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.
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.
With two weeks still to go in the campaign the Expanse RPG Kickstarter by Green Ronin is on track to be a massive success. It’s blown through one stretch goal after another, having funded in under an hour and is currently nearing $300,000 in pledges. Yet despite being a big fan of both the novels and TV series I find myself struggling to build any enthusiasm for it. Spectacularly underwhelmed to be exact, enough that I felt the need to dig into why.
So lets start at the start: The pitch for funding. It’s professionally put together, contained achievable and realistic stretch goals and even had a short word from the creative force behind the novels, James S. A. Corey (yes I’m aware it’s a pen name for the two authors but I’m going to refer to them by that name as it’s the one they chose to use). It is, however, very light on the pitch. If I wasn’t already aware of the franchise then I don’t think I’d give it another glance, there is simply nothing that grabs me and screams PLAY THIS GAME! Or even that sells me on the setting beyond standard space opera.
One thing that I was very happy to see was that from the get-go they provided a free to download quickstart rules document. It has been professionally produced, looks great and provides both a breakdown of the core rules and a sample adventure. It’s the sort of release that I think all of the bigger RPG companies should include on their Kickstarters – it shows that they have put in the work beforehand. Rules are written, character sheets designed, artwork and layout styles selected. While it’s not achievable for most of the smaller indie companies it shows that they are serious about this game.
Despite this I was, once again, underwhelmed. There’s a similar lack of setting information, I could pick up what was included and drop it into a generic space opera game without really having to tweak anything.
Then there’s the system, which feels… generic. I can’t really put it any other way. Now don’t get me wrong, it looks like a solid and serviceable system but nothing about it stands out to me. I’m totally willing to accept that this may just come down to a matter of preference but overall the mechanics feel like they have barely iterated on design ideas from a decade ago. Stunts (one of the most exciting aspects of The Expanse RPG according to the quick start) are interesting and provide special bonuses but the non-combat variants seem limited with their value restricted to very specific situations. I was also disappointed to see that one of the stunts was ‘Knock prone’. Given much of the setting is in zero or low-G environments it felt like quite an oversight to not reword this. Simply renaming it Offbalance would suffice and it makes me wonder how much the system has been tweaked to fit both the setting and genre of the novels. The added Fortune and Churn mechanics also failed to impress (seriously, spending the equivalent of your HP to change dice results? Even if they recover quickly people will hoard them). They’re ok but they don’t set my world on fire.
So that’s my rambling thoughts on The Expanse RPG and its Kickstarter. I don’t know if I’ve really got across my point and I understand it comes across as excessively negative (which wasn’t my intention but I needed to write this to work through why I felt so uninterested in the game). It’ll probably be an ok game but only that, ok. Will I back it? I seriously don’t know, I’m leaning towards yes just to get the setting material but I don’t know if I’d ever run it which disappoints me immensely.
I’ve got a few Demon Hunters projects in the early stages of production right now. One is planning a game for my own stag weekend, which will kick off by getting my old group back together for a one-shot of Demon Hunters. The adventure I’m planning is actually part of a bigger mission, Rocket Demons of Antiquity. Ultimately the finished product will take place over two time frames, modern and the Victorian eras. For the latter, I intend to include a set of pre-generated characters, led by none other than Mina Harker from Bram Stokers Dracula. Her draft text is presented below:
Mina Harker, leader of the Undesirables
After their encounter with Dracula, the Harkers were brought into the Brotherhood by Abraham Van Helsing. They had already seen too much for any other option. While Johnathon rapidly progressed within the organisation Mina was side-lined thanks to the inherent sexism of the era and unspoken fears that she had been forever tainted by Dracula. Relegated to the archives she took it upon herself to form a team comprised of those who the Brotherhood considered incompatible with modern Victorian morals. Supernaturals, infernals, undesirables.
So long as they retain a spark of good within their souls Mina will work with them. Using insights gleaned from mission reports, historical records and the Brotherhood’s ability to tap into telegraph/telephone networks worldwide Mina directs this group of outcasts, operating outside and around Brotherhood channels and limitations. Her intellect and position within the Brotherhood ensures that her team are able to get to and deal with incidents that fall outside the remit of all but the highest Chapters.
Mystic arts d4
Covert ops d10
Social engineering d6
Combat & tactics d4
Concept: Ostracised mastermind archivist
Trouble: Forced to prove myself over and over
Discipline 1: Operating under the Brotherhood’s radar
Discipline 2: No detail too small
Discipline 3: Just a woman!?! I’ll show you, you $@&hole!
Stunt 1: Because I just need to collate the evidence I get +2 when I cleverly overcome or create advantages by piecing together existing clues
Stunt 2: Because I must be free to act despite the expectations of society once per session I may flawlessly fashion or obtain a disguise that will let me act freely in my current location (The disguise may be male or female but not of a specific individual)
Stunt 3: Because I will not fall under their control I get +2 when I forcefully overcome supernatural attempts to influence me
Correction: Ok, so my below post was rather premature, it seems that there was an issue with the file that neither I nor the preflight software at DriveThruRPG spotted. That resulted in a corrupted file which I also failed to spot before I put this post up. So it’s been a learning experience, if only in why not to jump the gun with files. I’m currently trying to resolve the issue but that’s taking longer than I’d like, once it’s sorted I’ll make Tower Fall available again.
I’ll still be releasing material here on my main site but where possible the final products will also be available at DriveThruRPG. While Project Cassandra remains a priority I’ve a few other pieces outlined, including another one page game and an adventure collection for the Demon Hunters RPG.