Scary Scary Monsters

  • So I’m busily populating my Points of Light hex map with encounters and threats, and I’m having a really hard time with monsters. Gryphons and harpies and werebears…they’re all so quintessentially fantasy, but they don’t scare me — and I worry they’ll have a similar effect on my players.

Here was my comment:

My gut feeling is that if your players aren’t scared (or at least scared for their characters) by the monsters, they don’t have enough “skin in the game.”

Step 1: Have permanent effects. If whatever the monsters do (perhaps even including killing the characters) can be reversed, it’s just not as scary. The easier it is to fix, the less scary, but as long as there’s a known fix, getting effected goes from horror to nuisance. The monsters are just bags of hit-points when the PCs are just bags of hit-points that can be restored with a couple spells or some rest. Monsters that you want to be scary should have some good chance of permanently changing the characters for the worse. Death counts if there’s no resurrection, but too much and the players will just avoid identifying with the characters if they still agree to play at all. Level Drain, destroying stats (e.g. the slashing, filthy claws of a Harpy disfigure the victim and remove 1 point of CHA on a critical hit), inflicting curses, chronic disease, phobias, destruction of precious possessions (yay, rust monsters!) are all ways to make the players fear the outcome of the battle even if “victorious.”

Step 2: Be Unfair. Fairness isn’t scary. It may or may not be exciting, but if you think you’re evenly matched, you may feel bad about losing, but you won’t dread even getting in the fight. You gave it the old college try. Monsters are scary when you’re their prey, not their equal. If your harpies are too tough for anyone under 20th level to take on (perhaps they really are death spirits embodied, as in Greek mythology, and immune to missile fire and spells), or just too numerous when they do show up, then you can get your players to cower under the trees whenever a flight of them wheels through the sky.

Step 3: Use sparingly. Unless you’re running Call of Cthulhu you probably want your players to play brave adventurers. It’s easy to accidentally overdo it and cause them to “turtle” because the outside world is just too scary.

I’ve been thinking about fear in RPGS a bit recently, but I’ll save that for another post.

When Ought A GM Call For A Dice Roll?

    • And this is something I’d thought about before: What principled ways can a GM call for a dice roll? This is the philosopher in me being concerned that I’m merely using intuitive feelings to decide when it’s appropriate to ask players for a dice roll and not a rational principle. If a GM asked players to roll for everything, this would be principled. It would also be tedious and turn role play into nothing more than a dice game.

My own answer to the question is the GM calls for a dice roll when:

  1. Either the player or the GM asks a question about the setting for which there is no predetermined answer
  2. the answer will make a difference to a decision a character (PC or NPC) is faced with
  3. the GM wants the answer to be unbiased

1. A Question with no predetermined answer.

This is the main thing.  In my game, rolls are almost always triggered by asking a question, although the question might be implicit in an action that appears to be a declaration: I swing my sword at the monster (did I hit?).  Sometimes the GM is asking the question (do they notice the ambush? does anything noteworthy happen as they travel down the road?), sometimes the players (do the guards try to stop us from entering the town? Is the princess impressed with my singing?), but if there’s no question, there’s no reason to roll.

But there’s also no reason to roll if the GM already knows the answer. If the players come to a gate and want to know if it’s guarded and the GM has either noted specifically in the description of the gate that there are two guards or has established as a general rule of the setting that gates into town are always guarded, then there’s no reason to roll.

2. The Answer will make a difference.

Lots of questions, implicit and explicit, get asked in the course of a game session, and rolling slows things down–particularly if there’s a chart involved.  If it’s not important, and I define important as being information for a decision the characters are making (or I anticipate they might make), then the time-honored technique of “making stuff up” is the way to go.

If the player wants to know what color clothes the guards are wearing, or anything else that has no particular bearing on something the player has to decide…perhaps just to help flesh out the picture of the setting in the player’s mind, there’s no reason to roll anything unless as a GM you just have trouble improvising.

3. An Unbiased Answer

If you don’t need an unbiased answer, then even if there are charts and skills that would be appropriate to the situation…you still don’t need to roll.  Making stuff up is faster and just as good.

The reason for dice in the first place is to pick a random answer out of a list of possibilities.  You want a random answer when there’s some reason that a biased answer (even if only possibly unconsciously biased) is unsatisfactory.  It might be unsatisfactory because it’ll give players the wrong idea about how common certain things are in the setting. E.g. bandits are supposed to be rare enough that commerce is possible without every caravan needing a host of armed guards, but in order to keep things interesting it seems like every time the players pass a caravan it’s under attack by bandits.  It might be unsatisfactory because you’re risking taking something significant away from the players (such as one of their characters) and you want it to be clear you’re not just doing it for plot reasons or to demonstrate that your setting is deadly.

Times not to roll

Note, though, that there are many reasons that you might want a biased answer.  In that case, it’s a mistake to roll the dice.  If failing to notice a secret door will stop the adventure cold, then having the play session end with a 5 in 6 chance is unacceptable.   If a character is supposed to be an expert with lock-picks but keeps failing the rolls, you should probably make him stop rolling for a while and just have him open the damn locks.  It’s true that if the skill and difficulty are set correctly, by the law of large numbers if he just keeps trying to open locks, eventually his record of success will match how good he’s supposed to be…but  by Rule 2 where you’re only rolling if it’ll make a difference (or even if you roll every single time), the character may not have enough tries for that to work out.  It can be very disheartening for a character to always fail at his signature talent.  My home-brew actually borrows a concept from CORPS where you don’t even roll if the difficulty of the attempt is equal to the character’s skill; D&D 3 introduced the concept of Taking 10 and Taking 20 for pretty much this reason.

Rerolling

Don’t.  Seriously, if the characters can always reroll for a success, then eventually they will succeed.  Contrariwise, if the GM can keep asking for yet another roll to confirm the success (e.g. asking for a stealth roll for every 5′ covered) you can guarantee a failure.  If it’s a task that the character can eventually succeed at with enough tries, then don’t roll for success, roll to see how long success will take (or how much money it’ll take, or how much damage they’ll take, or whatever resource they’re expending on each attempt).  If it’s a task that the character could in theory simply not be skilled enough perform successfully, then treat a failed roll as indicating they just can’t do it unless they can bring something more to bear to increase their chances, e.g. coming back with better tools, having another character aid them, going away and training the skill some more.

The middle ground, and the only place (IMO) where you could consider allowing rerolls is where failures make success harder to achieve or can be addressed by the player choosing to spend resources (either meta-game resources like bennies in Savage Worlds, or in-game resources like potions in D&D), so the failure or degree of failure is an input to further decisions by the character.  A typical case is trying to page through a book to find a specific passage while combat is swirling around the character; without the time pressure the character could certainly do it, but as GM you might not want to roll and say it will take 2 minutes–by which point the combat will be long over.  In that case you could allow a roll each turn, so that the player could decide after a couple turns to try something else (or you could roll secretly to see how long it’ll take on the first roll and then let them know when they find it if they keep electing to spend their turns looking).  In either case, the way that events continue to unfold around the character means that each decision about whether to spend the turn searching is a new one, and it’s worth giving the player the opportunity to make it.

This Is So Going Into My Next Game

  • An enormous amphibian that lived 240 million years ago in Antarctica could really sink its teeth — all three rows of them — into prey, considering it had an extra set of large, sharp teeth on the roof of its mouth. Its tooth-packed mouth, 2.75-foot-long head and 15-foot body help to explain how this beast, Kryostega collinsoni, was Antarctica’s top known Triassic predator.

And if it turns out to be Modern Day, so much the better!

Balance, Shmalance: Free-form Character Generation

It might seem odd, but besides life-paths my other favorite way of letting people generate characters is completely free-form: just describe your characters in terms of the game mechanics.  For this to work, you need reasonably mature players (or at least players who would be ashamed to be revealed in front of the other players to be complete power-gaming munchkins) and you need a system where it’s relatively clear what the different stats and abilities amount to, relative to the game world.  If the players can’t tell whether STR 18 on a scale of 3-18 is literally something that 1 in 216 people have (so they might not even be the strongest person in a good-sized village with a 17) or if it would make them the strongest person they’ve ever met, or perhaps the strongest person that anybody they’ve ever met has encountered, then it’s really hard for them to be fair–even where fairness is just defined as being true to the character concept.  Often, though, the GM can elaborate a bit on how he interprets the system to help fill in that information.  (Will he literally roll 3d6 to determine the STR of a random NPC or does he assume that PCs are more variable than the population and they’ll travel far and wide before they ever encounter another person with a score that high.)  With my homebrew I explicitly rated attributes and skills as to how common they were, e.g. a hobbyist level of skill, a dedicated hobbyist, a professional who used the skill regularly, a professional who used the skill daily, top ten in the world, etc. but there’s no reason you can’t assign descriptions like that after the fact to practically any other system as long as you’re willing as GM to put some effort into making it true.  No fair telling your players that Rank 5 is equivalent to a working professional if every professional they ever meet just happens to have Rank 8 and beats the pants off them in any contest.

But what about balance?  Well, here’s the dirty little secret of RPG systems: point-balance is by-and-large a crock.  Even when determining pure combat-effectiveness, which is something that can actually be play-tested, most systems don’t go through enough play-testing–particularly blind play-testing–to actually balance the options and the myriad ways they can be combined against each other. And when it comes right down to it, combat balance may be the least important aspect of balance in any RPG.  D&D didn’t even attempt it for decades (and despite 4e’s attempts might not have it today)–it was simply true that for almost all battles until very late in the character’s progression Fighters were better in combat than MUs.  And Thieves never caught up.  They weren’t supposed to.  Early on, D&D didn’t even try to give everybody something useful to do in combat;  Mentzer’s Basic D&D straight-out advised low-level Thieves to avoid it.

D&D wasn’t badly designed in that respect, IMO, it simply recognized correctly that to the players “spot-light time” is much more important than effectiveness at a single task.  To the extent that being ineffective at combat is a problem, it’s a result of nothing more than spending too much time in combat compared to other things.  At least in the beginning, combat was only one–and often not the most time-consuming–of a number of activities that were essential parts of exploring the dungeon: mapping, searching, dealing with traps, negotiating with the denizens of the Dungeon (yes, back in the day by-the-book play involved rolling to see each monster’s reaction, and it wasn’t always hostile). And once campaigns broke out of pure dungeoneering it became entirely possible to have a complete and satisfying game session where not a single to-hit role was made.

As an aside, one of the side-effects of 3e making combat a lot more involved, with a lot more rules for specific choices per round, was to make it take a lot longer and make having a character who basically hid during combat a lot less palatable.  By reducing more of the out-of-combat stuff like attempting to disarm traps to straight die-rolls that take hardly any time to resolve, it tilted the balance further towards combat being the activity for the evening.  So characters not having a roughly equal number of roughly equally effective combat options became a design flaw….hence 4e.

But, to get back to my main point, spot-light time is something that it’s almost impossible to balance through specific character abilities.  It depends almost entirely on the scenario, and how the GM and the players approach handling it.  If they actually act out important conversations, then negotiating with enemies or allies can provide a huge amount of time for the characters to be involved and do their thing; this could let socially ept characters totally dominate if the GM lets skills and character abilities dictate how things go…or it could provide fodder for everyone to strut their stuff (even if their stuff is to be rude and socially awkward providing interesting complications for the delicate negotiations).  If they just roll vs. Persuade, then not so much.  You can try and build systems where the main activity is going to be talking and negotiating, or investigation, but those are going to be the exceptions.  Most of the time you just can’t predict when the characters are generated how much time is going to be spent with the spotlight on various kinds of character activities.

You could say that it’s the job of a good GM to try and spread the spotlight around evenly, and to play up the activities that the players enjoy doing and have built their characters around, and I’d agree with you.  But there’s just no way a point-buy chargen system is going to help you accomplish that.  Declaring that a +1 in fighting costs 1.5 times as much as a +1 in Persuasion, and 2 times as much as +1 in Crafting: Pottery doesn’t make it so for your particular group of players and campaign.

One of the things l like about Savage Worlds as point-buy chargen goes is that it takes a big step towards acknowledging this by subsuming almost everything that might fit into the character’s back-story but only come up in play rarely under Common Knowledge; they further recommend that anything that won’t come up on the average of at least once a play session not be broken out as a separate skill.  They still like to pretend that, say, a +2 in Charisma “balances” against a -1 to be hit with ranged attacks, but actually as a quick-and-dirty way of saying “This is what’s notable about the character” it’s not half bad.  At least we’re spared the GURPS insanity of making strictly more effective (same in all the skills, but with higher stats) characters cheaper to buy if you know the tricks of the system.

Compared to point-buy, and sometimes even random-roll, free-form character generation saves a lot of time.  And I mean a lot, as in players whipping off new characters in the first five-ten minutes of a session instead of having to allocate half or all of a session to creating a new party.  Moreover, the GM rarely has to do anything more involved than give the character sheet a once over to make sure there’s nothing particularly outrageous there and to make note of any secrets or special abilities he needs to keep in mind; no time is wasted double-checking math or making sure the character is “legal.”  The character is legal if the GM and the players agree it is.  It does help if they agree that the GM has some leeway to change his mind and ask to them tone something down if it proves to be more of a problem in the campaign than he first anticipated.

And here’s an interesting thing: in the four or five years now that this has been the primary way of generating characters in our main ongoing campaigns (for one-shots I usually just pass out pregens) power-gaming and munchkinism have been less of a problem than ever before. Not that my players were particularly prone to it, but there’s something about a point-buy system that seems to ask for players to push it.  This is really striking with people playing Champions, and to a somewhat lesser extent GURPS, but it seems like such a system carries with it an implicit guarantee that because all these things have points assigned to them and there are all these (sometimes elaborate) rules on how you can spend them, in what order, how to get more points, and so forth whatever you do will be a reasonable “balanced” character and you are sacrificing effectiveness for no good reason if you don’t strive to optimize.

On the other hand, if you tell players “make a reasonable character, don’t worry about the points”, then that’s what they do.  They don’t give the character eidetic memory if they don’t see him as having eidetic memory, even if that would save a boatload of points on the knowledge skills.  At least with my players, I’m far more likely to look at the resulting character and tell them they can beef it up if they feel like than have to ask them to cut back so they’re a little less “best in the world at what I do–and what I do is everything.”  The only minor issues I’ve had have been with players new to the group who’ve just come from gaming groups where it was a badge of honor to go for everything the GM will let you get away with, and they really have been minor, not requiring anything more than my saying “Most of the other PCs aren’t anywhere near that good.  Maybe one skill at Expert, and another couple at Professional.”

Savage Worlds: Fantasy Character Generator Toolkit

I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for lifepath systems*, ever since back in the days of Traveller. I thought, and still think, there’s something cool about a system that was so hard-core you could actually die during character generation, and I whiled away many an hour in study-hall rolling up Traveller characters and joining the various services. Back then I wasn’t experienced enough, or parsimonious enough with my time, to even use all those characters as NPCs. Nope, I was purely rolling them for the fun of rolling them. It was almost like a slot machine: maybe this would finally be the one who could muster out with a suit of powered armor!

Much later on, I glommed onto a copy of Paul Jennell Jaquays’ Central Casting: Heroes of Legend (still got it around here somewhere), which was a non-system specific set of tables for coming up with a character history for a fantasy setting. I liked that idea so much that I went to the trouble of coding my own version of it in Python as part of an open-source generic table-roller program I wrote. The web version of that is still running here, though I don’t think anyone but the robot spiders ever hits it.

So I picked up the Savage Worlds Fantasy Character Generator Toolkit, and it’s probably no surprise that I like it, even though I doubt any of my players would want to use it. While it’s nowhere near as detailed (or as wacky) as the 180 or so pages of Heroes of Legend, it does a really good job of producing a playable Savage Worlds character with a background meaty enough to sink your roleplaying teeth into. You start out with a d4 in each of your attributes, and no skills, edges, or hindrances, and you go through the tables step-by-step, sometimes being directed to sub-tables or to roll a certain number of times on a specific table in a later step. Each entry in one of the tables tells you more about the character, and alters your attributes up or down, or assigns you extra dice in traits or specific edges or hindrances. Some of the time you have a choice as to how to split the dice or whether to roll, but it’s mostly mechanical. So far, none of the characters I’ve tried rolling have wound up as complete scrubs, and a couple have been well beyond what a Novice character could afford by the normal point-buy system. In fact, I’d say that on the whole the system is weighted to give you slightly better than normal characters as a compensation for the randomness of it all. On the other hand, the characters are decidedly not optimized for their roles; a mage is pretty much as likely to end up Burly, or a fighter to be Anemic, as anybody else, though everybody should end up with a fair degree of competence for a Novice in their profession.

As written, you don’t really have much of a choice as to what that profession is. You roll randomly for your family background, which might assign you a starting profession or the option of one; if not, then you roll randomly for your starting profession. Depending on your character’s age, you have a certain number of rolls to make on the specific chart for that profession; if you don’t like your profession after each roll you can roll again on the starting profession chart and if you prefer that one switch at the cost of one of your allowed rolls.

One obvious change to make if your players don’t mind a certain amount of random chargen but draw the line at being forced into a profession would be to just let them pick their starting profession. The tables aren’t so delicately balanced that forcing that one result throws things out of kilter.

Also, as written it requires a lot of rolling on tables…thirty or more rolls, and a lot of the rolls having to do with your family have no mechanical effect. A completist might want to roll for the birth order, current status and attitude towards you of each of your up to eight+1d3 siblings, but I’d say that most of the time you can write down the number and move on. If you want to know your own particular birth order, just roll a single 1dN (where n is the number of siblings including yourself). Depending on the kind of campaign you might also elect to skip things like determining the reason your family originally emigrated to the land of your birth.

If you like lifepath systems, and play Savage Worlds in a fantasy setting, I can whole-heartedly endorse this PDF (take it to Staples or someplace and get it spiral bound, though…loose pages are a pain in the butt to work with when you have to do a lot of flipping). I suspect that doesn’t describe all that many people, which is too bad, because it really is pretty well done. You’ll have to excuse me now, though…I’ve got to get back to seeing if I can roll up a character who starts with a nifty magic sword…

update: Cool!  You can actually die during character creation in the FCGT, too!

* RPG character generation systems that took you through the early life of the character, from circumstances of birth up through career training prior to the start of the game.

Sandbox, Not Simulation

One thing I’d like to clarify is that Sandbox Play is not the same thing as the old rec.games.frp.advocacy Simulationism (nothing to do with whatever the Forgeites mean by that term; I don’t even want to go there).  The point of Simulationism, at least at the far end of the spectrum, was that the game-world really was out there chugging along with things happening and events unfolding whether or not there were any players around; the player characters were part of the simulation, and the players helped the simulation along,  but from the hardcore simulationist GM’s perspective, the game-world was the end, and everything else was the means. (From the player’s perspective, they were usually about simulating “what the character would do”, and the GM was helping by providing a perfectly consistent extremely detailed environment for exploring that.)

Now, I think it’s true that a simulationist game world automatically supports Sandbox Play, but the reverse isn’t the case.  What the Sandboxer is after is verisimilitude and freedom of action, not an alternate reality.  It is perfectly ok, even expected that a fully Sandbox setting can have recognizably PC-oriented adventures just sitting around in it waiting for the PCs to visit that part of the world and set things in motion.  That’s exactly what Sandbox computer RPGs do.  The events don’t have to unfold all over the world regardless of what the PCs do, though for a GM with time to think that stuff through it can make for a rich and interesting back-story when the PCs eventually do visit that region, or the ripples from the events reach wherever they are.

It’s also OK if the PCs are sitting in place not doing much of anything for the GM to keep generating adventure hooks to see if they want to bite any.  Filling up the Sandbox world with stuff for the PCs to interact with is the main part of the GM’s job, and nowhere is it written that the only way for PCs to encounter new things in the setting is to travel around.  Where it gets intrusive, and where the GM who is committed to offering his players Sandbox Play would probably tread lightly or not go at all is when the PCs are repeatedly hit with things that they have to respond to–loved ones kidnapped, getting accused of murder, having their homes burned down.  All of these can make for interesting situations, and suitably spaced out all of them could occur at one time or another in a Sandbox campaign, but you really want to avoid giving the players the sense that it’s pointless to make long-term plans because no matter what they do you’re going to hit them with some big disruptive event, or worse that if they attempt to do anything that isn’t capital-A Adventuring you’re going to punish them by having something bad happen.  You also probably want to avoid giving them “Jessica Fletcher Syndrome”, where no matter where they go supposedly unusual things “just happen”…but that may really be an aesthetic preference on my part unrelated to Sandboxy-ness.

The point, to me, of the Sandbox is to maximize the freedom of choice of the players as to where to go and what to do, but the setting is still there to entertain the players.  If it comes to a choice between fun for the players or the internal consistency and integrity of the setting, consistency and integrity take the hit. On the other hand, in many cases consistency and integrity of the setting are aids in maximizing the players’ freedom of choice.  Maximizing freedom of choice means that not only should the players be presented with choices beyond “Rescue the kitten/Eat the kitten”, but also minimizing the places in my GM notes that say “regardless of whether the PCs beat the footpads, capture them, are captured by them, or run off they will arrive at the bridge just before the wicked uncle’s minions are ready to blow it up.”  That’s where it really helps me as a GM to conceive of an adventure as containing antagonists who have Plans that they’re trying to carry out, but that perforce have to adapt to circumstances, rather than conceiving an adventure as a Plot, meaning a storyline with key scenes that will occur leading up to a particular climactic scene/battle.  I’m sure that you can run a Sandbox-style game the latter way, since that’s pretty much the only way a CRPG can do it, but this is an area where I think that a human GM can do a better job by adopting a different approach.

When You Set Out for Ithaka: Travel in the Sandbox

When you set on the voyage to Ithaka
Pray that the road is long

Full of incidents, full of knowledge.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Raging Poseidon-do not fear these

Ithaka, Cavafy (1911)

I’d like to elaborate on some comments I made in the thread on my original Sandbox Play post.

In Sandbox play, it’s important not to gloss over travel with “And three weeks later, you arrive at the gates of Port Autumn.”  If you do that, you’re robbing the game of one of the chief features of Sandbox play, the chance to interact with all the tiny details that make up the texture of the world.  A minutely detailed setting feels no different from one which only consists of the battle-mats of the set-piece combats if you ellide everything in between, in a hurry to get to “the good stuff.”

More than that, though, in a Sandbox you never know in advance exactly where the good stuff will be.  In a story-oriented game, the PCs may be on their way to Port Autumn to exact their bloody vengeance upon The Six-Figured Man* and the GM might wave away anything in between as being a pointless distraction from the ongoing story.  Given the same situation and a more challenge-oriented campaign, the GM might roll to see if there are any level-appropriate encounters on the way that should be played out because it’s only fair to see if the players arrive in full fighting trim or if they’ve had to expend any important resources before their big confrontation, or even run them through certain set-piece battles because it would be too easy for them if they weren’t worn down enough in advance.  In a Sandbox, though, the characters might actually run across something that can soundly defeat them and set them back if they’re not careful, or something that changes their minds or their priorities entirely.  You never know unless you actually play it out in at least some detail.

Suppose, for example, that as they head across the map the characters come across a town suffering from a plague.  In a typical game, that would be a call to adventure.  The players would assume, generally correctly, that this was something they were supposed to do something about, and it will be their task to find out what the cause of the plague is and how to deal with it.  If this is coming in the middle of something important, like their heading towards their big confrontation with their nemesis, they would assume this was put in their path by the GM deliberately, perhaps as a moral test.  (How they feel about that would depend on what sort of game it is and whether the GM is an adversary or an ally.)

In a Sandbox campaign, that event would only have whatever significance the characters imbue it with.  It might cause them to spend extra time carefully circumnavigating the town to avoid exposure while the single-mindedly pursued the Six-Figured man; they might decide to see what they could do to help, but be unable to find a cause or cure and have to content themselves with offering succor to the dying–they could even end up dying of the plague themselves.  Or, and I admit this is what I live for, they could remember some feature of the setting that the GM had even forgotten and figured out a plan for applying it to the situation.  “Hey, remember when we slew the Ogre of Bittermere for Seras of the Wind?  Wasn’t one of the treasures he let us choose from the Orb of Panacea?  Maybe he still has it, and we can beg, borrow, or steal it from him!”  And bang, you have your next two months’ worth of plans for the PCs laid out for you.

* the unscrupulous millionaire that ruined their family business.

Sandbox Play

Sandbox Play is a term that comes from computer RPGS, though it is said to refer back to when war games were played on sandboxes where the wet sand could be shaped into any kind of terrain.  It refers to CRPGs where there is no plot that the game is taking the player through, but instead the player is free to roam around the world and interact with it. The player might encounter NPCs who will offer missions, but is free to ignore them or abandon the mission in the middle if it’s too hard or boring; the player can also just instigate things on his own.  Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is offered as an example of this style of play (I’ve never played it myself).

By extension in tabletop RPGs Sandbox Play refers to the same sort of qualities in a campaign: no particular overarching plot, with the players free to pursue their own plans and interact with the world as they see fit.  There’s no built-in supposition that the players will go on any particular quest or be employed by any particular NPC or organization.  There’s some dispute among people who use the term as to whether such things as plot hooks or adventure seeds even exist in Sandbox worlds, but the general consensus seems to be that as long as the players are free to ignore the cries for help, or the reports of trouble brewing in the coastal provinces, it doesn’t diminish the Sandboxness of the setting that it contains such things.  In some sense, it’s the essence of the style that such things go on whether or not there are PCs there to interact with them.

Things that are anathema to Sandbox play include: “level appropriate encounters” such that wherever the party goes they only encounter things that they can defeat, but not too easily; Schrodinger’s NPCs, who always are just about to get mugged no matter which alley the PCs are walking by; GMs applying meta-game pressure to the PCs to go on a particular adventure because “this is what I’ve got prepared for this week”; travel that moves at “The Speed of Plot” so that however the PCs choose to travel, and whatever stops they make on the way, they always arrive at the villain’s castle just as the final evil ritual is about to commence.  In other words, anything that disturbs the illusion that the game world exists in all its detail and with events proceeding along their course whether or not the PCs are looking in that direction.

Pretty much anybody who’s played in one of my campaigns will recognize this as my default style of GMing (one-offs are a completely different kettle of fish, since they are usually defined by the particular story the PCs are caught up in and end as soon as it’s resolved).  Certainly I’ve done things at various times that have violated the spirit of the Sandbox, out of laziness or because the players have started to flounder and asked to be gaffed with a plot hook, but basically Sandbox Play is what I like to GM for anything reasonably long-term.

I think part of it is that I don’t seem to be very good at the overarching plot style of campaign.  While I certainly admire the aesthetic of the Sandbox, I’m not married to it.  But when I’ve tried the plot-driven campaign (because my players have asked for one)….it doesn’t seem to work out very well.  Frankly, their characters usually take one look at the set-up and run away.  I don’t know…maybe I’m not very good at conveying the scope of the problem they’re facing versus the extent of the character’s powers, so they think it’s overwhelming or insoluble.  My players will sometimes say it’s because “we suuuuuck” but they don’t really believe that, and neither do I.  It’s true that my games often feature large-scale unintended consequences, but that’s a reason for caution, not outright paralysis.  I mean, it certainly doesn’t paralyse them in the Sandbox campaigns…they just think twice about doing anything major and sometimes prepare contingency plans, then scramble to pick up the pieces if something unforseen occurs.  But somehow when it comes to a campaign with a built-in plot from on high, they chicken out.

Now, one thing I haven’t yet tried is making such a campaign set-up do-or-die.  The Sandboxer is strong enough in me that when the characters have fled their destiny, I’ve shrugged and let them run, coming up with new stuff in the setting in whichever direction they’ve bugged out.  Their destiny has never come and dragged them back kicking and screaming.  Maybe it should.  It could be that I’ve been confusing character reluctance to buckle down and follow the course of duty with player reluctance to embark on the campaign.  I certainly don’t want to force the players down the path of a long and complex adventure if it doesn’t seem fun to them, but maybe once in a while they want to be railroaded–at least to kick off the campaign.

Clerics and Religion in Elves & Espers

There are none.  The Gods all died a long time ago.

Notes: Why?  Well, it’s much more common than not for whiz-bang SF to be so secular that religion isn’t mentioned even to dismiss it unless it’s the religion of some primitive society the protagonists encounter, but religion so permeates D&D and most derivative fantasy that being an atheist is a form of delusion. (Which reminds me of the bit in Terry Pratchett about the lightning-proof atheist…)  So rather than inventing a bunch of wierd and futuristic Gods for E&E, or a bunch of old D&D-esque gods and coming up with wierd and futuristic ways for them to be worshipped, I decided they existed but were all wiped out during and after the Apocalypse.  So that means no Clerics, since I’m not going to reintroduce the Mentzer D&D concept of Clerics merely representing a cause.

New Ark City

New Ark City is the only surviving (non-hidden) arcology from before the Apocalypse.  In the centuries since the end of the Time of Troubles, the city has outgrown the original confines of the arcology, which now forms the base of the towers that stretch into the sky.  The towers are clustered into five groups, imaginatively called North Spire, East Spire, South Spire, the Broken Spire, and the Tower of Ark.  The spires are further subdivided into regions, each of which amounts to a town in its own right, such as Zep (the Zepplin docks), Witchtown (the bohemian magical crafts area), or Poisonville (the sewage and chemical/industrial factory area).  Monorails connect the spires high above the roof of the arcology, and the air teams with countless magical small craft and people with their own means of flight.  Generally speaking, the higher off the ground, the higher status of the area.  There are slums outside the base of the arcology called the Middens, where the cast-off of the city subsist on its cast-offs, and outlaws hide.  Once the arcology carefully recycled everything, but now much is thrown away as not being worth the energy it would take to break it down for re-use.

Continue reading