Signposting Styles of Play in a Sandbox Campaign

I’m working on a West Marches-style campaign for the Rogue Trader RPG, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Rogue Trader PCs command enormous resources that enable them to do pretty much anything they want, and the concept of the game is wide-screen enough to encompass a huge variety of possible goals. Different kinds of goals will reward different playstyles, from the social interaction and intrigue involved in negotiating a trade monopoly to the exploration and combat of searching for archaeotech on a derelict space hulk.

Letting players know where to go to find the play activity they want to do

The challenge is that even if I know what kind of play the group wants, as a sandbox GM I eschew the ability to deliver it. If they go to a world that’s marked on my map with a skull and crossbones, they’re going to get combat whether they like it or not. The best I can do is to make sure the environment contains lots of raw materials for whatever playstyle the group might prefer, and then put up signposts to say “Rumor has it that you can find the things you’re looking for by seeking in this direction”. I like this approach because as a player I hate feeling that I’m being catered to, and will gladly trade a high degree of inefficiency in getting what I want for the illusion that when I do I have wrested it from an objective and uncaring game-world solely by virtue of my mighty deeds.

So if it’s up to the players to seek out the kind of thing they like to do, my job is to create accurate signposts to reduce their inefficiency in finding it. My personal preference is for signposts that point to in-game things rather than player desires. Partially this is because I often meet players who aren’t comfortable in talking about what they want, or are used to doing so only in game terms (“I just want to kick some ass!”). I find “you have an invitation to the private party of the planetary governor’s mistress, do you want to attend?” more immersive and evocative than “are you interested in social roleplaying and intrigue?” but this comes at the cost of some inaccuracy.

The limitations I set on myself as a sandbox GM mean inaccuracy can’t be eliminated altogether. It’s always possible that a group seeking hot chainsword action may somehow believe that it will be found at the mistress’s party, and it’s all too likely that one player will draw their chainsword during the banquet and spoil others’ hopes for play focused on intrigue and status. But I can avoid contributing to the problem. It’s tempting to turn every social invitation into a deadly trap and every xeno-infested world into a political negotiation, but when I do I have to remember that these false signposts are frustrating the players’ ability to steer towards the kinds of play they want.

I think this ties into some things we’ve been talking about here and amongst the New York Red Boxers recently. I haven’t been consciously setting up signposts for different kinds of play in the White Sandbox; many of the adventure hooks I dangle lead to just another hole in the ground, which may contribute to James’ feeling that all D&D adventures are basically the same. (When I have created hooks for political intrigue and town adventure they haven’t been followed, which might also suggest that there’s a narrower collective understanding of what playing D&D entails than may be the case for Rogue Trader. Perhaps this is abetted by the fact that old-school D&D rules don’t seem to support those other styles of play, although I increasingly support our Invincible Overlord’s contention that often the best thing a system can do is not get in your way.)

Signposting also came up in a conversation about Eric’s frustration with internal conflict among groups of players who can’t agree whether they want to be psychopathic killers or story-builders. My feeling is that if we use strict West Marches scheduling where the party is formed around both a date and a specific plan of action, and if there are clear in-game referents that can be used to distinguish between different styles of play, a group that comes together for a night of adventure in Glantri City will likely all agree that they’re there to develop ongoing storylines and do collaborative world-building just as the group that plans an excursion to the Caves of Quasqueton will have cohered around kicking down doors and setting things on fire.

(This post is based on discussions at EN World and Story Games in which other folks say interesting things even if I mostly repeat the above.)

7 Responses to “Signposting Styles of Play in a Sandbox Campaign”

  1. 1 Restless
    December 30, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    I think what I need is a signpost to tell potential players that I don’t really want to run a game with social relationships, political intrigue, status posturing and big story arcs, so it’s not worth your time to go looking for it. Instead, let’s roll some dice and kick some ass!

  2. December 30, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    I certainly don’t intend to have any big story arcs in the Rogue Trader campaign. My plotting will be either reactive (some of the people whose asses the PCs didn’t thoroughly kick in one session may come looking for vengeance in the future) or situational (these are the NPCs on scene when the PCs come looking for asses to kick, and what goals those NPCs are pursuing).

    But yeah, talking about what your game is about with potential players is good advice for a reason. Even if you get everyone onto the right sub-set of D&D assumptions, though, I can see some room for using signposts to avoid disappointed expectations. At Anonycon I played in a 3.5E game billed as a dungeon crawl; we got our graph paper ready for mapping and were excited to find ways into and out of a big underground complex, only to find that we were bogged down in fighting for every 5′ square of the cave entrance! (That was awesome too – I’m a cheap date when it comes to D&D – just not what I expected.) It’s more challenging to think about how you’d signpost for stuff like this, since a hook that points to B2’s Caves of Chaos could mean wargame tactical play leading hordes of hirelings in pitched battle against demi-human tribes, sly negotiations turning the tribes against one another, or stealthy exploration of minotaur labyrinths and secret passageways depending on what playstyle shaped any given player’s experience of that classic module.

  3. 3 Restless
    December 31, 2009 at 12:11 am

    It’s more challenging to think about how you’d signpost for stuff like this, since a hook that points to B2’s Caves of Chaos could mean …various things…

    Agreed. All those situations in B2 sound fun to me, too! I guess when I hear people wanting to do games more along the line I was talking about, I picture sneaking around town spying on folks and backstabbing at the Baroness’ cotillion, which to me is a big yawn.

    I guess this explains why my wife wants to go to a friend’s party on the weekend and I’ll respond, “nah, grab your jacket. Let’s go on a road trip… west.” No particular place. Just… west. We’ll see what we can find. Perhaps in real life I want to hexcrawl. Heh.

  4. January 1, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Happy New Year. to all of you guys.

  5. 5 James
    January 4, 2010 at 3:28 am

    Thanks Adam! And thanks, Tavis, for keeping this blog alive without much support from me.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2009

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