Posts Tagged ‘campaign


Rumors of Dwimmermount

Here is the rumor chart I made to bring events from the inaugural G+ session of the Dwimmermount Kickstarter campaign into the continuity of the game I subsequently ran at the Brooklyn Strategist. The idea is that Locfir having gotten busy with other projects, Locfir’s Man (formerly known as the candlemaker Ungril Ungfarm) escaped from being charmed. Scuttlebutt is now echoing from the tales he brought back from the dungeon expedition he participated in with Pigfoot the Hog (human fighter), Burgoth the Mage (human you-guessed-it), and Locfir the Astrologer (elf). These are a little Locfir-centric because Locfir’s Man is making out like a bandit on his association with the elf and in fact refuses to answer to the name Ungril any more.

Photos by David Ewalt, aka Old Axehandle, from the last Brooklyn Strategist session

  1. Pigfoot discovered material components that make the ventriloquism spell lethal AND merchants are buying up all the fortress-town’s supplies of chain, caltrops, oil, and torches.
  2. Locfir made Burgoth lick a Thulian pillar of submission AND Burgoth is now hemiplegic and enslaved in Locfir’s sanctum.
  3. The party all cast charm person on one another to protect themselves from outside influences AND when they returned from the dungeon one of them had been turned into a gnome nonetheless.
  4. The bearded face of a Man spoke to Locfir AND taught him how to initiate himself and others into Thulian wisdom.
  5. Locfir filled a wineskin with a fluid he found very interesting AND pouring it on Burgoth brought him back to life.
  6. The party was attacked by metal skeletons AND Burgoth controlled them using a lever.
  7. The party found the petrified body of Turms Turmax’s courtesan AND she revealed to them the secrets of the Thulian doors.
  8. The party found a renegade Dwarf AND the others of his kind are searching for a cemetary of their kind that is being desecrated.

All of these are potentially knowable to characters in the Fortress of Muntsburg. I had the players roll a d8 apiece to see which rumor they had heard just because I didn’t want to read them all out at the start of the session, but I don’t think any of these are spoilers at least for my own approach to embracing meta-knowledge. If you read this post and then play in my game that’s awesome you saved some reading rumors aloud time. We’ll work together to imagine the reason that your character is particularly well versed on what’s being talked about in Muntsburg’s taphouses.

Step one of my approach involves acknowledging meta-information the players might have – some of the stuff above you can guess at if you’ve read Zak’s post. The reason the the map of the first level can be seen in the picture to the right is that I placed it in the dungeon as treasure, knowing at least one of those present had seen it in the Dwimmermount teaser in the Adventurer Conqueror King rules we were using.

Step two is then using this to screw with the players. James beautifully set the stage for this by changing the dungeon since the ’09 PbP game, so that the first time Locfir entered after three years away he freaked out that none of his maps were quite right. Part of the reason these aren’t spoilers is that each has two parts, separated by AND. Either part could be true or false. The idea is to give players some ideas about things that might be interesting about the dungeon – in this case, things that our group of players actually was interested in (well OK maybe just me, Locfir was always either running away or having to be dragged away from things only he cared about). Then if and when they do encounter something that might relate to the rumor, their dread and paranoia is entertainingly multiplied by the bad things they’ve heard or the likelihood that I made a false good rumor to trick them into doing something foolish.

The way I figure this works for the Judge is that if the players want to try to investigate the rumors further, they can spend some time (I recommend a week) in town rolling against an ability score or however you like to do this kind of thing. The results are, using an assumption that you’ll wind up with a range like the Apocalypse World-type system where a total failure is a modified 6- on 2d6, total success is 10+, partial success anything in between:

  • Total success: you learn whether both parts of the rumor are true. (If you like to be more stingy with information, decide which part you want to pursue and you confirm or deny that half.)
  • Partial success: you learn one false part of the rumor, Judge’s choice, or that no part is false. (Or maybe you learn it all at a cost or complication.)
  • Total failure: the Judge gets to invent and spread a rumor about the investigating PC. (Or trigger a town adventure, rival party attack, etc. if your group is in the mood, or impose a penalty on the PC’s die rolls due to too much buying of drinks in town means bad hangover but no info.)

Judges, if you haven’t read the adventure yet just decide “true or false” depending on what sounds good to you. Discreetly make a note on the rumor table to help you figure out what you said later when the party finds that thing in the dungeon (if it even exists at all). Likewise if you are about to prep the dungeon, thinking about these rumors as you read should help you keep your eye out for cool stuff (even though James has hit on what is for me just the right level of evocative detail vs. easy to read). And if you think your players know too much about the dungeon, these rumors are meant to be a good guide to which switches to flip to change things up.

Finally, you don’t have to pay any attention to this continuity in your version of Dwimmermount. Pigfoot and Burgoth and Locfir don’t have to be in the setting at all, they are non-canon for sure and I am pretty sure it will make James frown thoughtfully if you start tossing canon around so don’t do it. If the party goes to investigate what’s going on with Burgoth and he exists he can be whatever you want, I recommend secretly a polymorphed dragon living in some kind of polyhedral melting pocket-plane.

Empty Kingdom if you are a home for media artists make it easy for me to credit this painting to Ryan Browning with name and year and stuff the way galleries do.

The one thing you should be sure to respect in your campaign is that if it has a Locfir he is fantastically wealthy but no PC will ever find where it is hidden, and he has like a million hit dice and just started that one HP rumor to tempt fools to disrespect him so he can do weird elf things with your still-beating heart.

I liked the way this worked and will be doing it for the Keep on the Borderlands events we’re doing with ACKS at Gary Con IV.


Anomalous Subsurface Environment

Behold the awesomeness. Yes, it's kind of small.

I am using ASE1: City of Denethix and Dungeon Level 1 in my White Sandbox campaign because it is awesome. If you are playing in my game, please do not read it. This is the only permissible excuse for not doing so, and White Sandbox players are encouraged to pick up copies but not read them; putting them under your pillow may cause some of the awesomeness to seep in.

Here is a bit of the module in actual play, from the summary of session #50 by myself and Ookla’s player flyingace:

Inside they found an octagonal room with three doors marked “Barracks”, “Main Generator Core”, and “Colossus Research Facility”. They decided to explore the latter, but as they did they were followed by a number of automatons in the shape of dwarves, who insisted that they identify themselves and requested that they follow them to speak with the Sargent who would know what to do with them. Ookla asked whether the Sargent was expecting them, trying to ascertain whether they were in some sort of mystical/mechanical communication with the entity. They replied that he was not and inquired after Ookla’s identity. Yelling “My name is Jimminy Cricket and I’m here to make with the rescue!” the previously invisible Ookla became visible as he launched into an attack of one of the mechanoids. Ookla, Tobias, Rolzac, Nolgur and the tuxedo-bedecked gorilla who resembled Groucho Marx dispatched the automatons, but not without the loss of the gorilla. Thirster noted that he was unable to draw forth any souls from the mecha-dwarves.

I have seen ASE described as gonzo, but in a campaign where players (Jedo, to give credit where it is due) have researched spells to procedurally generate monkey butlers according to which species of great ape they are and what comedian they resemble it is actually a reasonably realistic backdrop for adventure.


The Power of Saying No

The New York Red Box group has two ongoing old-school campaigns: Eric‘s Glantri and my White Sandbox. Just as the presence of two professional baseball teams in NYC gives rise to the enjoyable rivalry of the Subway Series, the different approaches of these two campaigns create one of the productive tensions within our group.

I’d estimate that about a third of us play regularly or semi-regularly in both campaigns, with the remaining two-thirds being players in only one or the other. This largely boils down to whether people are available on weeknights for Glantri, on weekends for White Sandbox, or enjoy the luxury of having time for both.

But even if the division within our player base is basically due to factors extrinsic to the game, all of us enjoy having two mirror-image campaigns so that we can better understand the way things go in this one by comparing it to the way they do it over there.  As Naked Samurai memorably expressed:

Most of the Glantri campaign believes the White Box campaign goes like this. The session starts in a magic item bazaar, where they pick up stray magic items with the metric assloads of gold they are carrying in bulldozers. After lapping up a few Staffs of Striking and a Long Sword of Sharpness +4 or two, they wander around a valley until they seduce a few werebears, who sire their children. Then they enslave, like, a few tribes of gnomes to take care of their griffon mounts and tiny giraffes. After threatening several giant kings, who aren’t worth their time, they bump into a couple demons from the depths of hell, who they vanquish within half a round. Then they discuss, philosophically, why death has no meaning, as they stroll back home.

Not bad for fourth level characters.

Is this just the grumblings of players who should be content that they survived an adventure in Glantri, and even came away with a single silver spoon as treasure? No, there are indeed measurable differences that underlie the distinction N.S. is making here.

As in chaos theory, many of the biggest separations  in how the campaigns have evolved come from their original conditions. The Glantri campaign has always started new PCs at first level, while characters enter the White Sandbox at third level (following my decision to use Gygax’s house rules). At that link Cyclopeatron notes that “Gygax’s house rules are interesting because most of them make characters stronger”, but even the pre-house-ruled systems Eric and I each use differ in this regard; spells like hold person are much more potent in OD&D than their counterparts in Moldvay/Cook B/X.

But other differences suggest a divergence in play styles. James’ analysis of XPs earned in each campaign suggests that the rate of advancement per session of adventure is eight times faster in the White Sandbox than in Glantri. The fact that the bulk of these experience points come from gold means that we do indeed have adventures structured around the logistical difficulties in moving metric ass-tons of coin – one of the few kinds of difficulty that Glantrian players are not regularly exposed to. Back when we were grinding through the upper levels of the Caverns of Thracia, I made a conscious decision to increase the treasure levels (to a rough guideline of 4 gp for every 1 combat XP, suggested by Alexander Macris in a comment here at the Mule way back when) and have been playing out the implications ever since.

I’ve been saying recently that the White Sandbox is an exploration of the improv principle “always say yes”, while Glantri is a demonstration of the power of saying no. You could perhaps map this onto the distinction between paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy,” and ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty.”

Let me be clear that I’m not painting Eric as a joyless denier, or saying that the only reason to play in Glantri is a masochistic enjoyment of difficulty for its own sake. Experiences are fun because they balance both of these extremes; awesomeness is produced by the tension between them, and I can personally attest that the Glantri campaign is a reliable source of awesome fun. I’m interested in seeing Glantri as an example of the power of saying no because I need to harness that power for my own play, which has a tendency to go too far in the other direction.

Here are the things I think saying no contributes to a RPG experience, especially in a long-form campaign:

  • The satisfaction of overcoming opposition. Players in the White Sandbox really are worried about death losing its sting; even as raise dead becomes a more common event in the campaign, they want the possibility of the ultimate, character-sheet-shredding NO. (Spiritual mishaps are one way we’re hoping to balance these). The more often a character’s desires are denied, the more thrilling it becomes when they finally succeed. Heroes with a surplus of Staffs of Striking can be hard to challenge, whereas in Glantri, as Naked Samurai said earlier in the thread quoted above, “we need to actually be, you know, resourceful, to make it down the river.”
  • Maintenance of a consistent reality. Gene Wolfe turned me on to Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, many of which have a structure in which the priest-hero does things that seem really shocking and the mystery is why this is actually moral and necessary. There’s a great one where Father Brown sees this young man watching raindrops on a tavern window, and subsequently abducts him and ties him to a tree out in the rain. “I could see that you were on the verge of a grave theological error,” our hero explains. “I knew that you were thinking that the course the raindrops took was a product of your own mind, and took it upon myself to demonstrate that there is a reality upon which your desire not to be tied to a tree has no bearing.” Saying no to things that violate the fictional reality is necessary not only for believability and immersion, but also player agency. The world needs to work in predictable ways for people to be able to plan the likely consequences of their actions; we base our game-world expectations on our common experiences of the real one, in which stubbed toes reliably refute solipsism. The higher power level in the White Sandbox makes this harder because each magical effect the characters can produce gets us further away from the world in which we know what is and isn’t possible.
  • Lines and veils. I realized how much I’ve internalized the New York Red Box’s coolness policy about what kind of things shouldn’t be brought into a game at all, and which other things should be alluded to instead of shown, when I recently participated in a game that wasn’t played in a public space. All of a sudden I was dropping f-bombs left and right, liberated from self-censorship and able to speak all the things I normally say no to.
  • Maintaining the campaign’s tone. This is one Eric struggles with; having given up on a kind of saying no that looks like hard work means that my campaign automatically assumes the gonzo tone you get when nothing is forbidden. Wanting to do a different kind of game would mean having to say no to dissonances and mis-steps.

One thing I think is important is that saying no isn’t just something the DM does. That’s been the way it’s traditionally conceptualized, and in the above I’ve been focusing on Eric because as Glantri’s DM he’s the easiest way to personify that campaign. But in fact I’m the one who censors my own language when I play in Glantri, and I can’t think of any times I’ve needed to police the lines and veils policy in White Sandbox because respecting that is a communal effort.

This is crucial for me because I tend to get the power of saying no mixed up with having all the power and needing to be in control. When I’m DMing for kids and they come up with some totally unexpected idea, I often observe that my first impulse is to say no. On further reflection I realize that there’s no good reason to do so; in this context there’s no real game balance to be maintained, no consistent tone to be respected. I’m just reflexively saying no because I’m afraid that opening up to player input will cause things to spiral out of control and fall apart, with the implied fallacy that I’m the only important one who is capable of holding it together.

Saying no is one of the DM’s jobs, and in the afterschool class it’s a job I get paid for despite not doing it very well. Being disciplined about defining where the power of no holds sway is important, because it makes improvisation joyful by providing something to strive against. But doing this can be a collective part of playing, and sometimes relinquishing control to the players lets them enjoy the power of saying no.

In the White Sandbox, James gets a lot of enjoyment out of his character Arnold Littleworth, d/b/a Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, because he’s decided never to memorize any useful spells whatsoever. Even in a campaign where endless tiny giraffes could be his for the taking, he’s created his own gratuitous difficulty in order to make the one time that a useless spell saves the day a triumph over adversity. Sure, that adversity is imaginary and self-imposed, but what in D&D isn’t?


The New Red Box: Philly

Just in case you thought it was that other red box we're talking about here

I’m glad to share the news that the Red Box family of gaming groups is gaining a new member, Red Box Philly. Let’s welcome the new meatshield, I mean cherished offspring, by joining the site as a show of support, and also rooting through our collective store of hard-won experience points to see what we can pass on to help Philly level up!

I’ll brainstorm some categories of things I’d want to know if I were trying to seed a new Red Box in untilled soil; although we can give advice here, there are also related threads at nerdNYC and the NY Red Box to take advantage of the different functionality of a forum.

  • What is the best way to attract players? It seems to me that having a regular weekly night to start with might be a good idea, because you can list that in player-finders that assume regularly-scheduled games rather than just-in-time ones. Pen & Paper is the player finder that comes to mind; what others work for people?
  • What are the pros and cons of coat-tailing an existing gaming group? I know that NY Red Box owes much to nerdNYC for creating a thriving community of gamers that we can recruit from, and I think I’ve heard that the Vancouver Gaming Guild also helped lay the groundwork for Red Box Vancouver. So my inclination would be to start out by offering to do New City Red Box events within the existing structure of whatever local community exists, especially the D&D Meetup group and the D&D Encounters program at a local game store (I’d even go so far as to create an Encounters game if none exists yet). However, I know that NY Red Box also benefited a lot from the attitude we inherited from the nerdNYC community, which is different from the prevalent approach I’ve seen in our D&D Meetup group, and different again from the likely style of friends you talk into playing despite not being hardcore gamers. I’ve found it possible to bridge these groups and would consider it more important to have many players to seduce away from their old style & towards the enlightened wisdom of old-school Red Box than only one or two right-thinking stalwarts, but it bears thinking about.
  • What is the hook that people keep coming back for? Curiosity about old-school play may lead some to check it out, but let’s face that it can be an acquired taste to roll up a character who only lives long enough for ten minutes of play time and one insanely ill-advised act of  sociopathy ending in a Save-or-Die effect. I suspect that the real selling point is a drop-in, low-commitment game like Encounters, Living Forgotten Realms, or the Pathfinder Society, but unlike them in that your character’s actions have an immediate, visible, and lasting impact on the story of the campaign.

To capitalize on that last one, and roll these together, I think that what I’d do if I were in Red Box Philly’s shoes would be to run games in the campaign wherever I could find players – at cons, at gamedays, at D&D Meetups or game stores on the same nights as Encounters, at friends’ houses, whatever. Each time, I’d capture people’s emails, and after the session I’d make a session summary on the forum, a wiki page for each character, magic item, place, and proper noun like Glantri and Black Peaks do. Then I’d email all the players:

Hey, thanks for playing! A recap of the events from last session is here on the forums; become a member so you can comment and help plan the next adventure. I made a Wiki page for your character so you can drop in and play anytime, even if you don’t have your character sheet with you. You’re always welcome to join in; you can use the forums and wiki to keep up on what’s happened while you’re away. If you earned any treasure, you should visit the carousing thread; it’s kind of a play-by-post minigame where you can earn experience points by having your character lavishly spend their gold on wine, women, and song, or whatever other special interest they may have…

As soon as possible, I’d encourage other players to run their own games; lots of people want to DM, and as we’ve seen with Red Box NY’s Sudden Summer Gaming, one of the great things our kind of group can do is to provide a pool of free-associating players who can come together to do stuff without being locked down by it. I suspect these should not be campaigns yet; you’ll know when something that started as a pickup game has developed enough momentum to become a campaign, and you want to select for DMs who have fun playing in other games and being loose with their ideas rather than making people commit to their grand pre-existing vision for how their game will be.

What else have we learned about how to make a Red Box group successful?


Word from the Geofront

Just a quick update: I’ve been at Myrtle Beach for the past six days, hence my lack of gaming posts. I have, however, finished mapping out two levels of my megadungeon and wrote up the contents of 75 rooms, including assorted furnishings and bric-a-brac. I gotta tell ya, filling in all the fine details takes a lot of time! But it’s necessary to give the dungeon that “lived-in” look. Some of it actually counts as treasure, too! (This is a good reason to bring in the Trader PC: to assess the value of this chair or that tapestry!)

More later. Eric out.


It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Dungeon

Once again, the bloody-handed adventuring party has returned from the dungeon laden with gold and jewels. They spend the next few days carousing in all the local taverns, buying rounds of ale for the house and telling lurid tales of the monsters they slew and the strange magics they unearthed. Then, refreshed and ready for another go, they set out for the dungeon again.

Who else, having heard their tales and seen their gold, is heading into the same dungeon?

Roll 1d20 on the following table each week of game time. Assess an ad hoc penalty to the roll if adventurers have suffered heavy casualties and/or won little treasure of late, or add a bonus if adventurers have brought back a particularly rich haul or if multiple parties have been active in the area.

Roll Result
1-12 No one else dares to enter the dungeon.
13 A band of local peasants ventures into the dungeon. Roll 1d6. (1: None of them are ever heard from again. 2: Too scared to enter the dungeon, they return with false tales of made-up adventures. 3: Finding only empty rooms, they wonder what the fuss was about. 4: After a nasty encounter with monsters, the survivors swear off adventuring. 5: As #4, but one or two survivors are willing to sign on with an adventuring party. 6: Clearing out 1d3 rooms on the first dungeon level, they find they have a knack for adventuring and form an first-level adventuring party.)
14-16 A low-level adventuring party enters the dungeon. Roll 1d6. (1: The party clears out 1d3 rooms before being killed off, leaving their bodies, equipment and wealth in the depths. 2-3: As #1, but some survive to tell the tale. 4-5: The party clears out 1d4 rooms in the upper part of the dungeon. 6: The party clears out 1d3 rooms in the middle part of the dungeon.)
17-18 A mid-level adventuring party enters the dungeon. Roll 1d8. (1: The party clears out 1d6 rooms before being killed off. 2-4: As #1, but some survive to tell the tale. 5: The party clears out 2d4 rooms in the upper part of the dungeon. 6-7: The party clears out 1d6 rooms in the middle part of the dungeon. 8: The party clears out 1d4 rooms in the lower part of the dungeon.)
19 A high-level adventuring party enters the dungeon. Roll 1d10. (1: The party clears out 1d8 rooms before being killed off. 2-4: As #1, but some survive to tell the tale. 5-7: The party clears out 2d6 rooms in the middle part of the dungeon. 8-10: The party clears out 1d6 rooms in the lower part of the dungeon.)
20 Another adventuring party is in the dungeon right now! Roll again, disregarding this result if you roll it a second time.
21+ More than one adventuring party has entered the dungeon! Roll again. Multiple results of 21+ are cumulative.

Give each NPC adventuring party a name and roll them up on the appropriate tables; this way you’re ready in case they get in a fight with the PCs or if the PCs find and loot their corpses in a monster’s lair. When you roll that an adventuring party enters the dungeon, if a party of the appropriate level range has been inside before, there’s a 5 in 6 chance that it’s an existing party and a 1 in 6 chance that it’s a party new to the area.

When determining where the NPC adventurers go, roll randomly or choose as appropriate for the NPC party. Rival parties may stir up trouble with otherwise peaceful monsters, break useful devices and disrupt the dungeon ecology (if any). The PCs may want to ambush rival parties—and vice versa!


The Kingdom Rolls 3d6 In Order

A couple of weeks ago, Grognardia reader DeForest posted an interesting reply about statting out political units in a campaign:

As I was designing the campaign I decided where the political units were going to be and very, very, very general ideas of what these units were (mainly ideas of racial composition). I then statted them up as characters — straight 3d6 in order. This told me which political units were stronger than others, made wiser decisions, more intelligent decisions, were more robust as a polity, had a greater magical presence, were more mobile in response to threats, etcetera.

The thrust of the remainder of DeForest’s reply dealt with how the random results of this process injected excitement, novelty and creativity into the process. Certainly this is valuable, but it elides another interesting part of the idea, which is that this offers a simple, intuitive scale by which the DM can write up and assess political units in the campaign.

You could probably even utilize the OD&D combat system to resolve conflicts between states. Figure out each state’s class and level, assign hit points and armor class, and treat each combat round as a year. I’m not sure this would be useful, but it would certainly provide an entertaining experiment.


The Game Is What Happens At The Table

Like a lot of kids back in the day, I owned a lot of RPG paraphernalia but rarely got the opportunity to play. After a brief faddish spate of Holmes Basic around ’79-’81, most of the kids I knew moved on to other things, so I read The Dragon, bought stacks of D&D supplements, and spent lots of time homebrewing settings that would never see actual play. Tolkien and Greenwood were my idols as I drew up royal genealogies and alien botanies and landscapes lush with purple prose. I am pleased that I can no longer find any relics of that juvenile work; I’d be embarrassed to look at it and I doubt it contains anything salvageable.

It’s taken me years to unlearn some of the lessons I taught myself during that dark decade without actual play. I continue to adjust my DMing so that I hew closer to principles that come much more easily to me in other games, principles that flee at the touch of D&D’s trappings.

Things to remember:

  1. Don’t plan too much. Sure, for a good sandbox dungeon you need to draw up a dungeon level or three and populate them, but beyond that, there’s no need to worry about which towns and countries are where, who all the NPCs are in town, what’s going on in the grand political arena of the game world, etc. If the players are interested in these things, you’ll find out in play, at which point you can fill in elements of the milieu ahead of them in the same way that you’d build out parts of your megadungeon as they descend new stairways to the lower levels.
  2. Don’t struggle too hard for consistency. Look at your mistakes as opportunities. Did the players notice that you’ve given three different names for the local lord over the last three sessions? Sure, that’s because you keep forgetting his name, but instead of “fixing the problem” by retconning the earlier names, just roll with it and say that there have been three different lords. Is this the result of assassins? Plague? A dreadful curse that the ruling family will pay your band of heroic adventurers oodles of gold to lift? What started as an error is now a plot hook!
  3. It’s just a game. Don’t fret over the structural integrity of your dungeon level or the exact details of the goblins’ food chain! Don’t get aggravated when your players give their characters weird names or declare that a PC’s life goal is to find and consume the perfect cheese. This isn’t a novel, and it won’t fall apart if the mood wanders a bit.

Once the upper levels of the dungeon have been set up and you’ve figured out the basics of the nearest town (if appropriate), the DM’s immediate work is done. The rest of the canvas can remain blank until there’s cause to fill it in. Such cause should come, directly or indirectly, from the players or as an extension of their interactions with NPCs. Every foreign land that a PC hails from, every distant dungeon marked on a treasure map, will fill in a bit of that canvas; don’t fill it in too early lest you clog up that open space!


Sandbox Dungeon Master’s Toolkit: Nudges and Libertarian Paternalism

A successful sandbox game has to balance extremes. Too much restriction and you get the Straight Line Dungeon where player choices barely matter. Too much freedom and you get the Hall of 10,000 Identical Doorways where the players have no basis for choosing one over another. When you mention that one doorway has a trail of bloody footprints leading through it, as a DM you’re using a nudge to help players navigate between these extremes.

Although I’m unable to resist the lure of discussing the theory of nudges, let me avoid burying the lede by putting this d20’s worth of cool nudges for sandbox play up front:

  1. An under-detailed dungeon map showing major threats and implied objectives. (#1 – #5 need to find their way into player’s hands to be useful!)
  2. A scavenger hunt list giving sub-goals that need to be completed, some of which specify what and where
  3. A world map on which the style used to write the place names tells them something about what’s there
  4. A city map on which “special locations” are distinctive from the rest of the mass of anonymous, of no note, buildings.
  5. A cross-section map that shows intriguing dungeon levels and their interconnections without showing how to get there from here in a top-down view
  6. Chalk on dungeon walls or blazes on trees showing where other adventurers have been
  7. A trail of small-value gems has been laid down in a regular, deliberate-looking pattern
  8. A trail of coins in an irregular pattern, as if someone was carrying a bag of loot with a hole in it
  9. Mule-pulled wheel ruts dug unusually deep, as if a wagon was laden with some very dense metal
  10. Players find part of the Rod of Law, and it points towards the other six parts
  11. Players find a wand or magic sword that detects treasure
  12. The sound of screaming or cries for help (#12 – #15 are assumed to be coming from a particular direction)
  13. A hubbub of voices and laughter
  14. The smell of baking bread
  15. The sound of a hammer striking an anvil
  16. Adventurers’ corpses, lying in a heap as if struck down unexpectedly, still carrying their gear including bulging sacks and glowing swords
  17. Adventurers’ corpses, sprawled as if running in terror from a certain direction, stripped of their gear with PC-level thoroughness (gold teeth extracted, bellies slit to check for swallowed gems), perhaps with bloody footprints showing which way the looters went
  18. Adventurers’ corpse, carrying directions to a treasure divided into steps. (Careful study of the steps that the former owner would already have completed to get to this point where his body was found shows that either he made a mistake or corrected a persistent error in the directions as written).
  19. Monsters or NPCs fleeing from a certain direction, dropping their goods in order to run faster
  20. Monsters or NPCs rushing towards a location, leading mules with empty saddlebags, mining equipment

Let me also add as a matter of practical advice that nudges like this are especially useful for one-shot sessions of adventure. It doesn’t need to be the case that sandbox-style play is poorly suited for convention games, as folks wind up suggesting in this EN World thread. What is true is that campaign-length sandboxes tend to give players more room to develop their own nudges toward adventure and information about which options will lead where they want to go. (A long-running campaign also has enough momentum to roll past a few sessions in which the players’ choice leads to boring events.) When running a sandbox for a newly-formed group, it’s a good idea to throw in some nudges – just a couple if the game is going to run for a single session, or six plus if it’s the start of a long campaign that will have time to try out and maybe reject several of them and explore the connections between each of the starting nudges.

How are these nudges different from a traditional adventure hook? For starters, an adventure hook usually combines motivation and direction. Here I assume a sandbox style of play in which everyone supplies their own motivation and  is on board with a player-driven approach, but may need some help deciding which way to drive.

More essentially, if you don’t take an adventure hook you miss out on the reward with which the hook is baited. (Players who are used to a strongly directed style of play may also suspect that not taking the hook will mean no adventure happens.) A good nudge suggests a course of action without imposing a penalty if you don’t take it, although some of the ones above meet that goal better than others. Nudges also leave open many courses of action: going through the doorway of the bloody footprints, or specifically avoiding it, or going through the next doorway over and trying to circle around are all good responses.

OK, now let’s get conceptual! When we talk about restriction and freedom, we should remember that in theory, any tabletop RPG offers unlimited freedom. Unlike a computer game, it’s possible to do anything that you can imagine, so it’s useful to think of restrictions as the costs of different choices. The cost of an absolute refusal to let your choices be limited by what other players want to do is that they’re likely to stop playing with you.

If you’re in the Straight Line Dungeon but don’t want to go A->B->C like it’s pushing you to do, you could always go back to town, hire and equip a team of dwarven engineers, and spend months tunneling to create your own path. However, the cost of doing this is high enough that most players won’t even consider it as a choice when it’s so much easier to go down the rails laid out by the dungeon designer.

The Hall of Identical Doorways gives you 10,000 choices, each with an equally low cost. But when there’s no way to tell what any of the doorways lead to, the cost of making a meaningful decision is high. By the time you’ve finished scouting out ten thousand different options, you may be wishing for the directedness of the Straight Line Dungeon!

The awesome thing about a nudge like a trail of bloody footprints is that it highlights one possible choice without raising the cost of making a different decision. It’s a lot easier to ignore the ominous clue and check out a doorway at the other end of the hall than it is to tunnel through solid rock, and it’s easier to interact with a choice-rich environment when you can make meaningful decisions about things like whether bloody footprints should be sought out or avoided.

This use of the term “nudge” comes from the book of the same name. Its authors, Thaler and Sunstein, advocate “libertarian paternalism” that focuses on understanding  choice architecture (of which dungeons are a great example!) to help people make good choices by their own criteria. I this is a great motto for reconciling the libertarian desire of a DM in a sandbox game to give players maximum freedom of choice and let their actions drive the game & the paternalistic goal of making sure everyone at the table has fun.

A dogmatically libertarian DM thinks the Hall of 10,000 Identical Doorways is the ultimate dungeon because “more choice is always better”, and so the DM has carefully avoided any details that might steer the players in one direction or another and thus reduce their freedom of choice. The problem here is that it’s hard to believe that each of those doorways lead to equally interesting places. (In fact, the sheer number of choices may make players suspect that the DM is about to pull a bit of illusionism, such that whatever one they choose will lead to the same location.)

A dogmatically paternalistic DM thinks the Straight Line Dungeon is the ultimate because “presenting sub-optimal choices is bad,” and the linear lack of alternatives saves the players from the mistake of going anywhere that doesn’t deliver the maximum fun the DM has planned. The problem here is that the DM may not know best what will be fun for the players. For many, the process of making choices on the way is more important than reaching the goal, and no amount of awesome pay-off will make up for the frustration of being forced to go there in the first place.

If you’re a libertarian paternalist DM, you acknowledge that you have much more information about what the sandbox contains than the players do, and this lets you predict some choices which are likely to lead to more fun than others.  You thus structure the choice architecture by using nudges to draw attention to the exits from the Hall of Doorways that you think lead in the most interesting direction.  But because you know that the players have the best information about what they enjoy, you avoid raising the cost of making a different decision. The other doorways aren’t filled in with rubble that needs to be tunneled through, they’re just not highlighted.

One important point that Thaler and Sunstein make is that all choice environments have to be structured, and within these structures human psychology is going to make some choices more likely than others. Reading Nudge is highly recommended for both a better discussion of choice architecture and examples of much more subtle architectural nudges than the ones I give here (some of which may not count by their definition at all). For example, if 99,999 doorways are on the sides of the Hall, and one is on the opposite wall, you’d do well to put the thing you think is most interesting beyond that one; likewise the doorway to the right of the entrance if the Hall is circular.

Note that nudges are closely related to signposts, and can be a tool for introducing the adversity James discusses as vital to a sandbox.


Recent Events in the White Sandbox, Explained: Ontussa the Sphinx

Like a proud father at his son’s elementary school graduation, James recently shed a tear of pride over the fact that the New York Red Box campaigns have matured to the point where our online discussion is so ingrown and byzantine that after missing a bunch of sessions it no longer makes a lick of sense to him, despite Zolobachai’s status as one of our original pioneers of the Caverns of Thracia (and James’ as founder of the Red Box).

Ontussa: Take a picture, it'll last longer.

Is it really as hard to understand recent events as it is to assemble IKEA furniture using the original Swedish documentation? No, not at all; everything makes perfect sense and is crystal clear when seen in the proper light! I have merely been remiss in my duties as explainer of the campaign, and will seek to remedy this lapse in a series of posts. To start with:

EVENT: The sphinx Ontussa has developed a powerful erotic fascination for certain members of our party. Khrystos seeks a herb reputed to be a feline aphrodisiac in the hills near the Stronghold of the First Principles, and while Lotur is too troubled by his temporarily fatal immersion in a water elemental to bathe in the ordinary sense, he has been observed using spirits of wine to perform daily ablutions that are not at all usual for him.

EXPLANATION: Ontussa revealed herself recently to be not merely a coin-operated dispenser of information, but a tragic victim of the necromancer Ashur Ram. What a cruelly ironic fate for a sphinx, forced to answer questions instead of posing riddles! (The parts about hanging out waiting for people to come by and eating them if they make the wrong move are immutable.) Of all the ways a NPC could take independent action to endear themselves to the party, giving back a jewel they’d just handed over in payment is high on the list. Perhaps it is this glimpse of her hitherto unsuspected personality that has won the hearts of our PCs.

More likely, it is the more-than-a-glimpse of the feminine attributes of her human half which have been on display all along. True, the campaign features other, non-bestial female NPCs like the charming Philomena and the provocatively-named Maxsielle the Evil High Priestess, and even actual female players like Emurak, White Rose, and thistlyn. But did any of them appear topless in the AD&D Monster Manual?

You might say “no, but neither do they have the hindquarters of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and a reputation as a merciless man-eater.” (That last might not be true of Maxsielle.)  Still, the eagerness with which I would embrace lobster-headed Blibdoolpoolp argues that having your image burned into adolescent retinas will overcome a great many obstacles to love.

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2023

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,056 other subscribers