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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RPGaDay August 14th

14th) Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

Honestly this is another question where I think almost any with the exception of those designed for one shots (Fiasco etc). As I’ve already mentioned my I’m moving away from open ended play towards more focus story arcs but I think I could still run an open ended campaign so long as there was a big epic background plot that played out over the course of the game.

Torg would be a good example, no matter what the individual is adventure is the setting explicitly includes the invasion of the world by other realities. For anything else I think I would go the approach of multiple story arcs rather than open ended play. The Dresden Files novels would be a good example of this, each is self-contained but slowly come together as part of a larger narrative and rather than play it as one campaign I’d probably do it as a series of games, with each arc buffered by short breaks and other games.

RPGaDay 2017 9th August

9th) What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

Most. I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that around 10 sessions is a good length for a tightly focused campaign and that I like that fixed length. It gives you long enough for a proper plot arc, to get to know the characters and to give each time a fair amount of narrative spotlight. For longer open ended campaigns I think the focus can be lost while shorter doesn’t allow for enough breadth, everything has to be laser tight on a single aspect. I think ideally I’d aim for 3-4 sessions per player with a preference of 3-5 players. So a range of 9-20 sessions although that is of course just a guideline.

For those sort of games it really helps to have characters that already have background hooks to latch onto and who are already connected to one another. Probably the best example of this that I’ve run was my Dresden Files campaign. Three players and around 12 sessions. Two of the characters started off working together while the first arc focused around the third character as their supernatural heritage manifested. The second arc then introduced the larger threat and the main macguffin (a newly born dragon) while the final arc required them to stop the summoning of an ancient forgotten evil. All of these were interconnected through the backgrounds of the characters and despite taking a while to get used to the system it remains one of the most satisfying campaigns I’ve ever run.

The Fallen Mountains: Campaign Retrospective

The Fallen Mountains campaign I was running wrapped up a couple of months ago and having gained some distance from it I thought it was time to reflect on the ups and downs of the campaign. All in all I would classify it as a success but I wanted to focus on a few individual bits that went well and a couple where I felt I was especially lacking.

Happy

The players. Dear god were the players a highlight. None of them had ever played Legend of the Five Rings or had me GM for them before but they each dived into the game and got it. They understood the role of honour but also that samurai are just human. They let themselves mess up and say the wrong thing while striving to be honourable. They also embraced both the strengths and the flaws of their clans, especially the Scorpion players who both refused to fall into the stereotype of a dishonourable ninja. Being samurai is about walking the knife edge of what is necessary and what is right, what is easy and what is polite. The players got that and the game was better for it.

Character backgrounds. Across the 11 sessions we managed to cover 3 distinct short arcs while also hitting upon at least one element of backstory for each of the five characters. The balance between them wasn’t perfect but each of them had a moment to shine and develop their characters in ways that I hadn’t anticipated at the start. I think 11 sessions was too short to give each their own arc but I’m glad we did manage to incorporate something for each of them into the wider campaign. Which brings us to…

The setting. While I always had an idea as to the mysteries lurking in The Fallen Mountains I’d never really fleshed them out, preferring to deal with it in play. Across the course of the campaign we managed to do so and in a way that really worked. The players seemed to buy into the story of the Lost Legion but didn’t chase it until they started uncovering clues. Until then they treated it as the characters would, a tale from the history books and used to scare children. It made the setting feel like what it was meant to be, a legend, and not just a simple plot hook.

Ending. We finished the campaign and in a manner that was satisfying. Like many people (I assume) that’s pretty rare for me so it’s always satisfying when it happens. I’m also coming to the opinion that those mid length campaigns suit my GMing style. It gives enough time to learn the characters, have multiple adventures and showcase a metaplot. 11 sessions is probably the minimum for this sort of campaign and I feel like it could stretch up to around 20 without feeling like I was pushing it too far.

Not so happy

The second arc. Shugeki’s wedding, the second of our three arcs, was inspired by the introductory adventure from the 4th edition rulebook. For those not familiar with it the adventure is a murder mystery that occurs during a series of inter Clan courtly challenges. The former is the backbone to the adventure while the latter provides an introduction to the system and Rokugani culture. Taking place at court it is very heavy on NPCs and in the end I just wasn’t happy with my portrayal of them. The NPCs were introduced too quickly to get a feel for them or build proper relationships with them. Likewise I didn’t feel like I’d introduced enough characters to really widen the suspect pool. Maybe that’s the best way to go, it works in TV shows where only the prime suspects ever get any real screen time but it felt forced here and isn’t an adventure I would feel comfortable running as a one shot or opening arc. I think it could work well as part of a longer campaign with a cast of established NPCs. Despite my misgivings about the overall structure of this arc it did introduce one of the best moments of the campaign, with one player fully diving into the role of being a Kolat sleeper agent and then having to commit Jigai to atone for her sins.

Combat. At the outset I’d been expecting a combat heavy game and things just didn’t go that way. Partially because of the players circumventing it (which I’m all in favour of) and partially because of how the plot progressed. When it came to the final adventure there was combat but I failed to adjust it to take into account the rapid advancement of the characters (we went from rank 1 to 4 over the 11 sessions). In doing so I failed to provide any meaningful challenge, an issue for a game with a reputation for being deadly. To compound this error I feel like I failed to properly pace the final combat, which was meant to cut back and forth with events occurring elsewhere. A lesson to learn from and I think in future I would keep the game at a low power level, likely Insight Rank 3 or below.

The Fallen Mountains – Rough Map

One of the things I’ve always had in my head for the Fallen Mountains setting is the geography of the region but getting it down on paper has always been a stumbling block. An upcoming short campaign in the setting has provided new impetus to put something together, produced using the InKarnate web software. I’m still not 100% happy with the outcome. Hopefully with some more practise I can replace it with a hand drawn version but I still struggle with too many of the details I want to add.

fallen-mountains-draft2

Adventure Logs: Mind Maps

One of the things that I’m particularly bad at when it comes to managing campaigns is actually writing things up in coherent blocks of text. Partially that’s down to the way I tend to make notes, haphazard and on the fly but it’s also because I’m not that great at concise writing or writing in general (one of the purposes of this blog is to provide me with practise at doing so). This obviously impacts on how I keep track of what happens in a campaign and once I get past 3 or 4 sessions I often find that I’m left with multiple bits of paper containing all the random notes I’ve scribbled down during play. One of the ways I manage this is through Obsidian Portal, but most of the time my wiki’s end up lacking and I really make most use of the character side of the site, allowing me to keep all the PCs and NPCs in one place.

With all this in mind something I’m looking for other ways to record what is going on, which has been prompted by our current Dresden Files campaign. We’ve just started the final adventure of the trilogy we’d aimed for and as the GM I’m now trying to make sure everything connects together properly, especially the random elements from earlier adventures I’d introduced without knowing exactly how they fitted in (this is a big part of my GMing style, I’ll add something then adjust my existing idea of what’s going on to account for it). One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is through mind mapping, as I can just list out the elements and connect them together. Normally I do this in my trusty notebook but in the last few days I’ve started to look at web options for doing so, at the moment I’ve settled on using bubbl.us, so that my players can also see the results.

Dresden---Adventure-1_3l47eubsThe above is the resulting map from the first adventure. For an outsider it won’t explain anything that is going on but I hope that for the people involved it will serve as a good reference point to remind us of the connections and what happened during the adventure. The best bit of course is that between sessions I can simply add extra bubbles as ideas come together, or delete them if I change my mind.

I’m curious though, what other ways do people use to manage their campaigns? Or do you have any software you’d recommend for doing so?

Go Big or Go Achievable

When it comes to running campaigns I have to admit that for a long time I’ve had a problem when it comes to scale. Simply put as a GM I tend to think big and long term, with multi-part story arcs that will take dozens of sessions to complete. Part of that stems from my introduction to tabletop gaming, brand new to RPGs I joined a new Torg campaign run by an awesome GM. The campaign followed the official storyline that was published when the game first came out and while I only played in it for the first year it ran for over four years right up until the final confrontation with the Gaunt Man himself. When I left the game I did so to start GMing for the first time, with my first campaign returning to what I knew, the very Torg adventures I’d played in the year before. While that campaign did reach a conclusion it wasn’t the one I’d hoped for, though it was epic in nature.

Since then I can think of only a handful of campaigns which have wrapped up satisfactorily and of those that haven’t most have fallen apart after 6-10 sessions due to players conflicts. Almost every time those campaigns have fallen apart with little of the world and larger campaign revealed to the players. The most recent example of this is the Legends of the Five Rings campaign I was running, while the game had completed a short self contained adventure (the first part of which is detailed here) the adventure ended with the party learning only that the events had been orchestrated by an outside faction. They never learnt who or why and more importantly they never got the chance to stop them.

So with my current Dresden Files campaign I’m taking a different approach, that of Go Achievable and running it as a series of discrete adventures each for around 3 sessions in length. Most importantly I’m aiming to make each adventure almost entirely self contained, so should it fall apart there shouldn’t be dozens of hanging plot threads left. The most difficult bit though is trying to be concious of the pace of the game, knowing that I need to reach a conclusion within a short time period.

It’s a bit of a challenge at the moment but hopefully it’ll work out in the long run.