Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Life, however, doesn't always cooperate. As players explore the sandbox, and the players and DM together fill in the blanks, roadblocks begin to appear before the players. Mostly these are social. Sometimes they are physical, like mountains, oceans, or other impassable or nearly impassable terrain. Specifically right now, however, I’m talking about social constraints. As the players rescue prisoners, fence the loot, and complete little jobs or big jobs for the Powers That Be, they began to entangle themselves in the social network of the setting. As they acquire power the Powers That Be will take notice of them and may in fact act to entangle them in the social network of the setting. This only makes sense after all, since they want the PCs, especially as they grow in power, to be on their side.
However it happens, the PCs will find that certain actions come at a cost. Allies become important, enemies seek to block their actions, and the PCs more and more have to weigh their own goals against the social costs of their actions. Do note, however, that the players are not forced to take actions or follow a plot. There is still leeway in their still choices. However, unlike at the beginning of sandbox campaign where the players can do pretty much anything and there are no real consequences for them, now their choices begin to cost them. The operative word here is "cost." They still can choose to do the socially expensive thing if that is their wish. Freedom is still there. It's just that now there are consequences for the things that they do, consequences they understand and, if everyone's been working together to build the setting and to tie the PCs into the setting, consequences which they understand and which are meaningful to them.
This, in my opinion, is when a campaign really starts to sing. At this point the world is real to the players. The players know where their characters fit into the world, and how the world interacts with the characters. The DM's job becomes a lot easier as well. Finding motivation for the players is nearly no longer an issue. The players will create their own motivations based on that social network. They want their friends and allies to be stronger and safer. They want to thwart the goals of their enemies. In fact, the primary job of the DM at this point is to keep the ball rolling so that the players are always scrambling to keep up with their own plots, their own goals, and missions that they create themselves.
West Marches style sandbox. I haven't played one of those yet, but it seems to me that if you have a wide diversity in the people who show up from game to game, there's going to be less of this buy-in into the setting. Also, West Marches games tend to deemphasize time spent in the city, which makes it harder for the characters to get entangled in the social web of civilization. That said, they are very likely to get entangled in the social networks out in the wilderness or in the dungeons. Alliances with humanoids, relationships with certain powerful monsters, and attempts, much later in the game usually, to clear the wilderness and settle it, will create something like these same networks of social interactions and social entanglement, but outside of the city, and out in the wilderness or in the dungeons. Again however, if the group is different people every time, this is less likely to happen. This sort of play really requires frequent play by a consistent group of players. As the players learn the world and who the movers and shakers are, and develop relationships with them, they began to build their own networks and find their places in this world. Players who don't put in the time or the effort to learn how the world works socially are not going to have this sort of involvement or investment in the campaign. Instead, they are much more likely to just skim across the surface and focus primarily on the assumed things like killing monsters, exploring the wilderness, and collecting loot.
Which works best for you and your group, of course, really depends on you what you’re after. I myself love this kind of play, and as I said, really think campaigns take off at this point. Other people see it as distraction, or disruptive, especially since it means certain players may start to dominate the game, leaving the rest to twiddle their thumbs while the more socially aware and interested converse about the NPC’s families or recent gossip or things like that. If you're going to allow this sort of thing to happen in your campaign, or even to encourage it, all the players need to be on board or at least be willing to tolerate the sort of interactions with NPCs that may take time away from dungeon-delving, monster-murdering, and loot-gathering.
Art by Giulio Rosati and Konstantin Makovsky.