Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after

Started by James_Nostack, October 28, 2011, 05:02:58 AM

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Quote from: Tav_Behemoth on November 02, 2011, 03:00:17 PM
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".

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


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".
Masters and Minions: "Immediate, concrete, gameable" - Ken Hite.
Get yours from the creators or finer retail stores everywhere.

David Berg


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.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

C. Edwards


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.

David Berg

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.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Dave wrote:
Quotesimply 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.

QuoteHe 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:
QuoteContracycle, 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.  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, 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.


Quote from: James_Nostack on November 03, 2011, 12:39:24 AM
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.
Masters and Minions: "Immediate, concrete, gameable" - Ken Hite.
Get yours from the creators or finer retail stores everywhere.

C. Edwards

James wrote:
  • 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
  • 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]


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.

Marshall Burns

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.


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.

Ron Edwards

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.