Archive for January 4th, 2010


the whip and the signpost

Nobody wants to go to work on Monday.

Happy New Year!

Two thoughts on Tavis’s post about signposts:

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.

False signposts suck.  If you end up juggling your professional and personal schedules to afford a night of gaming, hoping that tonight’s the night you finally Go To The Royal Ball, it is maddening to get into a sword-fight in the palace steps with the Royal Bouncer.   I’ve seen entire campaigns designed on a false signpost: “Okay, make a crew of awesome starship officers!  Okay, for your first adventure your awesome starship blows up and you’re now on a caveman planet with Stone Age gear.”  Arrrrgh.

I’m not saying the GM should never impose a plot twist, but if there’s an implicit social contract there should be at least a gesture toward honoring it.  Let us get into the Royal Ball first, hobnob for a bit, and then have the sword-fight.  No GM idea is clever enough, and no dice roll is privileged enough, to trample over the social contract with your friends.

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.

This is an honorable sentiment, but in my view a GM shouldn’t be completely hands-off.  An adventure is simply characters’ attempts to overcome adversity.  In a sandbox game, the players may choose which adversities to face (and their ambitious meddling may create additional adversity), but without adversity there’s no game.

Someone has to hold the whip in his hand and lash the players’ backsides until they run.  No running without the whip!  Players, like all people, seek to avoid risk whenever possible.  They might crawl slowly toward an objective, peeking under every stone along the way and arguing for hours about whether to turn left or right.  When we’re talking about high-level abstraction–Should we help the king, or overthrow him?–that kind of deliberation is vital and important.  But if it’s happening all the time, then there’s not enough urgency in the game.  Deliberating != dawdling.

In Dungeons & Dragons, there’s a built-in adversity by the very nature of the setting: you’ve got Wandering Monster checks, so simply standing still is fraught with danger.  But once you get out of the dungeon, players can lose focus.  It’s important to crack the whip!  You don’t have to force the players in any particular direction, but it’s good to keep them moving.

PS.  I’ve been remiss in blogging lately.  I’m going to try to write shorter, better things than I have been.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2010

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