Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ripples in the Sandbox

There’s been a bit of good-natured snickering in some circles at the play we’re seeing in Grognardia’s Dwimmermount campaign. “He’s playing a Silver Age game,” is the cry, and, as much as I’d like to beat him with that stick (again, good-naturedly), his beef with the Silver Age is more its obsession with realism and the front-loading of story and detail that came later.

So I’m not sure if I should call myself a Silver Age DM anymore. I also adore the Dungeoneers Survival Guide, because I think it’s a perfect sourcebook; full of inspiration for when you’re planning your campaign or an adventure, but I never touch it when the game’s actually going on. Which means, in effect, I’m ignoring something like half the book. The moral of the story, I suppose, is watch how we play, not what we read.

There’s been some talk about getting players “plugged in” to the campaign. Most of it has focused on front-loading character involvement in the campaign. I’m going to respectfully disagree. While I certainly enjoy working with a well-detailed character history, my players will report that it’s more a toy for them to play with than for me these days. I’m much more about giving the players all the rope they need to hang their characters.

While a good character background (and “good” is not necessarily synonymous with “long”) gives you something to start with, it’s only a start. What players really care about are the things their characters do. This, to my mind, is the key difference between computer and pen-and-paper RPGing; computers can only react to things they are programmed to notice, but a good DM can react to any- and everything.

The players are going to need treasures and magic items identified, so they’ll naturally build a relationship with the local sage. They’ll want their loot fenced, so that means a relationship with local jewelers, collectors, and patrons of the arts. They’ll need wounds healed, curses removed, diseases cured, and a steady supply of holy water, so that means a relationship with at least one local temple. And, as they acquire skills, magic, and powerful weapons, they’ll become a force to be reckoned with, which means the local temporal powers will want some sort of relationship with them (even if it’s mostly the understanding that if they step out of line they’ll be squashed like bugs).

The classic West Marches campaign minimizes stuff happening in town, so a lot of this might be glossed over, but that’s fine as it’s weak sauce compared to what happens in the wilderness and dungeons. This is why the wilderness encounter tables are full of humans and beasties the PCs probably won’t be able to overcome easily. This is why the monsters in a dungeon are not necessarily going to attack the PCs on sight and why Gygax didn’t bother to name the residents of the Keep on the Borderlands, but did explain the relationships between the various humanoid tribes living in the Caves of Chaos.

The players should be putting down roots, especially if they’re exploring a megadungeon. Even if they eventually intend to turn on and betray the goblins they’ve allied with against the orcs, they have a stake in what happens to the goblin tribe. They should hate the troll sorcerer who charges them to cross his bridge, have a wary, arms-length relationship with the witch who lives in the woods and can be good for a few healing potions or cure poison when it’s desperately needed, but maybe asks them to perform actions of dubious morality in exchange. And possibly also a love-hate relationship with the fun-loving but emotionally rough-and-tumble satyrs who camp in the clearing halfway between town and the dungeon.

The point of simplicity is not to keep things simple, but to give the campaign room to grow. Your players will show you what they’re interested in and how they’re interested in playing with it by their actions and the questions they ask. Some may need some encouragement, but generally speaking, everyone wants to know they’re leaving their mark on your shared imaginary worlds. Show them how they can do that, find out how they want to do it, and you’ll know how to fill in those blank spots in the map. As Mr. Maliszewski says:

That's the real key to my current refereeing style: creative leeway. I don't fill in any more details than are needed about anything, whether it be the setting of the game or the rules that govern it. My feeling remains that, if there's no immediate need to establish a fact or make a ruling, it's always better to refrain from doing so. That may make it seem at times as if things are "incomplete," but I prefer to think of it as leaving "room for expansion." One of the real reasons I've come to detest most pre-fab campaign settings and bloated rules sets is precisely because they establish facts and rulings outside of the context of play, which, for me, is utterly backwards.

UPDATE: Mr. Conley goes into greater detail about how he helps his players create the backgrounds for their characters. It may result in stronger identification with that character than many OSR DMs want, but it certainly will get the players thinking and knowledgeable about your setting.

UPDATE 2: And Uncle Bear goes someplace similar. Combining what Uncle Bear says with what Mr. Maliszewski says, you remain aware of the questions, but you don't answer them until you need to, and you base your answers on the demonstrated interests of your players. If they want grand, epic battles, then you lean towards there being a major war brewing in the background. If they prefer stealth, skullduggery, and intrigue, maybe the goblin bandits are in the employ of a rival merchant guild or religious order set on harming a rival faction.

Art by Reinhold von Moeller, Eugene Pavy and John Frederick Lewis.


Badmike said...

I think a large assumption within the OSR community is that a character background is bad because A. It limits flexibility; B. A character spends too much time developing a character that may die within 5 minutes of play, or C. Character background has to take the form of a 3 page writeup full of angsty nonsense.

Of course all of this is conditional. I can only speak anecdotally, but I've found over the years that player involvement in their character and their characters background directly relates to how much they'll put into my campaign. Inevitably, the guy playing the human fighter with no personality or background is the one guy who doesn't show up occasionally, or when he does show up, adds about as much to group as a wet towel.

I think it's interesting the resurgence in sandbox gaming, when it's CLEARLY a style that dropped out of popularity as time went on. I think the reason is character immersion, and to a lesser extent, adventure "hooks" rather than location driven adventures, became the norm. I think there is a reason DM's running pure sandboxes get frustrated (and by extension, their players are frustrated), when their players don't buy in to everything a sandbox represents. I truly think it takes a special type of Player/DM synergy to pull this off, and that is clearly not present in a lot of the sandbox game accounts I read.

I think there is a reason the West Marches style of campaigning is not more popular and we don't see these sort of campaigns popping up everywhere. Beyond logistics (having a large amount of players to choose from or game with each week) I think the assumptions of a West Marches campaign aren't necessarily universal. Personally I disagree with a lot of the premises having to do with West Marches campaigning...ex the decision to minimize town adventuring is one big one. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this sort of gamestyle is more an aberration than a style to be emulated, and when it does succeed it's because of a nearly unique set of circumstances.

Natalie said...

I also adore the Dungeoneers Survival Guide, because I think it’s a perfect sourcebook; full of inspiration for when you’re planning your campaign or an adventure, but I never touch it when the game’s actually going on.

I think you're seriously on to something here. I love sourcebooks, but having to consult anything more than a random table during play is (usually) dead weight, as far as I'm concerned. Using rules I haven't memorized usually slows down play too much to be worth it to me.

I like this concept of "front-loading" character complexity. That's a useful way to think about a lot of the important differences between "old school" and "new school" play. Or at least it's in line with a lot of my thoughts on the subject.

And if memory serves, we did something roughly similar to the character creation process Rob Conley describes with my second character. Not in the detail he's talking about, but there was a similarly iterative process of, "I'm thinking about running X, if I decide that she's from this place or that place, what would that mean?" and then you suggesting things, which would give me other questions to ask.

trollsmyth said...

Badmike: I think a large assumption within the OSR community is that a character background is bad because A. It limits flexibility; B. A character spends too much time developing a character that may die within 5 minutes of play, or C. Character background has to take the form of a 3 page writeup full of angsty nonsense.

I really think A is the kicker here. The issue is the wider implications for the whole campaign, not just the character. In order to write a detailed character history, you need to know or assuming things about the setting: monogamy or polygamy, universal schooling or individual apprenticeships, caste-by-birth or easy social mobility?

We usually start our games with all sorts of assumptions, which makes things easier but severely limits the sorts of adventures we can have. The more you decide in advance, the less flexibility you have in both your character and the setting.

trollsmyth said...

Oddysey: You would prefer front-loading, I think, because it nips in the bud the back-loading of complexity that makes 3.x a pain for you. If the important things to know about your character are detailed before play even starts, you don't end up with the creeping complexity that can overwhelm the DM. (Of course, it also helps when the important things are not easily quantified.)

And I'd have to agree. I think I prefer the Rukmini model (adding details as the world is explored) over the Jin model (weaving background and setting together during character creation), but the truth is, with Jin we had the best of both worlds because we'd already started exploring the world together with Rukmini.

Badmike said...

Troll:I would agree that TOO MUCH character background limits flexibility. But then again, a good DM can either work in a detailed background, or leave it irrelevant to the character's advancement. For example, one character background in my Skype campagin focused on the character being the illegitimate daughter of a lord and assassins being sent to shut her up. Well, the character (and party of adventurers) are 6th level now and this background hasn't come into play yet (and maybe it won't at all). Character background can be applied as much (or as little) as both the Player and the DM allow or wish. Actually as a DM I prefer more detailed character backgrounds, as I can reject or act upon them as much as I wish. In this case unless the character wants to follow up on this hook it won't come into play and just remains and interesting piece of backstory.

Natalie said...

Actually, I adore mechanical backloading. Letting players start with a simple character (1 spell!) and work up to something more complicated is, I think, one of the real strengths of D&D. What I don't like 3e is the relatively high level of starting complexity (not so much in the character but in the decisions you have to get to make that character), the ridiculous level of complexity it eventually works up to, (so many fiddly details, with no in-world meaning) and the lock-in.

Anonymous said...

My magic-user has a story:

Once per day he casts sleep on bad guys. He is also remarkably fit from all the running he does, however, he almost loses his pointy hat when he does so. This makes him sad.


trollsmyth said...

A. Nony Mouse: He should hie forth forthwith on a quest for the Elastic Hatband of Frooze.