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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: James_Nostack on October 27, 2011, 08:02:58 PM



Title: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on October 27, 2011, 08:02:58 PM
In his recent essay "Setting and Emergent Stories" (PDF) (http://adept-press.com/wordpress/wp-content/media/setting_dissection.pdf), Ron includes an provocative afterthought about the term "sandbox play," and I'd like to talk about it.

Here's Ron:
Quote
Problematic term: “sandbox”
Recent discussions among the self-described Old School Renaissance have revived and extended the term “sandbox play,” but have failed to define it.

As far as I can tell, it can mean anything but railroading, but that means it can include the whole range of Story Before, Now, or After, and the whole range of setting use from barely-any to all-encompassing.  Which makes it pretty hard to talk about outside of a given group’s actual play experience. The term is also completely unconstructed regarding the size of a sandbox or if it’s supposed to have a size relative to the whole setting, regarding how changes to the setting procedurally occur.

In other words, the term means almost entirely nothing, and I think it’s kind of a shibboleth based on romantic notions of “Gygaxian play” (another everyone-knows but can’t-define term) and imagined notions of what it’s like, or must have been like, to play The Keep on the Borderlands.

I've been pretty active in this particular scene, and I agree with Ron on one point, which is that "sandbox" could use some scrutiny.  So: a thread to do that! 

A Quick Conditional[/u]
I'm writing about my own play, and I encourage you to write about your own.  To the extent my wishes matter, what I absolutely do not want in this thread is (a) a denial of anyone's recitation of first-hand experience unless you were there, (b) saying that someone's play-preferences are wrong or irrational, (c) a first post that assumes a counter-factual and then draws an elaborate hypothetical from it. 

What I would like is for people to share their actual experiences, to ask (and be asked) questions about it, and to see if there's a way to identify things that work well or poorly, or discrete techniques or features of play that need more real-world research. 

(My own wishes are simply my personal preferences, of course, but I want to be up front about them.)

Actual Play "Certification"
For the past 3+ years, thirty of us have been playing in a self-identified "sandbox" style of play at the New York Red Box (http://redbox.wikidot.com/). 

We have been playing the hell out of early-edition Dungeons & Dragons.  We've logged about 142 sessions across two campaigns:
  • Tavis's White Box Game (http://redbox.wikidot.com/the-white-sandbox-page), 42 sessions of 1974 D&D (0e) plus eclectic supplements, approximately monthly.  The setting is extremely gonzo, based on 1970's sword & sorcery and science-fantasy paperbacks.  I've played in about 20 of these sessions.
  • Eric's Glantri Game (http://redbox.wikidot.com/glantri), 100 sessions using the 1981 Basic Rules (B/X), approximately weekly.  The setting is fairly vanilla, lifting from Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne in places.  I've played in about 20 of these sessions.
  • When we first got started, I ran six sessions of B/X (http://redbox.wikidot.com/black-peaks) in a self-consciously generic "don't bother me, I'm taking the bar exam" D&D fantasy world.  I'll discuss its dissolution in a minute.

Beyond the D&D campaigns, we've got an aggressive program for one-shots and limited runs, including: Sorcerer (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=31957.0), Trollbabe v1.0 (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=27657.0), Trollbabe v1.1 (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=30739.0), With Great Power... (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=28480.0), Champions (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=29455.0), Marvel Super Heroes, Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World, Starships & Spacemen, Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest, BrickQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller.  Lately we've been playing a lot of Pendragon (http://redbox.wikidot.com/king-arthur-pendragon), which has been hilariously mock-heroic. (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/you-and-the-farce-you-rode-in-on/)  I have played in virtually all of these "limited run" games.

Demographics: there are about 35 of us, maybe 15 of whom are regulars.  About 90% of us are dudes, and the overwhelming majority of them are mid-30's to mid-40's.  There's a decent amount of camaraderie among the regulars: movies, pizza, drinking, dinner parties, wedding invites, art shows, etc.  With a group this big and this long-running, there's some interpersonal friction from time to time, but generally we all get along.

Sandboxing as Used in NYRB: Early Days in the Black Peaks[/u]
The Red Box group was an outgrowth of the NerdNYC (http://nerdnyc.com/wordpress/) social scene and Ben Robbins's West Marches style of just-in-time, no-fixed-group gaming (http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/).  As Robbins explains it:
Quote
There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

My motivation in setting things up this way was to overcome player apathy and mindless “plot following” by putting the players in charge of both scheduling and what they did in-game.

So the very first few sessions followed Robbins's model pretty closely. (http://redbox.wikidot.com/forum/t-52013/session-3) 

There was no particular story at work beyond the one loosely assumed by D&D play: dungeons + dragons + adventurers in approximately medieval drag.  I used the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the default setting as presented in the Cook/Marsh Expert Rules, and seasoned it ever-so-lightly with Big Picture Situation (evil Dragon enslaved, its army regrouping, various forces of Law, Chaos and Neutrality trying to exploit the power vacuum).  My goal at this point in time was just to play maybe 3 casual sessions; I wasn't trying to do anything too fancy.

I drew a map of a mountain valley and placed some small dungeons around the area.  Some of the dungeons and local NPC's had connections that would maybe come to light, or maybe wouldn't, and a couple of the more feisty NPC's were busily pursuing their own agenda, occasionally meeting the PC's and usually regretting it.  Players were free to drive whatever agenda they wanted in the setting.

Over a couple of months, my interest in running a long-form D&D game dwindled to zero, for a couple reasons.
  • 6 sessions is really too short for a D&D campaign to really take on much of an identity or for characters to take on a life of their own.  I didn't know that at the time.
  • The setting was so generic that it didn't pique my interest sufficiently as DM.  I'd just latched onto it as a time-saving device, without any regard to long-form play.
  • My Big Picture Situation all involved NPC's of approximately 6-9th level.  In early-edition D&D play, that is literally years off before you can deal with it as equals if you start at 0 XP as we did.
  • Also, the geographic scope of the sandbox's Big Situation was too wide.  Everything in the mountain valley--the hometown, the dungeon, the Dragon Army's remnants and the Dwarf diaspora--was solid, functional, and close at hand.  But the Duke and his court politics was a good 200 miles away; the evil Bishop was even further away.  So we'd be dealing with their proxies, henchmen, and so on.  Bah, fuck that.  I'm a sorcerer, I only deal with principals.  (There was no reason for me to make things so far away, except that I just grabbed that published map as a way to save time prior to a session, without thinking of long-term effect.)
  • I'd started a new job that prevented me from running both D&D and indie stuff, and so had to choose.

But also, and very importantly, early-edition D&D simply does not have very good procedures on stuff that doesn't involve dungeon-delving.  In particular it does not have good rules on how the campaign world changes as a response to player action.  As Ron puts it:

Quote
[N]ow for my real point: [mechanics equivalent to the elaborate rules for how characters change over time, i.e., advancement] for the consequences upon setting are rare. . . . Whereas for setting, the historical default is for there to be little if any such things, so that’s what we see across the games today.

Now, the absence of those rules is pretty much universally regarded in the wider OSR as a design feature rather than a bug.  Like role-playing the demons in Sorcerer, the long-term evolution of the campaign world in Dungeons & Dragons is exclusively the DM's province--not even the rule books get in the way.  It's a very personal expression of the DM's creativity and outlook.

But it's also a pain in the ass if you're trying out a "new" game without a lot accumulated knowledge.  Dungeons & Dragons at low-levels is so unbelievably cruel, you don't want to make the world so adversarial that the PC's lose heart.  On the other hand, you want to always make the world . . . "interesting," in the sleep-with-one-eye-open sense.  That's a fine line to walk, and I would have appreciated a crutch.

So that was it for the ol' Black Peaks game.  Then the White Box and Glantri games got started, and I'll talk about them in the days ahead.

Value Added[/u]
Cutting to the chase a little bit, I think these procedures work pretty well, not necessarily in this order:
  • Create an environment, not a plot.  A wilderness map, a dungeon, whatever.  It should be big enough that the PC's can, with sustained effort, exhaust it, but not much bigger.
  • Find a couple of zones in the environment that interest you.  Who's there?  What's something interesting going on there?  It's probably best to think about these things individually, and then maybe lace them with some, but not a whole lot, of connective tissue.
  • Give the players a home base.  Put some NPC's in or around the home base, who want things.
  • Plug the players into the setting.  I.e., some Cleric belongs to a church that wants ________.  A Magic-User is an apprentice to a Wizard who fled from _________ which pursues him.  A Thieves Guild is enmeshed in a trade war with ______.  These are specifically D&D examples, but every game has something like this.  These things should be "colorful" in the Forge sense of the term, and act as "invitations to a situation."  You're doing this only so that the characters have some minimal roots in the setting.  The players may do this for you!  If so, don't get in their way!
  • Don't be coy about sharing rumors/gossip/news.  Help the players get oriented on things to do here.  You want a list of like 3-7 loose ideas for them to work with.
  • If the players go for some of your suggested content, awesome, flesh that one out ahead of time and run with it.  When you flesh it out, it should be like a house of cards, and which way it falls depends on the players' (witting or unwitting) actions.
  • If the players start doing their own thing, cool.  Hopefully your game gives you enough tools to generate mostly-meaningful random content on the fly.  Just let them get deeper and deeper into a weird mess, and if they have an easy time of it, so be it.  By next session, figure out an evolution of the prior content that bites them in the ass (not as punishment for going off-reservation, but as, "Hey, I know that looked random and you're feeling chuffed--but guess what, payback's a bitch.")

Don't hold me to any of that, because I'm tired of writing, but something akin to those elements has proven very workable.

I wanna talk about White Sandbox, Glantri, and failed attempts at Story Before Traveller and Story Now Marvel Super Heroes, but this post is too damn long.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: C. Edwards on October 28, 2011, 02:22:28 AM
The procedure summary at the end of your post is pretty solid in my experience. Just adhering to an Apocalypse World like insistence to "make the world seem real" will get you through half the battle. Cause and effect, action and reaction, in the short and the long term is at the core of sandbox play in my opinion.

My introduction to rpgs was using the Moldvay Basic Set (pink box) to run module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands when I was thirteen. While not being explicit in many ways regarding technique and procedure, I think it made a pretty decent road map for learning how sandbox play operates. B2 contains many, if not most, of the elements you mention and there are brief guidelines concerning the way many of the factions and individuals may react to interference or other actions of the PCs and how the area may change over time.

I should probably note that no one taught my friends and I how to play nor was D&D anywhere on our radar as a cultural thing (except maybe for the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which I had no idea at the time had anything to do with an actual game). This was in 1988 and for us "gaming" could only mean playing Nintendo. Which is actually the reason I discovered D&D at all. While a friend and I were digging through every nook and cranny in his room looking for the RF adapter for his Nintendo I came across this odd pinkish-purple box in a drawer where it was buried beneath a bunch of junk. My friend had put it there, unopened, after his grandmother had given it to him and basically forgot about it. He let me take it home to check it out and a few days later we were playing.

As for "sandbox play" as a term and an idea I think Ron is mostly correct, but that's because I don't think the basic elements and techniques of sandbox play have much of anything to do with things like setting size, how or when story is created, or set and standard procedures for setting change. My experience is that the core of the whole idea is "make the world seem real" and "let the players decide what is important". Those are your primary priorities as a sandbox GM. The rest is mostly a combination of flavoring to taste and the proclivities of the players. Oh, and improvisation. Lots of improvisation.

I'm looking forward to your further posts, James.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on October 28, 2011, 09:46:37 PM
Thanks C.!  I hope to talk about my own experiences with Keep on the Borderlands in a couple of posts' time.  It's worth discussing, but I want to do a data dump too!

Phase Two: The Glantri Game
As my own Black Peaks game wound down, one of my players, Eric, began his own campaign, set in the Principalities of Glantri, a canonical piece of the Basic D&D sample setting.  It was introduced in a single paragraph in X1: The Isle of Dread, written by Cook and Moldvay, which shipped with the Blue Expert rules just as B2 shipped with most of the Basic rules.  As introduced here, Glantri is a bunch of minor princedoms ruled by a magocracy--sort of like the petty wizard kingdoms you'd expect in The Dying Earth.  (Curiously, Eric had no knowledge that Glantri had been turned into a 100-page setting book (http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/miscpages/gaz.html) late in Basic D&D's product lifecycle, and I believe he disregarded all of it.)  Eric described the Principalities as decadent wizardlings recovering from a magical civil war that left much of the place in ruins, with a culture similar to medieval France.

As a player, I don't have a lot of insight into how Eric set up his sandbox, though I suspect he was thinking along the lines I outlined above.  From a player's point of view, at first we had a town, and a nearby ruined Wizard's Tower.  Eric hinted at some other options, but we knew the Wizard's Tower a little bit, so we wanted to leverage that knowledge for profit.  Sometimes the setting's evolution resulted in classic stories that became legendary in our group. (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/legend-of-the-boss/)

Sometime around Session 12, things got busy for me and I stopped coming to the weekly games, and there was almost a complete turnover of players.  The new guys have now played for 90 sessions--sometimes dropping out, sometimes dropping back in--and have built up impressive accomplishments that I don't totally understand.  Major locales in the game involve the Keep on the Borderlands, Quasqueton, and Eric's home-made "mega-dungeon" the Chateau d'Amberville (no relation to X2).  The players are free to move between these locations, often deciding their next moves based on how hot things are in town. 

One recent subplot involved a Throne of Gender-Bending and some kind of curse that shrank a Fighter into a Halfling.  This led to an epic overland and nautical journey to find a goddess who could grant a wish, while other allies stayed behind and got mixed up in political intrigues relating to the mega-dungeon.  These plotlines converged recently, and for Session 100 the party was finally reunited. 

Eric's game has a reputation.  Low-level D&D, by the book, is brutal as hell.  (Look up the stats for the Killer Bee!  Who the hell designs something like that?)  But Eric, as DM, is often very adversarial.  I suspect this is an instinct from Story Games, where for a while many games encouraged players to look for the conflict of interest in a scene and play toward that.  Frankly, when I'm kicking back in a D&D town, I don't want to take guff from the bartender, when I've just delivered the carcass of a 6 HD crocodile-demon that can be hung over the bar--that's not the time for the dude to deny me a free drink.  The upside, however, is that the dudes who have stuck it out are men.  They are shivering in the cold and rain, amid the howling of wolves, telling each other encouraging tales of the White Boxers zipping between dimensions to argue with Death.

Value Added
So here's a thing I've noticed in my own game, and in both of the longer-running D&D games.  Despite being ostensibly "go anywhere" games, players want to go to the same dungeon, over and over again.  In the early Glantri game, we could not get enough of that Wizard Tower.  The n00bs (who have been playing like 9 times longer than me by this point) usually can't get enough of the Chateau.  Same's true in Tavis's 0e game.  I think what happens is that the most dangerous thing in D&D is ignorance.  Once you know something, you can exploit that knowledge if you're clever enough, so there's this feedback loop that encourages repeated delving.  Once the looting begins to peter out, people get anxious to find richer plunder.

Theory Wrangling[/u]
C. Edwards wrote:
Quote
Just adhering to an Apocalypse World like insistence to "make the world seem real" will get you through half the battle. Cause and effect, action and reaction, in the short and the long term is at the core of sandbox play in my opinion. . . . My experience is that the core of the [sandbox] idea is "make the world seem real" and "let the players decide what is important". Those are your primary priorities as a sandbox GM. The rest is mostly a combination of flavoring to taste and the proclivities of the players. Oh, and improvisation. Lots of improvisation.

I am not sure that I would phrase it that broadly.  For me, "make the world seem real," free will, and fictional cause-and-effect are practically the definition of imagining yourself as another person in another place.  To use Forge jargon, I think it's the essence of Exploration itself.  I hope to talk about a Traveller game, railroaded to hell, where the inability to explore beyond the railroad pretty much prevented me from playing the game at all.  (I think in terms of Ron's essay, this type of Story Before play stomped all over my free will and complicated the act of playing.  I realize this can be finessed, but usually by getting the players to agree that free will isn't all it's cracked up to be, at least on important issues.) 

So I think sandboxing is more than just "Exploration" in the Forge sense.  In theory every RPG is delivering that if it's functioning at all.  I suspect sandboxing is a particular technique within that broader framework.  More at some later time.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: C. Edwards on October 29, 2011, 12:26:04 AM
So here's a thing I've noticed in my own game, and in both of the longer-running D&D games.  Despite being ostensibly "go anywhere" games, players want to go to the same dungeon, over and over again.  In the early Glantri game, we could not get enough of that Wizard Tower.  The n00bs (who have been playing like 9 times longer than me by this point) usually can't get enough of the Chateau.  Same's true in Tavis's 0e game.  I think what happens is that the most dangerous thing in D&D is ignorance.  Once you know something, you can exploit that knowledge if you're clever enough, so there's this feedback loop that encourages repeated delving.  Once the looting begins to peter out, people get anxious to find richer plunder.

This is my experience as well, and I think it helps add some predictability and manageability (for the GM) to the otherwise free-roaming nature of sandbox play. Curiosity and the desire to overcome a particular challenge may also account for part of this behavior. I've always associated this incremental player knowledge gain with platformers like Megaman. For every time you lose a life you learn something new about your environment and how to interact with it successfully. This knowledge results in you being able to go farther each time before losing a life. Eventually you learn enough to make it to the big boss. Beating the boss may take several cycles of life loss and knowledge gain. That association is probably part of the reason that the lethality of the older versions of D&D doesn't bother me.

C. Edwards wrote:
Quote
Just adhering to an Apocalypse World like insistence to "make the world seem real" will get you through half the battle. Cause and effect, action and reaction, in the short and the long term is at the core of sandbox play in my opinion. . . . My experience is that the core of the [sandbox] idea is "make the world seem real" and "let the players decide what is important". Those are your primary priorities as a sandbox GM. The rest is mostly a combination of flavoring to taste and the proclivities of the players. Oh, and improvisation. Lots of improvisation.

I am not sure that I would phrase it that broadly.  For me, "make the world seem real," free will, and fictional cause-and-effect are practically the definition of imagining yourself as another person in another place.  To use Forge jargon, I think it's the essence of Exploration itself.  I hope to talk about a Traveller game, railroaded to hell, where the inability to explore beyond the railroad pretty much prevented me from playing the game at all.  (I think in terms of Ron's essay, this type of Story Before play stomped all over my free will and complicated the act of playing.  I realize this can be finessed, but usually by getting the players to agree that free will isn't all it's cracked up to be, at least on important issues.) 

So I think sandboxing is more than just "Exploration" in the Forge sense.  In theory every RPG is delivering that if it's functioning at all.  I suspect sandboxing is a particular technique within that broader framework.  More at some later time.

You're right, that's some pretty broad phrasing. Let me see if I can narrow down what I mean. In my mind it's like the difference between filming a movie on location or filming it on a set. On location: during play you know there is a wider, functioning world out there even if you never make an effort to learn about it. On set: during play you know that straying too far outside the frame of what is relevant to "the adventure" (even if you don't exactly know what "the adventure" entails) will reveal the limits of the facade that confine your character. It's not so much about exercising the freedom of going anywhere or doing anything as it is about simply having that freedom. It's the freedom of all your choices as a player being relevant. Maybe not exciting, maybe not smart, maybe not dramatic, but relevant. That can only happen if the GM is committed to portraying a (hopefully) complex world no matter where the PCs go or what they do, instead of creating an adventure path for the PCs to trundle down like a blind man with a cane.

I think the idea of sandbox play sounds overwhelming to a lot of people but, as you've pointed out, there are emergent properties that tend to confine the bounds of play. Throw in some useful procedures or techniques and away you go.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Abkajud on October 29, 2011, 07:24:39 AM
I always took "Make the world seem real" to mean "The world must have its own logic; when the GM declares that X occurs, it must appear that there is good reason, or at least a reason, for X to occur, rather than X coming out of the blue or feeling contrived."
It goes back to being able to trust the GM to faithfully referee your game - is zhe just cribbing from some hidden notes and forcing plot to happen because zhe came up with it on hir lunch break on Friday and is now invested in seeing it realized in play? Or is zhe just taking notes on play as it happens, and thinking about how to introduce these elements again later?

This also goes back to issues of whether a pre-made plot is acceptable to the group, or not. Pre-made stuff can definitely make the world feel more complex, but in my experience only a really skillful GM can take something devised in isolation from actual play and make it feel alive. I'm not talking about having blurbs or writeups for locations along the course of the adventure, or even having ideas and stat-blocks for encounters in the adventure. I'm talking about being able to use such elements independent of the passage of in-game time, of the course of in-game events, etc.

In Apocalypse World, "Make the world seem real" is about gaining credibility with the players so that when you pull a Hard Move on them, they aren't upset and confused at this turn of events, but rather they say, "Yeah, haha, I should have seen that one coming!" Best of all, you don't have to be a master MC to pull it off - the Moves help you become good at MCing.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on October 29, 2011, 08:45:30 AM
Phase 3: White Boxin'
In early 2009 as Eric's Glantri game began picking up steam, a new player named Tavis began running a monthly "0e" game.  The major framework of play is the 3 Little Brown Books of 1974, but we've got a smattering of 1e, Arduin, Basic, and the occasional bit of 2e or 3e thrown in for good measure.  In keeping with the eclectic rules, Tavis's setting is a kitchen-sink 1970's DAW paperback world, which I've taken to calling "acid fantasy."  Our map, with 40 sessions of work, is here (http://redbox.wikidot.com/outdoor-survival-white-sandbox-map); much of the action for the first 30 sessions concerned the Lost City, based on Paul Jaquays's classic 1978 module, The Caverns of Thracia.  (The fussy notations on the north of the map reflect recent stuff I've missed out on.)

Tavis's game is by far the most open-ended campaign world I've ever been in.  The Black Peaks game and the Glantri game were open-ended, in the sense that Eric and I were committed to following along with player initiative.  But I, and possibly Eric too, don't handle improv especially well: I can do it but it's work sometimes.  Tavis, on the other hand, has mastered and internalized about a zillion random tables, and knows his inspirations so well that even if some detail isn't prepped he can infer it.  On the other hand, Tavis tries to save effort by incorporating published modules, typically old Judges Guild stuff which tends to adopt the same acid fantasy aesthetic, as the main focus of play.  (I'm not sure we've ever played in a Tavis-designed dungeon.) 

This has been a lot of fun to play in, but we don't always do as much playing as I would like.  Taking Gygax's suggested number of players from Men & Magic into account ("At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts"), Tavis plays with a very large group, often 10-15 people.  This makes it almost impossible to reach consensus, particularly when the more risk-averse long-timers start to fret over the optimal way to handle a situation.  Typically this group plays for 6 hours a month, the first 2 hours of which are spent deciding what to do, and then up to 1 hour prepping to do it.  (I would purposefully arrive 3 hours late, ready to rock.)

So that's one peril of extreme laid-back sandboxing "you tell me what you're doing" style of play: if the Dungeon Master takes no social control over the deliberation process, you can end up with analysis-paralysis situations.  Tavis doesn't see it as his role to ramrod people.  Rather, the group will organically evolve its own procedures for reaching decisions that are optimized for the preferences of the regular players.  People who don't like it will self-select out, as I largely have.  (I don't agree with this, but it seems to be philosophy.)

Part of the reason decision-making takes so long is that there are so many choices, so many character-driven priorities, and so many setting-ramifications to think through.   Taking the planning process on-line didn't help (warning: 8 pages of hand-wringing bullshit.) (http://redbox.wikidot.com/forum/t-312209)  There can be a point where the setting is too complex, or at least, where the "adventuring party" is so heterogeneous in its desires that it's hard to figure out how to interact with a highly responsive setting.

However!  Once play begins, and everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing, it's a very solid, entertaining time.  I am not sure if this qualifies as "Story After" play as Ron's defined it.  For me, there are about 3 hours of greatness in a 6 hour social event, but really, only about half of those 6 hours are spent in play; the rest is more like lightly-RP'd fussing over the menu.  I don't find that entertaining, so I'm not considering it part of the greatness; but it keeps happening so I presume it serves some purpose for others.  The delving is fun, action-packed, and almost always entertaining in the moment; we're not revising stuff, other than to chop out the tedious "tune up the orchestra" phase of play. 

"Fuck the Adventurer"?  Fuck You!
In his essay, Ron writes:
Quote
I will now provide a set of concepts and practices to bring out what seem to me to be these games’ best
features for setting-centric Story Now play. The idea is to embrace the setting as a genuine, central
source of the colorful thematic dilemmas explicit in the games’ introductory text, and to resist the
retraction and retreat to comparatively tame Story Before which are explicit in the later GM-advice and
scenario-preparation text. . . .

[snip]

Make player-characters in it. In doing so, drive this into your brain: fuck “the adventurer.”
• Not all types of characters described in the character creation options are OK. They need to be
characters who would definitely be at that location, not just someone who could be there. They
have something they ordinarily do there, and are engaged in doing it.
• All characters, player-characters too, have lives, jobs, families, acquaintances, homes, and
everything of that sort. Even if not native to that location, they have equivalents there.
• Player-characters do not comprise a “team.” They are who they are, individually. Each of them
carries a few NPCs along, implied by various details, and those NPCs should be identified. It is
helpful for at least one, preferably more of them to be small walking soap operas.

I see what Ron is saying here: in order to really dig into the setting the way cleats dig into a soccer pitch, the adventurer can't be some nameless, rootless wanderer with no interests, friendships, or whatever.  This may be true in games aiming for Narrativist goals, and I can certainly see an argument that even when it's not strictly necessary it should be best practice.  But I think it overlooks some stuff, at least specifically in the contest of historically revisionist OSR D&D play. (Of course, that style of play isn't explicitly aiming at Narrativism, so maybe it's not a counter-example after all.)

Judging from our own extensive play, and about a zillion blogs recounting the same experience, D&D characters enter the world as six attribute scores, a class, an alignment, and a name.  That's not a lot to go on!  Maybe the player comes up with a half-ass backstory that the DM integrates into the setting, or not.  But D&D characters are passionately, tragically, achingly plugged into the setting: they are all drug-addicts, fiending for gold like Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre

On first arriving anywhere:
* Who's got the most gold?
* How well is it guarded?
* What are the reprisals?
* Who will benefit from us robbing this guy, and therefore might shelter us?

For example, in Tavis's White Box game, we've got a pretty good idea that the Necromancer has a ton of treasure.  But he also keeps level-draining Wraiths trapped in crystals to throw as grenades against intruders.  We're terrified of level-drains, and don't have enough high-level Clerics to feel confident against a large number of Wraiths, so we have left the Necromancer alone until very recently.  In the Glantri game, people quickly realized that B1: In Search of the Unknown had really shitty treasure, so we kicked that place to the curb and only go back when we're
You can even draw up a list of expected treasure values (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/pillaging-by-the-numbers-1/), and then if you're really bored, try to weight that against the expected difficulty (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/pillaging-by-the-numbers-2/) to figure out the juiciest targets.  The point is that "D&D adventuring" (i.e., drug addiction) is an immediate hook into the setting.  (When "adventuring" isn't synonymous with drug addiction, as in Alternity or, I don't know, GURPS, I think Ron's points acquire greater force.)

Additionally, Tavis's game features "carousing rules" based on Jeff Rients's house rules (http://jrients.blogspot.com/2008/12/party-like-its-999.html) (which in turn were based off concepts from an old Dragon article, "Orgies, Inc.").  The idea is that you're a dude with a lot of gold burning a hole in your pocket, and you don't earn XP until you piss it away--and the process of doing so might get you into trouble leading to further adventures. (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/why-i-ate-eagle-dung/)  This can be seen as a mechanical way to generate the friends/enemies/relationships that Ron mentions in his essay, plowing the reward system into generating new predicaments.  Eric has adopted similar rules, though I think the mechanics differ.

But I also think that this stuff happens over time, even with PC's who don't have roots.  It takes a while--probably 5 sessions or so--but in that time, rivalries and so on will naturally spring up.  This assumes, of course, a long period of play. 


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on October 29, 2011, 12:36:10 PM
The topic is very dense and I've got real world stuff to focus on, but I'm reading. Also, this:

So that's one peril of extreme laid-back sandboxing "you tell me what you're doing" style of play: if the Dungeon Master takes no social control over the deliberation process, you can end up with analysis-paralysis situations.  Tavis doesn't see it as his role to ramrod people.  Rather, the group will organically evolve its own procedures for reaching decisions that are optimized for the preferences of the regular players.  People who don't like it will self-select out, as I largely have.  (I don't agree with this, but it seems to be philosophy.)

Our campaign is just like this, except it's only been going for around 40 sessions so far. Great fun, and as the GM I can underwrite the notion of letting the players coordinate themselves. The planning bit is quality entertainment in itself, we often have similar 20-50% shares of the session dedicated to doing party logistics, sorting information and deciding on the next adventure and its parameters. I read that planning thread just now, would love to play in that group!

My advice to players who think that we're getting stuck on minutiae has been boldness and initiative: seize leadership, make some snap judgments and get the party off into the dungeon - the GM doesn't need your planning, he's quite happy to run the game from the moment we sit down at the table. Dying might be losing, but it's not failing in the ultimate agenda of having fun.

That wiki inspires me, I should see about moving the planning process for our campaign to the Internet at some point. Something light-weight to begin with, the teenagers aren't often too sorted with web community tools.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on October 29, 2011, 02:47:29 PM
Eero wrote:
Quote
we often have similar 20-50% shares of the session dedicated to doing party logistics, sorting information and deciding on the next adventure and its parameters. I read that planning thread just now, would love to play in that group!

Wow.  That thread was killing me.  I think there's this trick of parliamentary procedure where, if you just go around in circles long enough, weaker-willed participants will eventually give up: "Just make a decision, I don't care so long as this meeting ends!"  Sometimes it feels like that to me, but obviously other players in that same thread loved it.  But I think it's all sorted itself out, and everyone is happy.

Thinking about this a little more, about how to define a sandbox.  Perhaps a sandbox is a medium for play?  You've got a world, and within that world there are these dungeons where a lot of any particular session occurs.  But when the session is not occurring (both literally, as in you're away from the table, but also when you're just bullshitting about what to do next), you've stepped back one level and are inhabiting the sandbox. 

So the sandbox has some descriptive qualities: "The Lost City of Thracia contains Ontussa the Sphinx, who was enslaved by the Necromancer Ashur Ram."  Right?  Stuff to see and things that can be done.  Backstory.  Ancient history.  Connective tissue between the dungeons, and between a dungeon and a town.

But it also has a procedural or prescriptive component: the sandbox is what the players choose to do, in the order they choose to do it.  The descriptive stuff in the setting (the map of Scather's Hoard, the politics of the Nameless City) largely comes into existence in response to players' meanderings, both as preparation and response. 

I'm setting up to discuss B2: Keep on the Borderlands a bit, but that also segues into historical discussion.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: C. Edwards on October 29, 2011, 07:24:53 PM
The planning aspect of play I tend to think of as "The Hannibal Factor", as in the A-Team, as in "I love it when a plan comes together." It's not something I mind, and I think that the creativity and imagination that often goes into planning and a positive return on that planning are part of the draw of play. Part of the implicit reward cycle I guess. But then I wouldn't run a game for ten of fifteen players at one time either. That's just not something I have any desire to do. Either tweaking the rules, or using rules that are less likely to hand your ass to you would probably cut down quite a bit on how much planning players feel is necessary.

James wrote:
Quote
Thinking about this a little more, about how to define a sandbox.  Perhaps a sandbox is a medium for play?

That makes a lot of sense to me, and would explain why at a higher level (including the factors Ron mentions in his essay) individual examples of sandbox play can vary so much.



Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Abkajud on October 29, 2011, 07:46:20 PM
Wasn't "sandbox" a direct response to the old way of having the players on a rail straight for the dungeon?

In my experience, people sign up to play a game of D&D on the basis that they're going to be led straight to the adventure and walked through it in a sort of slightly-detached "tour guide" kind of way. This is not as much the case with games of 0e, as it seems the OSR crowd has encouraged people to play early editions with more of a daring, explorative flair.

As I recall it, and as it's been used in MMORPGs, a "sandbox" is a game setting that you're allowed to explore, without being told what the plot is, by the GM. The level of prep can be high or low; the only necessity is that there is a means of prepping or improvising the details of the setting as they come under scrutiny through play. It doesn't strongly correlate to Creative Agenda per se; the motivations for playing a sandbox game can vary greatly.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: David Berg on October 29, 2011, 11:00:19 PM
I feel that the groups with whom I've used the term "sandbox" have meant the same thing by it (which may be my fault):

Player choice about which large-scale endeavors the character will undertake out of multiple viable options.

My fellow players who have expressed enthusiasm for "sandbox" have mostly been enthusiastic about (a) choosing the situations of play, and (b) doing so in character (or at least guided by their characters).  "Here's what my character's like and what he wants, and he's going to assess his environment and decide what's the best way to pursue that.  But, uh, I don't want to spend forever on this, so, GM, give me some coherent options, would ya?"  In my experience, this attitude extends throughout play -- the same players who want to pick their dungeon also want to pick whether to complete their chosen dungeon now or after leaving to fetch more supplies. 

I believe this narrows down the field somewhat in terms of Story When and dictates a few details of what constitutes an appropriate setting.  Sandbox Story Before is an extremely tough challenge for the GM.  Story Now usually seems to come from a different player mindset than what I've described; not that it can't be sandboxy, but, well, I haven't seen it.  Story After, on the other hand, is an easy and natural fit in the sandbox.  As for setting, the ideal is a quest-generator keyed into the characters' desires.

So, there's my data point. 

James, I intend to read everything you've written here and respond at some point!  I dig the topic.  Just kinda busy right now.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: David Berg on October 29, 2011, 11:31:52 PM
...and, I can't resist chiming in on the planning meetings.  I've found the line between feature and bug to be paper thin.  I love an energetic review of past achievements, present options, future goals, and a collaborative creation of an exciting way forward.  I hate aimless speculation and accounting.

Two systems I was about to test in Delve before my move disbanded our game:

1) First person to get tired debating what to do plops a token on the table and gives a proposal for what to do right now.  Anyone else who wants to propose anything else (including continuing the discussion) must match the ante.  This goes around the table in rounds until everyone gives but one, and that one person gets there way.  Tokens would have been accrued by some related performance -- e.g. coming up with good ideas of stuff for the group to do.  This method applies most to strategy/tactics sessions with minimal but non-zero time pressure.

2) Keep a to-do list 6 adventures long.  At a meeting, each player rates each adventure in order of enthusiasm and urgency from 1 (min) to 6 (max).  From these, 3 adventures are considered: highest Enthusiasm, highest Urgency and highest Total.  Each of these 3 is then rated as "actionable right away" or "needs more information".  A simple vote is taken on whether to (a) pursue more info (usually in a fast-forward or with some divination power) before deciding or (b) cross off the "need more info" options.  Vote on the remaining options.  This method applies most to late-campaign situations where there are dozens of possibilities for the party.

I'd link the actual worksheets I made for these, but I can't find them right now...


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on October 31, 2011, 09:09:57 AM
Wasn't "sandbox" a direct response to the old way of having the players on a rail straight for the dungeon?

The way the question is worded, I can't tell the context you're talking about.  Certainly in 2011 this style of play is a rejection of the last 25 years or so of mainstream adventure/scenario design.  Whether this style of play circa 1975-1985 was a rejection to similar railroading, I don't know--I wasn't gaming back then--but I would tend to doubt it. 

If people want to discuss the early history of D&D with respect to this type of play, preferably from actual experience, I'm cool with that.  But it's not my primary focus.  If it turns out that nobody played this way in 1974 ("sandbox," as a term, appears to come from relatively recent video games (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4081/the_history_and_theory_of_sandbox_.php), so maybe the idea behind it is brand new), it wouldn't change the fact that in 2011 these procedures work reasonably well. 

B2: Keep on the Borderlands in Actual Play
Because Ron singles this one out, I thought I'd talk about it a bit.  Players in our gang like to compose session summaries.  They're listed here, (http://redbox.wikidot.com/glantri-session-summaries) mostly in the Ruined Vale section.  More concise summaries are here, (http://redbox.wikidot.com/glantri-adventure-timeline) around Sessions 8-14 + 21.  In a single sentence: we found the inhabitants of the Keep insufficiently deferential, befriended an evil wizard, and suffered mightily in the Caves of Chaos before giving up.

I participated in most of these sessions.  As experienced, Keep on the Borderlands is a pretty good model for sandbox play.  You've got:
  • a base of operations, the Keep, swarming with NPCs.  (Curiously, the authors give them hit points but not names.  Stop giving us bad ideas, Gary!)  By default the Keep is a safe, friendly place, but we briefly discussed whether it made more sense to sack the place rather than risk our lives in the dungeons.  (Answer: no.  The problem with Lawful people is that they are extremely organized.)
  • Surrounding the Keep is a wilderness, about as far as people can explore in a few days.  In that wilderness are several different zones, some of which are linked to rumors provided to the players.  Eric used one of these rumors to introduce B1: In Search of the Unknown to one portion of the map, which apparently is pretty commonly done.
  • The main action can be found in the nearby Caves of Chaos, occupied by a zillion tribes of monsters.  As we experienced the module, some of these tribes are better organized than others, and the evil Wizard who's apparently running the show is very reactive, taking precautions as needed.

It was reasonably entertaining, but hard as hell, the rewards were pitiful, and (for me) the evolution of the situation wasn't always grabby enough--I know the situation wasn't static behind the scenes, but it sometimes felt static on-stage, so to speak.

B2: Keep on the Borderlands as Teaching Text
Ron's essay is mildly critical of deriving ideas about sandbox style play from "imaginative notions about what it's like, or must have been like, to play Keep on the Borderlands."  I'm not sure how many people are doing this--it is perhaps the most widely played module in the history of the hobby, not only on original publication but especially within the revivalist community.  But even if people are simply theorizing, I don't see it as inappropriate.  B2: Keep on the Borderlands is extraordinarily precise about exactly how it is to be used.  In the early days of the hobby, designers' intent has rarely been communicated more clearly.

Throughout its early history, Dungeons & Dragons was pretty much horrible at telling people how to actually, y'know, play the game.  0e was a disorganized mess and successful play seems to have been passed along by word-of-mouth.  In 1979 AD&D came along and really wasn't much better.  There's an extended example of play on pages 97-100 of the DMG, but not very much about what campaigns are actually like in play.  (Lots of information on the world-building aspect of campaigns, though.)  There are some snippets in the 1e DMG suggesting a sandbox style of play, particularly on pages 86-87, but it's far from explicit.  The 1978 Holmes Basic rules don't really address the topic, and neither does the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules, though it does have some good procedures for designing a dungeon.

So B2: Keep on the Borderlands is pretty much the first, sustained effort at a teaching text to campaign play.  (B1: In Search of the Unknown performs a similar function for stocking a dungeon.)  B2 was shipped with, I believe, all printings of the Moldvay rules, and though Gygax's name is listed on the cover, it looks like practically everyone at TSR at the time was involved in "revising" or "editing" it. 

And what does it have to say for itself?

Quote
Using the KEEP as “home base”, your players should be able to have quite a number of adventures (playing sessions) before they have exhausted all the possibilities of the Caves of Chaos map. . . . In fact, before they have finished all the adventure areas of this module, it is likely that you will have begun to add your own separate maps to the setting. The KEEP is only a small section of the world.  You must build the towns and terrain which surround it. You must shape the societies, create the kingdoms, and populate the countryside with men and monsters.

The KEEP is a microcosm, a world in miniature. Within its walls your players will find what is basically a small village with a social order, and will meet opponents of a sort. Outside lies the way to the Caves of Chaos where monsters abound. As you build the campaign setting, you can use this module as a guide. Humankind and its allies have established strongholds - whether fortresses or organized countries - where the players’ characters will base themselves, interact with the society, and occasionally encounter foes of one sort or another. Surrounding these strongholds are lands which may be hostile to the bold adventurers.  Perhaps there are areas of wilderness filled with dangerous creatures, or maybe the neighboring area is a land where chaos and evil rule

Quote
After the group establishes itself and obtains equipment, they will either follow clues gained in conversation with residents of the KEEP or set out exploring on their own (or both).  Naturally, they will be trying to find the Caves of Chaos, but this will take some travelling, and in the meantime they might well run into more than they can handle. Thus there are two maps - an AREA MAP for use when the party searches for the caves, and the CAVES OF CHAOS MAP which is a dungeon level map.


Quote
TRIBAL ALLIANCES AND WARFARE: You might allow player characters to somehow become aware that there is a constant fighting going on between the goblins and hobgoblins on one side and the orcs, sometimes with gnoll allies, on the other - with the kobolds hoping to be forgotten by all, and the bugbears picking off any stragglers who happen by. With this knowledge, they might be able to set tribes to fighting one another, and then the adventurers can take advantage of the weakened state of the feuding humanoids. Be careful to handle this whole thing properly; it is a device you may use to aid players who are few in number but with a high level of playing skill. It will make it too easy if there are many players, or if players do not actually use wits instead of force when the opportunity presents
itself.

MONSTERS LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE: Allow intelligent monsters (even those with only low intelligence) to learn from experience. If player characters use flaming oil against them, allow the monsters to use oil as soon as they can find some. If adventurers are always sneaking up on them, have the monsters set warning devices to alert them of intruders. If characters run from overwhelming numbers, have the monsters set up a ruse by causing a few to shout and make noise as if there were many coming, thus hopefully frightening off the intruders. This method of handling monsters is basic to becoming a good DM. Apply the principle wherever and  whenever you have reason.

EMPTIED AREAS: When monsters are cleared out of an area, the place will be deserted for 1-4 weeks. If no further intrusion is made into the area, however, the surviving former inhabitants will return or else some other monster will move in. For instance, a thoul might move into the minotaur’s cave complex.

There are also specific notes about how the Caves of Chaos will change in response to player depredations.  For example:
Quote
(DM Note: Orc losses cannot be replaced, but after an initial attack by adventurers, the males at location 10. will move four of their number into area 9., arm these orcs with crossbows, and lay an ambush for intruders. If the leader is slain, all surviving orcs from this locale will seek refuge with the tribe at C. (see below), taking everything of value (and even of no value) with them, and B. will thereafter be deserted.)

All of which indicate to me that B2: Keep on the Borderlands is trying very hard to teach its users a particular style of play in which the PC's, operating from a  safe but not boring base town, plan raids on a menu of nearby dungeons (i.e., largely unconstrained choose from a menu of small-scale "Situations"), and then the environment updates itself in response to players' deeds.   

Now, when I was setting up the Black Peaks game in early 2008, I hadn't read or played Keep on the Borderlands, but I pretty much did the same thing independently.  (Well, maybe Robbins's West Marches was built off this module, I don't know.)  So I think inspirations for sandbox-style play go back to the early 1980's if not earlier, and if people want to use this module as an inspiration or teaching text, I don't think that's too far off from original intent. 

(Historical things worth chasing down for comparative purposes but outside the scope of this essay: Douglas Niles's section on campaign design in the otherwise worthless Dungeoneer's Survival Guide; this section was edited and reprinted in Paul Jaquays's 2e-era Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide.  The rules for wilderness design in the 1981 Expert Set by Cook & Marsh.  And 2e's failure to explain itself, which seems like one of the worst unforced errors in the history of gaming.)

Value Added: Melan's Diagrams
Check something out here: Here's Melan's famous post about non-linear dungeon design. (http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/168563-dungeon-layout-map-flow-old-school-game-design.html)  Here's his map of the Caves of Chaos (but you should read the rest of his post, because it's really solid!)
(http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v198/Melan/KeepontheBorderlands.png)

See that flat base line?  IMO that's the essence of the sandbox.  And so long as that base line is there, it's okay to have linear things branching off (like the "D. Goblins" cave).  That cave permits for very little player choice, but it's tolerable since it's embedded in a very open macro-structure.  (You can also embed a sandbox-within-a-sandbox, which is what Keep on the Borderlands was within the larger structure of Eric's Glantri game.) 

Unrelatedly, our experience with the Keep on the Borderlands suggests that sometimes, all of the choices on the menu are unappetizing.  "Ugh, not an endless menu of poverty-stricken humanoids and bickering with the very uptight denizens of the Keep.  Let's get out of here."  So it's sometimes helpful to include an escape hatch, where you can jump one layer out and find some other sandbox to muck around in.  In the Glantri game, the players eventually ended up exploring Eric's mega-dungeon, which I know very little about.

James, Will You Ever Shut Up?
Soon!  I promise!  I think I've said everything I need to say about sandboxing as a functional style of play.  Hopefully there's enough here, either in the posts themselves or in linked examples, to provide a definition--the fact that C. Edwards, Dave Berg, and I all seem to be on the same page (and arguably on the same page with Gygax et al.--is very encouraging.

Having come this far, I want to talk about some failed sandboxes, pseudo-sandboxes, and Story When.  But I've got a lot of work to do later this week, and then I'm going to be traveling, so I won't be able to respond very frequently between now and November 14, 2011.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: contracycle on October 31, 2011, 11:02:25 AM
If people want to discuss the early history of D&D with respect to this type of play, preferably from actual experience, I'm cool with that.  But it's not my primary focus.  If it turns out that nobody played this way in 1974 ("sandbox," as a term, appears to come from relatively recent video games (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4081/the_history_and_theory_of_sandbox_.php), so maybe the idea behind it is brand new), it wouldn't change the fact that in 2011 these procedures work reasonably well. 

I don't know that it was a "reaction".  I would have thought this was pretty explicit in the text of the Expert set, from 1983:

"As a Dungeon Master, your D&D wilderness adventures will be far more challenging than a simple dungeon or two. For example, you should have a general idea of what is in each area of the wilderness, for the party may go anywhere! Although a few hints may help to guide the characters toward a desired area, you must be ready to make up minor details as needed, often during play."

That's from the Introduction.  Later text goes on to discuss the establishing of a (capitalised) Home Base for the players, mentions that the DM should prepare lairs for when PC's randomly bump into them, and populate wandering monster tables according to habitation zones.

It seems to me that this style of play, which we now call sandbox, was expressly a sort of "graduation" out of the dungeon.  Dungeons per se were training wheels for characters of level 1-3, and after that you got to go out into the big bad world.

The Companion set then introduced the tem "campaign", and discussed how to handle characters of significantly different levels.  It also contains "dominion" rules for the players to set up as territorial powers.  So by this point pretty much all the elements of "sandbox" play are explicitly present, and if we want an original term from before "sandbox" was adopted, that term would be "campaign".

So, in terms of the argument about where "sandbox" play comes from, I do not see it at all as a reaction to Story-based play of any kind.  The OSR has a pretty strong case when it argues, more or less, that this was the way D&D was "meant" to be played.  If anything, the opposite is true - story-oriented play was a reaction to the sandbox.

All this stuff did actually appear textually and people did play that way.  I certainly did, at any rate.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Abkajud on October 31, 2011, 12:06:59 PM
Hey James!
I'm almost certain that I got the term from video games and from RPGers who play video games (and thus, probably got the term from video games). Good point!

Admittedly, I wasn't clear on the time frame I was referring to, but I suppose talking in terms of time here is less important than talking in terms of, uh, traditions of play-styles, maybe?
That is to say, there has been (and still is) a great deal of play out there that consists of running the players through an adventure.
In terms of video games, sandbox play doesn't necessarily escape the railroading effect; it simply spreads it around - - in Grand Theft Auto 3, you can run around and fight and steal and get into all sorts of mischief, but once that gets old you have half a dozen or so different NPC camps you can meet up with, who will give you missions to complete.

Important: none of the missions are time-sensitive *except when you're in the middle of one*.
That is, if the Italian mafia has a mission that involves boosting cars from a particular convoy on a particular evening, you can run around and do "free play" as much as you like, and that car-jacking mission will still be there, waiting for you to take it.
Once you are on the mission, boosting said cars, you'll probably have some sort of time constraint that remains in effect until the mission is over, and then it's back to free play until you feel like taking on another mission. It's like you're still being railroaded, but not all the time, and you can choose which train route to take, to some extent. There are limits to the medium, of course.
In terms of video games, sandbox play is (for players, anyway) a reaction to rigid, linear plots found in the likes of, say, Final Fantasy 3. And yet, fascinatingly, diehard Final Fantasy geeks will gush over what they find to be amazing, tear-jerking stories they get to experience by playing those games.

This, of course, creates all kinds of terminological confusions over in our little end of the nerd-pond, as people hear "story" and think "linear, semi-rigid plot".

Going back and reading the rest of your response, I think we're on the same page. As for the problem of universally unpalatable options, I think it's possible that part of the term "sandbox" can mean/means that it is nonetheless a GM-determined structure, literally a big, open box around the PCs with stuff inside for them to do.

I read that and think about the linear plots I've been run through by GMs, and for me, the point of a sandbox is to create an adventure that's a lot harder to "break". I'm sure a lot of us have been there - - we prep something, we sit down with some players, and then at some point during play, we all can sense the ... limits of pre-planned adventure.

It's squatting right there in the middle of our social contract. And I think it's sitting there, looking at us, because of what Contra just said:

"It seems to me that this style of play, which we now call sandbox, was expressly a sort of "graduation" out of the dungeon.  Dungeons per se were training wheels for characters of level 1-3, and after that you got to go out into the big bad world."

When people are comfortable enough with the medium to do more than be led by the hand through the dungeon, but logistics, timing, getting everyone together, etc., means we have a tough time organizing a legit campaign that we're going to care about from month to month, and veteran players end(ed) up doing a lot of one-offs or single adventures that were easier to maintain interest in.
At least, that's been my experience. Heck, I'm lucky if I can get my local group to commit to picking up the same game two weeks in a row, let alone the same characters and plotline.

And now a quick derail: "If anything, the opposite is true - story-oriented play was a reaction to the sandbox." In turn, Story Now/Narrativism is/was a reaction to the "GM storytime" style, and that, imo, is why Story Now and OSR seem to be looking longingly at each other from across the dance floor. More precisely, Gamism and Story Now can pass each other in the hallway, pause, nod, and keep walking with a slight smile on their faces. But that's another subject.

-- Zac


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Callan S. on October 31, 2011, 12:54:45 PM
Quote
Unrelatedly, our experience with the Keep on the Borderlands suggests that sometimes, all of the choices on the menu are unappetizing.  "Ugh, not an endless menu of poverty-stricken humanoids and bickering with the very uptight denizens of the Keep.  Let's get out of here."  So it's sometimes helpful to include an escape hatch, where you can jump one layer out and find some other sandbox to muck around in.
Doesn't this come across as an incredibly uninspiring basis on which to write material/create content? Just in case someone goes "Ugh", you have to write out a whole new sandbox? And maybe they'll go Ugh to that as well, so you need another one or if you didn't, somehow you didn't provide?


Quote
I read that and think about the linear plots I've been run through by GMs, and for me, the point of a sandbox is to create an adventure that's a lot harder to "break". I'm sure a lot of us have been there - - we prep something, we sit down with some players, and then at some point during play, we all can sense the ... limits of pre-planned adventure.
What strikes me is that say, no one considers being a sorcerer, or a young zealot with a gun and a funny blanket on their back as some constricting limit. Presumably because it's written on the tin. While, although ostensibly the GM is supposed to go with his imagination and be creatively free as the wind, really he is incredibly constricted by any individual players sense of "this game isn't about that", which comes up as "Oh, we can feel a constricting limit here!" in the player. I mean, this even goes for D&D - why are dungeons not considered a constricting limit? Well, it's written on the tin. To me it points to the importance of indicating clearly, in advance, what things were doing now, with these people, in exclusion to anything else.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on October 31, 2011, 02:05:33 PM
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Unrelatedly, our experience with the Keep on the Borderlands suggests that sometimes, all of the choices on the menu are unappetizing.  "Ugh, not an endless menu of poverty-stricken humanoids and bickering with the very uptight denizens of the Keep.  Let's get out of here."  So it's sometimes helpful to include an escape hatch, where you can jump one layer out and find some other sandbox to muck around in.
Doesn't this come across as an incredibly uninspiring basis on which to write material/create content? Just in case someone goes "Ugh", you have to write out a whole new sandbox? And maybe they'll go Ugh to that as well, so you need another one or if you didn't, somehow you didn't provide?
Quote


In my experience this has never been a problem.  Early-edition Dungeons & Dragons was designed in such a way that creating new content--dungeons, monsters, spells, NPC's, whatever--is dirt-simple and extremely low-investment.  I'm typically noodling away on some side project in development.  If the players say, "Eh, let's try our luck elsewhere," it gives me an excuse to finish it and parade it out.  Alternately, at this point there are literally hundreds of one-page adventures (http://campaignwiki.org/wiki/DungeonMaps/One_Page_Dungeon_Contest) not to mention dozens of classic modules (http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/modcode.html).  And all of that assumes that the players are totally passive, instead of actively scheming to do new things in the setting which lead to new hijinks.  Coming up with new menu items has been trivially easy. 


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: contracycle on October 31, 2011, 02:52:12 PM
Well yeah, but that has the penalty of being disjointed and thematically contradictory.  I mean, "sandbox" surely doesn't have to mean a randomised collection of junk you happen to have laying about.  It would be a bit funny to be playing GTA and to find a mission to raid a kobold lair. So although there has been a history of unrelated content (vis. Barrier Peaks
) and genre-busting (gunpowder, dinosaurs), even getting slightly more coherent means that poetneital content has to be sifted and selected.  So I don't think  that it has been "trivially easy" at all; there may be a lot of stuff out there, but it may be that only a miniscule proportion of it is usable, and all too often the anything goes attitude has produced a lot of trash.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on October 31, 2011, 03:21:57 PM
Gareth, all I can tell you is about my own experience.  If you look at those modules, and at the one-pagers I mentioned, a whole big heaping helping of them assume a vanilla fantasy landscape.  Some of the ones that don't--X1: Isle of Dread and X8: Drums on Fire Mountain plus one of the 2010 One-Page Entries Den of Villainy plus D3: Vault of the Drow plus B4: The Lost City plus C3: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan all fit very well together if you wanted to do, say, a tropical island pulp adventure with ziggarauts built by a vanished, decadent civilization.  But you can harmonize these with a vanilla fantasy world if, like Tavis's White Sandbox game, your setting explicitly includes everything that's ever existed in D&D. 

I agree that you've got to sort through stuff, and occasionally rename some god or nation-state.  But this is very low-impact work.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Callan S. on October 31, 2011, 06:13:51 PM
Quote
In my experience this has never been a problem.  Early-edition Dungeons & Dragons was designed in such a way that creating new content--dungeons, monsters, spells, NPC's, whatever--is dirt-simple and extremely low-investment.
I have a strong instinct. And being an instinct, it could simply be firing in the wrong direction. But my instinct is that if it's dirt simple, then what you get is dirt simple? I mean, I can grab an old crossword and mark off where monsters are in the 'tunnels', sure. But it seems like alot of dice rolling and your done? And not necessarily with any sense of forfilling a win condition (I can, for example, play snakes and ladders just fine (which is alot of dice rolling), I feel some fun there, even though it's simple). I guess in terms of story after, ie picking the highlights of a whole session, it could fit with that?


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on November 01, 2011, 04:37:52 AM
Callan,
To be polite: the complexity in a sandbox game doesn't come from GM prep. You are killing monsters in tunnels.  It comes from players' hijinks, both in the tunnels and in-between delves as the world evolves.  This is a story of people killing things in tunnels and what happens in between. (http://redbox.wikidot.com/glantri-session-summaries)

I would remind you that, as stated in my first post, I have no interest in discussing counter-factuals based on instincts and analogies where they directly contradict my stated personal experience.  If others wish to do so, they are welcome. 

I would, however, love for you to discuss your own actual experience of sandbox play, or your own history of non-sandbox play with "early RPG" systems (i.e., D&D, Traveller, something of that vintage).  Or doing this with your actual play of indie games--I'm thinking that there's nothing exactly analogous on the indie scene, but Trollbabe and Apocalypse World come fairly close with some significant differences.  Alternately, given your experience with D&D 3.5 and D&D 4e, whether those games facilitate this style of play, and if not, why not.  The 4e "Points of Light" model, which many people were raving about in late 2008, has at least superficial elements of sandbox play: a large, hostile, perhaps unexplored wilderness, and players with hometown to which they have their own attachments.  The Nentir Vale, for example, strikes me as a perfectly adequate starting point for a sandbox, though I'd be curious if anyone plays it in an entirely player-directed way.  (The design of H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth seems to have some elements of this as well, but again, heavily shepherded through the GM's plot, at least as written.) 

I think there's a lot to discuss here that involves actual play, rather than what must be true a priori, and I'm eager to have that discussion.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: contracycle on November 01, 2011, 05:49:01 AM
Fair enough, but I just want to say this: that sample game you;ve got there epitomises everything I grew to hate about D&D.  You mention above that inability to go off the railroad prevented you from entering Exploration, in another game, but to me, introducing characters called Clamato and Chowder would have kicked me the hell out of exploration.

Now the point is this: none of this is inherently necessary to the sandbox style of play.  As the Gamasutra article you linked pointed out, sandboxing is often used as an excuse to skimp on high level design, while in fact it benefits greatly from strong high level design.  I think that was a big part of the development of the Ravenloft setting; it was still sandboxy, but it had a much stronger aesthetic running through it, established expectations more firmly.

I don't think "sandbox" should be conflated with "anything goes".  That isn't necessarily true.  I don't think it is true to say that complexity does not, in an absolute sense, arise from GM prep, and is all down to the "player's hijinks".  That stuff is functional in that yes, you can get people to play it.  If that floats your boat, cool.  But it also produced the sub-Renfair culture of Python jokes and fratboy socialisation which many people found alienating and dull.

I'm wary of presenting this sort of thing as a good representation of sandboxy play.  B2:KOTB is actually thematically very tight; a semi-random selection of modules and jokey monsters is not.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on November 01, 2011, 06:44:31 AM
Gareth wrote:
Quote
I just want to say this: that sample game you;ve got there epitomises everything I grew to hate about D&D.  You mention above that inability to go off the railroad prevented you from entering Exploration, in another game, but to me, introducing characters called Clamato and Chowder would have kicked me the hell out of exploration.
Gareth, as you'd see, those characters left the Glantri game almost immediately.  Eric, the DM, has told people, "You cannot name your character ________."  I have some reservations about this approach: early edition D&D makes it extremely perilous to take your character too seriously, because they can die in an instant. 

Quote
Now the point is this: none of this is inherently necessary to the sandbox style of play.  As the Gamasutra article you linked pointed out, sandboxing is often used as an excuse to skimp on high level design, while in fact it benefits greatly from strong high level design.  I think that was a big part of the development of the Ravenloft setting; it was still sandboxy, but it had a much stronger aesthetic running through it, established expectations more firmly.

If I've given that impression, it wasn't intentional.  I'm not saying design isn't important!  I was explicitly responding to Callan's assertion that it would be difficult or aggravating to generate new material when the players get bored with their current options.  It's super-duper-easy to generate stopgap stuff on your own in keeping with the aesthetic you established, or failing that to grab something off the shelf.  You asserted that stuff from off the shelf isn't easily adapted.  Well: so far it hasn't been too hard to adapt to aesthetics.  And then you asserted that things need to either be designed in keeping with the aesthetic or adapted.  I'm not sure what we're arguing about. 

None of this is to say that sandboxes or the dungeons within them must be, or should be, simple affairs.  There's a huge role for design if you want to design.  I've got, like, 45 pages of hardcore design notes on a new project.  High-level dominion play (operating your own kingdom, etc.) is largely hand-waved in most early versions of D&D.  What I'm mucking away on is an attempt to do that--starting out at 300,000 XP.  So typical things involve getting a land grant to explore and conquer unexplored territory, building a castle (subcontracting with Dwarves, finding them a supply of adamantite, dealing with a territorial dragon).  Managing a Thieves Guild war.  Researching magical items.  Fielding armies.  All that high-level stuff that is, at our present rate of advancement, decades away.  Thinking about these types of adventures requires back-designing a world where that kind of thing is meaningful and fun--so thinking about cultures, and how Detect Evil might get used in an Inquisition, a Lawful Evil Elven aristocrat who uses good-natured but blindly obedient Blink Dogs as his assassins, that kind of stuff. 

What you want to think about also is: geographical proximity,.  Do you want to keep some stuff further away until later?  What if you want to put a level in a nearby dungeon that you'll very likely only learn about from some adventurer's notebook squirreled away in some dungeon many miles away?  (This is a bad example of "connective tissue" for several reasons, but hopefully gets the point across.) 

So designing a sandbox can be a huge pain, but doesn't have to be.  (I'm doing it because I find it an entertaining set of design puzzles to solve in its own right, not because it's necessary to do it this elaborately.)  Remember: we're only talking about plucking (not-so-)random things off the internet because of a chain of nested hypotheticals about what do you do if players get bored of one part of the campaign.

Quote
I don't think it is true to say that complexity does not, in an absolute sense, arise from GM prep, and is all down to the "player's hijinks".  That stuff is functional in that yes, you can get people to play it.  If that floats your boat, cool.  But it also produced the sub-Renfair culture of Python jokes and fratboy socialisation which many people found alienating and dull.

I should have been more clear about "players hijinks." 

In Tavis's White Sandbox game, our favorite Magic-User PC, Maldoor, got killed.  Specifically: while leaving a dungeon we had a wandering encounter with a group of NPC's.  One of them polymorphed into a gargantuan Purple Worm, swallowed Maldoor, and digested him utterly.  (This is almost the very best thing you can do with a polymorph spell in 0e.  Maldoor became worm-poop--"super-killed" because you can't get resurrected from that, all due to the simple act of rolling a bunch of dice while bumping into monsters in a crossword puzzle. 

Maldoor's fate became a rallying cry for the rest of the party, because our next-best Magic-User is an inept doofus (played by me), and we really needed the guy back.  So we spent a lot of time in-game and on-line researching where Maldoor's soul had ended up, and what in the world we might do to retrieve it.  One of our Elves scored some fantasy-LSD to take us into the Astral Plane, and another researched an ancient goddess of dreams, introducing a new religion into the campaign world.  We'd rescued an extra-dimensional demi-urge several sessions ago, who helped us construct a return-portal once we found Maldoor's soul.  Along the way through the various planes, we defeated a couple of demons (which we'd never done before!) and I got humiliated in a riddle contest by a pair of Shedu (you have made a powerless enemy today, Shedu!) 

But more importantly, in the process of retrieving Maldoor, my inept Magic-User gradually assumed increasing responsibility in the party, and as a role-playing experience I ended up showing how he grew into the role of the primary Wizard--putting aside his usual scrambling to make "bad" spells useful, and going with raw power.  Meanwhile when we ran into some Astral Dragon Riders or something guarding Maldoor's soul, our Paladin leader was the only one who would joust them without cheating--and lost.  The conditions of the bet were that he would lose all of his magical items. 

So in the process of overcoming a bad roll of the dice, we (a) traveled to dimensions we'd never been before, (b) revived an ancient religion, (c) overcame extremely dangerous foes, (d) I made some lasting enemes, (e) I got to role-play a significant shift in my character's personality, (f) our "good guy" suffered serious consequences along the way. So the campaign was vastly enriched by players' response to a single unlucky die roll.  If the Purple Worm had rolled a 13 instead of a 14, Maldoor could have been raised by conventional means and none of this would have happened.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on November 01, 2011, 06:50:54 AM
And then in the very next session Maldoor got backstabbed by an invisible Giantess and died.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Caldis on November 01, 2011, 11:39:49 AM
My experience with those old D&D modules is markedly different.  I dont think it would count as sandboxy more like episodic, we have a bunch of characters they're all ready to go let's go hit this adventure, I think it was pretty much up to the DM which adventure we'd be going through but I sometimes remember a list of options and a kind of vote taking place.

A bit of background first.  We were pretty young when D&D came out, most of our groups born in 1969 or 1970.  I was first introduced at a friends place when a slightly older group of guys were running a game (one of the Against the Giants series of modules in 1980 or so?) handed a premade dwarven multiclass character and pretty much followed along.  Never played regularly with those guys again but we had enough fun that we started doing our own thing and picking up the books as they showed up on local store shelves, wasnt much at first but it became a lot soon enough.

So episodic adventures with whoever we could get to play usually about 4-6 players including the DM.  I dont think anybody really loved they idea of DMing and saw it more of a necessary evil so we tended to swap out the dm fairly frequently.  There was nothing in the way of an ongoing world ar at least nothing that had any relevance to play.   We played straight through an adventure until we completed it.  We rarely left a dungeon to resupply or anything, we'd sleep to heal setup camp and watches and the dm would roll for wandering monsters, which would provoke a fight and possibly more rest afterwards but was rarely deadly.   The C series of modules were pretty big for us and didnt really give you an option of running away and coming back later, Ghost tower of Inverness and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan were a couple early ones that we liked.  

We definitely didnt play the opposition as very smart.  The wandering monsters tended to stumble on to the party and just start fighting, no going back and getting reinforcements or anything like that (not sure that any modules made suggestions to do so).

Rather than learning the game from any specific module (I'm sure at one point I read most of that stuff in Keep on the Borderlands) we had the DM's Guide and the Players handbook, various Dragon Magazines, and a hodge podge of modules many of them for higher level characters.  I think this clutter had a big influence on our play style.  For one the DM's guide had the various methods of character generation.  Roll 4d6 drop the lowest was popular, when unearthed Arcana came out and the gonzo dice rolling method it brought came out things went mad.  Dragon magazines had a lot of nifty ideas and a lot of them added power to characters, making them better at surviving.  Magic users were always a bit wonky with their spell book restrictions and that table in the dm's guide for what spells were in their book to start.

We definitely didnt play as adversarial a game as the new OSR is advocating.  I dont think we were missing anything rather I think a mix of influences was swirling about that made the D&D scene at the time rather confusing.   The two modules that really stand out as examples of the sandbox play are B2 Keep on the Borderlands and T1 the Village of Hommlet but they were just a couple in a swarm of different influences.  


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: C. Edwards on November 01, 2011, 01:00:57 PM
James wrote:
Quote
...while leaving a dungeon we had a wandering encounter with a group of NPC's.
Encounter tables are important in so many ways. For one, and this goes to some of Callan's concerns about prep time and players deciding to do something else, they can buy the GM a lot of time. They can increase the play time it takes for the PCs to reach their next destination, giving the GM more time for at least minimal prep during play or delaying the journey long enough so that the next destination can be readied between sessions. They're also random injections of complexity and can end up generating whole swaths of play all on their own. James' example is a great showcase of that. You never know just how much complexity a random encounter will spawn until after it happens.

Callan wrote:
Quote
But my instinct is that if it's dirt simple, then what you get is dirt simple? I mean, I can grab an old crossword and mark off where monsters are in the 'tunnels', sure. But it seems like alot of dice rolling and your done?
While things may look simple on paper, the real complexity is injected when you add in people. The GM's contributions and the players' contributions turn two dimensions into three. This is pretty much how most roleplaying games I'm aware of function in play. If the players approach play in a non-ironic manner and the GM is doing the whole "make the world seem real" thing that GMs do, then "a few monsters in a tunnel" becomes pregnant with possibilities.

James wrote:
Quote
And then in the very next session Maldoor got backstabbed by an invisible Giantess and died.
Sounds like Maldoor was the weakest link. :)



Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: contracycle on November 01, 2011, 02:33:01 PM
If I've given that impression, it wasn't intentional.  I'm not saying design isn't important!  I was explicitly responding to Callan's assertion that it would be difficult or aggravating to generate new material when the players get bored with their current options.  It's super-duper-easy to generate stopgap stuff on your own in keeping with the aesthetic you established, or failing that to grab something off the shelf.  You asserted that stuff from off the shelf isn't easily adapted.  Well: so far it hasn't been too hard to adapt to aesthetics.  And then you asserted that things need to either be designed in keeping with the aesthetic or adapted.  I'm not sure what we're arguing about. 

Well, I'm disagreeing that it is super duper easy, except where the kitchen sink aesthetic applies.  Now of course there's no accounting for taste, but there is very little useful to my taste (social realism) out there.  The form to date has not IMO produced a wide range of aesthetics, it's just had a fairly consistent junkyard one; it looks easy only becuase its not being seriously attempted.

Now as you say, we're only talking about this because of a hypothetical that was raised, but I came in on that to make a slightly different specific point.  The basis of the thread was that the sandbox hasn't been sufficiently defined.  I'm suggesting is that part of the reason for that lack of definition is because of the junkyard aesthetic, which has operated in much the same way as the "golden rule" to muddy the waters.  I mean the very fact that someone could write and print and sell a module like Barrier Peaks, with its spaceship elements, shooting the hell out of any kind of pseudo-historical consistency, speaks volumes - and yet this is a bona fide Gygax module, introduced at a convention.

So this junkyard thing has always been about, has some authoritative basis, and so on.  I'm suggesting think that to define sandbox more precisely the junkyard aesthetic has to be separated out from the method of sandbox play, and not assumed to be folded into it, as it often is.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Tav_Behemoth on November 02, 2011, 07:00:17 AM
Contracycle, my experience as the GM of the White Sandbox is that the gonzo Acid Fantasy kitchen-sink approach James describes is indeed a necessary part of the method of sandbox play. When a player says "I want to be 23, a robot cleric who gets his spells from worshipping the Server, a vast computer at the center of the earth", for me to say yes to this - the aesthetic decision that anything can potentially fit into the setting - is part and parcel of me saying yes to the idea that if you go far enough down into a dungeon, you might be able to douse the Server's memory banks with flaming oil - the sandbox method that leaving the edges of everything undefined and having robust tools for creating what's there procedurally provides infinite scope to handle player-driven exploration.

As a player in the Glantri campaign, when I've been allowed to name a cleric the Boss and have him inspire his own religion, the sandbox sings for me - even though the result is essentially silly (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/legend-of-the-boss/), I enjoy taking it seriously, and the fact that it runs contrary to the tone of the game is part of the point: having GM Eric provide seriousness and drama is a necessary foil for our comic relief. When other players have been told that they can't name a character Sosexia, this to me feels like my agency and scope of action in the sandbox is limited; there aren't rails exactly, but now there are walls on the sandbox that will keep us from ever traveling to wherever Sosexia comes from and learning about a land where that's a normal name.

Acid fantasy is to my tastes, for sure, but I take issue with the idea that the only alternative aesthetic to social realism or pseudo-historical consistency is a dog's barf lowest-common denominator. A lot of work in the OSR and the Forge alike has gone into establishing how the original swords and sorcery canon makes a crashed spaceship a valid and exciting aesthetic vehicle for exploration; count the number of works in the reading guides of AD&D's Appendix N or Edward's Sword and Sorcerer where this would fit in just fine. Personally neither Dernyi Rising/Harn realism nor Shannara/3E D&D vanilla fantasy are to my taste, but factually both these movements come later in genre fiction and gaming than the boundaryless mix of the fantastic that preceded them.

But I totally agree with you about encounter tables and players adding the third dimension. I just disagree that it's a problem if the players start out with an ironic distance; I think a sandbox works best when both the goofiest thing the players come up with and the weirdest flumph in the canon of the game you're playing are part of what the GM is mandated to make seem real. As James says, characters that survive will inevitably be taken seriously; the trick is to encourage player input so they can make characters whose survival they start out caring for.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Tav_Behemoth on November 02, 2011, 07:24:52 AM
Oops, that was C. Edwards I was agreeing with about encounter tables and disagreeing with about irony.

On strong high level design: I'm writing at the Autarch blog (http://www.autarch.co/blog/) about all the work that goes into designing random tables for wandering monsters and random treasures and procedural dungeon stocking, and our lead designer is are posting about designing the economic frameworks within which these make sense, and yeah it's a lot of work to create a new game designed to make it easy to do sandboxing because this work is done for the GM. (OD&D makes it easy for me to run the White Sandbox because it represents three+ years of playtesting such a framework by Arneson's group, plus Gygax adding a layer of systematization of the game mechanics that makes it easier to run and a layer of prismatic obfuscation of its intent and vision that makes it easier to customize.)

A sandbox certainly benefits from additional work by the GM, even if it doesn't require it. The random encounter table you make for your dungeon is automatically going to be better than mine because it's meaningful to your campaign; both are going to look like crosswords to an outsider, just like a musical score looks like gibberish to me because I don't read music.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on November 02, 2011, 09:28:04 AM
Hey Tavis, thanks for dropping by.  If you feel like it, would you care to explain how you set up the White Sandbox in its early days, and how you've been "refreshing" that environment between play?  I know one input is our carousing results.  I suspect you've also got a bunch of random charts describing what dungeon-denizens do next.  I know that as a player, sometimes I got frustrated because it seemed like the Caverns of Thracia changed so much between delves that essentially our previous recon missions had been for nothing.  Was that just bad luck of the dice?  Did you trim back major changes later?  Were you deliberately offering some resistance at that point so that we would have a delicious feeling of frustration?  Could loudly voiced, and widely shared, player dissatisfaction cause you to override the dice? 

I guess I'm wondering about how you update the sandbox from a procedural standpoint, even if that standpoint is simply, "I squint at this NPC and ask myself, 'What would he like to do, and how much of it can he reasonably accomplish by next session?'"


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: contracycle on November 02, 2011, 09:52:40 AM
Contracycle, my experience as the GM of the White Sandbox is that the gonzo Acid Fantasy kitchen-sink approach James describes is indeed a necessary part of the method of sandbox play. When a player says "I want to be 23, a robot cleric who gets his spells from worshipping the Server, a vast computer at the center of the earth", for me to say yes to this - the aesthetic decision that anything can potentially fit into the setting - is part and parcel of me saying yes to the idea that if you go far enough down into a dungeon, you might be able to douse the Server's memory banks with flaming oil - the sandbox method that leaving the edges of everything undefined and having robust tools for creating what's there procedurally provides infinite scope to handle player-driven exploration.

No.  That's just ridiculous.  I mean, you're welcome to your Acid Fantasy if thats your thing, but to say it's necessary as a component of the sandbox is absurd.  The sandbox is a particlar design methodology, it is not and should not be confused with a blanket welcome offered to any old shit.  As above, and as the Gamasutra article indicates, the most effective sandboxes have become so by NOT being "anything goes".


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Tav_Behemoth on November 02, 2011, 10:17:06 AM
James: In the beginning (when I ran it at Recess, where Greengoat played) I had the town of Hruhrudingfallor with three higher-level NPCs who were looking for hirelings for expeditions; the random wilderness encounter charts; and then some classic modules on tap that the NPCs were trying to reach, which I correctly suspected wouldn't happen in a four-hour convention slot. One of those was Caverns of Thracia, which became the "tentpole dungeon".

Originally all the between-sessions stuff was based on the needs that came up in play - like creating the town of Belltower to be a closer home base - and on the module, like drawing parallels between dungeon factions and ones I created in town. Later I started making "wandering monster tables" for important dungeon personalities like the Patriarch of the Dark One; I'd roll 1 in 6 to see if they did something unexpected between sessions, and if so I'd consult a custom d6 table to say what it was. Now there are enough NPCs that I generalize this to a 1 in 6 chance that something is happening in the domains of Law, Neutrality, Chaos, or the Outer Planes, then if one of these turns up I get the players' help populating a table of the different personalities in that domain we care about; the sandbox is fleshed out enough that I usually know without further assistance what that personality might want to do with their backstage action.

I don't remember that folks were dissatisfied with finding the dungeon different each time, which probably means it wasn't something I felt responsible for. If I had been, I might have changed the procedure but I don't think that was overtly the case; more like a gradual evolution. The one time I remember really screwing up your plan was when y'all were endlessly talking about what you wanted to do in the dungeon, and the dice said that instead the Patriarch of the Dark One was going to launch a counter-attack while you were in town. Having that possibility on the chart expressed my feeling that your depredations against his cult would have repercussions; the rest of the chart was kind of "what might the Patriarch find a more pressing problem than you". Doing it this way made me feel more objective about having a NPC take vengeance, in the same way that in Apocalypse World a player's bad roll of the dice justifies making a hard move against them. To just decide that a NPC would seek to screw the party without a distancing mechanic like dice feels to me too difficult to separate from personal antagonism, whereas I am very happy to roleplay a Patriarch who sometimes is busy with internal rivals but then - 1 in 6 - comes after your asses like a Biblical plague.

contracycle, I don't know what to say other than that:
1) in my experience I would not find running a sandbox to be as satisfying if I said no to player input very often, so having an aesthetic that encourages saying yes to things and gives me a way to make sense of them around familiar sword & sorcery/SF/fantasy touchstones from an era when those genres weren't separate is directly useful to my methodology
2) computer games may have given rise to the term "sandbox" but the nature of their medium already restricts player input so severely that the comparison is like apples and oranges; even here I challenge you to show me a computer game that lets you name your own character but rejects ones it finds contradictory to the aesthetic
3) it is not cool to call my viewpoint ridiculous and conflate my aesthetic with "any old shit".


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: David Berg on November 02, 2011, 11:20:54 AM
Gareth,

I think there's a spectrum between (a) a group of people randomly flinging shit at the wall and accepting every piece of it, and (b) a precise aesthetic that's been fully articulated.  Somewhere in between those two poles, there's a line, where either people are enough on the same page about the game's style and color and content to achieve a coherent aesthetic, or they aren't.  It sounds to me like, however far James' groups are from precision and articulation, they are at least on the right side of the line.  It's not actually anything goes, it's just that a lot of stuff goes, and the players are tuned in enough to what doesn't belong that they aren't trying to force in inappropriate crap that must then be rejected.

I talked to Tavis about his game a while back and asked him how the disparate content produced by play manages to cohere into something that isn't a mishmash.  He replied that, whatever the players get up to, he envisions the unfolding fiction as if Jack Vance were writing it, and plays accordingly.  That, plus James' notes about acid fantasy, tells me pretty clearly that there is a something going on here.  It's just a broad and flexible and low-maintenance something that doesn't get discussed at the table and may be hard to pin down afterward.

I agree with you that simply throwing Aragorn, Cthulhu, Conan, Martians and Mind-Flayers (e.g.) into a blender, with no standards at all for what comes out the other end, sucks.  But I don't think it takes a ton of effort to avoid that.  My personal sweet spot is more toward a tighter thematic aesthetic for my sandbox play (which I'll get to in a bit), but the stuff these guys are doing doesn't strike me as awful or broken -- just a matter of taste.

Ps,
-David


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: C. Edwards on November 02, 2011, 12:15:16 PM
Tavis,

Personally, I can't reach the level of emotional investment I require to GM a game for very long if everyone is running around with joke names. It's also my experience that when people play in an ironic fashion that it creates a whole additional meta level to their play in that their play often becomes self-consciously about expressing that ironic distance. But I also realize that is an aesthetic decision and not relevant to the sandbox aspect of play. Same as whether you mix robots and godservers in to the mix. That's just fantasy before they took the chocolate out of the peanut butter.

As far as using a bunch of existing modules to fill a sandbox, I do think that it has the potential to appear like a jumble of junk. But as David points out, if done thoughtfully and given the appearance of coherence by the GM during play, what could have been a junkyard is perceived as a unified aesthetic. That doesn't help anybody that dislikes that particular aesthetic but then that's just another variable within a sandbox.

Concerning reuse, I mainly use existing maps and then add in my own content. I make it a point not to run a game for more than a handful of players at a time though, so I can get away with smaller dungeon-y areas. If I was running a game with a dozen players at a time, or even something like the West Marches, then I'd likely use a lot more ready-to-go content.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: David Berg on November 02, 2011, 04:31:14 PM
Hi James,

I think one of the larger variables among sandbox campaigns is how play evolves, and how missions feed into each other.  I think you and I agree that visiting a series of unrelated dungeons that happen to be in the same world is not in itself sufficient for cumulative satisfaction.  Things need to change -- the characters, the world, the dungeons, or all of the above.

If each dungeon is a particularly cool challenge, and each session results in a win or loss, I could see that being a satisfying formula regardless of external factors.  But that's not how you guys play, right?  And that's not the traditional sandbox formula -- the traditional sandbox rewards you with stuff that's only cool if you get to use it later.  So, yeah, a series of crawls better be adding up to something.

I played in an old-school D&D game called Telvar.  The GM, Edwin, had plopped a bunch of modules of various levels onto a map, and then made up an extremely rich and detailed world around them.  By the time I played with him, he was tracking weather and its effect on trade and travel, as well as tracking the rise and fall of various governments and currencies.  All this off-screen maintenance allowed him to bring a living world to play, and even though most of his players were there to crack heads, solve puzzles, win loot and not die, they all fell in love with the world.  They couldn't help it, because everything they did was plugged into everything else. 

Looting a dungeon meant (1) paying a percentage to the fair-weather ally who'd tipped you off to it, (2) paying a salvage tax to the government who owned the land above the dungeon, (3) fighting other people with claims to the stuff you looted, (4) negotiating with creatures who might want to move into the dungeon, (5) surviving ambushes from your enemies, who found you easily after this big event, and on and on.  And that doesn't even count loot management -- keep this, sell that, have this other thing forged into a weapon -- and recuperation.  Every spell had its cost, and paying for a regeneration or resurrection was the biggest party expense.

From what I could tell, Edwin never set himself a clear goal to make the players' lives interesting.  He just played the world as he saw it, and the players could engage with any given piece of it as they wished.  This led to various cool moments, but also a lot of disunity.  Between or en route to missions, it was not uncommon for two players to be off poking at different parts of the world, another to be doing personal character stuff, and the others getting irritated because they weren't in the dungeon yet.  Some time after I left the game, I heard that the party became embroiled in local politics and minor war between various factions.  That sounded like great fun.

One feature of the varied levels of dungeons was that you never knew what you were getting into until you were well into it.  Edwin never calibrated anything for player convenience, so every new cave entrance was a potential cakewalk or TPK.  Accordingly, there was a lot of, "Well, we've been at this for a full session, but ti looks like a friggin' death trap, so let's go away and come back when we're a few levels higher."  This was frustrating on the immediate level, but fed into a longer-term reward cycle.

Short-term: "We spent all that time deciding and preparing and getting here, and we got psyched for the treasure, and we got just enough danger and violence to get the adrenaline pumping, and now it's back to square one.  No loot, more travel, more decisions, and off to a different quest.  Fuck."

Long-term: "When we finally got to 8th level, we looked at our spells and hit points and decided we were ready to tackle that dungeon from 2 years ago.  Now, here we are!  That Spectre we couldn't beat is going down, the mystery we never answered is just around the next bend, and the promised treasure will soon be ours!  We fucking earned this one!"

Some of what I've done with Delve is taking the most functional parts of this experience and applying them to a different context.  One of the places I like my continuity is with long-term characters, so Delve doesn't include missions that are likely to kill anyone who's playing attentively.  Telvar definitely had long-term characters too, but the process for getting one was more than just "don't be an idiot".  The first step was to cycle through a ton of first-level characters, most of whom would die on their first missions.  Once your guy got to second level, everyone else started valuing him a little more, so his chances of survival improved.  Once you got to the third level, you were able to start playing the way the long-term characters played: very cautiously.  Poke every brick with a ten-foot pole, glean every scrap of info before entering a new situation, spell-shift to maximize resources, etc. 

Maybe this added some suspense to the eventual attempts, but to me, most of it just seemed like boring accounting.  The key was repetition and obviousness.  New or clever plans never bored me!  But taking ANOTHER nap to recover ANOTHER magic missile was just tedious.

Why did this group play through all the accounting details?  Well, first, in a cutthroat challenge, every iota of advantage matters.  And second, with the gameworld always alive and moving in Edwin's brain, every chunk of time the characters spent doing anything was an opportunity for him to work out what else was happening.  Sometimes this "what else" impacted the players!  But most of the time it did not.

All told, we played through a lot of crap that bored the hell out of me.  I think it bored most of the others too, and they simply saw it as a necessary part of play and thus didn't consider trying to ditch it, but I'm not sure.

Delve is my solution to a lot of those problems.  I'll start mentioning some techniques shortly, but this post is long enough.

James, a few questions:

1) Does my account of Telvar character death and survival sound like Eric's game?  If not, what's the difference?  What do players do when their characters die?  (In Telvar, they'd go off by themselves to make a new character, or sit & watch.)

2) There were exactly two things we'd do with a Telvar dungeon: (1) beat it and never come back to it again, or (2) reach a point where it was about to kill you, and run away so it couldn't.  Is there a third thing that's happened in your games?  I was a bit confused by your talk of repeated trips to changing dungeons. 

I ask party because a defeated Telvar dungeon served as a decent place to stop.  Yeah, sticking around to advance and grow into the world was ideal; but killing the final boss monster, seeing how cool the treasure was, and saying, "Later guys, I can't play for the next month," wasn't half bad.

Ps,
-David


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on November 02, 2011, 04:39:24 PM
Dave wrote:
Quote
simply throwing Aragorn, Cthulhu, Conan, Martians and Mind-Flayers (e.g.) into a blender, with no standards at all for what comes out the other end, sucks
That's actually more or less my pitch for my next Dictionary of Mu game.

Quote
He replied that, whatever the players get up to, he envisions the unfolding fiction as if Jack Vance were writing it, and plays accordingly.  That, plus James' notes about acid fantasy, tells me pretty clearly that there is a something going on here.

That's very perceptive.  I'd say that Tavis almost never says "No!" to someone's character concept or contribution, but he always interprets that contribution in a very specific way that looks totally ecumenical to casual observation, but is in fact a very specific thing.  Namely, a story of half-assed murder-hobo's trying to bullshit their way to glory in a Weird Fantasy world.

Tavis wrote:
Quote
Contracycle, my experience as the GM of the White Sandbox is that the gonzo Acid Fantasy kitchen-sink approach James describes is indeed a necessary part of the method of sandbox play.
Tavis, here's a question for you.

Let's say we're playing a modern-day RPG that focuses on foreign news correspondents the same way Dungeons & Dragons focuses on dungeon-delving adventurers.  We can call it Britishers & Broadcasters.  And so a campaign gets started up, where we're the Lagos desk, stationed in Nigeria, reporting on the MEND guerrillas, Royal Dutch Shell's various mercenary groups, ecological destruction and impoverishment, and widespread corruption among a shifting web of law enforcement and political factions.  Which story we take is totally up to us as players--we might even stray into the Cameroon or Liberia, or chase down some Shell executives in The Hague to get a quote.  And there are subplots involving stress on marriages back home, affairs, moral compromises, and so on.  As we work on stories, various principals try to put pressure on us to quit, pursue their own agendas, etc. behind the scenes.

Would you say that's a sandbox?  If not, why not? 

If it's a sandbox, do you think it is improved by player characters with names like "BEE-R-CAN" or "Zaxa of the City of Monuments"?  What if one of the players had a normal name, like "Tavis St. James," but the player wanted him to be a three-headed bog-beast?  If there's an understanding that this sort of thing is frowned upon, does the game stop being a sandbox? 

One of the things that came out of the Forge sometime around 2005-2006, which like a lot of Forge ideas took a hell of a lot of effort, yet sounds obvious in hindsight, is that sometimes saying No in some situations can be more creatively empowering than saying Yes, because policing the aesthetic a little bit can help players immerse in the world. 

Self-Dissent: Grousing About the Sandbox
I don't want to make it sound like sandboxes are perfect modes of play without any serious problems.  A sandbox style of play has significant drawbacks.
  • There's no "main" storyline (neither pre-planned nor emergent).  There a whole bunch of plot threads, some of which attract sustained attention and others which fall by the wayside.
  • Without a main storyline, it's hard to say when the sandbox "ends."  In theory, the world always "refreshes" itself and so there's no conclusion unless you get a TPK or the group splits up.
  • Without a conclusion, the time commitment can become oppressive. (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/are-we-there-yet/)  Glantri has played for 100 sessions.  Eric has put in about 400 hours, and I'd reckon each of the main players have played about 250-300 hours.  And it will go on.  Weekly.  Forever.
  • If the world doesn't "refresh" itself in response to player input, or if you can't be bothered to care about that stuff, the game can begin to look very self-similar (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2009/12/14/fates-worse-than-death/), which is what Callan was alluding to before.  To a certain extent, the prospect of killing monsters in a crossword puzzle is always gonna excite me, but it may not excite me enough to do it for 300 hours.
  • if you're not able to make a serious time commitment, you become a far less effective player because you've missed all those evolutions of the setting, which is meat-and-drink to the high-commitment players.  When I missed several sessions of Tavis's game, I felt really depressed because it was like a gamer version of Flowers for Algernon. (http://muleabides.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/sandbox-lifecycle/)


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Tav_Behemoth on November 02, 2011, 05:44:49 PM
Let's say we're playing a modern-day RPG that focuses on foreign news correspondents the same way Dungeons & Dragons focuses on dungeon-delving adventurers.  We can call it Britishers & Broadcasters.... If it's a sandbox, do you think it is improved by player characters with names like "BEE-R-CAN" or "Zaxa of the City of Monuments"?  What if one of the players had a normal name, like "Tavis St. James," but the player wanted him to be a three-headed bog-beast?  If there's an understanding that this sort of thing is frowned upon, does the game stop being a sandbox? One of the things that came out of the Forge sometime around 2005-2006, which like a lot of Forge ideas took a hell of a lot of effort, yet sounds obvious in hindsight, is that sometimes saying No in some situations can be more creatively empowering than saying Yes, because policing the aesthetic a little bit can help players immerse in the world. 

Those are good questions, James. Yes, that does sound like a sandbox; here is my take on the subsequent questions:
1) If I don't think that B&B is improved by Zaxa the bog-beast, I won't create him as an NPC or put him in the world that the players are first confronted with. This kind of establishing the parameters - writing the advert text on the tin - is the kind of authority over tone and aesthetic I'm comfortable with.
2) If a player wants to play Zaxa and there is an understanding that this is frowned upon, I'll let someone else express that understanding. My feeling, maybe conditioned by lots of experience in a "trad" environment, is that many players tend to give the GM way more authority than I want; for me to be the one to say "that's a dumb name" will be a lot more likely to crush the delicate shoot of their agency than if it comes from a fellow-player.
3) If no one thinks Zaxa is dumb enough to speak up about it, who am I to say that this name doesn't belong in B&B? Maybe it's my reading of the text on the tin that is deficient. I have a reasonable confidence in my ability to make the world seem real and maintain a tone in what I present, because this is what I can control. I have no confidence in my ability to read minds - maybe the players want me to be a straight man while they provide comic relief, maybe they want these news correspondents to be Hunter Thompson and Raul Duke fighting ether-bats that don't exist except when they're around. Let's play and find out! I don't think the tone of the game is nearly as delicate as players' sense of agency. My experience is that a world in which players can do what they want is the same as a world they will want to engage with and take seriously. It's awesome to explore the character arc of someone who started out as a joke and now is fighting widespread corruption and the problems of being a bog beast; the fact that this kind of thing arises unplanned is what I find best about a sandbox, because how would I have ever come up with that or made it work in play? 
4) To start the process of figuring out how we're going to take Zaxa seriously, I'd rather say "yes but" than "no." Cool, tell me about how you see a bog beast! Okay, we could do that but so far lots of the sessions have involved smoky back-room deals, if you introduce a bog beast then those are going to change to scenes of people screaming and running. What if you have some kind of disguise that lets you pass for human? Then I'd tell the other players that they see a guy wearing a nametag that says Tavis St. James, and then ask that guy "Okay, Zaxa, it looks like no one has seen through your cover identity to the bog beast underneath" - throwing the dissonance out there for the group to make of it what they will. If there is a group understanding that there is no such thing as a bog beast, and if Zaxa's player likes the game and the group enough to keep playing, my bet is that before long we will be taking seriously the awesome character of Mr. St. James and his psychotic delusions.

I'm not implying that saying NO is ridiculous; it works for what some people want to do, and the Glantri regulars get things out of a frequent-denial environment that I'm not going to be able to provide. I just think that the rules and the dice say no plenty often, and that a sandbox works best if my role is to say yes to all the player input that I can within the framework of the rules.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: C. Edwards on November 02, 2011, 05:45:04 PM
James wrote:
Quote
  • There's no "main" storyline (neither pre-planned nor emergent).  There a whole bunch of plot threads, some of which attract sustained attention and others which fall by the wayside.
Could you clarify a bit what you mean? For all intents and purposes isn't a plot thread given sustained attention equivalent to an emergent storyline? I'm inclined to say "yes", but I may not be grasping what you're saying.

Which brings me to..
James wrote
Quote
  • Without a main storyline, it's hard to say when the sandbox "ends."  In theory, the world always "refreshes" itself and so there's no conclusion unless you get a TPK or the group splits up.
My experience has actually been the opposite. At some point some aspect of play gets under the players' skin enough that they focus on that to almost the complete exclusion of everything else. It could be thwarting the plans of a particular villain, a situation they want to change, helping their favorite NPC, or whatever. Which usually results in a long chain of closely related events, adventures, and hijinks. When all is said and done and their goals have been reached those characters are usually retired. This is just speculation, but I think there may be a line where the satisfaction of what you've accomplished with a character outweighs the desire to keep adventuring with that character. A sort of mental and emotional "Ahh, that was enough. I'm full now."

That's not to say that you're not correct regarding most sandbox play. Just that I've been fortunate that hasn't been my personal experience. But it also has me wondering what dynamics tend to result in my experience vs. the endless sandbox.[/list]


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: stefoid on November 02, 2011, 07:21:22 PM
Admission - I did not read every post in this thread due to time pressure.

Sandbox seems to imply working out the 'geography' first and foremost.  I imagine a little box with a scale world in it with little cloud-ringed mountains and a sea.  I suppose you odnt have to have an exact map of the sanbox, but a list of important locations and a list of potential things that might go on there should the PCs visit that location.  Is that the general idea?

What would you call a setup where instead of concentrating primarilly on the geography, you expend that energy on the NPCs?  i.e. have little to no pre-planned geography, but a large cast of significant characters that the PCs might run into, and detail these characters - their personalities and goals - to the same detail that you might have expended on locations.

I realize that with sandbox games you edvelop NPCs anyway, but what Im suggesting is devote all your energy to NPCs - invest more thought and detail into what maikes them tick and craete many more of them than you otherwise might do if you are also concentrating on world + situation construction.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Marshall Burns on November 03, 2011, 08:54:04 AM
This stuff is fantastic. I've been thinking about this stuff lately too.

So, "sandbox." The first time I saw the term bandied about, I was like, "oh yeah, that." I dunno, it clicked in my brain with an automatic association. And, like every other term out there, there's a strong possibility that the click I got in my brain is entirely different from the click other people get (if they get one at all).

Man, lots to talk about here. Okay, let me tell you about Misadventures in Nowhere.

Starting in junior high, a few of my friends and I started designing roleplaying games, because we wanted to play them and we didn't have any. (We also had only the vaguest idea of what they were, which led to some very interesting things in those first designs -- things which, sadly, never bloomed or matured because of our own immaturity at the time.) I was the only one that stuck with it, and by sophomore year I had a functional and Coherent -- albeit baroque, unwieldy, and inelegant -- design called Misadventures in Nowhere. (Nowhere was a shared setting between most of the games we made, as well as stories and other shit we made. The games all focused on different regions of Nowhere, and basically they contained whatever we were into. Mine had skyscrapers and castles and guns and swords and cars and wizards.)

Ok, so, I had a map, dig? This map was of County Remington, and there were ostensibly other counties out there, but we never left County Remington for some reason. This map had four towns, a loose-knit agricultural community, a forest, the edge of a desert, a mountain range with a mostly-abandoned mine, a highway connecting to two other counties, a weird stretch of land with "unstable geography" called the Expanse, and a horrible, dark, twisted, walking-dead-infested wasteland called the Blacklands. To this day I can still draw this map from memory, almost the same way I drew it then.

We played one of four ways:

1. I prepped a scenario and we played it. Let me explain what this means. First, I would come up with a situation. This was either an opportunity (e.g. an earthquake has revealed ancient ruins in the forest, and word is there's gold in them thar hills) or a problem that needed solving for the good of the people or something (e.g. some crazy pop star called the Strawberry Man has been mind-controlling people through the TV with his concert footage, recruiting an army. Yes, that's a real example). Then we'd put the characters in and they'd try to deal with it.

Scenarios of the first type met with low to middling player interest and investment. Scenarios of the second type met with little to no interest. All in all, this mode of play was unsuccessful and shortly abandoned.

2. We basically killed each other and took each other's stuff, with little-to-no in-fiction reason. We did this a lot, mainly whenever we had twenty-odd minutes of free time.

3. The characters just kinda hung out until I realized that nothing was going to happen and I finally said something like, "Ok, the TV antenna's broken. What do you do?" and they formulated a plan to build a new antenna, which led to things like going to the closet to get a coat hanger only to be attacked by a possessed disco suit (which they killed with a torpedo -- a magical torpedo, the Torpedo of Spiraling Death -- destroying the coat hanger in the process).

This really only happened once, with players who were into silliness so I just went for it. A less-silly version nearly happened every time me and my cousin James played with just the two of us, but nothing ever happened because I failed to get that important realization that nothing was going to happen unless I introduced a conflict.

4. This is what I thought of when I first read the term "sandbox play." I put the aforementioned map on the table and asked, "So what do y'all want to do this time?" And somebody points at the map and says, "What's going on here?" and I'm like, "Uhhhhhhh.... they're having trouble with giants down there. Uhhhh..... There's a bounty on them giants if you can bring one down." And maybe a bunch of the characters decide to band up to go giant hunting because, even though they don't really like each other and are always back-stabbing, undercutting, and murder-looting each other, none of them are able to take down a giant solo.

Or they point to the Expanse and say, "Ghost towns and abandoned buildings show up there, right? Let's go find an abandoned building and loot it." So I make up a haunted mansion for them to find, with the haunted-ness concentrated in the basement and when they go down there the boiler will become animated and try to eat them. On the second visit, anyway. The first time there was a dispute over loot distribution, leading to me shooting Seth's guy to get my point across, my guy getting crushed with a bathtub by Matt's guy, and Gary's guy collapsing the floor on top of the few who were still alive at this point by cutting through a crucial upright support with a circular saw.

Or a bunch of Dean's characters and a bunch of my characters decide to band together to form a mercenary company, so we start building a compound just outside of local legal jurisdictions, steal a bus, some guns and heavy explosives, and a Humvee, and start selling our services to, say, the farmers in the north of the county whose children have been getting snatched by gorillabears ("You may think that a gorillabear looks like a cross between a gorilla and a bear, but, like most Things that crawl out of the Blacklands, it mostly just looks like something you don't want to see"). This is some of the most fun I can remember having with this game, especially with regard to gathering the resources to build the compound and pad our armory. Stealing the bus in particular was an adventure, and we announced the opening of our company by slaughtering the flesh-eating nightowls that lived in the clocktower of one of the towns. One of my characters started wearing a headdress made out of their feathers. It was cool.

So, basically, there was this setting, barely fleshed-out though it may be, and the players went where they wanted and did what they wanted. Eventually, I stopped improvising the things that were going on at the various locations on the map, and started prepping things, trying to get away from the "Oh there's a bunch of X there that need killin', and folks'll pay you for it" formula, but before that could get interesting we graduated and I never really played that game again until it had been rewritten into an entirely different game that pretty much focused on the Expanse and not much else.

Lately, I've been trying to recreate that game in a less baroque, more elegant fashion, with a better fictional component. System-wise it's mostly the same as my dungeon game MADcorp, and it's pretty much the same setting too, but more of it. I've been tooling around with the point-at-the-map situations involving things like wars between some penny-ante daimyos here, a famine here, a succession battle over there, and so on, with a unifying principle: all of the situations are situations that the characters can insert themselves in and then leverage toward personal gain. I'm also tooling around with a multi-pronged advancement system by which characters can advance in terms of experience, wealth, fame, infamy, and recognizance of deeds by powers that be. Advancements in these areas increase the players' options (e.g. get famous and maybe you can get a corporate sponsorship; gain enough infamy and you'll have an "in" with such-and-such mob; with enough deeds you can become right-hand man of Hammurabi Musashi II, ruler of all of New Mexico and parts of Arizona), with the long-term goal to be to retire your character in the manner of your desiring -- whether that means getting to live out your days on your own private island, or becoming king of Kansas, or just getting a patch of land and the resources to start a farm, whatever. If you can retire your guy in the way you were hoping to, you win. Inspiration-wise, I've mainly been looking at 0e D&D (particularly the rules for building a castle and shit), Vornheim, and Eero's Primitive D&D stuff.

What I've figured is I can prep the situations for the start of the game, and after that it's going to depend on the PCs. Which situations do they resolve and how, which do they fail to resolve, which do they ignore? Their advancement tracks cover their benefits, but what happens to the world now? I want the players to be able to chew the setting up and spit it out, but it also needs to keep going. To that end I've been trying to think of Techniques for managing that. I've been thinking about some kind of checklist of conditionals for the GM to run through between sessions. Like, "Did the players kill a dude? Or two or five? Yeah, probably. Who's pissed off about that? Who's happy about it?" and "Is there a power vacuum now? Choose or create an NPC to fill it," but I haven't got far with it.

I've also been thinking about the oh-crap-I-wasn't-ready-for-the-players-to-go-there effect, and how it can be prevented or circumvented so as to avoid the "Um, there's an X that needs killin'" happening every damn time. One thing that has occurred to me is retrofitting modules for other games. I don't haven any of those, so I can't speak to how easy or feasible that really is. Another solution that I've thought about is having a brief pre-session session for the GM and players to get together, have a coffee, and then the GM puts the map on the table, armed with some sketchy, proto-ideas of what's happening in each place. The players pick one, and then the GM prepares for it in detail.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: James_Nostack on November 03, 2011, 10:50:27 AM
This conversation is getting big and complicated, but unfortunately I'm at job-related training classes all day today and tomorrow, and then traveling overseas without reliable internet access.  So my involvement is going to be really spotty, and maybe I'll have to shelve  I really want to address C. Edwards's topics, because they begin to get into the heart of what I want to talk about, regarding Story When.

For anyone who hasn't spent a huge amount of time on the Forge, one of the site's big contributions to RPG discussion is that sometimes when people sit down at a role-playing game, they want to "say something" about Life, the Universe, and Everything.  The game is entertaining in part because it's wrestling with Big Issues.  So in a game of Dogs in the Vineyard, in which you play a fundamentalist teenage virgin Mormon gunslinger, the process of play is going to involve thinking about the intersection of religious dogma and justice (among other things).  In Sorcerer, in which you play a modern-day Faust, the process of play will involve thinking about whether and how the ends justify the means.  Under this style of play, it's not enough to touch on these topics.  The players have to be empowered to handle these issues in their own ways--players' choices, in interaction with the GM and the rules of the game, will lead to unique outcomes personal to those involved.  Addressing these issues, sometimes referred to as addressing "premise," from a position of player-empowerment is sometimes called Narrativism or Story Now. 

(I'm writing this in the middle of a training class, so I'm likely getting a few details wrong in this presentation.  I trust Forge diehards will correct my errors.)

Are there Big Issues in Dungeons & Dragons?
Sometimes!  Here I'm talking about D&D, and not talking about sandboxes outside of that tradition.
  • How far will you go to help a friend down on his luck?  (We will go to another dimension, lose a bunch of magical items, and undergo personal growth to save your sorry ass.  But only if you're a high-level Magic-User.  I don't think we even noticed when the Thief-Acrobat died.)
  • Will your addiction overwhelm bonds of friendship?  (Forget about the Thief picking the pockets of her party members: Patriarch Zekon is a friend, but he is also rich as hell.  There has always been this temptation to skrag him, which we have resisted.  This ties into Law, Neutrality, and Chaos.)
  • What are you willing to risk your life to defend?  (In an early Glantri game, my 1-hit-point Magic-User had a clear opportunity to run away from a fight--but I just couldn't bring myself to leave my pet mule to die.  I had to protect it, even if it would lead to my death.  And it did.)
  • How do you treat powerless people who have something you want?  (The Glantri and White Box crews have solved this in different ways, at some point leading to intra-party conflict.)
  • When you finally get big and powerful, what will you do with that authority and responsibility?  (My guy, who I always envisioned as a pacifist doofus, has retired rather than become corrupted by using his magic to wound others.)
There are probably other things going on too, but these leap to mind.  None of them are the primary purpose of play, at least not for me; they're issues that periodically arise in the process of overcoming tremendous challenges in the service of our drug-addiction to gold.  But these are genuine big issues endemic to the Murder-Hobo Heist Movie genre, and we're empowered to handle them in play pretty much however we see fit, recognizing the world / NPC's might push back on some outcomes. 

My interpretation is that we're doing a hell of a lot of "Gamist" play, where the focus to see who's the best player (both vis-a-vis the GM, and unofficially within the party), but with a discrete, subordinate bunch of "Narrativist" issues, where we're curious to measure how big a bunch of assholes we are.  Sometimes we're good people who resist temptation; sometimes we're idiots who should have taken that gullible mark; sometimes we're bastards who deserve what we get, and every now and then we're successful, cynical scofflaws.  (Analogy to the Big Four Outcomes in Sorcerer.)

Story When?
As I understand it--and it's totally possible I'm wrong--the whole question about Story Before vs. Story Now vs. Story After is, at what point in the process of play do people get to address those big issues?  In a Story Before game, the GM resolves all of these big issues prior to play, as part of preparation.  Evil will always turn on itself; virtue is its own reward; a Faustian bargain is never worth the cost.  That kind of thing, typically with elaborate plots worked out in advance that players move through (sometimes called "illusionism" because the appearance of player choice is illusory).  In Story Now, these issues are addressed/resolved through play itself.  In Story After, as I've always seen Ron discuss it, the issues and their resolutions only become apparent after play concludes, usually through some degree of historical revisionism.

(Again, full expectation of Forge-heads correcting me on that, which will color what I have to say here.... )

I'm unsure if sandbox play must fit into a single category there.  I believe it's compatible with Story Now play, but what about the others?

Story Before - As I see it, a sandbox necessarily involves a large, open macro-structure in which certain situations/scenarios are embedded, with the result that the players set the pace and the GM updates the world.  I think all you need is free choice among those menu items.  If the GM wants to update the world in lockstep accordance with some pre-established theme I think that could still be a sandbox so long as players have free range of action in other fields of action.  Consider a super hero game in which the players, based in Avengers Mansion, can roam around the world taking on their choice of adversary--Doctor Doom, Magneto, the Sub-Mariner, whoever.  A fairly common issue in these stories is whether a super villain can be rehabilitated.  In this game (let's say Marvel Super Heroes) what the NPC's do between adventures is solely within the GM's discretion, and this GM has decided, "I hate these bleeding heart liberals in the real world, in my game the leopard never changes its spots: villains may pretend to change, but they'll always recidivate."  The GM is limiting player freedom by asserting his own authority over the world as it updates, but he's not limiting players' choices within their own field.  The GM's not even misrepresenting the campaign world, since these NPC's especially are rather untrustworthy dudes, and the GM could load the deck by only putting untrustworthy super villains on the menu.  This may be a field with many hairs to be split!

Story After - This may be more common in sandbox play.  Nobody in the White Box game explicitly asked, "How Far Would You Go For Your Friend?" and that issue only became apparent after we'd taken up that plot thread.  It's often in the middle of a session where I realize, "Gee, my guy would be really troubled by slaughtering helpless Gnoll children.  I'm gonna stop my blood-crazed, bullying warrior friend even if he ends up attacking me."  So to that extent, the Big Issues often emerge unexpectedly.  But on the other hand, I think many of those issues (loyalty, greed, mercy, etc.) are implicit in the design of Dungeons & Dragons

(There is one definite degree of historical revisionism in sandbox play: the screwy pacing at the campaign scale, and the degree of randomness in a single session, means that telling a concise story often involves editing things down a lot.  One of Tavis's players has been trying to sire an heir for a long time now.  We can tell the story of John Fighter wooing the Gynarch of Belltower, and then seducing a Were-Bear, but it isn't tidy because it's spread over bits and pieces of many sessions.)

Again: apologies that I won't be able to participate much for several days.


Title: Re: Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 03, 2011, 11:03:44 AM
At the risk of exerting too much moderator privilege, I'm going to provide a couple of clarifiers to a couple of James' points, as he mentioned someone might, and then say, let's relax about posting to this thread until James can get back to it.

New threads are welcome for various sub-issues - it was getting near to the need for that anyway.

Again: I'm not closing this thread and its major questions should continue to be discussed here. But let's merely wait a bit for James to catch up and post regarding all the various outstanding points to date.

Best, Ron

----

OK, now for those clarifiers - there's only one.

James, I think you are missing the point of Story After. Everything you called "Story After" in the above post is still Story Now. Story After is when play does not address Premise, but rather, such content (as well as a great deal of plot continuity and causality, i.e., genuine fictional content) is shoe-horned in outside of play and after it, as an inter-session prep device. Story Now has nothing to do with pre-setting or articulating Premise.