After yesterday's post, I had a funny idea - I have an opinion about my campaign style, but how accurate is that perception? We're not the best judges of ourselves - humans usually are not gifted with much self objectivity. Looking for an external opinion, I asked the players to come back with their own rating of our campaign style, to see if they look at things the same way. I highly recommend you try it out yourselves and gauge whether you and the players are on the same page.
Here are the top five descriptors I picked (remember, the whole list came out of Stuart's merit badges):
My game focuses on Exploration & Mystery.
My games are Gonzo and can include a lot of strangeness.
I roll Dice in the open and don't fudge the results in my games.
Players characters Death is a likely event in my games.
Players in my game should be prepared to Run when the odds are against them.
However, here's how the players rated the campaign (5 out of 7 players voted; I skipped the two eleven year olds since they're not on email). I asked the adults to limit it to their top 5, too.
Death - 4
No Dice Fudging - 4
Improvisation - 3
Exploration - 3
Run Away - 2
Tactics - 2
Tells a Story - 2
Non-Combat - 1
Mirroring Ideas - 1
Gonzo - 1
Disturbing Content - 1
Player Skill Matters - 1
The two most agreed upon characteristics are the campaign is deadly and the dice matter - remember, all of these players were part of the group that gakked Strahd Von Zarovitch with a single well-placed spell during the Gothic Greyhawk campaign of 2011, so they've been on the beneficiary side of sticking with dice results, too (Die Strahd Die).
I don't think I improvise a lot, but the players indicated the campaign used a lot of improvisation. (I'll take that as a compliment). The votes that left me head scratching were the ones for "My game tells an interesting Story". For me, "Story gaming" has a very specific connotation - a scripted series of scenes with a predictable climax and story arc, or a collaborative game structured to tell a traditional story with climax and denouement. In other words, the exact polar opposite of the sandbox campaign we're actually playing. I asked the players about those votes, and the response from the players was - "No, the interesting story is something that happens after the game sessions, when you look back at a character's survival - the story is pieced together through play over the campaign". That definition is pretty much in line with emergent characters and the whole point of a sandbox game. It's funny how elusive it can be to achieve a mutual understanding on even a simple definition.
Okay, that just explains the whole internet, right there.
Below are the reasons for my ratings. The one thing I aspire towards is challenging the players and not their characters - but I don't feel like I do it consistently enough or well enough to call it out as a defining characteristic. It continues to be my aspiration.
Exploration & Mystery
The Black City is a ruined, sprawling hex crawl, with a series of detailed surface structures, and a vast underworld dungeon beneath it. It's all about exploration - and there are some deep mysteries around who created the city, and why did they disappear thousands of years ago.
We've got aliens, robots, plastic humanoid servitors, Vikings, Byzantine and North African sorcerers, ray guns and lightning rods, spontaneous undead, powerful inhuman intelligences masquerading as Norse gods, Hyperborean artifacts, Lovecraftian servitors, and a hefty dose of "dungeon madness" turning some of the explorers into berserkers. I tend to think it's a bit gonzo, but apparently not.
No Dice Fudging
If it's worth rolling, it's worth rolling in the open. The cornerstone of a sandbox game is "meaningful player choice", and that includes the good and the bad consequences. No good can come from undermining the integrity of the game by lying about the dice results.
There is a lot of satisfaction in survival when there's no safety net (dice fudging or otherwise) and the players survive (or not) based on their own planning, choices, and tactics - and a bit of good fortune.
Encounter balance doesn't mean anything to me. I balance the world - monsters are roughly equal to each others in terms of power when they're in the same area - but there are plenty of outliers that will overpower the player characters if they take on the wrong monster head on. We had a party of 1st level characters run into a ghost, for instance (easily an 8th-10th level monster). They haven't even run into the dragon yet!
I don't think I'm done with the merit badges - the list could be a useful tool to get insight from the players on what's important to them personally. For instance, maybe they want more intricate, tactical combat from the game, or they want a bit more drama or non-combat roleplaying (such as politics, or domain management).