Friday, August 03, 2007

quote of the day

From Melan, spreading the gospel on EN World:

In sandbox play - as opposed to a cop-out/hybrid where the severity of challenges is scaled to the party - the responsibility for managing threats rests on the shoulders of the players, who have to make choices whether to explore a certain hazardous area, range far from civilisation centres or not, etcetera. Collecting information becomes very valuable. Rumors, and listening to them, is very important; augury and more advanced divination spells become better lifesavers than fireball (no exagerration - PCs in my campaigns have been saved more times by the first than the second) and of course, sacrificing to deities or consulting sages for their advice is a prime way loot is spent. This is, in many ways, outside the currently fashionable D&D paradigm. It is often the experienced players with set-in playing procedures, who are less successful in it, and newbies who adapt more quickly (while certain old hands are immediately "at home", and fare very, very well - that's the mythical "player skill" in action ).

Of course, none of this preserves the party from random encounters, or accidentally stumbling into something way over their heads. Here, responsibility gets divided between the DM and his players. The players must shed the mindset that challenges in the world are tailored to their abilities. They must be prepared to say "We are not going there", they must be prepared to declare "RUN!", and they must be prepared to negotiate or, yes, grovel/surrender before an obviously superior and intelligent foe. Getting out of an unpleasant situation imposed on them by a demon, lich or dragon (who could, for example, take their valuable equipment, even spell books hostage to prevent flight, or use a magical sort of compulsion) is always possible, while death is very final.

But the DM must excercise care as well. It is not ethical to slaughter the party by a proverbial lightning bolt from the sky. He should provide clues to draw attention to the fact that danger may be present (although, of course, some places may be innately dangerous: weird temples, very ancient ruins, swampland and mountains, for example, are always hazardous in my campaign). He should also handle encounters with a certain amount of flexibility, and usually allow a way out if there could concievably be one, and the players are willing to take it.

Finally, let it be noted that sandbox play is not for the cautious. It only works properly for players who are risk-takers, and don't mind a higher death rate. It is, simply put, not always the material of D&D's usual "quest fantasy" when you die more or less without a special significance. I could recount the tales - of Brantar the Cleric, who was flattened by the ceiling, or Mutambo the Fighter who was cut down by enraged amazons, or Grond, Morgos and Panther who were killed by orcs, and Tyr Wulos, Eldon the Purse and Valmard Levandell who came as a rescue party for the previous and were also killed, this time by a shambling mound (well, except poor Eldon, who died when he accidentally shot the party barbarian in the back). For risk-averse players, or those too attached to PCs, sandbox games are inappropriate, because they induce a sort of paralysis, where, by avoiding risk too successfully, the PCs effectively remove themselves from the ranks of adventurers. Alas, I have seen this in person, and it made for a very boring campaign. Having learned my lessons, I live by the sage advice now seen in my signature:
"5. If they do not wish to take a few risks, their characters should stay home and become shopkeepers and farmers.

Then wish them luck!"
-- Gary Gygax: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa


  1. Ya know, since I'm near to starting a C&C game in such a sty;e as this, it's really, really fortuitous that this comes up.

  2. What is hard for a lot of people to grasp is that such an approach is meant to be unfair to the players. That way when they win a tough fight, it's not because the DM did a good job balancing the encounter. They won because they were smart and/or lucky.

    Incidentally, my EC module was designed for this sort of play. In retrospect I should have included a rumor chart.

  3. Do you really think it's meant to be unfair? I always figured it was just meant to /be/. Unfairness implies intentional balance setting.

    My GMing philosopy (also that of Bill Stoddard, GURPS author and the last GM who ran a campaign I played in) is to simply set up an interesting situation without any explicit knowledge of what the "outs" are, and rely on the players to figure it out. I've always found this works way better than having defined outs.

    That kind of approach seems to make some people twitch. I, on the other hand, find that scenarios with defined outs make me feel like I'm playing a CRPG, intermixing scenarios that have only a single solution with cinematic cut scenes. I hate this.

  4. As an added note -- do people more often start in games with low casualty rates? My formative gaming years featured spectacular PC death rates, including the occasional TPK. This is part of what drove our group to figure out how to break Shadowrun and play nearly all mages -- which I've realized since then was supremely atypical.

    It made sense, though -- in one game I ran, the group was on a ship that was hit by a missile, mortally wounding all but one member (who leaped off the deck at some 60-70 mph, hoping he'd live). That guy slapped a stim patch on one of the mages, the mage then healed another mage, who healed another, and chained the revive the whole group. Any other setup, and that situation would have left exactly one member of the team alive, bleeding out, treading water in the middle of the ocean.

    So yeah, my assumptions for action-genre gaming start with the potential for arbitrary death and destruction and move on from there.

  5. Anonymous9:33 PM

    Ironically (re Jeff's comments above), my own preferred term for this approach has always been simply: fair play. That's literally how I pitch such a campaign to the group if I'm prepared to run it either way: "You want to take on the world fair and square, or with safety nets?"

    To be clear: I'm happy to run or play either way, as long as everyone's honest about it and everyone's on-board and eager. But I think regarding safety-netted play as the baseline of fairness might present a few pitfalls in terms of GM-side perception of how a given campaign is going/will go/has gone.

  6. Anonymous9:43 PM

    As an added note -- do people more often start in games with low casualty rates? My formative gaming years featured spectacular PC death rates, including the occasional TPK.

    Ditto, and the same goes for my current years, really ... I've presided over two TPKs in the past year, IIRC.

    ... But I'm also happy to play in games where TPKs are fundamentally impossible. For me, the sticking point is honesty. If I'm playing TOON (or an action-movie shoot'em-up RPG in the style of the fluffiest James Bond films of the late 70s and early 80s, for example), I expect characters to be able to survive anything without worry. But if the GM sells the campaign as a hard-core make-smart-choices-or-you-die FRPG run, then that's the run I expect, and if the GM starts waffling and making with the kid gloves, then flat-out: I lose respect for that GM and may well excuse myself from the campaign.

    Some of my favorite experiences, as a player, have involved the loss of my character. Some of my most frustrating experiences, as a player, have involved my character surviving when I _knew_ he should not have. Being cheated in "my favor" is still being cheated, IMO.

  7. Anonymous11:15 PM

    This is just fantastic stuff. I'm a sandboxer all the way.

    Sometimes, you get to take out Stromtroopers with one shot, possibly less.

    Other times, you find yourself firing an ineffectual puny laser at giant Imperial AT-ATs and the better part of an entire strike division while armed seemingly only with that, a stylish white parka, and an unnecessarily unwieldy backpack.

    Them's the breaks, I say. Know when to fold 'em and use your sneaky ion cannon to get the hell out of there while you can.

  8. Do you really think it's meant to be unfair? I always figured it was just meant to /be/. Unfairness implies intentional balance setting.

    I think we're saying the same thing with different vocabularies. I mean "unfair" in the same sense that life isn't fair. S. John is supersmart to frame that approach as more fair than holding the players' hands. I'm totally stealing that.

  9. I figured it might be that kind of thing; I'd say life is fundamentally fair by dint of being arbitrary, so there you go. :)

  10. Anonymous6:53 AM

    From the player's point of view, I am cool with this style as long as I have choices and information flow. If I have a map of the world and can go where I want, I'm cool with dying if I didn't bother to scout the site out, check with the locals, etc.

    If I'm put at the mouth of the dungeon and told this is the adventure of the week, you need to put in a safety net because I didn't choose to come here.

  11. Anonymous10:42 AM

    This is one of those areas where the assumptions of the game system plays a large part for me when it comes to worldbuilding. If an RPG assumes that PCs stay recognizably mortal even with years of table-play, then I can just design a world that feels like a world and GM it either way or any way in between.

    If, on the other hand, the RPG assumes that PCs climb to godly heights of power over time, that creates specific requirements when it comes to worldbulding, to accomodate open adventuring at varying power levels ... and the wider the disparity in possible power levels, the more blatant worldbuilding artifice is required for the world to feel simultaneously reasonable and robust for both "1st Level" and "965th Level Ubergodling" adventuring (fortunately for us, though, FRPGs have developed such an established library of that kind of artifice, in the form of deep dungeons and whatnot, that the usefully-nonsensical can feel downright reasonable if it's pitched right).

  12. Maybe its just because I DM the majority of my games through online rpg programs, and so need extra prep time, but building a fully sandbox environment for the PCs for every rpg you play sounds like a boatload of work for the poor little DM. For the PCs, yeah, its totally awesome, but for the DM, sometimes you just need those 10'x10' rooms to keep your sanity and your players in check.

    I have an overmap valley my players can tool around in, but I ask them at the end of each session where they are going to go next (Crypt of Doom? Temple of Bones? etc), so I don't have to waste my time working on the Swamp of Sorrows if they are planning on taking out the Vampire Lord's castle (its a big valley).

    Its not about building a sandbox world with all the various creatures statted out and treasures collumated in lists (next to impossible), its about making your players think they're in a sandbox world.

  13. Hmmm...

    I have a lot of thoughts on this, and I might riff on it in my blog when I get back from New Orleans.

    I think that a lot of GMs take the sandbox approach as the easy way out. It is easy to be a lazy sandbox GM... but that is a really bad idea in my book. A good sandbox game, to me, would require much more work than the alternative.

  14. Doug makes a good distinction here. When running a Dungeon of the Week style campaign it is important to balance the encounters to the party. Not every encounter has to be the CR of the party, but you should really try to follow the guidelines in the DMG.

    Cyberninja: one of the reasons I am seriously considering buying the Wilderlands boxed set is because reports indicate that it is a ready-to-go sandbox.

  15. and the wider the disparity in possible power levels, the more blatant worldbuilding artifice is required for the world to feel simultaneously reasonable and robust for both "1st Level" and "965th Level Ubergodling" adventuring

    I've been watching two friends play their way through Final Fantasy XII this week (and really, shouldn't the first one have been, you know, Final enough?). My one friend just plows on through things in story order, getting the occasional TPK and otherwise getting beat down. My other friend actually skips around a little and thusly keeps her characters ahead of the intended power curve. As a consequence, a boss fight that took the first friend an hour to manage, with two failures, took her a minute and a half.

    Which is all a long way of saying that one way you keep resistance levels appropriate to player power is through GM fiat -- and in the case where there's enough flexibility to muck with things, like in FF 12, you can seriously break game balance.

    (As I've watched people play various CRPGs, I often wonder how the civilizations work in these worlds, given that no normal person can hope to /survive/ a trip between towns.)