Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Noisms' Reactivity Spectrum

People seem to have misunderstood yesterday's post, or misconstrued it, or not read it properly. Alternatively, it was poorly worded, although personally I doubt that. Here's something that will simplify. May I present:


No? I'll explain. On the left hand side of the spectrum are campaigns where the DM is totally reactive. This can be synonymous with player freedom, although this is a somewhat grey area and the mapping is not perfect. It is certainly synonymous with "front loaded prep" (i.e., the further left you go, the more the prep is weighted towards the period before the campaign actually kicks off).

The further you go towards the left, the more the players are driving the game; they choose what they want to do and where they want to go, and the DM just reacts to them. At the extreme left are the most sandboxy sandbox games, often using D&D or similar: the DM creates the world, or an area of the world, and it sits waiting for the players to appear and start doing whatever they want to do - going down dungeons, hexcrawling, interacting with the NPCs, whatever. (A lot of story games are also at the extreme left.) Another way of putting it is that here, the way events unfold tends to originate in the players. The dungeon does not come to them; they go to the dungeon. The hexes do not come to them; they go to the hexes. (In Soviet Russia, hex crawls on YOU.)

The further you move towards the right, the more the DM is driving the game and the more the players are reacting to it. This does not mean that the further you go towards the right the more the game resembles a rail road: rail roads do not feature on the the spectrum because they are not actually games.

Here, the players will have freedom, but their freedom tends to be constrained by what goes on in the world - in particular, it is constrained by the fact that events do not have an origin internal to the players, but external to them.That is, the further right you go, the less the players are the engine and the more they cede initiative. A superhero game would tend to be more towards the right, even if notionally it is "sandboxy" and there is no predetermined plot or end point; this is because superheroes tend to have to react to conflict that has an external origin. Superman does not hatch plots to fuck over Lex Luthor - the action originates externally to him. He has the freedom to foil Lex's plots in whatever fashion he likes, but still, he is not the one with the initiative.

The Samurai Sandbox leans towards the right. It is not all the way to the right; I would put it just slightly to the left of the "players partially reactive" line. This is because, in the Samurai Sandbox game, even if the players have very vague, very open, very ill-defined mission statements, the conflict they have to deal with is still largely of external origin.

To illustrate, let's use my "keep the peace in Tosa province" mission. This is a very broad goal which can be interpreted in any manner of ways, and certainly won't result in DM rail roading. But nevertheless, the game is still going to be one in which the players are reacting to events, conflicts and circumstances which originate externally. This is because you can't keep the peace if there is nothing threatening it (well, you can do, but it would be a rather dull affair); and because the players are the ones keep the peace, this means the threats have to have an external origin (bandits, wolves, ghosts, spirits, yakuza, Mongolian invaders, internal strife, whatever). The players are going to be in large part reactive.

They are not totally reactive of course - and any group of players worth their salt will be partially active and will still drive the game along in many other ways with their plots and schemes. But still, the majority of what happens in the game is going to arise outside of player action.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and there is no value judgement on Noisms' Reactivity Spectrum. However, as I alluded to at the beginning of the entry, the further right you go on the spectrum the more prep is likely to be evenly distributed from session to session, and the more prep is going to be involved. Not only does the DM have to create the set up before the campaign begins. He also has to keep coming up with many, and varied, threats, and he has to make the threats change and respond correspondingly as the players react to them. The campaign may be very fun, fulfilling, exciting and all the rest, but it is going to require considerably more work than the "pure" rogueish sandbox will to run.


  1. I'm curious about how much you would think "codes of conduct" cultural or otherwise fit into this. Those acts as genre conventions which may constrain. A superhero game assumes certain kinds of conduct, often with system-structural devices for that. Most samurai games, to use the example you began with, have some form of On or Honor or Reputation which offers a both a rp constraint and also in many cases has a mechanical function. Besides alignment, D&D doesn't offer any of those kinds of restrictions. Obviously there are versions of the samurai game which would ignore those effects. Does something like this change the reactivity or would it be less important in the long run?

    1. The codes of conduct come into play too, for sure, if you're running any sort of feudal Japan game worth its salt...whether that has any effect on the reactivity, I'm not sure.

    2. I agree about the 'codes of conduct' being a factor. For instance, if the PCs are a bit corrupt due to the lack of oversight from their lord in this remote province. Then suddenly you're back on the left-side as the PCs try and create their own monopolistic businesses(iron implements must be bought from our smithy,our bar is the only one in town), collect taxes, chase-out potential rivals, etc. All according to what the players chose to pursue.

      Like these guys:

      But maybe I'm wrong and most players will choose to be reactive in such a scenario. Maybe if the scenario forces them to be active i.e. we aren't collecting enough funds and are in danger of the Lord revoking our commission. Do we seek out treasure, start our own businesses, increase taxes, collect taxes more aggressively?

  2. You could push your Samurai Sandbox further to the left by giving the players a more proactive mission statement. "Keep the peace in Tosa Province" is extremely reactive. "Reunite the warring provinces by word or by sword" gives the players much more opportunity to concoct their own proactive schemes.

    1. Yes, that will push it further left. In fact, perhaps past the middle. But it won't swing it all the way towards a "pure" sandbox because there is still going to be a lot of reaction on the part of the players - lots of events will originate externally, ie with whoever is warring in the provinces.

    2. I don't think any game will stay completely at the hard left side of the spectrum for long, because sooner or later the players are going to spend at least some of their time reacting people who are reacting to them, if you follow me. But my point is that the more the players are acting against the status quo, the further left on the spectrum you go. "Keeping the peace" is a bad game goal in any case, because it's all about preserving the status quo - nearly everything has to come from the GM. It shouldn't be impossible, with the right premise, to run a samurai game that adheres to genre conventions but is still predominantly a sandbox.

    3. We're all talking about sandboxes here. Just different kinds, requiring different emphases and different levels of prep.

      "Reunite the warring provinces" might sound better than "Keep the peace", but if you think about, you might realise that a lot still has to come from the GM, in the sense that a large portion of the action still arises externally to the PCs. It might be further to the left, but not all that much.

    4. That's just an example, and one I suspect we're interpreting differently. A lot of the campaign will come from the DM regardless of what you do, but as you say, the "purer" the sandbox the more of that preparation is front-loaded. A sandbox in which the players are out to conquer the area, or overthrow the existing order, or otherwise upset the status quo in whatever way is not hugely farther to the right than a sandbox in which the players are out to rob, pillage and live large. There will presumably be some reaction from the establishment towards the players' actions, which is normal. The situations the players tend to get into might be harder to adjudicate, e.g. sacking a fortress vs. robbing a store. But it doesn't strictly require any extra input from the DM beyond just reacting to the players.

  3. I had to write the original Roguish Sandbox post twice, too, but eventually I think everybody (at least in the comments) got there.

    I think GMs have an instinctively contrarian "But wait, I bet I can..." gene that kicks in with this stuff.

    1. Yes, I think the natural reaction for a lot of us is to see the premise as a problem to be solved. Either that, or we're argumentative beggars.

    2. I think that's pretty perceptive.

  4. I love to read about various DMing strategies. Perhaps I have misread your post, but in my experience the amount of prep work is the opposite of what you describe. With a DM reacting to PLAYERS game, I have to write up a bunch of situations, characters, setting, possible conflicts before hand. With the PLAYERS reacting to DM, I simply have to think up one or two goals for the players to tackle and the smaller subset of issues that go along with them.

    1. It might just be a conflict of styles and what a DM does to prepare for the game. Here are a couple of variations I thought of when reading the article.

      (DM reacts to PLAYERS) (DM starts with blank slate)
      The players say we are going to take down the crime boss of a major city. How did they know there was a crime boss? How did they know there is a major city nearby? DM has to make up a setting on the fly because he started with a blank slate. Does he make up a big city with a crime boss?

      (DM reacts to PLAYERS) (DM has done prep work)
      The players say we are going to take down the crime boss of a major city. The DM says there is not a major city nearby but there is a trading post down the river (because there was something like that on the map)

      (PLAYERS react to DM) (DM starts with blank slate)
      The DM says there is a bounty for orc raiders in the nearby hills. He made that up on the fly because he feels comfortable making up a little orc encounter. The players decide to follow the lead and go after the orcs.

      (PLAYERS react to DM) (DM has done some prep work)
      This runs essentially as the one above because the DM is comfortable making up a little orc encounter.

      To my mind, (PLAYERS react to DM) is easier to tackle.

    2. Do the first two ever actually happen? I don't mean that facetiously. They are almost so far to the left that they don't register on the spectrum; player freedom taken to the Nth degree. So of course they are harder for the DM to tackle - they are only a step removed from the players, in a D&D game, saying "We want to build a jet plane".

    3. I am not sure if the top two happen. That is just what I imagined when reading about DM reacts to PLAYERS. I imagine that the (DM reacts to PLAYERS)(DM has done some prep work) is what happens when you draw out a sandbox style map.

      I did not read Zak's post about roguish sandbox until just now. My interpretation of that is that it is easier for Zak to whip up a setting of basic society because that mirrors what everyone expects from the real world. And then it is easier to judge the consequences when the player's are sneaky types trying to mix it up in that setting. If so, I think I agree, even though I do not run that sort of game. I am not sure that DM reaction versus PLAYER reaction factors into though, just that it is easier to make up a basically lawful society with social structures and forces that the player's can muck up or try to navigate through.

      Its a tough topic, philosophical in nature.

    4. The first two totally happen:
      "I look for x" roll, roll, think up idea
      "Ok there's some x, but there's also blah and blah"

      It can be going "mission" brained, setting up obstacles to missions, but instead of thinking up a mission objective for the players and putting in your own obstacles, you start with the mission the players have created. 4e can be run this way pretty successfully. Just think in terms of porous roadblocks with foreshadowing of later roadblocks (which you improvise two steps ahead).

      Random Wizard, I'm guessing you're pretty mission-brained?

      A contrasting stance to that is what I call world-brained, the "random stuff is happening and bumping into each other, be interested or not" stance, where the GM is sufficiently interested in his weird world changing and bumping around that he isn't bothered whether players succeed or fail.

      He just plays out the politics of ghouls and ratmen and sees what the players do to it. "Fair and interesting challenge? You must be joking, I'm building worlds!"

      Most people are between those two. Setting up levels of dungeons at different levels of dangerousness for example, then playing out randomness within them: The dragon on the 8th level never pops up randomly for a snack and kills the pcs, even if he might be bored, but beyond that, it's a free for all.

  5. I think you're making a bigger deal of this than it is.

    The "pure" sandbox offering unlimited freedom to picaresque rogues lasts only until they pull their first job. After that, depending exactly on the job they pull, they will be hunted by public or private authorities or the underworld. They may need to fence their goods, which increases their exposure to either the authorities or other criminals. Even their change in spending habits may draw attention to themselves.

    And once the spotlight is shining their way, once the setting reacts to the rogues, the players and their characters are forced to react as well. Their choices have consequences, and those consequences create the dynamic tension which drives the campaign forward.

    No campaign exists at any one point along your spectrum after the first game-day. After that it will move back and forth across that spectrum - it may even exist at many points along the spectrum at once.

    Two bits of advice. First, use rumors, not missions. Instead of "keep the peace in Tosa Province," introduce rumors of banditry and corruption, which are established as part of your initial prep of the province. Second, randomize that sucka up. React not only to the players but to the setting itself as expressed by the dice.

    1. This whole blog is about making a big deal out of things that are not a big deal.

      You're right, of course. The game slides on the spectrum. Especially as levels progress.

      As for your advice... You're just sort of building on my argument. Rumours are of course built into "keep the peace in Tosa Province". The Daimyo sends the PCs to keep the peace; they follow up on rumours of banditry and corruption...and, hence, they are being reactive. QED.

  6. "This whole blog is about making a big deal out of things that are not a big deal."

    Aren't they all (including my own)?

    "You're just sort of building on my argument."

    I'm not building on your argument so much as I'm suggesting that it matters for about thrity minutes in the life of a campaign, and that's how it should be.

    A setting without inherent conflict before the adventurers are introduced - a '"pure" sandbox' - is going to be pretty dull pretty fast. And I say that as a player who loves nothing more than playing brigands and scoundrels in a sandbox.

    1. I'm not denying any of the last part.

      I'm interested in why saying that the situation is fluid and moves around on the spectrum means it doesn't matter beyond thirty minutes in the life of a campaign. I'd say it's rather the opposite, isn't it?

    2. A 'sandbox' is not a stable environment for enduring player characters. The DM should start with what you are saying applies to a Bushido campaign because he will shortly and inevitably end up there if he has any understanding of what a setting is. A sandbox as I think you mean it is suitable for boardgame D&D with players coming and going, and where the game has a reset button which is frequently pressed. Time does not pass. Nothing important happens.

      It is not clear what you mean by "prep" if you think "prep" is something one does for a 'sandbox'. One can come up with random tables which suit the shallow perpetual 'sandbox' style of gaming but preparation to me means continuing development of a campaign background. Taking Tekumel and Glorantha as examples of prepared settings it is clear detailed setting hugely prescribe player character behaviour and if anything the player must catch up on his character in learning how to behave in the world.

      I think you are neck deep in assumptions but I understand you just like to chat about core rpg principles. It is more exciting to jump deep into a topic without laying out the ground first but it doesn't usually achieve anything.

      Many useful rpg concepts such as 'sandbox' and 'storygame' have been tainted by being poorly defined in early days by influential dickheads and should really be dropped if possible when trying to discuss gaming.

      In short what you describe for the samurai setting is the only way to play in my view and I would say that 'reaction' should be mutual and equal between DM and players for a healthy game just as for healthy conversation.

    3. "I'm interested in why saying that the situation is fluid and moves around on the spectrum means it doesn't matter beyond thirty minutes in the life of a campaign. I'd say it's rather the opposite, isn't it?"

      Whether or not the campaign begins as a '"pure" sandbox' on the hard left of the spectrum matters for about thirty minutes. Once the feedback loop is closed, it's action and reaction for as long as the players and referee care to play the campaign, and the distinction becomes moot.

    4. @Kent: I would be interested in hearing your definition of what constitutes "sandbox" play.

    5. Kent: You put that well, Kent. But you seem to be focusing on terminology. You won't find any real disagreement from me on any of the points you are making, but since the terminology is so poorly defined, let's forget about it for a second and just focus on the issue I am trying to get at: it is not really how 'reactive' the DM or players are that is the issue, it is where the instigation for what goes on in the game lies.

      Do you accept that you can draw a distinction between types of campaign in which the things that happen originate outside of the control of the players, and types where the things that happen tend to originate in the behaviour of the players? Is there no difference between D&D and a superheroes game?

      And, if you accept that there is a difference, do you think the amount and type of work done by the DM, and the responsibilities of the DM, are somewhat different?

      Of course there are no absolutes, and I am talking only about shades of grey, here.

    6. @John: I did. I think the term is open to definition though. More important than that various definitions are in accord is that they are clearly stated before being built upon.

      I think the concept of 'sandbox' gaming is worthless. Notice none of Gygax, Barker, Stafford or Jaquays make use of the idea or the term in any guise. Bledsaw seemed to with his Wilderlands maps but note Bledsaw's home game was set in Middle Earth for a long period so I think his Wilderlands material was intended a prop and not an approach to gaming.

    7. Noisms

      I don't think D&D and superhero games have much in common. The one's foundations are fairy stories and myth, the other is an examination of sizes of fists and colours of spandex. If we map the idea to a D&D campaign with only 0-lvl and 20th-lvl characters with no adult morality then your point about heroes being reactive is well made.

      Im not sure what you mean by "things that happen" - on what scale? They have complete control over their bodies and personalities but they compete for influence with npcs of their own rank according to dice rules. The way I game I would say the players do not cause events but partake in some of them. The world turns independently of the players. I don't think players instigate anything important. It would be a foreign game to me if I ever folded my arms as DM and said 'OK. Instigate away'. They would ask many more questions - loaded leading questions but it is a clumsy way to proceed and I reject that players are mini DMs, far better that they listen to me carefully as their eyes and ears in the world and then make decisions. Im not forgetting the distinction you tried to draw with your Bushido campaign example but unlike you I will make a value judgement and say the 'sandbox' game is a lesser form of game and not one that suits a different setting.

      I think you are asking a deep question. In fact I think it is similar in kind to your previous question about a player asking-about/suggesting/creating the taxi outside the door to make good his escape. To answer *that* question for one-off I as DM will make a judgement. For repeated events I will jot down a mechanic. Both are removed from player influence for me. I can however see that if you did permit players their mini creations through a luck mechanic with associated 'suggestions' from players then this elevates the sandbox above the boardgame.

    8. @Kent: If your full definition of a sandbox is a game "with players coming and going, and where the game has a reset button which is frequently pressed. Time does not pass. Nothing important happens", then it's no wonder you find it worthless.

      My understanding of a sandbox is, loosely speaking, a game in which the DM doesn't attempt to create any kind of narrative plot. Instead he creates the "moving parts" of the campaign in the form of locations, dungeons, interconnected NPCs etc and lets the players interact with them as they will. Unlike a storylined game, there's no social obligation on the players to follow the DM's "plot". Instead, what narrative there is emerges naturally from the player's interactions with the setting.

      Nothing about a sandbox, defined this way, means that time does not pass, that nothing important happens, or that characters don't endure. Most old-school modules are sandboxes, in that they simply provide locations to adventure in, as opposed to "adventure path" modules that try to plan out a narrative arc for the players. It's not surprising that Gygax et al don't use the term, since it's a recent invention borrowed from the video game industry.

    9. Kent: I would have replied earlier, but my internet connection was down and I was only able to access the blog through my BlackBerry.

      It seems like we are talking about something orthogonal to the point, now. But anyway, yes, the world turns independently of the players in any setting worthy of the name. Yes, they have to compete with NPCs in any game worthy of the name. But players can instigate things nonetheless, can't they? Unless the DM is literally telling them what to do, either directly or through a big boss NPC?

  7. >>It's not surprising that Gygax et al don't use the term, since it's a recent invention borrowed from the video game industry.<<

    I said that Gygax et al. don't make use of the idea or the term in any guise.

    >> My understanding of a sandbox is, loosely speaking, a game in which the DM doesn't attempt to create any kind of narrative plot. Instead he creates the "moving parts" of the campaign in the form of locations, dungeons, interconnected NPCs etc and lets the players interact with them as they will. Unlike a storylined game, there's no social obligation on the players to follow the DM's "plot". Instead, what narrative there is emerges naturally from the player's interactions with the setting.<<

    This is so full of hand me down cliches that there is no information content there.

    You and many other people confuse "narrative plot" with events happening in the world independently of the players in which they must partake because the world is all around them. You confuse the two because those who play sandbox style don't usually roleplay. Roleplaying means behaving reasonably and consistently within the environment presented by the DM.

    Player autonomy is the key issue in the fake argument about 'sandbox', roleplaying and story. As long as the DM does not interfere with the player's choices then the player has autonomy. A roleplayer responsibly exporing a setting has meaningful choices to make. The sandbox player has the freedom to wander in any direction in a desert exploring a random table.

    Sandbox and storygame are stupid concepts because less than 1 in 20 games work either way and yet both terms are clumsily broadened in an effort to encompass all types of game between them. I wish people would never use cliche terms in any kind of discussion.

  8. >You and many other people confuse "narrative plot" with events happening in the world independently of the players in which they must partake because the world is all around them.

    What statement have I made that conflates the two? Where have I suggested that I don't roleplay? How is a game such as I described a "desert" without meaningful choices? Substantiate. I've yet to see the relevance of any of your statements to my comment or to noism's original post, except insofar as you hate the word "sandbox". I don't even know if we're talking about the same thing.

    I really don't care about cliches at all so long as my meaning gets expressed. If you're finding the terms I used above an obstacle to discussion I'll be happy to restate it for you in more detail?

  9. >>What statement have I made that conflates the two?<<
    Noisms and I are comparing 'sandbox' and a 'setting' with inherent expectation on PC behaviour, whereas without skipping a beat you contrasted sandbox and "narrative plot".

    >>Where have I suggested that I don't roleplay?<<
    I was speaking more generally than just to you. When *I* use 'sandbox' it is as I have defined it. In my experience online sandbox gamers don't roleplay as I would define it.

    You have inherited a definition of 'sandbox' which is too wide to be meaningful and I am essentially rejecting it and when I say 'Sandbox and storygame are stupid concepts' I am saying I am not interested in discussing those terms any further.

    1. I'm also not interested in a discussion of terms. I was hoping to move past you talking about how much you dislike certain terms and into a reciprocal discussion of playstyles, but never mind, I can see you're not interested.

    2. Yeah Im a bit shit at discussing roleplaying theory - I don't get much out of it perhaps because I played for so long with no contact with any other group. At the same time whenever I express my views online I like to have a brass section in tow 'cos I like the sound they make.

  10. But I do make more sense than Noisms, that's for sure.

    1. I make sense to myself, and that's the only person who matters.