this particular one ended with the "climatic scene drop" when we played it), but some of what you suggest will produce "real stories" such as the "commitment to the fiction-so-far and mindfulness to character breaking points" always leads to the split up of the PCs and the dreadful lag of running in-depth parallel stories for each PC.  This has been my experience anyhow.  You focus in too tightly on developing the character, the character's responsiveness to the environment/NPCs, and their interests and goals and pretty soon each player is waiting 30 minutes for their turn to "interact" with the story.  It seems to wind up as simultaneous bits of fiction instead of a shared work.  -This is not to say "railroading" is the only other option by the way.  I'm not sure if it is the same thing as the HeroQuest Goal system, but in Century's Edge each character has a pressing goal they are trying to achieve so that the player may advance the character to the next Rank.  These goals are set up by the Narrator and the Player individually so as to facilitate a plot-driven game while giving a nod to the player's interests in their character's development.  In this particular case we used the generic goals offered up in the main rule book -which definitely added to the issue of characters' being "climax-shy."  These generic goals should have helped push the climax (for instance one character's goal was to obtain a new piece of technology which he could have more than easily done within Quisquis's lab), but still the players would explorer to the point of realizing how these goals could be accomplished but not attempt to accomplish them (i.e. find a nifty new technology, decide how it might be removed from the sultan's workshop, but then not actually attempt to remove it).

I kinda think I used your screwdown model.  I had several events going on, many underlying plots and self-motivated (yet flexible) NPCs.  The PCs dabbled in a given area and those actions led to new problems or the revelations of new plots/encounters.  As the plots were followed or time was invested in any given one, the intensity would increase -some were increasing whether the players involved themselves in them or not (all these things were the "Bangs").  The problem was, the players never got to the point of having to "leave their fence."  I originally wrote the adventure so that the player's interests, motives, and convictions would be the force that drove any given plot into a final climax.  But they all just wondered about involving themselves in plots to the point it was boiling up -but do all they could to keep them from boiling over.  Eventually I had to tag the whole "large-scale event" on to the experience to bring it to an end.

On the point of it being "all about what is going on with one's character and their drive," I don't think my players and I would agree.  "The Story" is our goal.  Developing its rise, climax, and resolution with the reactions, interactions, and personalities of our players is what makes it enjoyable.  Just wondering around being in-character and seeking out our own interests isn't enough for us.  "The Story" is that unifying force that makes it a shared experience and keeps the pacing and tension in tandem for all the players.  To try to make it clearer (by using a lame example) -it is not interesting to us to be "Luke Skywalker" and experiment with all his feelings, whimsies, abilities, and reactions within and open-ended and far stretching world that happens to have a Death Star in it.  What is interesting to us is being Luke and applying his personna to the menace of the "Death Star" through a series of defined conflicts and situations that both the player and GM know are moving the story clock forward toward that point (I know this is a gut-wrenching example, but replace "Luke Skywalker" and the such with any PC in any story and it holds).  Now, that doesn't mean the path to the Death Star should be narrow (we equally hate playing games where the PC's choices have no real effect).  But there is a great medium out there where the players realize a plot and are able to act within a large swath to get to its climax and figure a way to resolve it.  Without this, adventures seem to take too damn long or players feel they are in separate "cubicles" of play instead of on the same swath together...

I feel I've started to ramble too far on this post, but I'm going to post it anyway.  I'll try to come back in a few days and get something more intelligible up that can explain my points/inquiries better...

Oh, James,
1) I did not write the adventure until after character creation was done (though if I want to figure out how to publish sandbox adventures I have to break the code of how to do it irrespective of the characters that might go on it).  And just for the record, The "Son of Nemo" adventure took place in the sky, not the moon...  His floating palace used Cavorite -a material described in Well's book, The First Men in the Moon -maybe that's were the confusion is, not that it matters...  This was the 3rd adventure for these particular characters.

2). The players had no previous knowledge of the sultan or the adventure.  Many bits of foreshadowing connecting to the plots offered in it were dropped throughout previous adventures, but I never blatantly told them X, Y, and Z are going to happen in this adventure.

3.  The character's goals were fairly weak/thin (which is admittedly a problem with this running of the adventure).  The players were 50/50 on the proactive thing.  They would wait and react to some stuff, yet also proactively plan some things but then hold off fulfilling the plan (i.e. they made some explosives and gained access to a means of escape but didn't utilize either.)

-Your description of the screwdown is also how I perceive it and I felt I was almost accomplishing it.

-Oh, and I feel the setting has to be super-detailed for a sandbox to work (at least from a "published adventure" sort of view) -so NAH!
:-)

Louis Hoefer
www.wholesumentertainment.com (http://www.wholesumentertainment.com)



Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: James_Nostack on October 28, 2008, 06:49:47 PM
Hi Hoefer,

Quote
So now, what we want when we play is a sort of thrill-ride of plot, character development, and suspense found in good books and movies.  In the same breathe we absolutely hate games where it's all about the "real-life" of your character, or GMs who just want to "wing it" and leave it to the players/characters to get things going.   Again, we want "story," we want foreshadowing, development of NPCs and interplay with the PCs, and a plot that cycles up the further the PCs play into the story.

I'm sure Ron, or some other Forge veteran, will say this more insightfully than I, but what your describing doesn't really have much to do with Narrativism as it's used in GNS-jargon.  "Narrativism," as it's used on the Forge, is all about the development of what my literature teachers used to call "theme," and which Ron calls "premise."  Generally, Narrativism is about forcing players, through their characters, to make very difficult moral decisions, and exploring the consequences of those decisions.  "When you do X, ______ happens," and we're playing to find out what fills in the blank.  It's about "relevant" play, play that makes a statement (by implication) about the people at the table and the world we live in. 

What you're describing is great stuff--good pacing, excitement, characters who are "fit" for a particular set of challenges or the nature of a setting, nice use of continuity.  But it has little to do with "Story Now" in the very specialized sense in which Narrativism is operating. 

Quote
I did not write the adventure until after character creation was done . . .  (though if I want to figure out how to publish sandbox adventures I have to break the code of how to do it irrespective of the characters that might go on it).  . . .  This was the 3rd adventure for these particular characters.

Hoefer, can you explain a little bit about how you designed this adventure to be relevant to these particular PC's?  In other words, is there something relating to these players or these heroes that led to the design of your sandbox / Situation thingy?

PS.  I know nothing about publishing, particularly publishing RPG's.  But if the goal is to have PC's for whom this adventure/sandbox/Situation is relevant, it would seem there are only two ways to guarantee this: either construct several pre-generated characters and include them in the scenario, or specifically instruct your readers to collectively create PC's designed to interface with the salient facts of the Situation.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Marshall Burns on October 30, 2008, 10:16:39 AM
Regarding the CA issue, there's a thing here.  If you take a fictional character, and put him into an untenable situation that demands his action, and he deals with the situation in a way that stems from who he is (whether that means falling in line with who he is or breaking from it, or any combination thereof), and the situation ends up with some manner of resolution due in some extent to the character's actions, you will create a theme.  Whether you meant to or not.

Narrativism and story-heavy Sim both include the above dynamic; the question is, who has authority over the character's relevant (i.e. actually having an impact on the situation's resolution) actions?  If it's the character's player, it's Narrativism.  If it's the GM, or if it's frontloaded by the game's design, or a module, or a preset collection of tropes (y'know, that pastiche thing), it's Sim.

(Tropes and such can still be used in Story Now -- even if they frontload some thematic decisions -- as long as there's still thematic questions to be answered by player agency alone)

That's what made it click for me, at any rate.  Louis, does that make anything clearer?

-Marshall


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Vulpinoid on October 30, 2008, 08:42:00 PM
That's just flipped a few of my preconceived notions by 90 degrees...I'll have to take some time to think about that comment.

V


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Marshall Burns on November 03, 2008, 10:02:57 AM
Er, it might be good to clarify that I was working from some assumptions in that last post.  One being that Louis has reliably ruled out a Gamist agenda altogether, and another that his payoff for play is story-related, and therefore it's a question of whether it comes from collaboratively creating a story, now, at the table (Nar), or one of the many different flavors of story-based Sim.

'Cause, in Gamist play and some Sim play, the theme-creation process I described in my previous post can be present but incidental, so my previous post isn't quite true if you don't count the assumptions.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 03, 2008, 11:24:14 AM
Hiya,

I'm going to pre-empt the lonnnnng post I'm drafting for this thread and hop in with a quick refinement of Marshall's post. I think my modification is not only a bit more accurate, but it will tie the point very strongly to your concerns, Louis.

Marshall wrote, and I have tweaked in bold,

Quote
If you take a fictional character, and put him into an untenable situation that demands his action, and he deals with the situation in a way that stems from who he is (whether that means falling in line with who he is or breaking from it, or any combination thereof), and the situation ends up with some manner of resolution due in some extent to the character's actions, you will create a plot. Furthermore, that plot will express a theme which could not have been anticipated or expressed in the fiction until that moment of resolution.  Whether you meant to or not.

I think this is key regarding the final point in your reply to me, Louis, where you wrote,

Quote
On the point of it being "all about what is going on with one's character and their drive," I don't think my players and I would agree.  "The Story" is our goal.  Developing its rise, climax, and resolution with the reactions, interactions, and personalities of our players is what makes it enjoyable.  Just wondering around being in-character and seeking out our own interests isn't enough for us.  "The Story" is that unifying force that makes it a shared experience and keeps the pacing and tension in tandem for all the players.  To try to make it clearer (by using a lame example) -it is not interesting to us to be "Luke Skywalker" and experiment with all his feelings, whimsies, abilities, and reactions within and open-ended and far stretching world that happens to have a Death Star in it.  What is interesting to us is being Luke and applying his personna to the menace of the "Death Star" through a series of defined conflicts and situations that both the player and GM know are moving the story clock forward toward that point (I know this is a gut-wrenching example, but replace "Luke Skywalker" and the such with any PC in any story and it holds).  Now, that doesn't mean the path to the Death Star should be narrow (we equally hate playing games where the PC's choices have no real effect).  But there is a great medium out there where the players realize a plot and are able to act within a large swath to get to its climax and figure a way to resolve it.  Without this, adventures seem to take too damn long or players feel they are in separate "cubicles" of play instead of on the same swath together...

Oh hey, we're on the same wave-length here. This is an old topic in my design-discussion history. I think you're underestimating what I mean by "drive." I do not refer merely to dressing up, verbally or literally. I refer to actions and decisions that most traditional GMs find terrifying and outright challenging to their sense of authority, authorship, and rules-role. Imagine a game in which Luke's decision to join the tie-fighters against the Death Star was generated solely by the player, and it carried with it the possibility of utterly failing to succeed. And in which (positing the original context in which Leia was actually the love-interest and not retroconned as his sister) doing so completely changed the relationship with Leia, bringing in the possibility, so far waaay unlikely, that she might become his lover.

That's a "drive" in my book. That's the kind of play and decision-making which, over time, often means that a GM's role abandons most of its "make Story happen" functions because the unifying force you're talking about is emergent from powerful game components, not the least of which are player-characters which are actually doing something.

More to follow soon. If it's OK with you, I'd appreciate holding off on replying before I get it posted. It'll be really hard to reply both to your previous post and a new one.

Best, Ron


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 04, 2008, 10:37:14 AM
Hi Louis,

I'm not sure whether you've read my essay Narrativism: Story Now (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/narr_essay.html). If not, then I recommend checking out at least the first couple of pages, in which I argue that the phrase "to create a story" is actually a false lead in trying to understand goals of play, or at least, it becomes a false lead without further refinement of the concept.

I'm especially sympathetic to your points because what you do, how you and group interact about it, and your current solutions as well as frustrations are exactly my own experiences for many years. I also used the adventure module adaptation technique, which we can talk about later.

PART ONE: YOU, NARRATIVISM, AND YOUR GAME

Here's the thing: you're dealing with a false dichotomy of "character vs. story." As Marshall pointed out, and as I tried to refine, [if[/i] the characters act toward goals, respond to conditions, and commit toward things in a Premise-y way, then what happens is story (or to be fair, that's one way to get story, the "Now" way). If that's happening, then less and less story-planning, GM-adjusting, "ensuring there's a climax," et cetera, has to go on - in fact, such a GM role tends to become intrusive. I realize that's a weird concept. Hold off on it for a minute, let me develop it throughout the post.

To address whether your current play is Narrativist ... the following answer is tuned specifically toward your game and does not constitute a generalized definition; instead, it applies the general definition to this specific case.

Well, that depends. If the story is created at the table in terms of the key decisions and shifts of the resulting plot, then yes. If the story is enacted and produced at the table in terms of (for instance) one person's guidance, then no. You seem to be kind of stuck at the boundary of these two ideas, and as a long-term veteran of that stucked-ness, I know how hard it is to let go.

"But ... but ... someone has to make sure that what happens turns out to be a story, right?"

Yes and no. Yes, because without a certain mindfulness toward relevant, engaging conflicts arising, they won't happen, and you get that fucking flouncing around "be my character" garbage that, speaking as role-player and not theorist, I hate even more than you do (really). But also No, because "yes" usually translates in the long-term gamer's mind into a GM who either preps a story arc which will indeed occur, or who retrofits anything that happens in one session to be story-relevant meat for the next.

I call the first tactic Story Before, and the latter one Story After. Neither one is Story Now, which presupposes that everyone at the table is mindful toward the possibility of relevant, engaging conflicts arising, that no one plans what they will actually be in a rock-solid way, and finally, that everyone is committed to enjoying the creation of plot through the game system as a wave-front through actual play itself. GM and players have different responsibilities toward the imagined fiction, but their aesthetic goal (Creative Agenda) and mindfulness toward it are the same thing.

A big part of this is learning what you go in with. The sandboxing technique is actually one of the primary wonderful tools, because a good sandbox is unstable or at least hyper-reactive. I pioneered this in textual terms with The Sorcerer's Soul, and it has been refined in two ways: My Life with Master, which adapted it into a story-structure arc (in which the arc is not predetermined, just that "it" will happen); and Dogs in the Vineyard, which adapted it into a specific hyper-charged setting, character creation process, and reward mechanic (see also Dust Devils, Lacuna, Conspiracy of Shadows, and The Shadow of Yesterday). I was not alone; you can see the same stuff going on in other 2000-2002 games that were influenced by Sorcerer, like the revised versions of The Burning Wheel and The Riddle of Steel. In just a couple of years, stupendously sophisticated applications showed up, as in Polaris, carry, Nine Worlds, With Great Power, and more.

Also, I should stress that when I say "no one plans what (the crisis) will be," I am not advocating that we are talking about multi-person improvisation with no prep. This method does include the GM prepping stuff like "OK, next session, the orcs attack over the hill," and making up the orc commander and so on. What it does not include is dictating or even expecting how the players choose to have their characters respond, or pre-determining what aspect of the ensuing orc-attack situation will be most important to them.

Again, in such play and in using such games, flouncing around being in character is simply not possible. The characters are so in motion, and the setting/situation is so hyper-reactive, that stuff will fucking well happen. And it will be consequential stuff, such that Story is generated Now with no need at all to decide or create what it will be or what it was.

I'm combining some of your text differently from the order in your post because you bounced around a little. You also wrote,

Quote
I kinda think I used your screwdown model.  I had several events going on, many underlying plots and self-motivated (yet flexible) NPCs.  The PCs dabbled in a given area and those actions led to new problems or the revelations of new plots/encounters.  As the plots were followed or time was invested in any given one, the intensity would increase -some were increasing whether the players involved themselves in them or not (all these things were the "Bangs").  The problem was, the players never got to the point of having to "leave their fence."  I originally wrote the adventure so that the player's interests, motives, and convictions would be the force that drove any given plot into a final climax.  But they all just wondered about involving themselves in plots to the point it was boiling up -but do all they could to keep them from boiling over.  Eventually I had to tag the whole "large-scale event" on to the experience to bring it to an end.

That's easy enough to understand, at least if my years of experience with Champions applies. You kept Banging insofar as your NPCs were concerned, but not insofar as the players were concerned - and yes, I mean the players, not the characters. A Bang isn't a Bang if it's just a clue that leads to a clue or a fight, or a fight that leads to a fight or a clue. Nor is it a Bang if the primary emotional connection to the players is supposed to be their appreciation of what one of your NPCs is doing or feeling.

Bangs aren't Bangs unless the players of the protagonists are gripped by a certain passionate fascination. The overall effect (not necessarily from a single Bang) involves not only what is done, but what cannot be done or must be abandoned in order to do it. I'm pretty sure that in your game, this wasn't happening. You had "stuff happen" but they did not seize upon it as opportunity for having their characters make irrevocable, significant, and (over time) cathartic decisions/actions.

In my experience, playing in the way you're describing tends to lead players to consider their characters as your (the GM's) catalysts. You provide the alchemical solution in terms of the sandbox; their characters are inserted as destabilizing agents; change happens among the elements of the solution; and now, the unchanged catalysts walk on to the next situation. Or, if they change, it's kind of an ongoing portraiture rather than transformation of actual values or resolution of powerful standing questions (and by values and questions, I'm talking about the people as authors and audience, not some purely-fictional element). After a while of playing like this, they tend to become a little bit ... well, unresponsive. They know that you will do all the work, so why should they bother "jumping in" when they know you'll plop the characters where they have to be sooner or later anyway? "Just point me at my cue line."

Whereas playing with Bangs in a context that does hit the players in their own humanity (and for which the trappings, fantasy, SF, horror, et cetera are reinforcers rather than an end in themselves) ... well. That's different. GMing isn't like directing a mostly-willing donkey, it's like having sex with a tiger. You better be willing to let the tiger take the lead a lot of the time.

PART TWO: YOU ARE MAKING NO SENSE, THAT WON'T WORK, YOU CAN'T MAKE ME DO IT ... GOD DAMN IT, HOW DO I DO IT?

Forgive me for my flip title to this section of the post. I can't help calling it that because I like to tease Jesse Burneko about torturing me for about five years with that exact reaction.

Quote
... some of what you suggest will produce "real stories" such as the "commitment to the fiction-so-far and mindfulness to character breaking points" always leads to the split up of the PCs and the dreadful lag of running in-depth parallel stories for each PC.  This has been my experience anyhow.  You focus in too tightly on developing the character, the character's responsiveness to the environment/NPCs, and their interests and goals and pretty soon each player is waiting 30 minutes for their turn to "interact" with the story.  It seems to wind up as simultaneous bits of fiction instead of a shared work.

Aaahhhh. Association and shared action across protagonists is an entirely different issue, and I suggest that it is completely independent of whether you "get story" or not. Fantastic story-creation can occur in play without teamed-up or even highly-associated protagonists; and team-ups and association can be functional and fun in role-playing that is practically devoid in any interest in "getting story."

Regarding any given play experience, everyone at the table basically has to choose: team play, ensemble play, or contrasting play, and to what degree that will be flexible or emergent. Even if the decision is made through simple habit or assumptions about how it's supposed to be done, it's still a decision.

If you want it to be a certain way, again, I do not think the idea that "I want story so the characters must be together" is valid. You're better off acknowledging that it's a specific desire, not a prerequisite for something else. And once you've decided, then it has to be run by and most likely accepted as a given by everyone else. Are or are we not a team? If not, then are or are we not enmeshed in a common crisis? If not, then are or are we not active in the same community? If not, then are or are not we engaged in individual stories that affect one another somehow?

I agree that if the answer to all of these is "not," then yes, you're basically running several separate stories. But if the answer to any of them is yes, even the loosest, then it's compatible with "get a story" in the sense that it's our story.

If you'd like, I can describe very specific techniques that not only connect disparate actions by different characters in different (if nearby) locales, but I can also do so in a way which does not inflict GM-centric story onto it, privileging "character drive" instead.

Quote
I'm not sure if it is the same thing as the HeroQuest Goal system, but in Century's Edge each character has a pressing goal they are trying to achieve so that the player may advance the character to the next Rank.  These goals are set up by the Narrator and the Player individually so as to facilitate a plot-driven game while giving a nod to the player's interests in their character's development.  In this particular case we used the generic goals offered up in the main rule book -which definitely added to the issue of characters' being "climax-shy."  These generic goals should have helped push the climax (for instance one character's goal was to obtain a new piece of technology which he could have more than easily done within Quisquis's lab), but still the players would explorer to the point of realizing how these goals could be accomplished but not attempt to accomplish them (i.e. find a nifty new technology, decide how it might be removed from the sultan's workshop, but then not actually attempt to remove it).

The two systems are similar in that a stated Goal is a stated element on one's character sheet, but as you describe Century's Edge, it's a little more focused, more tied to the reward mechanic. Close enough to analogize, though, because I actually don't think that stating an in-character goal as a single, fixed thing is the best way to evoke a player's commitment toward "character drive." In my experience, features like Muses in Nine Worlds and Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday (both derived from Spiritual Attributes in The Riddle of Steel) are far stronger, because they introduce flexibility toward the goals or principles. You can affirm the stated 'thing' or violate it, and either way there are consequences, many of which involve character transformation. And best of all, acting against is often more rewarding than following it, given certain system structures involved (too much to go into here). The dynamic, consequential elements of such mechanics are very engaging; they legitimately provide the player with a reason to invest in his or her character's actions exactly they way they want to, knowing that it matters.

Perhaps that idea can help explain why the players are acknowledging the characters' Goals, even sort of touching and feeling them during play, but not driving either at or against them.

PART THREE: PUBLISHED ADVENTURES AND NARRATIVIST PLAY

Quick clarifier: I did not write The Haunted Ruins (yikes!). That is an older supplement for RuneQuest from waaaay back, written by Greg Stafford and Sandy Peterson. I used the early-1990s Avalon Hill version of it in my Hero Wars game. At the risk of name-dropping, in 2000-2001, Greg and I were talking about scenario creation and Story Now play, and he referenced that supplement as his best attempt toward that end during his most active RuneQuest days. That's when I got it and studied it carefully.

Also, since Creative Agenda was not part of role-playing vocabulary when that supplement was published, and as Greg acknowledged, there was no known way to explain to the reader what to do in those terms, nor was there any general understanding that such focus was a good thing. Basically, if one were inclined toward Narrativist play, that supplement is like a lightning bolt of awesome goodness; if not, it can be read pretty much as an over-elaborate dungeon with some irrelevant family trees and personality traits included as mere color.

Now for your stated "real interest here." That's a biiiig question. To some extent it's better addressed in the Publishing forum, but I suspect more play-based discussion will be useful here before we hop it over that way. I'm going to focus on the play-elements that would be associated with a given product, rather than the product.

Successful publishing relies on identifying and reaching a particular audience. Really successful publishing means transcending that audience, but for now, I'll stick with the basic necessity. What I'm saying is that success isn't merely about purchase, for which all you need is a pretty box, but about use, continued use, and un-fabricated buzz about it. So how is that done for a sandbox item?

My view is probably predictable. I think the important thing to communicate is what Creative Agenda the material serves best. I do not agree with the notion that the 'best' publication is a mess that tries to satisfy any and every creative reason to role-play. Nor do I think the virtue of sandbox preparation is that one can do "anything" with it, which is one common manifestation of that mess.

All of that leads to one of your qualifiers: the product is supposed to be useful to a group that includes varying CAs. I consider that a red flag. Never mind my claim that satisfying varying CAs (or better stated, varying expectations for the group's shared CA) is pointless in the first place, whether for a product or a product-less play-ambition, whether a sandbox or anything else. That statement is a red flag on the simple basis that you're now talking about publishing "stuff" with no particular emphasis or even attention toward what the stuff is for.

Finally, and I hope I'm not being too picky, you used the verb "ensure" - and I feel forced to wave my arms around and say that a product can't ensure anything, ever. But again, this is an issue for the Publishing forum.

My current conclusion is simply not to do it as you describe, to re-assess what sort of sandbox presentation really expresses what you enjoy, and to focus your promotion to people who enjoy the same or similar things. I realize that this isn't 100% helpful, and for that I apologize, but I think I will leave it there. I'll hunt down some threads which have addressed this issue in detail and perhaps we can pick it up later in the thread.

Best, Ron


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 04, 2008, 10:42:20 AM
Uh oh - Century's Edge isn't currently published, is it? I checked the website and just realized this thread probably belongs in Playtesting. Louis, can you confirm?

Best, Ron


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on November 05, 2008, 03:12:34 PM
A lot to read… A lot to digest…  A lot to consider…

First, the answer to whether Century’s Edge is published is, “sort of.”  I have previously released spiral bound versions of the game (ashcan sort of things perhaps???) locally and on a very small scale at cons.  I am currently selling paperback Demo Booklets (which I hastily put together when I realized the full book wasn’t going to be ready in time for GenCon).  The Demo booklet is a pretty solid summary of all the rules of play and a truncated version of character creation.  The full-blown rulebook was supposed to be finished last month, but I decided to alter its layout and it’s taking me forever to readjust everything (a lot of work on tables and such…).  Quickplay rules are available for free on my page as well as the GenCon adventure I ran (which is really stilted –do A, go to B, get C, but it’s not bad for a convention game and I actually had an very positive response from the players at GenCon, I’m, running it this weekend at PentaCon so it will be neat to see if I get similar responses.)

Now on to my responses…

Fist off, I want to point out that my original thread was about getting a sandbox adventure to end in some form of fulfilling multi-player climactic scene.  Most responses have been centered on changing the CA (?) of the adventure (now that its been pretty much pointed out that my adventure’s focus isn’t narativism), and leaving the characters to explore their own goals and pushing on those to create a climax that is cathartic to the individual players.  Where as, this is a good response, and has given me much to consider, it has lad more to a discussion of what is narativism and story.

Unfortunately, the suggestions most people have offered are counter intuitive to me, as the closest experiences I have had to these sorts of games (hinging on shared narrative authority and player/character driven plot determination) have sucked…badly.  I am guessing the problem is that the GM did not handle things right in these experiences, and they would have been more along the lines of what you guys are talking about, but for the quality/skill of the GM.  In fact, I wonder if only a handful of GMs could proficiently/successfully run a game in the naratavist CA as you all have defined it.  Anyhow, there was a lot in Ron’s last post that I just couldn’t wrap my mind around or that I’m not sure I have a correct understanding of. 

Ron wrote: 
A big part of this is learning what you go in with. The sandboxing technique is actually one of the primary wonderful tools, because a good sandbox is unstable or at least hyper-reactive…
I think I get the sandbox needing to be “unstable/hyper-reactive.”  Do you mean that the conditions of the “sandbox environment” need to be written so that there is lots of conflict and tension between the NPCs present, and the diversity of moral and ethical situations that exist?  In other words, in my game every NPC entity that was at the sultan’s palace had their own reasons for being there, their own goals for what wanted from the sultan, and their own reason for double-crossing/causing trouble for the others.  Each also viewed the PCs in different lights (saviors, competition, xenophobic-ly, scapegoats, etc.).  Even the physical environment of the sultan’s palace was conflicting.  The ancient sandstone structure had been retro-fitted with technology and the floating island had crumbling parts, deserted wilds, and the expanses where Quiquis had inset different technologies to keep the island up in the air, steerable, and replete with power/fuel (i.e. hydrogen).  These elements are described in a way so as often there was trouble with one part of the island or one system of technology that required perilous actions to attempt fixing (in one scene the players decided to help Quisquis engineers fix a broken propeller and had to make their way across the underbelly of the island on rickety catwalks, etc.). All this laid a hot bed of tension and possibility for any thing the players may have decided to do.
 
Ron also wrote:
I pioneered this in textual terms with The Sorcerer's Soul, and it has been refined in two ways: My Life with Master, which adapted it into a story-structure arc (in which the arc is not predetermined, just that "it" will happen); and Dogs in the Vineyard, which adapted it into a specific hyper-charged setting, character creation process, and reward mechanic (see also Dust Devils, Lacuna, Conspiracy of Shadows, and The Shadow of Yesterday).
I am totally clueless on how the story-structure arc works and what it looks like and how it might be integrated into the other things…  Can anyone give me a simple example…

Ron also wrote:
Bangs aren't Bangs unless the players of the protagonists are gripped by a certain passionate fascination. The overall effect (not necessarily from a single Bang) involves not only what is done, but what cannot be done or must be abandoned in order to do it. I'm pretty sure that in your game, this wasn't happening. You had "stuff happen" but they did not seize upon it as opportunity for having their characters make irrevocable, significant, and (over time) cathartic decisions/actions… I'm talking about the people as authors and audience, not some purely-fictional element). After a while of playing like this, they tend to become a little bit ... well, unresponsive. They know that you will do all the work, so why should they bother "jumping in" when they know you'll plop the characters where they have to be sooner or later anyway? "Just point me at my cue line."
I guess this might be the heart of the matter here.  If I can get what exactly you mean, I should be able to understand the paradigm shift most of you guys are suggesting.  Now again, I want to make sure everyone is focused on the right problem.  The problem isn’t about “How do I make a sandbox adventure work within my gaming group” –solving that issue is rather insignificant to me.  The bigger question is, how do you write a sandbox adventure (for publication/sale let’s say) such that the GM who reads and interprets it will have the tools they need to bring it to an ultimate conclusion that will likely maintain the feel of a good literary climax (old school, pre- “story about nothing” type of literature).  So when we talk, let’s consider, “How would you write this” or “What all should be written” to guide the user (a GM) into helping the Sandbox climax for his/her group.  You can see how from this perspective getting the players “gripped by a certain passionate fascination” may be daunting.  Further I can’t see how these fascinations would come to cross paths and climax together unless your gaming group was really homogenous or you talked the story out ahead of time or practiced “revisionary” history over much of what the group had done in previous sessions.  Talking the thing out ahead of time seems like such a suspense-killer and revising a previous game has always been a shameful act in my mind.

In response to the, “After a while of playing like this, they tend to become a little bit ... well, unresponsive. They know that you will do all the work, so why should they bother "jumping in" when they know you'll plop the characters where they have to be sooner or later anyway? "Just point me at my cue line.”  We (especially in sandbox adventures) don’t really play this way.  The players typically do all the “driving” and the GM (whether it’s me or not) plops down all the “roads” –but it’s not a “railroad.”  That is, if a player makes a “left turn” the GM then (using the source material, their knowledge of the plot, and paying appropriate respect to setting’s realism and tone) plops down the intersections that lie along that “road.”  Will the GM try to arc the player back toward a “story point” –yes, when the choices of the player make sense to bring them in that direction.  Can the player get “downtown” by driving the wrong way down a “back alley” the GM hadn’t thought of?  -yes, but we’ve found that sometimes this is to the player’s own dismay (if we talk later about what was out there, and the player realizes they missed a potential scene with an NPC they like, or a conflict that would have been important to their character).  Here’s the big one, “Can the player take a “road” out of “town”? –no, of course as a GM I (or any of my group) could let them, but we’ve found once we do this the quality of play goes way down.  The PCs typically lose their interdependence and direct effect on one another, the players end up playing in segmented turns instead of just going around the table.  The story gains a “syndication” sort of feel, where there just seems to be a string of small resolutions instead of a point that everyone can say, “We did it!” or whatever.  It’s like roads that just lead to other roads and on and on –occasionally there might be a neat diner or truck stop, but none of the “oohs” and “ahhs” of driving into the downtown metropolis.  I would not say my players are typically unresponsive in the sense of stalling or waiting around for me to push the story –this phenomenon usually only happens when we do Sandbox games, and even then it’s not that they aren’t doing anything, its just that they are more into exploring and piddling around than pressing things into some major movement of plot.  I feel like I’m repeating many of the other posts I’ve made in this thread, I’ll move on…

Ron said:
If you'd like, I can describe very specific techniques that not only connect disparate actions by different characters in different (if nearby) locales, but I can also do so in a way which does not inflict GM-centric story onto it, privileging "character drive" instead.
I lost you on this one, I would love to see the description, please don’t think me deft.  Will the example be applicable to “prewritten” game material? 

Also, is the supposition that the GM is orchestrating the story such a bad thing?  This is part of what I look forward to when playing a game as a player. “What has the GM cooked up?  How will the plot twist and turn?  What can my character do to resolve the conflict inside of the character’s own mode of operating/conduct?”  “Will my character’s conduct/mode have to change –how will this impact them?” 
I’ve played only a few player-narrated games.  They were fun, but they were totally different animals than the traditional RPGs I’ve played.  For example, the Engle Matrix game I played (Dead Man on Campus) was great!  It was fun!  It felt like a party game.  But, it wasn’t a serious game where we all were really following an interesting plot.  The plot grew and turned and twisted in a very ridiculous way, and our characters acted in the midst of this as if it were real and normal to a point, but beyond it we simply one-upped each other on the audacity of our actions and interactions.  Again, it was extremely fun, but not the tone I want in my Century’s Edge game.  I could see the same system being played seriously, but I don’t see how the plot/reality woven by it could hold up with out a great deal of suspension of disbelief or some kind of previously stated “contract of play” (We will play like this, with this tone, and attempt to do this for this reason).

Ron wrote:
In my experience, features like Muses in Nine Worlds and Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday (both derived from Spiritual Attributes in The Riddle of Steel) are far stronger, because they introduce flexibility toward the goals or principles. You can affirm the stated 'thing' or violate it, and either way there are consequences, many of which involve character transformation. And best of all, acting against is often more rewarding than following it, given certain system structures involved (too much to go into here). The dynamic, consequential elements of such mechanics are very engaging; they legitimately provide the player with a reason to invest in his or her character's actions exactly they way they want to, knowing that it matters.
I don’t really get this –sorry, you might have to give an example.  In what way is the goal flexible (or –how is it stated flexibly).  How/why would acting against a character’s principles be more rewarding?  -Do you mean in a mechanical sense (i.e. you gain #XP for placing yourself in inner-turmoil) or a psychological sense (seeing your character change within a game).

I also don’t get the “reason to invest...actions the way they want to, knowing that it matters”  A simple “I want to do it” seems reason enough for a player to have his/her character do something.  If you’ve got a “good” player, than they want to do it because it’s right for their character’s personality or the tone/events of the story.  If the player is “bad” they do an action because it interests them or settles their curiosity at the time and they didn’t conceive of having this yearning when they first created the character and his/her personality.  (the player really isn’t bad, they just aren’t working “in character” –which has traditionally been seen as a bad thing). 

On the last part, all actions matter in our games.  To GM without response to a character’s action breaks the dynamic of play.  Now, the players won’t always perform an action that has their intended effect, but the effects always match the tone, pace, and elements present in the GM’s story (yes, this goes back to the GM-centric narration).  I would think that a game where the player’s actions always mead out their intended results would seem boring or at least different.  It seems it would be more like sharing a story around a campfire than playing in a story and knowing that what you do changes the story (within loose bonds) and carries the possibility of success or failure…

For some reason every time I finish writing on this thread I feel I’ve only been rambling…damn!  Thanks for walking me through this guys...
Louis Hoefer
www.wholesumentertainment.com (http://www.wholesumentertainment.com)


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on November 06, 2008, 08:22:37 AM
Having read the “Narrativism: Story Now” essay I can see more clearly what most of you are referring to as the CA Narrativism and where my gaming group (and my game) fit (outside of this CA).  I got to say though, I'm not sure narrativism is a great term for the kind of play this CA describes.  The term has such an authoritative literary feel (i.e. the narrator is the one telling the story –the concept of multiple narrators and shared narration is alien to the tradition of most literature) and it seems it really deals only with games where the play mode is "free-form" and the goal is to seek "theme" or "character development" (maybe the original “dramatist” term fits better).  The kinds of things being described as climax and plots are more what I would think of a “rising actions” within a story and not a centralized plot or over arching climax.  From most writers I’ve read (and grant it, these are writer’s like Stephen King –who many consider “low brow”) they talk about theme entering into a story as an after-though or piece that can’t be really recognized until the point of the first manuscript revision.  Also, you all must admit there is a real "narrativism nazi" sort of feel to things a round here -maybe when I get a better grasp on what a narrativist CA feels like (when done right) I'll understand why...

Theme and character development are a (close) second string to a strong all-encompassing plot in the kinds of games I like and am producing.  So I guess we'll go from that reference from here on.  That is, the CA I’m trying to achieve is whatever (labeling it may be an exercise in futility) but the structure of the material is intended to manifest a palette of “story arcs” and “rising actions” that all move and move into a central plot that comes to a head in a final climax.  This structure’s design is intended to be very open to player exploration and drive, yet narrow-enough that unifies what is going on in the story so that the players feel they are experiencing the same situation from different angles and not different situations from the same angle or whatever…  I would like (when I get more time) to start a new thread elsewhere where you all can educate me on these sort of CAs and how they can work well. 

Summarizing point: I’m not sure suggestions pushing the game toward full “narrativism” are going to be helpful for this particular game.  That’s not to say some elements rescued from that direction might not be useful.  For now, think of writing for a “traditional RPG” (please don’t give me crap about using the word “traditional” –I think it has the same accessible meaning to most gamers, think D&D if need be) and trying to put together a sandbox adventure that could guide “Joe GM” to ending the adventure with an intense climax satisfying the trails and encounters the characters might have experienced within the sandbox.  What I want to steer around is just plopping down a crisis out of nowhere or making the conditions of the sandbox so tight that “all roads lead directly to Rome.” 

Louis Hoefer
www.wholesumentertainment.com (http://www.wholesumentertainment.com)

p.s.  Do we win some sort of reward for having the most drawn-out and lengthy posts in any forum thread ever known to mankind?


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 06, 2008, 11:10:14 AM
Hey Louis,

We need to clarify something. My goal in this thread is not to entice you into either playing or publishing in (what's called here) a Narrativist way.* My concern was to clarify your questions about how story (in the overall, any-which-way sense) can arise using a sandbox scenario design. You wrestled with the issue of whether it has to be imposed; I explained why and how it does not have to be. None of it was aimed at telling you what you should do, or want to do.

Your post contains a number of attacks that I'm not going to deal with. The only thing I can try to do is demonstrate that Narrativism Nazism is a boogeyman and not the reality. I urge you to lower the defensive shields about it. Perhaps this next bit will demonstrate that you're not under attack or a conversion-campaign.

I referred to a stuckedness that I perceived. One way out of it is what I was talking about. The other way, which is 100% functional and may be more along the lines of what you're aiming for, is called Participationism. That's not a Creative Agenda, but rather a family of Techniques. More-or-less equivalent to the Map + Bang Techniques, among others, that I was talking about, but facilitating a different CA, not Narrativism at all.

Why am I going on with this and continually introducing new weird terms? Because you're talking about how to publish a sandbox scenario well, and I'm saying that if you know what sort of play you want to facilitate, then you can publish something that can be read, understood, and enjoyed for what it is. 

I wrote most recently and with any luck most positively about Participationist play in [NWOD][VtR] New Game - New Possibilities - New Questions! (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=26750.0). For this thread, I'd like to extend my point that for it to work, such play still needs particular GM and player Techniques which everyone knows about and buys into. Specific "now the story moves along" processes are involved, and without people buying into them, all sorts of pifalls appear. (Just as pitfalls always appear when people role-play together without buying into "how we do it here.")

Let me know if you find that more helpful.

Best, Ron

* You might be surprised at how many of your shorter statements I agree with, and how many of them do not actually work as criticisms or observations of Narrativist notions. For instance, my use of "theme" is exactly the same as you describe. You're striking very fiercely against some stuff which isn't there to be hit. I dunno whether you care to go into that, and even if so, I'd guess not so much in this thread.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: The Dragon Master on November 06, 2008, 11:34:37 AM
Louis: In the scenario you ran, how interconnected were the different plots? Were they all just things happening in the environment, were the NPCs involved in more than one plot, was there an underlying plot going on?
First a visual example to maybe tie it in with the hyper-reactive description, then I'll provide an example from actual play. Think of the scenario you're writing as a game of pickupsticks.
Each plot line running through the prepared scenario is one of the sticks, if the plots are all separate, diffetent NPCs in each and so forth, then it's like starting play with the sticks separate. Picking up one doesn't necesarily have any effect on any other stick/plot that is available.
If you have each NPC tied into a couple of plots (perhaps the one of the savages saw Dr. Gull disfigure the harem woman but will only tell in exchange for... improved social standing) then moving one of the sticks/plots will cause a change in others. This provides a reactive environment, where you can't change one thing without changing several others.
For a hyper-reactive environment, you simply have more plots tied to each NPC, or one plot to which all NPCs are tied, though this can devolve into less of a "screwdown" style of resolution. I'm sure though others here would be better equiped to provide direction on limiting this effect

The best example of this I've experienced was in a shadowrun game I ran recently. Now, this campaign was designed after the characters were writen, and with those characters in mind, but I believe the general principle will be the same. I started with a set piece I wanted to work with specifically establishing a "ghoul-town" on the outskirts of Seattle. Then considered who would be involved with this, whose plans would the formation of this effect, and who would make plans based on it. Well, in the setting there is a bounty out for anyone who can create a cure for the disease that creates ghouls, so naturally there had to be a megacorp working on that who would be trying to test this cure on the inhabitants. Also there was a bounty out for the creation of a reliable substitute for the flesh ghouls have to consume, so someone is working on that. In the end I had a handful of groups whose plans would intersect on this one location (more than any other) and the players each had ties to one or more of the organizations. The campaign didn't last long enough to more than establish the players unfortunately due to changing schedules, but I believe the premise is sound.

Now all of that said, it still leaves the problem that some players just don't want to get out of the sand box. It's possible they simply didn't want to leave the environment, and figured that any plot resolved would have led to them being "thrust from paradise", so to speak.


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on November 06, 2008, 01:13:34 PM
Hey Louis,

We need to clarify something. My goal in this thread is not to entice you into either playing or publishing in (what's called here) a Narrativist way.* My concern was to clarify your questions about how story (in the overall, any-which-way sense) can arise using a sandbox scenario design. You wrestled with the issue of whether it has to be imposed; I explained why and how it does not have to be. None of it was aimed at telling you what you should do, or want to do.

Your post contains a number of attacks that I'm not going to deal with. The only thing I can try to do is demonstrate that Narrativism Nazism is a boogeyman and not the reality. I urge you to lower the defensive shields about it. Perhaps this next bit will demonstrate that you're not under attack or a conversion-campaign.

Sorry if my post seemed to be hostile -it was not meant in that spirit (the narrativism natzi thing was meant as a joke).  I do feel people are way into this whole "labeling of play" and throwing out terms too the point that it works against having clairity sometimes.  (Admittedly I think I was the first one to throw a term out, but back then I thought I understood it and apparently didn't).  And while I do see that haivng a term for a type of play is important to then address how you arrive at that type of play, there is an air of convulution about it all, atleast for someone who just does better dealing with real-to-life examples and situational descriptions.  I feel a lot of the problem with this thread so far is that I am failing to communicate what I'm looking for from the community or failing to understand the way their responses can be used to my ends.  I would much appreciate if we all gave simple examples of the things we are talking about in this thread (when it comes to terms or "step ups" for playing a given game)...I would probably "get" stuff a lot easier then, and gain a better understanding of your suggestions.

thanks all,
Louis Hoefer


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: hoefer on November 06, 2008, 01:53:31 PM
Louis: In the scenario you ran, how interconnected were the different plots? Were they all just things happening in the environment, were the NPCs involved in more than one plot, was there an underlying plot going on?
Dragon Master,
The main subplots were fairly well connected.  There were a few that were just "background noise" -like the hurculerium (sp?) formula that made things grow (its from the book Food of the Gods).  That subplot sort of colored the others -for example, when one of the harem ladies was being chased by Quisquis guards, she fell through the roof of bulding landing in a giant chicken coop (yeah it was sort of a comical situation) the MCs that had been trailing her (to figure out who she was and why the guards were persuing her)  went in to save her from these "savage monsters."  So investigating this formula, designing an antidote for the eventual "rabidness" it caused (yes they were giant RABID chickens -oh my!), gaining control of it, discerning what Quisquis's plans were for it (beyond increasing food supply on the floating island/palace) -these were all activities one of the players took on, and they aided in dealing with certain situations in the game, but they did not move other plots or push toward a climax.  Other plots did however.  As you described, the Gull plot intersected both the natives and the harem plots, further Gull's favor with the sultan was being deminished by the presence of the PCs, one of which was a great man of science whom Quisquis tried to entice to his side.  Thus Gull began to seek out ways of screwing with the players and pointing out their flaws to the sultan.  The natives were accidental refugees whom the sultan had little concern for and the other inhabitants of the palace used/abused wihtout his intervention.  They were a source of "unbiased" information for the PCs but were constantly looking for things in trade for this information (to move up the social ladder as you've allready determined).  The harem girls largely were seeking to escape.  Many thought Gull was there to help them, not realizing that those he helped were winding up dismembered corpses stuffed in various areas of the island (some of which the natives were aware of).  Some of the Harem ladies were not seeking to escape (they either traded themselves to the Sultan to help/free their loved ones back on the ground or they themselves were taken from worse situations before being "rescued" by the sultan).  The differences here led to conflicts.  There were other things going on, but over all the plots that affected one another all fed the larger plots: "escape from Quisquis's island" and "remove Quisquis from power before so-and-so is hurt"  As I look at this, I do see that one thing that hurt this sandbox is that Quisquis is made way too simpathetic for an antagonist.  I did not go with a "Stop Quisquis from taking over the world" metaplot because I thought it was over done.  Though this may have helped push the PCs.  Yet, part of what makes 10,000 Leagues an interesting read is the fact that Nemo (while arrogant, domineering, and obsessive) is not necessarily a "badguy."  I wanted to pay homage to that in this take-off of the story.  Humorously, now that I rethink it, 10,000 Leagues had a hasty and ineffectual ending as well (the sudden imposition of the maelstrom in which the ship sinks). Also, my "escape from Quisquis's island" climax might have fallen flat because the consequence of not doing this wasn't pressing thoughout the play (Quisquis's rule, while strick and imposing, was still corigal to the PCs and allowed some of them enough freedom they didn't may be feel a need to escape -ala what you suggested at the bottom).

Now all of that said, it still leaves the problem that some players just don't want to get out of the sand box. It's possible they simply didn't want to leave the environment, and figured that any plot resolved would have led to them being "thrust from paradise", so to speak.

This was probably a major factor and now I am seeing Ron's screwdown meathod a little more precisely ("you have to make them act, by upping the anti of what will happen if they do or don't act).  -But let's shift gears.  What would you (the community) say is the best way to present all these subplots (the sticks as Dragon Master suggests) and how they might intersect and influence one another so that a GM reading the adventure may be able to make quick reference of them and good use of them?  How do you commincate how to bring them into a climax?   Lots of notation in the individual write ups and a simplified flow chart is my current solution.  Is there anythign better?  How can I write it so as to encourage the GM to be more dynamic -i.e. letting the players have more control on the story and how it comes to a climax?

Louis Hoefer
www.wholesumentertainment.com (http://www.wholesumentertainment.com)


Title: Re: "Sand Box" Adventures
Post by: Caldis on November 07, 2008, 06:51:54 AM


The best idea I can think of for you Louis is if you want the players to try and escape then state it up front.  During character creation have them make up reasons why they need to get back to Kansas otherwise Oz is a pretty damn interesting place they may want to stay.   Have many of your plots act as barriers to the characters escaping but still allow them to play around in the setting as much as possilble.