Friday, 10 April 2015

Sandboxing

Okay. Awesome. Where too next?

Previous posts (...Memoir of a Failed Campaign I & II) were a kind of autopsy of where things went wrong in two of my old campaigns, lamentations that have been whirring around my head ever since my interest in RPGs was renewed. It would be safe to conclude in both of the scenarios described I behaved like a railroading bastard: in the first instance slavishly dragging what had once been a really tight gang of adventurers through a pre-scripted, off-the-shelf  adventure; in the second instance, pushing a new group of PCs through my own "special snowflake" setting. How would I have done things differently? How would I run a campaign now?

In answering these questions I inevitably recall the early days of the Mystara campaign, before the group even knew they were in Mystara. Between dungeons the characters hung out at a generic inn, gathering rumours about other possible dungeons that needed clearing, or people needed rescuing, or priceless artefacts that needed reclaiming. The Expert set provided the bare bones for venturing out into the wilderness, plus plenty of sites for future adventures. Module X1 Isle of Dread provided further background on the wider world, plus a grander narrative framework for Bargle the infamous (as henchman of the Black Eagle Baron, Ludwig Von Hendriks). It was enough: the PCs battled bad guys, but then might head off to the Alten Tepes to battle gnolls (the map that came with the Expert Set showed a vague distribution of humanoid tribes). Most of the time adventures led back to Bargle or the Baron, but not always.

"Okay... cover art. I'm thinking a wizard, a Mongolian, a Viking... and a T-Rex. We good?"


I didn't know it at the time, but we were essentially playing in a sandbox game: I had only the vaguest idea of where everything might lead, the PCs were pretty free to dictate the course of the game (at one stage, if I remember correctly, they decided to engage in piracy on the sea of dread). As stated, however, things did not last: I began to purchase campaign materials (in the form of gazeteers) and started to steer the campaign more and more. This culminated in me railroading the PCs through the Immortal's Fury adventure (part of the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set), ultimately losing their confidence.

So: if I were to run a campaign again, would I want to run one like the above, like my original Mystara campaign? Well, yes... but I would not want to completely sacrifice the idea of grand story arcs and detailed settings, and to achieve that I would definitely take some tips from the excellent Hill Cantons blog, amongst others.

I consider the Hill Cantons post concerning player driven mystery to be exceptional. Kutalik advocates the introduction of possible plot threads in the form of local lore and legends, plot threads that players can pick up and explore as they see fit. A great technique for managing these threads is further outlined in this post.

Indeed, reading around the plethora of excellent OSR/sandbox blogs, it is evident that the key to a rich and exciting campaign, one in which the players can truly feel they have a role in shaping, is not to fill in too much detail. Bat in the Attic provides a whole 38 step process for setting up a fantasy sandbox, which although amounts to about 10,000 words of writing, still allows loads of room for players to fill in the gaps. I'm tempted to do a paired down walkthrough of this exercise and post it here, if only to keep my grey-cells ticking over whilst I remain in RPG exile.

I'll conclude with a great tweet (via @bedirthanthat I read this morning, one that ties together some of the themes running through the blogs I've been frequenting whilst tallying with my own thoughts on the subject:

"When players believe in your world giving them agency creates 
depth to the environment that wouldn't exist from one mind."

And that's it in a nutshell, really. If there's a story to be told, then the process of writing it is a collaborative one.




  


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