Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Illusionism and the Sandbox - Part 2

Schrodinger's Module

Yesterday I spent some time broaching the subject of Illusionism and the sandbox game.  It comes down to the consequence of choice.  Do player choices matter?  The issue I have with the bandit example from yesterday is that regardless of which road the players choose, the same consequence happens - they DM just picks up the bandits and places them somewhere else.  Illusionism implies,  "Player choices don't always matter, but as long as the players think their choices matter, they'll keep playing."  In other words, a game where the DM applies Illusionism can still be fun.

That being said, I wanted to bring up a different wrinkle regarding Illusionism and the Sandbox. The temporal nature of plot hooks in the sandbox creates an Illusionism problem.  A sandbox plot hook is a moment in time and windows of opportunity need to open and close for choices to have meaning.

Okay, that's a mouthful - here's another example to illustrate.

The players are in the tavern and hear about two adventuring opportunities.  The miners just outside of town are being attacked by an ogre clan, and are willing to pay well for mercenaries to hunt down the ogres before they return next month to overrun the mine.  The other opportunity has to do with the local Baron; a patrol of soldiers just captured a humanoid scout in the north woods, and the Baron is looking for adventurers to go north into the wilds and track the new tribe back to its lair and assess the tribe's strength.

Regardless of which plot hook the player's take, isn't it common sense that the other opportunity will be gone?  If the players don't hunt down the ogres,  the miners will be eaten, or other adventurers take the job in their place.  The ogres don't go into stasis waiting for the party to circle back months later when it's convenient.  There's an opportunity cost implicit with decision making.

I find this idea interesting because many of the situations presented in modules represent a snapshot in time.  G1 of Against the Giants presents the circumstances in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief's lair at the time the giants are raiding the nearby kingdoms.  If the party stumbles upon the Steading in the sandbox months before the raids have started, the inhabitants will be in a different state.  If the party ignores the raids and the pleas from the neighboring kingdoms, and decides to investigate the Steading months after the plot hook is introduced, won't the hill giants be in quite a different state?  Perhaps months of successful raids, uninterrupted by the players, have swelled the ranks of the hill giants due to acclaim and renown.

I introduced a plot hook for the characters in my campaign to go to the misty valley of Barovia, and return a magical sword to the mayor of the village.  The idea behind this plot hook was to give the group a reason to visit the area where the AD&D 1E module I6, Ravenloft, takes place.  They learned that an ancient evil was stirring in the castle overlooking this distant valley.  The players took on the mission to find a powerful magical sword that would help the mayor protect the people of the valley.

This was months ago in game time, and the players are taking their time making their way to the valley to fork over the magic sword.  They're still planning on doing it - I think - they'll just be six months late.  So I have a perfect test case to decide whether the state of the valley at the beginning of the module represents the snapshot of time when the players actually arrive on site, or whether the situation has continued to develop in the months since the plot hook was introduced .  It raises a question about the "beginning state" of a module when you place it in the sandbox.  It's a bit like Schrödinger's Cat - we don't know the current state of the module until someone actually opens the box - the results are unquantified when the lid is completely shut; teasing the module opens the lid of the box and starts the clock.

Here's another way of looking at it - assume there are 3 states for Castle Ravenloft:

State A is when Strahd has been sleeping for centuries.  Bad omens convince the folk of Barovia he is reawakening.  A messenger is sent out of the valley to find a lost magic sword.

State B is the time at the start of I6 Ravenloft - Strahd is awake, and ready to kill some PCs!

State C is the disposition of the castle if Strahd is left unmolested too long… he accomplishes some of his goals, rises in power, and builds an army of Strahd zombies (to kill PCs!)

When the party first hears about a plot hook to go to Barovia, it is state A.  If the party moved right to Barovia, it would be state B by the time they got there - Strahd has woken up and is ready to rumble.  If the PCs take a really long time to get to Barovia, the DM must decide if their choice has consequences versus the other possible choices they could have made.  He could advance Barovia to state C - the group took too long, the villagers are all dead, and Strahd's zombie army is larger.  Or the DM can keep Strahd asleep… note quite awake yet… okay, one eye is opening… okay, now he yawned… oh, I think he's starting to wake up a little more… The DM can keep stretching out the awakening of the vampire to fill however much time it takes the PC's to get to Barovia.  Barovia will have just flipped to state B whenever they arrive - even if it's years later!

So how does this tie back to Illusionism?  In the previous post, I identified Illusionism as a situation where the players make a choice, and regardless of the choice, the DM ensures the result is the same outcome (usually for the convenience of the DM).  The player choice is essentially meaningless; they just don't realize it.

I would propose there is a corollary issue with Illusionism - when the players make a choice, there should be consequences regarding the choices not made.  In other words, when the group hears that a vampire is reawakening in the mountains, and they choose to take the scenic route to get there, should the end result be different than if they dropped everything and went right away into the mountains?

The interesting issue it raises for me has to do with seeding adventure locations in the sandbox and determining the state of affairs in the module at the time the plot hook is revealed.  Does the clock start then, or when the players show up at the location?  What happens to the situation presented in the module when the plot hook is ignored?  Like many things in gaming, I think the answer is, "it depends"; however, it's added a new dimension to the sand box.