Friday, September 30, 2011

Paying for Effort

On its face, my concern around plot hooks in the sandbox from the other day has a fairly simple solution; treat plot hooks as just another piece of "sandbox information".  Like anything else encountered in the sandbox, the players can act on the information (or not); but like any other choice, there are consequences.  Choosing to ignore the Baron's summons and ditching the court page by slipping out the back of the tavern is perfectly valid; the Baron may have a problem with it, so the players should expect complications.

Upon further reflection, the real underlying concern began to come into focus for me, and it involves DM investment in a situation.  The moment the DM is invested in seeing the players undertake a certain action, the more likely it is that the consequences of declining those plot hooks for an alternate choice will become onerous and the game slides into rail road.  It's human nature; if a DM has spent a considerable amount of time preparing a detailed lair or new dungeon or similar piece of game content, it's understandable they'll want to see it used.

Choice is expensive, and the DM pays the bill.  You can have an area loosely detailed for low effort, but detail is costly.

This seems like a good topic to get feedback from folks that run their own sandboxes - how do you manage your own sandbox triangles - balancing player freedom of choice versus DM effort and the level of detail in the sandbox?

The simple answer is avoid investment in any given situation or outcome; easier to do if you haven't spent a lot of effort on developing one area too much.  To me, this implies a loosely detailed sandbox - sparse notes for the hex crawl or dungeon, heavy use of improvisation and random tables.  The concern is lack of depth.

If the DM is invested in developing detail, how to ensure the work isn't wasted while supporting freedom of choice?  I'm wondering how many of you discuss with the players at the end of the game session where they're going next, what will they do next game session, as a way of hedging before investing too much time?  How often are there out-of-character discussions about the direction of the game, and ensuring alignment between the DM's effort and what the players will actually choose in-game?

My approach in Gothic Greyhawk, the current campaign, was something I called the sandbox of modules - building a series of hex crawls and seeding it heavily with published adventure modules.  Someone else (the module writer) did all the heavy lifting on the detail, and I have no investment if the players choose to act on one set of information or another.  However, as I look ahead to a more ambitious campaign setting, I want to explicitly get away from the modules, especially as I think of a campaign world to house an incarnation of the Black City.

Another option is the illusionist's trick - the DM is heavily invested in a situation, and will do a bit of the shell game behind the scenes to re-skin or shuffle it around, ensuring the content gets encountered regardless of player choice.  Illusionism is quickly dismissed here in the OSR blogosphere, but I hear it discussed as a valid tactic in other contexts.