Your sandbox sucks

Most sandbox games suck. Why? Because all too often the idea of player led, follow what interests you type campaign leads to complacency on behalf of both the GM and the players. GMs feel like because the plot is in the hands of the players they can’t do any prep while players… well players rarely know what motivates them. So the game lurches from one random encounter or fetch quest to another, never adding any depth to the world until the campaign dies from a severe case of the blahs.

I say this from experience. I’ve attempted to run games that have fallen foul of it and I’ve seen it happen almost every time somebody suggests a sandbox. It even happens in video games. For example Skyrim, one of the best-selling open world games ever sucked.

Why?

Because its world was shallow and unconnected. Major quests had almost zero impact on the wider world while the procedurally generated quests made it seem like you might end up being sent to each and every mound of grass to fight the ghost/skeleton/cultist/bear that had stolen the favourite spoon of meaningless NPC #1,234,799. You could be the archmage in one town but a peasant in the next. Plot threads by the dozen but never weaved together into something more.

And because it was open world if you decided not to stop pursuing a quest part way through it would just sit there. Waiting. Tired of the civil war? We’ll just go away for now. Bored of dragons? They’ll wait to complete their plans while you go and explore another loot filled cave just outside town that somehow nobody knew about.

Now apply that to a tabletop RPG. But with even less depth because the GM didn’t want to force their plot on the players so hasn’t added any detail to the world.

It should be the opposite.

If you’re running a sandbox then you need to know so much more about the world or be able to wing it. You need factions and NPCs galore that all have their own motivations and goals before the PCs are even on the scene. Plot hooks should be abundant, to provide PCs more options than they could possibly deal with and when they resolve one then there should be consequences for leaving the others hanging. Take out the gang harassing the neighbourhood? Fantastic, except now little Jimmy’s cough has put left him six feet under because you didn’t get him the medicine he needed in time.

As for the PCs well they should be just as detailed as the world. They need lives and families, wants and needs if they’re going to have some real motivations. They should know why they’re in the world and what’s driving them and it should be established in collaboration with the GM so that they don’t exist in a vacuum.

Do what you want is meaningless if you don’t want for anything.

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Not ranting about D&D

I’d been planning to make this a rant about D&D, about how frustrated I am with it and the fact I’m struggling to find a group playing something else while D&D games fill within minutes of being posted.

But then on the bus this morning I started to think should I really be ranting about this? My answer was no. Does it annoy me that a game I’m not overly fond of is popular? Yes, immensely but right now it’s popularity is part of a resurgence of the hobby I love. The combination of D&D 5e and actual play streams have raised the visibility of tabletop games to a level I honestly didn’t think we’d ever see. I still don’t know if I would call RPGs mainstream in the way that board games might now be but certainly, the level of awareness is reaching that level. I didn’t roll my first skill checks until the mid-2000’s, so I never directly experienced the stigma that was often associated with RPGs during prior to that but as a minis gamer during the 90’s, I knew what it was like. I knew what it was like to have the nerdy hobby, to be labelled as a gamer at an age when I wasn’t confident enough to truly embrace it.

So no, I decided I’m not going to rant about D&D today. It will never be my preferred system, I find the rules clunky and I’ve had one too many negative experiences with gamers that propagate the worst stereotypes of the hobby. But I’m not going to bash the people that have joined the hobby because of it, that enjoy it and flock to it. If it’s the only gaming that’s available then I’m going to damn well step forward and give it a try. I’m not saying I’ll stick with a game or group that I don’t enjoy but I’m tired of holding myself back just because it isn’t exactly what I want.

And who knows, maybe I can introduce a few more people to the joys of other systems while I’m at it. Nothing says anybody has to just play D&D…

Rant: On Railroads (or Plot != Railroad)

Between blogs, twitter, forums and podcasts I consume, on an average week, a considerable quantity of RPG material (it’s one of the few bonuses of having two hours of commuting per day). One of the topics that keeps coming up time and time again is that of railroading and how it is a bad thing under most circumstances. Which I agree with. It’s just the definition of railroad that gets to me, as I regularly see posts (or hear episodes) that insinuate if the GM comes to a session with any plot / plans then they are railroading the game. So let me just get my opinion out there,

Having plot is NOT railroading.

Simple as. It’s only a railroad when the GM forces the players onto that plot and forces them to follow it in the manner the GM expects. If I, as GM, come to the table with plans for the game then unless it’s the start of a new game it will be based on the actions of the previous session. I might have expectations on where the game will go and will plan accordingly, that doesn’t mean I am railroading the players, merely that I am planning ahead based on the direction the game has already taken. No, it may not be a truly sandbox game but even if I were planning a sandbox game I would still expect to come to the table with some plans on where the session might go, the only difference is that the initial plot hook would have come from the PCs as opposed to me dangling it in front of them as an option. They’re free to ignore that hook, go off and do something else instead. Hell one of the most enjoyable Demon Hunters adventures I’ve ever run was triggered by one of the players seeing a plot hook in what I’d intended as a mere background description. That was five minutes into the session and resulted in me throwing out my entire plot, calling a beer break so I could come up with a new plot (based around the aspect that had grabbed the players attention) then continuing in the new direction.

So I still had a plot. And I still wasn’t railroading. What I’m saying is that it’s only a railroad if I force the players onto a particular path and shut down their options when they deviate from my plan. Having a plot, that’s just saying to the players that “hey, there’s something interesting over here if you want to take a look.”