Posts Tagged ‘campaign


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.


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.)


Why a West Marches Campaign Needs a Town (Moving Into the Dungeon, Pt. 1)

The White Sandbox campaign has recently been playing out the implications of a shift away from a fundamental West Marshes tenet: the adventure is in the wilderness, not the town.

In gearing up to write about this, one thing I realized is that Ben Robbins’ excellent and influential posts never point out what I consider to be the main reason you need a town in a West Marches campaign: so that you can answer the question “What happened to the PCs of the players who aren’t present during this particular session?” with “They’re hanging out in town.” This might seem obvious, but I think it’s key to understanding what happened when I violated the “town=safe / wilderness=dangerous” separation.

The town of Belltower, unfortunately no longer a boring place where nothing ever happens

When the last West Marches post advises “be careful not to change the focus to urban adventure instead of exploration”, it’s part of a discussion on motivation: “Once players start talking to town NPCs, they will have a perverse desire to stay in town and look for adventure there.” Since the rewards of the game are meant to come from ventures into the unknown, and the unifying principle for the party is the need to band together against the dangers lurking outside the boundary of civilization, giving the players an incentive to hang out in town works against the premise of the setting.

I don’t deny that this is important, but as far as I’m concerned the most pressing need to avoid having adventures take place in town is pointed out in Jeff Rients’ post about using West Marches methods in his Cinder sandbox: “My idea of a town adventure goes something like blah, blah, blah, there’s a fight, and then the town burns down“. A place that the PCs interact with during play is going to be changed as a result, often drastically and for the worse.

The social dynamics of a West Marches campaign demand that town be safe and unchanging. If the adventure is happening in town, it’s hard to explain why all the inactive characters who are supposed to be cooling their heels there wouldn’t join in the action. Part of why I want to keep these PCs offstage is laziness. As of last session, that’d be 32 NPCs for me to run: no thanks! But the more important part is that sooner or later I hope all of those players will rejoin the campaign and want to run their old PC again. The more the town becomes an unsafe environment, the more likely it becomes that I’d have to say “Sorry, you have to roll up a new character because your last one died during a session when you weren’t around.”

And if town is a place where nothing ever happens, it’s your one refuge against the intimidating accumulation of play history that James prepared to hurdle but smacked into nevertheless. We spend enough time each session with the PCs in Zolobachai’s wagon or the Bloody Traveler Cellar explaining to one another what happened on the last venture into the dungeon. We’d never get anything done if town adventures meant we first had to tell the returning players what happened to their unplayed characters since last time: how did we decide that they escaped the doom that the players brought upon the town that was the last known location of the inactive PCs, and what trail of bread crumbs led them through a string of burned-down taverns to the one that the party is currently using as the staging ground for the latest town-destroying adventure?

Unfortunately, much of this wisdom comes in retrospect. Later posts in this series will explain why I yielded to the lure of town adventure, and how I think this crossing the streams resulted in the players’ decision to move into the dungeon.


are we there yet?

Cover of basic rules

Thanks for buying this game! You'll do this many years from now! (by Larry Elmore)

How long does it take to play Dungeons & Dragons?

Several m0nths ago, James Malizewski observed that the Mentzer Companion Set effectively codified the much-needed “endgame” for Dungeons & Dragons.  I respect James, but it’s not much of an endgame if it never arrives.

I’m going to say that Level 12 effectively qualifies as hitting the endgame.   Under the Moldvay/Marsh/Cook version of the Basic Game, most classes need about 600,000 points to reach Level 12.

How long does it take to get there?  For a game that’s been in play, in one form or another, for about 35 years, there seems to be very little hard data, though Maldoor made an early attempt.

I’ll take a guess based on a semi-official pronouncement.  The Holmes Basic Rulebook states that it should take about six to eight adventures to level up.  I don’t have my copy with me; I’m going from memory.  Holmes, unfortunately, doesn’t explain whether this means six to eight sessions of play, or six to eight completed dungeon-adventures.  (In any event the most helpful measurement would be points acquired per hour of play.)  But let’s assume Holmes is talking about sessions of play.  In that case it would take the player 72 to 96 sessions to reach Level 12–somewhere around three to four years if you’re playing twice a month.

Frankly I think Holmes’s math wasn’t intended to apply beyond the first few levels, which after all were his main focus in the Basic Rulebook.  As an example, a Magic-User needs 40,000 points to go from Level 6 to Level 7.  To do so in eight sessions would require earning an average of 5,000 points per session (maybe 20-30 thousand for the party as whole).  That’s not impossible, but it’s a very steep pace to maintain given the adversaries you’d have to fight.  I don’t have any hard data to suggest another rate of advancement, but presumably it gets a lot slower around high-level play.

But even at lower levels, Holmes’s estimate of 6-8 adventures to level seems way off for our group of players.  Eric’s Principalities of Glantri game has been playing for about 20 sessions, and nearly all of the participants are still Level 1 (this is in large part due to turnover, both of characters and players).  Tavis’s White Sandbox game has had about 15 sessions with a more stable (but larger) cast, and maybe 50% of the regulars have gained one level.  Also, we’re playing with what amounts to double-XP-for-treasure rules, and Tavis is using the 100 XP per hit die of the enemy, so our advancement is considerably quicker than it would be if we were playing by the B/X rules.   And we’re also playing using published modules (B2 and Caverns of Thracia).

To me this suggests that Holmes’s estimate is too generous by a factor of 2 or 3 (or it could be that the “adventures” he’s using as his unit of advancement are maybe 2-3 sessions in length).  So that would mean hitting Level 12 would take anywhere from 144 to 288 sessions.  Playing twice a month, that’s anywhere from 6 to 12 years.

So in order to reach the endgame of a D&D campaign, we’re talking about a time commitment of at least 3 to maybe up to 12 years.  For a casual social activity, competing for attention with one’s professional and familial obligations, as well as whatever other interests one might have, it approaches absurdity.

Now, I’m assuming (1) that we’re playing from the low-levels to my arbitrarily imposed cap of Level 12, and (2) we’re advancing at a rate more-or-less as the rules intended.  Either assumption might be wrong.

But to the extent that you’re measuring your game against some idealized mode of play where folks go from Level 1 dopes to Level 12 super heroes, that is a long haul.  Maintaining your own interest, to say nothing of your players’, is going to be a serious challenge.


it’s CLOBBERING time!

This, but like 5 sessions' worth of it

Jack Kirby + Joe Sinnot, Fantastic Four 73

We finished our five-session arc of With Great Power . . . last night.  It’s certainly the best gaming experience I’ve had in years, and in the short-list for my best gaming ever.  From start to finish it was pure joy.

A lot of that joy was contextual: as noted I am a madman on the subject of Silver Age Marvel comics, and  I was lucky enough to have two magnificent players (Sternum and Invincible Overlord) who, in addition to also being huge fans, were terrific role-players and enormously funny people.

Some of that joy was due to the fiction.  Last night:

  • The Thing single-handedly defeated a Troll army that was marching on Asgard (including clobbering Ulik, who had humiliated and enslaved him last session).
  • Spider-Man, tapping into the power of the Norn Stone, defeated the mighty Thor in single combat.  Just as he was about to steal Thor’s hammer in accordance with Loki’s sinister plan, Peter Parker realized he was going too far–and returned it to the thunder god.
  • The Enchantress, who had seduced Peter into near-villainy, came to understand that, though nought but a mortal, his heart was more valorous than many an Asgardian’s.
  • There was a funny scene when the Thing tried to tell-off Odin the Omnipotent, but the All-Father basically yawned him away.
  • Loki, frustrated, made a play for the indestructible Destroyer.  There was a big fight between Spider-Man, the Thing, Thor, and the Fantastic Four against the Loki, the Destroyer, the Radioactive Man, the North Vietnamese Army, and the United States Air Force.  In the end, the heroes triumphed (of course).

And some of the joy was due to the system, though I’m not sure how much.  With Great Power .  .  .  is played with a deck of cards rather than dice.  You generally want high-ranking cards, and in order to get them the player will choose to sacrifice certain aspects of his or her character.  Thus, Spider-Man might ignore Aunt May for a little while in order to save the city.  In mid-game, however, many of these aspects fall into the clutches of the Game Master, who can then do sadistic things: like say that Aunt May has gotten engaged to Doctor Octopus.  In the end-game, a couple of rules shift around to favor the players, and if they’re lucky they can save the day and any spinster aunts.

So the card-economy does a great deal to affect the pacing of the game.  Going into this session, I was concerned that I had beaten up the super heroes so much that there was no way they could build up a hand strong enough to take me on.  Since Sternum kept his most valuable aspects out of my grasp, I couldn’t win outright, but (I thought) neither could the heroes.  It turns out that I was mistaken.  The card economy is clunky, opaque, and feels a little ad hoc, but it worked out beautifully last night, and I’m very impressed with Michael and Kat Miller for getting this design right.  (That said, we did end up house-ruling it that I couldn’t take an aspect all the way to Transformed in the course of a single fight.)

So – best supers gaming I’ve ever had, and a good time was had by all.  Excelsior!

Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2019
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