Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Samurai Sandbox

In a fit of nostalgia (I miss living in Japan) I bought Bushido the other day. I haven't had time to read it yet (although I did abuse my office printing access by printing it all out and treasury-tagging it into booklet form). But I have had time to ponder one of the great imponderables: How do you run a samurai sandbox game?

Other people more intelligent and verbose than me have written before about what you might call the "Superman Sandbox" problem. This goes, roughly, as follows: Superheroes are by definition reactive. They stop crime. This means that superhero games aren't a good fit for player-driven, sandbox play - at least, not readily. It's difficult for players to be the engine of the game when they are mostly just waiting around for somebody bad to do something horrible so they can stop it. And it is difficult to prevent that sort of game turning into a big fat exercise in teat-sucking in which the GM is just dollopping out missions for the players to take on. What does Superman do in the downtime while he is waiting for Lex Luthor to come up with his next hare-brained scheme? He mopes around Lois Lane and rings his parents. Great session, guys. Let's fast- forward to the good bit.

You can, of course, run a superhero game in which the players are not just waiting around for the bad guy to do something bad, and in which they use their powers towards ends that are not necessarily all about stopping bad guys... But then, you're not really playing a superhero game anymore, are you? You are betraying the genre.

Samurai games have a similar sort of same problem, to a lesser degree. Of course, if your players are going to be yakuza types, or perhaps ronin, they are free to do whatever they want. But if you want to do things properly and run a game in which the players are samurai, this means they have to be the retainers of some lord or other, which makes it difficult for them to be free to pursue their own goals in a way that makes sense "within the fiction". They have to wait around to be ordered to do things. Or you have to betray the genre in some way and allow them a level of freedom they should not really have.

You might argue, and it is a fair argument, that the samurai game does not require the lord to be sending his retainers on missions all the time. It doesn't have to be so GM-centric. The lord might just give the PCs the responsibility for doing certain things, within the scope of which the players have all the freedom they want. "Keep the peace in Tosa province" is an ambiguous mission statement which the players can interpret in all manner of different ways, given a varied set of conflicts which the GM has dreamed up going on within the province.

But at the very least this still requires you to, as Zak puts it, design conflicts. You can't just do the ordinary kind of sandbox setup you would use for a game of D&D or Cyberpunk 2020 or whatever, drawing maps and creating lists of NPCs and interesting locales and then just set the players loose in it. Why? In D&D, that kind of setup works because you know the PCs have absolute liberty to do what they want, and you as the DM only have to react to them and ensure your setting reacts appropriately. In our "Keep the peace in Tosa province" scenario, you would be required to add an extra layer - the potential threats to the peace. This is hard work, because you don't have any idea how the players are going to deal with those threats, or in what order. They aren't just doing the rather predictable things that rogueish PCs will do in a game of D&D (delve into dungeons, go hex crawling, etc.). They are thinking of complex ways to resolve complex problems. And this puts a lot of pressure on the GM to be able to improvise and maintain a high level of preparation and thought, session after session.

To put it more simply, once you've done the setup for a D&D sandbox game, each session more or less writes itself. The players are doing things off their own bat and the DM is reacting. But in a samurai sandbox game, each session is something of a mystery (or, let's say, what is going to happen in the next session but one is a mystery). You, the DM, are creating things the players are reacting to, and they have many more potential reactions than you can really anticipate. To put it even more simply and reduce it ad absurdum, it is the difference between:

A: There is a dungeon. The players explore it. (D&D)
B: There are a group of bandits in the South-Western tip of Tosa province. The players...try to kill them? Arrest them? Go looking for more help? Decide to spy on them? Agree to turn a blind eye in return for a bribe? (Bushido)

One is relatively simple for the DM to deal with; the other is relatively complex.

35 comments:

  1. You might look at John Wick's Blood and Honor for some of the tools to do a more open samurai game. It has the players building a clan for themselves, taking roles in that, and combining regular play with seasonal actions. I tihnk you could do an interesting variation on The Great Pendragon Campaign with something like that. Players could essentially set up the missions they have to play out. B&H is simple enough that the mechanics could easily be ported over elsewhere.

    Oddly I finally replaced my lost copy of Bushido last Friday. Noble Knight had a decent and cheap perfect bound copy.

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    1. Been, there done that, got the t-shirt. I like Blood & Honor (except for the naff faux Japanese and the title, which is the same as a British neo-Nazi group and consequently makes me vaguely paranoid I've been flagged on some sort of police watch list for the entirely innocent reason of putting the title of an RPG into google a few times). But it's, fundamentally, a story game. I've got no problem with that, but if I want a more traditional RPG it's not really fit for purpose.

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    2. Incidentally there is a feudal Japan version of Pendragon, half written: http://genpei.pbworks.com/w/page/13885659/FrontPage

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    3. True it is definitely more story than OSR. I think some of the elements could be adapted or ported over so that you could have the players set the stage before the sandbox game to make things easier. It, or a serious mod of it, could be purely for the framing device set up.

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  2. I'm not convinced this is so much different from your Sandboxes in the City post(assuming the delegating lord as opposed to the micromanager). Also there you don't know how the players will react to "protect Professor Yamaguchi from corporate assassins". Will they play Defense? Offence? Trickery? Also just as challenging for the DM to prepare for.

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    1. You may have a point there. The different with the "sandbox in the city" thing is that the players drive things more. They can choose an employer, and whether to have an employer at all. If they want, they can just go out and rob banks. Perversely, this is less difficult to prep for and react to, because it is always a simple scenario and the players always have the initiative.

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  3. Playing a bunch of shady ronin sounds much more appealing to begin with.

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    1. It could be fun, for sure. But then aren't you just basically playing D&D in a pseudo-oriental setting? In which case, aren't you losing all of the interesting not D&Dish things about playing as samurai in feudal Japan?

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    2. Are you? (That's an actual question, not a rhetorical one.)

      Are the all the interesting "not D&Dish things" about playing as a (samurai or ronin) in feudal Japan related to being beholden to your feudal lord?

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    3. I think that's a lot of what is interesting about it. The social interaction aspects, the behaving with honour, the respect for heirarchy, constantly acting with the good of the clan in mind, etc.

      I'm not saying there couldn't be an interesting ronin sandbox campaign. It just scratches a certain itch and would miss others.

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    4. The social interaction aspects, the behaving with honour, the respect for heirarchy, constantly acting with the good of the clan in mind, etc.

      This is a digression, and of course not really the same as the "rogue sandbox," but what if you have the situation where the PCs' interests are more in the lines of screwing over rivals, currying favor with superiors, causing trouble while maintaining plausible deniability, etc.

      It still leaves more to the DM to set up events and conflicts, but is probably still more player-driven if the goals are more oriented toward bastard ends.

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  4. The way I handled it in Rogue Trader was to have the Trader be somewhat distant and disinterested, so while he was technically in charge, the players had considerable freedom to pursue their own goals, as long as it was all done in his name.

    To be fair, I was surprised that they didn't hatch a plan to take over from the outset; they seemed quite content to respect the Trader's hereditary power and work for him.

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    1. It's funny how that works, isn't it? I'm sure players try too hard, out of politeness, not to mess around too much with what you as the GM are trying to do, when actually you'd be very happy for them to. But you can't say that to them because it would feel like you were leading them by the nose or giving them too much of a hint.

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    2. It's unusual because they were in all other respects your average player-character group; a bunch of bastards, in other words. They just seemed to accept the premise that the Trader was in charge, so never even spoke about the possibility of a mutiny.

      I suppose what I did in having their boss be so hands-off was betray the genre, but it's Warhammer 40,000, and everything is bonkers there.

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  5. I printed Bushido out too. Its very dense packed with what appears to be authentic information and it made me think more highly of Oriental Adventures even if that book is not as good.

    Let me give you a printing tip. Print on A3 sheets (100gm) in booklet format and do away with hideous binding combs. Print the cover on a 200gm A3 card sheet in colour.

    >> What does Superman do in the downtime while he is waiting for Lex Luthor to come up with his next hare-brained scheme? <<

    I often ask myself what did the Moria Balrog do in his downtime while the white-robed two-shoes were coming up with their hare-brained schemes? And I think being able to answer such a question distinguishes the good DM from the American one.

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    1. Thanks for the tip to print on A3 booklets. Didn't think of that. On A4 the print, for Bushido at least, is way too small.

      I often ask myself what did the Moria Balrog do in his downtime

      Tolkien seems to suggest he was doing fuck all, so maybe he wouldn't have made such a great DM.

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    2. Just to be clear, an A3 booklet gets folded so you have A4 sized pages. Yes, A5 pages are generally too small to read comfortably for any great length. I have actually printed out some material on huge A3 sized pages - a MERP module, Jaquays: The Night of the Walking Wet and Embertrees from WD - but had to bind them myself.

      >>Tolkien seems to suggest he was doing fuck all, so maybe he wouldn't have made such a great DM.<<

      But if a player asked him he would give a wonderful answer. I imagine Tolkien would have been peerless as a DM if he had had any interest.

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    3. Somewhere in those mines there's a scale model of Barad Dur made from Goblin bones thats just *one bone* away from completion.

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    4. Yeah, I understood the A3 thing. Bushido on A4 booklets (A5 pages) is like trying to decipher ancient phoenician.

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    5. Tolkien seems to suggest he was doing fuck all, so maybe he wouldn't have made such a great DM.

      One might say "it spent its days in terrible contemplation, blind to all things beyond the cast of its own flames," which means "fuck all" really but halfway creates the illusion of doing something.

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  6. I'm not sure the D&D sandbox offers fewer ways for players to do things than the Bushido sandbox. Having a layer of authority overtop can change the game depending on how direct the control gets: your example of "keep the peace in this province" is an excellent choice because all it does is give an overriding goal besides "get loot and XP" and focus the campaign on the province in question without putting up invisible walls. I think that sort of campaign could be more fun than the standard D&D Murderhobo campaign because it's immediately richer and doesn't actually stifle player agency. They could just do a bad job but not so bad they get fired / executed.

    I think the player choices for dealing with a dungeon are as varied as those for dealing with a bandit camp. I really don't see the difference, leaving out the need to fulfill a duty to some authority figure.

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    1. When noisms talks about options he is referring to a specific kind of option I talk about in the post he linked to.

      Samurai and Supermen are essentially (in terms of game structure) investigators and that shapes their experiences and choices differently than D&D murderhobos who are schemers and opportunists (structurally speaking).

      More detail and clarity in the original link.

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    2. Read Zak's entry. But basically, there are many, varied choices for dealing with a dungeon, but they are different choices than those for dealing with a bandit camp; and, crucially, player choices for dealing with a bandit camp are also different depending on whether they are samurai or muderhobos, and their emphasis is also different.

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  7. I think you could do a Superheroes game as a hexcrawl type thing. The wilderness becomes the city, and the heroes are on patrol, and you stock your encounter lists with a range of events from purse snatchings to alien invasions. How the plot goes from there is emergent rather than GM driven.

    One way you could swing a bunch of ronin in a samurai type campaign is to pattern them after the 47 Ronin. Their lord is dead but they're still loyal, and the province or whatever is occupied by a usurper's army and they're out to wreck his stuff and rebuild the old guard on their own. Maybe one of the PC's is the heir apparent lookin' for vengeance. (YMMV)

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    1. I think you're restating the problem. I'm going to write a second post on this explaining what I mean in more detail.

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  8. Thanks for putting into words something that was niggling me at the back of my mind trying to start a Oriental Adventures campaign.

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  9. Send in the seven samurai to pacify a prefecture in the name of their daimyo before the emperor decides to take the territory and others of the samurai's lord. The samurai's lord is embroiled in war right now and can't spend more resources then needed on sending in the PC samurai who are given authority to raise funds and act as they will. The deadline? Until the emperor's son is freed from captivity in the north.

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    1. That would be cool, but is sort of what my post is addressing. In allowing the PC samurai to "act as they will", the conflict design problem still arises and the choices are not the same or as easy as they are in a "true" sandbox.

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    2. Don't feel limited by a refining definition. A Caveman Sandbox is going to have darned few castles, a Cowboy Sandbox is going to have a stampede, a Samurai sandboox is going to have a few violent eltist jerks who aren't going to get to keep everything for themselves. Embrace the defintion and focus don't see it as a problem: even in theoutline I whipped up above there's lots of room for private ambitions.

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    3. You're rather missing the point. I whipped up an outline similar to yours in my post, "keep the peace in Tosa province", which is equally accomodating for private ambitions. The problem then becomes designing the conflicts and responding to unpredictable player choice/action.

      This is a problem you don't have in a D&D sandbox, or a caveman sandbox, or a cowboy sandbox, beacuse in those environments, even though player choice/action is free, its structure is predictable.

      Actually, the Samurai sandbox and one form of cowboy game - what you might call "the Sherriff sandbox" are similar in this regard. Again, in the latter you would have a group of players with a certain amount of freedom, but a freedom that is reactive in the sense in which a D&D sandbox is not.

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    4. I've been trying to square the circle on this and I'm not sure I've managed it, but this is the closest I could get.

      Silent Lord, Natural Threats

      There is an authority, but it's silent, you cant access it. Like, 'thine dayamo hast been struck with paralysis' or 'the statues of the gods no longer speak'

      And there are natural threats. Ones that would normally be provoked by the silence of the authority. So the lords of the neighbouring provinces are going to try to dick you about, or other religions are going to try to convert you. The peasents will get restless without a present authority e.t.c. They would be wide ranging and spring up pretty much wherever the players go.

      So it's not quite 'Superman on a Crapsack World' where everything is messed up and you being good makes you proative. Because the world isnt evil, but natural.

      You still have to create the threats though, which means it still falls into the same trap really. But they would spring naturally from the setting in a sandboxy style.

      Of course it could be argued that Silent Lord, Natural Threats is just a very specific kind of over-plot, kind of an opeing mission statement. Which means its no longer an absolute sandbox.

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    5. I think you're restating the problem, Patrick. I'm going to write another post on it to try and clarify what I meant.

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  10. About betraying the genre:

    This is one of the reasons I love "all star superman". It flips the usual structure and turns superman into a protagonist, and goes "why not, lets have him actually try to do stuff of his own accord" and his superpowers instantly flip from "how can we make a problem for superman to have problems with" to an excuse for imagination and invention. Actually turns him into a pretty fun character.

    It makes me think that why superman was so crap for a large portion of his run is that he swapped from "depression-era change the world man" through 50s conservative, to not-super-enough-man, as his style of drama inverted.

    In my personal shorthand, the superhero game is the "policeman" game, just because the superhero stuff I like is non-reactionary power exploration, to some extent that is defying the genre, but it's way better!

    I also think thinking in terms of policemen helps recognise stuff like "the beat" vs the hexcrawl, and reactive plot hooks being like people radioing for backup, and why player/GM mismatch turns into so many guilt trips!

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