Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The 1970's Sandbox as a Post-Modern Experience

We often use the term "emergent stories" to describe what happens in the free-form sandbox style of play.  The DM presents an environment for play, without a preordained plot or story, and the players exert freedom of choice in how they choose to interact with the setting.  As they move about the place, gathering information and making decisions, we derive enjoyment from the resolution of conflicts, the approaches used to overcome challenges, the successes and failures.  Many things come together at the table - the DM's artistry of description and presentation, often humorous role playing by the players, and the anticipation of seeing how the dice roll at a given time.  "We explore dungeons, not characters".  The story "emerges".

Herb pointed out an observation he made regarding emergent story in the sandbox - he called it Memoir as Story.  (Definitely go read it, if you missed it previously).  Herb's analysis hit me hard in two places - first in how it should define the goal of actual play, and then how it informs the after-play report.

When you step back and consider a person's day-to-day life, it's a meaningless string of incidental events - morning coffee, a drive to work, stop at the drive-thru for a bagel, reading the morning email.  Is that upcoming meeting with a client important on a cosmic scale?  How about on a personal scale?  It's only after the fact that we fully appreciate the meaning of life's mundane events.  Herb's point was that the biographer or memoir writer superimposes importance on life's mundane occurrences in order to create a narrative out of an otherwise undifferentiated string of incidents.  Your life is a sandbox adventure, my friends.  We all suffer a bit from apophenia and pareidolia - we're the unsung protagonists of our individual lives.

It's been many years since I've stalked the halls of academia, so forgive me if I'm misusing the term, but when comparing the sandbox to story games, wouldn't that make the D&D sandbox a post-modern experience?  The argument is that the individual creates a narrative where none exists, by attributing subjective meaning to things.  The party happened to stumble into the toughest monster on a dungeon level at an inopportune time, but they manage to prevail due to some lucky rolls; it's only afterwards, when resistance crumbles and they learn they're left as the toughest hombres on the block, that they declare, "Boy that was some climax to clearing that dungeon level".  Prior to fixing the definition in place, the entire experience was sans plot and fairly elastic.  Who knew how it would turn out?  The other piece that's interesting is that there's no one version of the truth; since each individual constructs their own mental narrative, If you have five players, they could come away from the experience with five distinct stories.

Speaking of the number five, I'll reserve special antipathy for that darling of the new school set - the "five room dungeon".  I'll defer the invective for now; I don't want to derail this post too much with an impromptu barrage of vitriol.

Back to the main item, the other place the Story as Memoir metaphor holds truth is in the process of writing a campaign journal or session report.  The journal becomes an external artifact reflecting this internal process of attaching meaning to events; categorizing, sequencing, sifting, and otherwise editing our memories in order to present a view of what happened that's compelling for someone else to read.  I know when I write game reports for Gothic Greyhawk, I try and skip as many trivialities as possible.

Here's the lesson for sandbox dungeon masters; don't get caught up with concerns about story or driving the action in your campaign to any preordained conclusions.  The human condition is such that your players will take care of superimposing a narrative structure on what's happening for you; when it's all said and done, the group will be able to reminisce when a story arc started, when it was getting intense, and when it concluded - even if there was no premeditated story there to start.

Your job is to fill the sandbox with compelling elements - interesting places to visit, challenges waiting to test intrepid adventures, and strongly characterized NPCs.  The rest will take care of itself.


We explore dungeons, not characters:  Does anyone know who originated this quote?  I recall it was part of Evreuax's Sig on Dragonsfoot some years back, so it predated my entry into blogging.  Just curious - it sums up the old school gaming experience on so many levels.