Wednesday, April 07, 2010


In the Doom & Tea Parties game one of the PCs recently had a conversation with an NPC about freedom, or the lack thereof. They discussed how choices are made for them by society (like parents, superiors in their organizations, and just social custom), and how choices were curtailed by past choices. This may seem unusual for an old-school campaign. After all, the whole point of sandbox play is ultimate freedom for the players: freedom from railroads, freedom from plots and storytelling, freedom to explore wherever and whenever they want.

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.

Things might be different in a 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.


Cameron said...

It seems to me that providing for this kind of development is far more difficult for a DM than merely writing dungeon encounters. What networks exist in a dungeon (i.e., kobolds on the 1st level and orcs in the 2nd have a standing cease-fire arrangement) only need to exist for as long as the dungeon is a point of play. Social networks in cities and among cities need to stay active and evolve even when the players have their minds on other things. Some guys can probably wing it with a handful of notes, but for a detail-oriented guy this has got to be pure murder. Or a dream come true if he's always wanted a reason to finally "do" his very own Big Freakin' City with all the trimmings.

Badmike said...

One reason why I dislike the "West Marches" type of campaign setting is the deliberate discounting of any sort of city encounters. At least half the most interesting stuff I've ever had happen in a D&D game was in a city. Not to mention the Leiber (Lankhmar) influences on my game worlds, even the sandbox ones, that make me crave the sort of intrigue, interactions (both social and martial) and just plain fun that city adventures provide.

I enjoy reading about West Marches style campaigns (not that there really are any "pure" examples, though) but I would absolutely detest running or playing in one. Social interaction is one of the most interesting parts of the game, and to deny it by artificially limiting the locales (supposedly the big "draw" of a sandbox or Marches campaign)is silly IMO>

trollsmyth said...

Cameron: You're likely right. I love trying to wing it with a handful of notes, but I tend to keep it fairly simple (on my end of the screen, anyway; the players will create twice is many twists and complications as I could ever come up with) and I love the adrenaline rush that comes from performing without a net. ;)

Badmike: I'm mostly in agreement. I think you can have social adventures in the wilderness, but they tend towards more a "Fistful of Dollars" kinda interaction.

Still, different strokes for different folks. I love a campaign when it gets to that stage, but I could see how some might do their best to avoid this path, since it often leads away from dungeon-delving and similar activities.

Mike(aka kaeosdad) said...

Great post!

@Badmike: I've recently started a west marches inspired campaign with the idea of running city encounters online. I'm only committing to DMing 1/month and so cooked up a plan to combine a tabletop campaign w/ play by post sessions.

Oddysey said...

Gee, you sound like you have some cool players. ;)

Personally, I find this kind of game easier to run than something more dungeon-y or pre-planned. It's much easier for me to answer "What would this person do?" than to answer "What would be a cool thing to happen in this session?" so as long as I understand my NPCs and my social set-up, and can hold the whole thing together in my head, moving things along within it is pretty easy. As long as things stay simple-ish, at least, which I'll admit I'm bad at sometimes.

And man, does a wilderness social network game sound awesome. That just might be enough to give me the West Marches bug again.