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 Schr√∂dinger'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.


  1. This is something I'm much more on side with. One of the least satisfying things about computerised RPGs - a limitation of the technology, to be sure, but nevertheless, an Unsatisfaction - is the way that threads untugged neither unravel nor continue to be woven. The tapestry metaphor is telling, of course: it suggests that the world is a static thing, waiting for a PC to come along and unpick it.

    My earliest memories of computer gaming involve Baldur's Gate, and enduring some rather poor experiences involving the pursuit of plot threads from four levels ago, the resolution of which no longer presented any sort of challenge.

    Beyond mechanics, it's unsatisfactory in terms of immersion. A world that doesn't change unless the protagonist observes it strikes me as a kind of protagonist privilege, which is the sort of thing that shouldn't go past unquestioned.

    Schroedinger's sandbox, in which nothing occurs outside the perceptions of the protagonists, is poorly built, and reflects a lamentable aspect of our storytelling tradition, namely the delusion that we are the protagonists, and that the world exists to develop and serve us. A real, realistic, immersive world does things without the designated hero noticing them, much like the real one does.

    Trees fall in the forest, and there's always someone there to hear them.

  2. Good post. I have to disagree with Von, or at least suggest that some of the things some of the bugs he cites might actually be desgin features.

    As a fantasy world played around a table with arbitrary, highly abstract rules and dice is not real or realistic in any sense I'm unsure what particular additional weight having the PCs actually be protagonists would add to break immersion.

    Further, isn't this an arbitrary definition of immersion? Might not player's want to immerse themselves in one of those worlds like in our storytelling tradition you find "lamentable?"

    In the case of a fictional world, the world quite demonstrably exists to serve us. The fact they you prefer to have it serve you by pretending to be arbitrary and "realistic" in no way mitigates the fact you designed it to do exactly that for you.

    Anyway, to the wider issue I think this is an issue of what meta-rules (i.e. extra-textual) you want to apply to your game. If you want to have sort of a "deistic" where all the dominoes are put in place and then the GM is hands off, that's great. On the other hand, I don't see anything wrong with Schrodinger's sandbox--or so combination of the two--and I don't see it any less supported by the rules. It's matter of choice, and the suggestion that somehow there's a right way to play is the one that annoys me a bit (not saying you're doing that here, Beedo).

    "Illusionism" (and how's that for a loaded term?) is only problematic to me when its about the GM forcing player's to do what he wants rather than what they want (whether stated explicitly or by their actions). And its "bad" because it decreases fun.

    Having Strahd "triggered" to awaken when PCs arrive doesn't commit that sin, I don't think.

  3. 'Realistic' was probably a poor vocabulary choice on my part, as was the attempt to sound authoritative by stripping out most of the personal pronouns and other signs of subjectivity, but I'm standing by 'immersive'.

    Anything that the players notice as out-of-kilter with their preferred game experience has a chance of adversely affecting that game experience, which is what I mean by 'breaking immersion'. It's an arbitrary definition, but aren't they all?

    Shifts between freeform social play and combat mechanics are a case in point - whichever way they go, there's a noticeable transition as dice are brought out or put away and rulebooks opened, closed, or otherwise negotiated with. That stops the game in its tracks (well, unless all parties involved are able and willing to multitask, but there's usually a way around these things).

    Similar, to my mind, is the arrival in a place that was in imminent danger six months ago and the discovery that the danger is still imminent after all that time. If Strahd has been 'about to rise, any day now' for six months, how much longer might he remain so? At this stage, Strahd represents an imminent danger because the GM says he does, and for no other observable reason - the dissonance breaks immersion if it's noticed. That 'if' is the key, admittedly.

    My issue with immersion in a protagonist-centred narrative stems largely from concerns that lie beyond games and gaming. The world does not revolve around us, and the assumption that it does (which tends to result in a lot of thoughtless, self-centred and generally unpleasant behaviour) is reinforced by many narratives and unchallenged by many more - hence the lament.

    That said, we run up against the inevitable point that people can (and will) choose to have their values reinforced in their recreation if they so wish (much as I'm doing when I reinforce my values indirectly by challenging others which I find problematic).

    Thus the lament is, by and large, just a lament, since nothing in creation gives me the right to tell other people how to have fun telling stories. I concur with you that it's the element of force that's the practical problem, in the end, and I apologise if that's what I've been trying to do here, even unconsciously. Perhaps I should question my own choices in tone more regularly...

    As far as the nature of fictional worlds goes... fair cop, and I concede the point. What we create is created to serve our purposes. Perhaps all storytelling is an innately privileged act, in the end?

  4. ...is only problematic to me when its about the GM forcing player's to do what he wants rather than what they want


  5. I've written a fairly extensive piece on Time Structure in adventure design, which explicitly addresses many of the key points you are making. It is accessible from my blog on the right hand side.

    It isn't that there aren't encounters that are reasonably frozen in time (an ancient undisturbed tomb), but anything active should be on a time line. I've also recently commented on this topic in a post.

  6. Seconding Von's mention of this as a problem with video games. I might say it is the largest breaker of immersion for me as a player. Especially when you determine that a certain course of action will be much more manageable if you get another few levels. "Oh, that sounds too tough, I'll save the hostages in a few more levels."

  7. I find myself doing a bit of both: I have pre-planned encounters that occur, regardless of when the PCs get there, but these are always in specific locations (more or less), so if a party bypasses or misses that locale, they skip the encounter and I don't, usually, shift the encounters elsewhere (although I might re-use it in a future game); and when it comes to location-based adventures, the initial state of it is when the party arrives, that snap-shot only sets in motion events when the party walks in, no matter how long it takes for them to get there; although, if the plot hook implies that there is a time limit, then delays do have consequences. But, as you say, it really all depends on the game and campaign in question.

  8. belated comment...
    I find movies and games have fundamentally different values, as far as this kind of timing issue goes, and that movie-inspired DMs tend to miss that difference. Bond reliably stops the bomb when there's just 2 seconds left on the clock. Cinematically, that's a good thing: rising tension, ticking doom, Bond is shown to be most effective by being just in time. But in an RPG the biggest win can be stopping the bomb with hours to go or even stealing it before the villain gets to start the clock - as long as the players know that their smart decisions were the reason they arrived early.

    Almost exactly this happened to me once as a player (in Masks of Nyarlathotep). It was the best thing - a massive validation of everything we'd done, all the sacrifices that had been made. And in the Strahd case, if the village is dead, well, there's always the next village over that needs saving, or maybe he's already left for Whitby and you have to scour his deserted castle for clues...

    veriword: sperm. Curiously linked to Schrodinger's adventure seed.