Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Shell Game in the Sandbox

I see some places I frequent (Hack & Slash, Monsters and Manuals) are speaking of sandboxes and player agency, and it's got me thinking again about something I've been mulling related to the problem of Illusionism.  The question is whether player agency in a game is an objective condition or subjective; is it defined by player expectation?  To get there, let's first look at The Shell Game in the Sandbox (a problem of palette shifting).

You probably know the Shell Game - there are 3 cups on the table, underneath one of the cups is a little ball, and the skilled operator shuffles the cups around, trying to mix up the location of the ball so the player can't guess the location.  The real shell game on the street is a fraud; the operator palms the ball with sleight of hand, so there's no way to guess the correct shell; the mark always loses his money.  The metaphor holds up.

Let's imagine a gaming scenario where the group must search a series of woods looking for the MacGuffin - Woods A, B, and C.  The MacGuffin could be in any of the woods.  Pick a wood, pick any wood!  It could be the classic Shell Game in D&D!

One DM - we'll call him Scripto-DM - scripts the content for all 3 woods in advance, and locks the MacGuffin into Wood B.  The other DM - Improv-DM - makes a detailed encounter with an Ogre, and keeps that game content unassigned.  Regardless of which woods the players choose first, he'd like the party to have the opportunity to encounter the ogre.  The MacGuffin will be somewhere else.

Most folks will say that Scripto-DM has enabled player agency and free choice; Improv-DM is setting up a railroad.  Let's first take a closer look at Improv-DM.

When the party boldly announces they will head out to Wood C first, looking for the MacGuffin, they run into Improv-DM's (supposedly excellent) Ogre encounter.  He reasons that he could have improvised the woods with random encounter tables, but instead developed an encounter in advance.  By deciding at game time that the MacGuffin is not in Wood C, and the Ogre is there instead, has he *actually* violated player agency?  Player will or choice has not been thwarted.  They wanted to go to the woods, and Lo! - they are in the woods.  And yet objectively he has preordained a game result.

Edit: redacted a section where I discussed how Scripto DM's standard sandbox could create the impression of a railroad through poor design - will put that in a succeeding article.

This isn't a new topic for me; I worked through similar issues with Illusionism and the Sandbox back in March in parts 1, parts 2 and parts 3; ultimately I came to the following conclusion for myself:

Player choices should be meaningful and have consequences.  Player choices are based on partial information.  The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, in accordance with the previously established facts.

Barring a change in temperament, that puts me on the side of the fence that says Player Agency is a Subjective Standard.  Improv-DM is probably okay with his approach to palette-shifting the ogre encounter, since the party's will isn't thwarted and they had no expectations for or against meeting an ogre.  If the players in Improv-DM's game asked the villagers where the ogre lives, and they're told he lives in Woods A, now Improv-DM is constrained from palette shifting, because he has introduced a fact about the game world that will be used by the players in decision making.

Edit:  While I continue to maintain that player agency is subjective (what the players don't know doesn't hurt them), I ultimately came around to the position that any kind of illusionism is a bad practice; rather than test it from the angle of player knowledge, its best that the DM doesn't predetermine outcomes in any manner; it's a simpler "test":  Fixing the quantum ogre.

So here's why this is so topical for me:  I've been reading the Red Tide setting, from Sine Nomine Games, and it provides some off-beat sandbox design advice (a review is forthcoming).  Much of the advice involves developing pre-built towns, ruins and encounters that can be moved around the sandbox - a clear case of palette shifting.  (As I mention in the comments, the Red Tide approach is either brilliant - or brilliantly manipulative!)  But in a sprawling sandbox with lots of undefined white space, who cares if the serial numbers are switched around on two remote villages that the players never visited?

It's also a potential answer to the problem of the Sandbox Triangle.  I'm a project manager by trade (although these days I do more IT functional management) so I'm very familiar with the Iron Triangle; you see the same concept in product development.  For the sandbox, the constraining factors are Freedom, Detail, and Effort.  The group can have total freedom with lots of detail, but the DM needs to put in a lot of effort if they're a Scripto-DM.

The "harmless" form of palette shifting perpetrated by Improv-DM provides a way to cheat the Law of the Triangle.  The DM puts in a lot of detail into smaller areas (so smaller effort); however, according to the Law of the Triangle, player freedom has to be constrained.  The provocative question is this:  If the player's don't know they're taking part in the Shell Game, does it matter?

I know there are sandbox purists that avoid Improvisation, Reflection, and changing content on the fly, so I'm eager to see the pros and cons regarding what I'm calling "harmless palette shifting".  Convince me I'm wrong!