Friday, 8 January 2010

Amorality in the Sandbox and GM as Performing Monkey

Excellent stuff from Zak Smith today on the importance of rogueishness in sandbox games.

What I'd add to it is that not only do rogueishness and sandbox play go together like [insert analogy of choice here; I recommend "chips and gravy"]. The also make it a heck of a lot easier to GM.

This may be controversial, but I've always thought that the plotted, story-driven style of play so popular in the Silver Age of roleplaying games (and depressingly still the dominant paradigm today) puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the GM. Not only does he have to structure his campaign and give it a beginning and a middle and an end. He also has to create scenes, build climaxes, lead his players on a consistently entertaining merry dance; he's worse than a puppet master because at least a puppet master is under no pressure to entertain the very puppets whose strings he holds. While admittedly the scope of a plotted campaign cuts down on prep (if you more or less know what's coming, you don't have to worry about unforeseen circumstance), it more than compensates with the workload it generates in just dragging the entire campaign along.

Sandbox gaming spreads out that workload and creates equality. While there's an onus on the GM to do the groundwork with hexmaps, weather tables, random encounter generators, and adventure hooks, it's up to the players to be the engine of the game. They're the ones who make the decisions and drive whatever "plot" arises. And of course rogueishness helps enormously in this; heroes need villains to fight and plots to foil, which again forces the GM to come up with narratives. Rogueishness generates its own stories.

This is one of those areas where the oldest of old school, and the newest of new school, find an overlap. The Kewl Kids over at Story Games spread the workload by giving narrative control to players through explicit mechanics. The fatbeards do it by saying "fuck story, be a rogue". But the end result is more or less the same.


  1. You make a good point--non-sandbox does put more responsibility on the DM.

    And an aside, I think some games/genres (superhero games, Star Trek) have implicit or explicit plots and don't tend to work as well for sandbox play. Which is why I think both tend to only work well when both palyers and GM have a strong affinity for the source material, and so confirm their behavior and expectations to the genre.

    I think certain fantasy genres might work similarly. One might be able to play a reasonably effective "epic" with player's steeped in the genre, and desirous of that sort of game, but less knowledgeable or less interested player's will most often chafe.

  2. But the end result is more or less the same.

    Amen. (and utterly ironic)

  3. Sandbox gaming is only less work if you're making stuff up on the fly. You could end up being just as much of a performing monkey if you have to spend the evening making up stuff based on your players whims. "No, we don't go into the dungeon you have a map for... we go to the bar and pick fights instead"

    Old School modules with a map + key (eg the 'B' series) don't presuppose you're a shining hero, but they also limit the range of activity to something a bit more manageable. I'm happy with the players having freedom of action within the confines of some sort of "adventure".

    I'd rather start the game with "your party is leaving from Guido's Fort to cross the River Shrill and explore 'The Hill'" than "You guys are milling around in town - *what do you do?*"

    There's nothing wrong with the second option if that's what your group likes, but I know some of my players would tune out, and I know I'd personally find a game like that to be a lot more work.

  4. I quite agree that story-games and old-school sandboxing are different routes to the same place; soon now my FO! piece on improv as a tool common to both traditions will come along.

    I think it's worth noting the tradeoffs of each approach. Our Red Box group played Shock: Social Science Fiction, and although I found that we collaboratively came up with a very out-there setting, I disliked how playing it felt more like doing the work of an author in a shared-world anthology than getting to experience being a character in a story.

    Some of the folks we played with have gotten sick of the narrow range of settings & situations that D&D usually explores (fortunately I love genre fiction and can find endless fascination in riding a favorite well-worn groove). But I think it's exactly this narrow range that lets your player's role as creator fade into the experience of "being there". Knowing the tune by heart is necessary for play to feel like a flowing jam session instead of an indie-designed committee meeting.

    To respond to Stuart's point, it'd be as stressful for me to referee a sandbox superheroes game as it would to puppet-master a railroad, because I haven't read the requisite 10,000 issues of comics to know what happens in a villain's lair: I'd need a map. But I do have that background for D&D, so I'm already thoroughly familiar with what might be in a dungeon or a tavern & it's easy and fun to improv it. - Tavis

  5. Trey: I think you're right about some games and genres being better than others... though I think traditional Star Trek (exploring strange new worlds, shagging strange new species) can be sandboxy.

    I think as well as superhero games, another non-sandbox genre would be Tolkien gaming. You could perfectly well play a rogueish sandbox type game in Middle Earth, I suppose, but that would be missing out entirely on the flavour of what Tolkien's writing is all about.

    Chgowiz: Yep, I think that a lot of the rebellious sentiment in places like the Forge and Story Games towards traditional gaming should really be directed at the Silver Age games (AD&D 3rd edition, Vampire: The Masquerade, etc.), which seemed to conceptualise the GM as a storyteller, than against genuinely old school ones.

    Stuart: Horses for courses, of course. But I think the type of sandbox you described ("You guys are milling around in town - *what do you do?*") is pretty much impossible for mere mortals to pull off effectively - it's really the platonic sandbox, if you will. In practice there needs to be something to kick start things. What I usually do for that is to give each player a couple of starting rumours, which they can discuss amongst themselves and decide on a course of action. After that things tend to flow from there.

    Muleabides: Nicely put.