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.

3 Responses to “the whip and the signpost”

  1. January 4, 2010 at 5:01 am

    “in my view a GM shouldn’t be completely hands-off”

    Agreed. I think one of the challenges in setting up a sandbox is for the GM to make sure they have enough hands in place to whip the PCs wherever they may be. It’s always satisfying to talk about old-school and new-school online and then, through actually playing with the people you’ve been jawing with, figure out what they were talking about. At Recess I ran a 4E adventure for nerdNYC’s deliverator, the latest iteration of D&D being where his story-game impulses meet my grognard ones. Afterwards he was like “Oh, now I understand this old-school DM thing you’ve been going on about!” (I greeted this with consternation because as far as I was concerned, I’d been as new-school as I know how to be.) The thing that he identified as the difference between his style and mine was how I handled a situation where the PCs were trying to get down into a mine, and spent a fair amount of time working out the safest approach to doing so.

    I sat back and listened to their planning; it seemed clear to me that most of the group was enjoying doing this, so I felt no need to hurry it along, and I could profitably use that same planning time to think about which of the adversaries in the mine might come along and screw up the PCs’ rappelling schemes. Deliverator said that if it were up to him he would have fast-forwarded the whole thing; it seemed clear to him that the story was at the bottom of the mine. For him, playing out a scene that was about the players’ paranoia that something might happen, rather than focusing in on the actual conflict preventing them from reaching the bottom of the mine, was a waste of time. This got into a discussion about who decides what the story is. I felt like the players were showing me through their behavior that they wanted the story to involve rappeling into a mine; I felt it’d be controlling to say “no, actually this is a story about the boss fight for which the mine is just backdrop”. At the same time, I felt that the skill challenge I used to create adversity when the rapelling plan intersected with the adversarial tools I’d planted in the sandbox fell a little flat compared to the aforementioned boss fight.

    So I think there’s a tradeoff here (something that could be a post in itself): letting the players and the DM grope their way towards a conflict allows a lot of freedom for both parties but is an inefficient way to set up dramatic antagonisms, while aggressive authorial-stance framing of conflicts affords less choice along the way but can make for more whiz-bang showdowns. Personally as a GM I find the former more enjoyable; feeling like it’s up to me to steer towards an exciting conflict makes me tense, while watching the players argue their way into a pit is relaxing and fun. This is why it’s important to talk about experiences afterwards to gauge how others gauge the deliberation/dawdling ratio of any given session!

    I agree that the Wandering Monster check is an essential tool for tension in D&D. [Over at the OD&D boards] there’s an interesting discussion of using this to run detective games etc.

  2. February 13, 2010 at 4:40 am

    I just wanted to say that this is one of the more pithy, insightful blog posts about our little hobby that I’ve read in a long time.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2010

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