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.


  1. Hey.

    Think you're making things more difficult then they need to be. Rather, your assumption that I do the work *before* the players choose to go somewhere seems to be the issue.

    I come up with half a dozen cool ideas, plus maybe half a dozen job postings. Then I sprinkle these in front of the players the first session, then I listen.

    What have I done up to this point? The physical structure of the land, and wandering encounter tables. That's enough for the first two sessions, and by then, I know what's up with the players and what they want. *Then* I do the work so that it's not missed.

    They go off the path? I have one milliarn supplements to handle generation of unique (micro/onepage) dungeons, zones, and lairs. And if they stay somewhere or are more interested in a zone, then I'll know where to put my weekly effort.

    All too soon, since one prep hour produces multiple play hours, you can easily get ahead of the game. Even start to take it easy around month two. :-)

  2. Yep, that's a sensible approach and the one for which I expect to see the most support - build a toolbox type thing up front, save the development of any detail until the players have committed to a course.

    There's another side, though - I see too many people burning cycles on (big) and extremely detailed dungeons.

  3. Posted (by me) for Faoladh:

    "Another option (and I concede that it is not necessarily the best or easiest one to take) is for the Referee to cultivate the attitude of worldbuilding as its own end. There's a poetry to Hârn, for instance, or Almea that it is perfectly possible to replicate with the Referee's own creation. Of course, if the world is being built to be used in gaming, then it is obviously important to build the area around which the characters will begin first.

    There are many drawbacks to this method (for instance, the constant feeling that one must set down just one more thing before getting some players, leading to never getting any players). That doesn't mean that it should be discarded entirely as an option, in my opinion."

    --As an aside, anyone know the fix for when blogger won't let you leave comments? Sounds like that was Faoladh's issue, and I see it sometimes if I'm on another PC.

  4. "how do you manage your own sandbox triangles - balancing player freedom of choice versus DM effort and the level of detail in the sandbox?"

    Three ways:
    1) Use pre-published material to help fill the sandbox. (You already covered this.)
    2) Publish/share my material. Doesn't have to be done in a fancy way. Admittedly I haven't actually published/shared everything yet, but the significant bits are (slowly) heading that direction.
    3) Run games at conventions using the same material. This could be extended into the idea of running multiple campaigns, of course.

  5. You wrote: "There are many drawbacks to this method (for instance, the constant feeling that one must set down just one more thing..." and this reminds me that world design (for an rpg) easily becomes a tumble down the rabbit hole. It reminds me of Zeno's paradox, in which each step you take closer to your goal, you realize you have another, smaller, distance to cover. Maybe it's like the uncertainty principle in that you can't fully describe your world and have players interact successfully at the same time.

    OK, I'm getting too zany. But, really, the questions you keep discussing such as free will vs. determinism and mental constructs remind me, at times, of the Cave Analogy and the whole things becomes a bit too mind-boggling.

    It's beer-thirty.

    P.S.: Here's way to much effort to sound philosophical when, really, not much is being said:

  6. It's true - sandbox thinking quickly gets to problems about trees falling in the woods - does the world in the sandbox exist if there are no player characters around to see it? Between quantum ogres and Schrödinger's sandbox, there's plenty of armchair philosophy to stay entertained. Oh, and to pick up your cave allusion - is this the real fictional world, or only a pale imitation of the real sandbox that exists only in ideal form?

    But my issue here about effort is pretty simple - Do you put the work in ahead of time, and *hope* the players go where you want? Do you try to anticipate them (-C's idea)? Do you talk to your players out of game, "Hey, I'm putting a lot of work into X, does that sound fun?" F's approach - we put the work in as an end in itself. Guy's suggestion - put the work in, and reuse it in published material or convention games for years to come. Or something else entirely?

  7. Let's see if it will let me post now.

    Crockett: I think that's the art of worldbuilding for RPGs (or, for that matter, for artistic presentation): knowing when to let it go, how far one has to detail for its intended use.