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.


  1. While I agree with your support of this style of play, I'm not sure "emegent stories" is the best term for what goes in play in a traditional/sandbox style. You liken it to real life--and I think that's the exactly the right comparison--but story doesn't emerge full formed from either experience.

    As you correctly point out, we make narrative from real life through re-conceptualization (editing and contextualizing). There is no story there at any point--only events. The story is superimposed later. It may begin to be super-imposed almost immediately after the events occur, but its still an individual contextualization, not an intrinsic property emerging fully formed from the events. It's no more emergent than a sculpture is from a block of marble, really. Maybe I'm being too strict/formal on the use of the term emergent, though.

    Anyway, another strength I'd point out here is that, within certain parameters, all the players can experience a slightly different story (wherein, perhaps, they were the most important player) rather than an enforced story that is less ambiguous.

  2. I agree with your issue with the term emergent story - that it implies an actual story and not an external structure superimposed on events. It's just replacing it with something more accurate, yet also terse and pithy, will be a challenge.

  3. Uh, the five room dungeon is useful even in sandbox play, regarding pacing and area structure.

    It's shorthand for activity rotation.

  4. Good post. I'm curious what you don't like about the five room dungeon, especially since you mention it but don't clarify your distaste.

    Personally I've used it for spur of the moment dungeon discoveries or if I don't have much time to create a dungeon to great effect. You can have a 10 or 15 room dungeon with the same philosophy (which I've also done). Johnn Four was the one who came up with the 5 Room dungeon I believe, and I know that Dave the Game did the 5x5 Method for adventure making which also (although much more story driven) has viability to a sandbox as well.

  5. But this is modernism! It's how history has always been written.
    There's a great little essay - The Historian and his Facts" by the ever-readable E H Carr (1961) that I think perfectly captures what you're talking about - should be available for free somewhere... I'm on a phone now or I'd look it up myself.

  6. oh, I meant to say, great post - very interesting reading back to back with hack n slash's latest railroad vs sandbox post.

  7. Yes. I was just talking with someone (don't remember why) about how our lives are not stories and when someone like Steve Jobs dies, you have to comb back through the events of their life organizing and making something out of it, some kind of sense arc.

    Most people don't think about this and thus think that to make a story happen in a game you decide what it's going to be first and then walk everyone through it.

    @C and Wrath: The 5 room dungeon is the exact opposite of what he's talking about. You decide what players are going to experience beforehand and in what order. Say, the second room is a trick and that's what's going to happen no matter what the players do. I can't think of a more boring play experience than having to walk through someone else's story.

    I do use a shorthand I learned from Trent Foster to design my dungeons : 2 combats encounters, 1 way too powerful possible combat encounter, one puzzle, etc. The difference is these are scattered about a map with signs and clues, players can make decisions about which to engage in what order or miss some entirely.

  8. I'm not sure who coined the phrase "We explore dungeons, not characters". I've got a better one for you: "By exploring dungeons, we inadvertanly explore characters".

    1. I agree, whenever I read "we explore dungeons, not characters" it comes off to me as sort of shortsighted? I can't quite think of the right term at the moment, anyway, I really agree that exploring the environment and dealing with all its challenges you are exploring the character in a way. The longer the character lasts the more you have invested (at least in most cases) and the more you can make decisions based on how your character has acted previously (heavily tinged by the players own perceptions of course). So yeah by exploring dungeons you are exploring characters, retrospectively of course.

    2. I'm not sure who originated it, but I have a bookmark to a (now vanished) post on the old Aldeboran blog with that title. So, you might ask Stefan Poag.

      That said, your variation, frezdc, seems to be a pretty good one.

  9. Telecanter hit on my objections to the 5-room dungeon - it presupposes a sequence of events (regardless of whether it's 5 actual dungeon rooms or just 5 encounters), assuming the DM knows best when will be the "climax" and what is the plot. Is anything more railroady then laying this out:

    Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
    Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
    Room 3: Red Herring
    Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
    Room 5: Plot Twist

    I'm Julie, Your Cruise Director... right this way, adventurers. After our big climactic fight experience, we're off to see next week's Plot Twist. Bon Voyage!

    There's an argument on the other side that lauds the virtues of structure and a reproducible experience - hey, formulas work for sitcoms, and it can work for you too! - but I'm not on board that ship anymore.

  10. @Wraith: 5X5 planning is a different approach than the linear series of encounters inherent to the 5-room dungeon. 5x5 is designed to create plot hooks between distant locations - it can be a useful tool for brainstorming how information is connected.