Sunday, January 23, 2011

X is for Killing

Musings on freedom in the sandbox

I have a bit of a confession to make - I used to be a story-focused Game Master.  (We used to play 4E, too, but that's another confession.)  I spent most of the 90's and early 2000's running games for systems like Vampire The Masquerade, super hero systems like Mutants & Masterminds, and horror games like Call of Cthulhu.

What does a story DM do?  He makes up lots of interesting characters, develops an over-arching plot, and lets the players take on the role of characters in the DM's story.  At its best, everyone comes together and tells an epic and memorable story; at its worst, the players feel like their choices don't matter too much - a fixed ending is never in doubt.

The players in the current campaign are still talking about last week's game, and the zombie apocalypse they unleashed on southwest Sterich.  "How could the DM let that happen?", they wonder.  "All those NPCs we've met and befriended in places like Mittleberg, Poignard, and Beggar's Tomb Mine are all dead…"*

This is how I've come to love the sandbox and let go of the story.  No one knows how it's going to turn out.  Various NPCs in the world still have their own goals and agendas, and if left alone, they'll do what they can to move their agendas forward.  For instance, Lord Lennox of Mittleberg was preparing for war in the spring, to punish the pagan mountain folk for beheading a church missionary.  One of the characters, Phat Kobra, was knighted, and expected to be in the vanguard of Lord Lennox's expeditionary force.  Everyone was planning for the war.

Funny how 13,000 hungry undead swarming down the mountain can generate a change of plans.

Which brings me to my new sandbox mantra, X is for Killing.  I saw this list over on Il Male's blog; it made me laugh, and reinforced the direction my campaign is taking: 
  • Gods are for killing;
  • Clerics worship gods, therefore are for killing;
  • If it's not human is for killing;
  • If it's human but a little weird, it's probably for killing;
  • Magic-users are for killing 99.9% of times;
  • Dinosaurs are either to ride or for killing;
  • ...and so on.
What a wonderful set of principles.  No one is safe.  There are no Mary Sue's.  No one has plot immunity.   If the players don't stop the Shadow Demon attacks (Blood Moon Rising) in time, the entire village could be wiped out.  Half of Poignard *was* wiped out, in fact.  If the players awaken the dreaming dead (Death Frost Doom), the world will never be the same.

Nothing is written, no outcome is foreordained.  No one knows how it's going to end, least of all the DM.  Whatever story is there, will emerge or change from the choice and intervention of the players.

I loved the moment in our game last night, where the players gazed over the hex map with all its potential freedom and wondered… "We've just destroyed our world.  Where do we go from here?"

Anywhere you want, fellas, anywhere you want.

*Note:  It's not clear that all the settlements in the valley were destroyed, since the players went the opposite direction into the mountains.  I'll need to wait until they return to that part of the world to reveal what happened.