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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Engaging from the start…

I ran my first session of D&D 5e this week and despite my issues with the d20 system in general I think my response on twitter summed up the experience:

Why did it feel so good to get back to the role of GM? Partially because I have always preferred it to being a player. I like the role of setting up scenes and watching them play out. I like having to gauge the impact of PC actions on the bigger picture. Most of all I like seeing the response of players as they realise what is going on or come up with a solution I couldn’t have foreseen (as the Happyjacks hosts are fond of saying the GM should create problems, not solutions).

The other reason it felt so good was that I went in with a plan to engage the players and I feel like it worked. I was GMing in what is best described as a community campaign akin to the Adventurers League. There’s a pool of players and GMs but each session will see a different combination of them come together. The big difference though is that there are no parallel sessions of the same adventure. Every session is a unique and self-contained standalone adventure set within the wider campaign world. The starting point for any adventure is the players, they state what their character is investigating or up to and then put a group together.

It’s not the easiest way of doing things. Individual sessions can be a little disjointed with only loose tie-ins to those that came before. For this, my first session, I had to prep an adventure based on brief summaries from one player and the previous GM. Not the easiest of asks, even for an experienced GM. It also had to engage the players in such a way that they would want to follow up on it, to generate enough interest in the events that it could become a plot in its own right.

This meant having a plan – introducing a new faction that could make an immediate impact and that had the potential for being a long-term threat. So in came a heretical cult within the ranks of Lathander that place particular importance on the divide between day and night, for the sun can only rise if it has first set. To establish their importance I put the party in position to witness (and ultimately disrupt) a ritual that had taken place hundreds of years before. It explained why nobody had ever heard of the cult and presented a clear threat to the established status quo in the present.

For me, as the GM, it also presented a way to engage long term with the wider setting as I’ll be able to build up the details of the threat over multiple sessions if and when the players engage with it. Given one of them is already planning a follow-up I’d count it as a success.

RPGaDay August 25th

25th) What is the best way to thank your GM?

Beyond just saying ‘hey I’m really enjoying the game, thanks for running it’ I can think of a few ways. But that really is the best approach.

So what are those other ways?

Well the biggest is simply to be engaged. I can’t speak for other GMs but personally I spent a lot of time on games outside of sessions. Prepping characters, going over notes, working out where the plot might be going (especially as I find I need to regularly adjust my expectations based on player actions). Some of this will be actual hands on, dedicated time while some of it will be idle speculation during odd moments of free time. All together it adds up, I’d estimate that each hour of game time will correspond to an hour of prep. At a minimum.

That’s a lot of engagement with the game, far more than I’d ever ask of the players. What I do appreciate though are players that engage during the session, it makes me feel like all that time was worth it and is appreciated. There are lots of ways you can engage with the game, for example:

Actively engage with the plot, give me an idea of where you want it to go.
Set aside the time to game. If you’re regularly flaking out at the last minute then you’re wasting my time. Flakey gamers are something that really pisses me off. Gaming is an important part of my mental health so it matters to me when you disrupt that.
Make an effort to learn the rules. I don’t expect mastery but I appreciate not having to explain the basic mechanics for the umpteenth time.
Know what your character is capable of. As the GM I’ve got to keep track of a lot of aspects, if you know your PCs abilities it’s one less thing I have to keep in my head.

RPGaDay August 18th

Demon Hunters18th) Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

In terms of total hours it would have to be Torg, I was in a long campaign of it and have run a couple of campaigns of it. Total play time would be around a year and a half of weekly sessions and GMing time would be similar. While I love the setting I’ve slowly drifted away from liking the rules, they are very much a product of their time (early 90’s) which is why I’m stoked for Torg Eternity. The update looks like it has succeeded in keeping the feel of the game while also introducing a more modern approach to many of the mechanics.

As for the one that I just keep going back to then it has to be Demon Hunters from Dead Gentlemen Productions. Again, there has been a new edition recently and while I’ve not played it as much as I’d like it does lean itself more towards my current mechanical inclinations. I can pick up that game with essentially zero notice and throw something together there and then. Plus it is just pure, unadulterated chaotic fun. Perfect for both one shots and a series of short adventures.

RPGaDay August 13th

13th) Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I actually have a few examples for this one but I want to focus on one, which served to codify my opinions on running convention games. The UK Student Nationals is a convention that brings together student societies from across the country for a mix of RPGs, wargames, LARP and boardgames. I went a number of times but one in particular sticks in my head for how bad one of the games was.

The convention works in that you pick categories then play two long games, one each day with the same group but different GMs. You never quite know what you’re getting, the particular year in question I’d signed up for scifi and the Saturday game was a bit of a disaster. Not horror story dickish GM disaster but a sequence of small errors that just compounded one another. The game was close to six hours long, under half way through I was building dice towers and the only reason I didn’t walk out was because I was going to be playing with the same people the very next day.

The signs were there from the start, the GM was late (not too unusual given the combo of students and drinking) and hadn’t finished the character sheets. Not one. So there went 15-20 minutes as he filled in the missing details. In the end my character turned out to be a smuggler / con-artist, with 20+ skills to his name (the game was in Hero system, I’ve no idea if this many skills was normal).

The opening to the game wasn’t much better. We were on a space station (yay) in the middle of some galactic civil war but none of us knew each other (boo). There’s bombing and we all get rounded up as suspects. Ok I think, maybe this is the central plot, that we’re all innocent and have to escape so we can prove that fact. Nope, we’re quickly cleared of the charges and then asked to work together as security for a delegation aiming to negotiate a truce.

Seriously?

So we head off on this space ship as the security team, a group of characters that don’t know one another and who were recently suspects in a major attack. Then there’s a murder, a threat from an emerging AI and an attack by a splinter group who have embedded themselves in the ships crew. A trainwreck, but a couple of things quickly become clear. The first is that both the characters and the adventure were based on a previous campaign the GM had run and the second is that only one of the characters was going to be central to the plot, the rest of us were just along for the ride.

The real kicker though? From that long list of skills I used only three or four. Total. In around 6 hours of play.

That game really changed how I looked at convention play and the extra responsibilities GMs have when running games. One of these days I might write out the mental checklist I’ve put together for convention games, the aspects that I personally think are important.

Suffice to say that was the last time I played at the Nationals. Every subsequent year I attended I did so as a GM, fully prepped and determined to run as good a game as I could.

RPGaDay 2017 7th August

7th) What was your most impactful RPG session?

Once again another difficult question to answer as while I can think of numerous impactful games many of those came from looking back after a campaign and seeing how the story arcs had come together. I could mention my first campaign of Torg which saw my bitter ex-cop descend into darkness to become the very thing that had broken him in the first place. Or I could talk about the excellent Smallville campaign by Stephen of Step into RPGs where my ordinary, boring and completely un-powered sidekick character ended up having to step up because those who should have been saving the day were too distracted with their own messy relationships (seriously, Smallville is amazing and such an underrated system). Or I might discuss my introduction to Legend of the Five Rings where my samurai went from having everything he could have dreamed of to a tragic tale worthy of the pillow books of Rokugan.

But those are campaigns and the question was session. Which goes to a game where I was GM rather than players. A Demon Hunters adventure where the players decided to metaphorically turn left instead of right. We hadn’t even started the adventure but were in what was the transition period from the previous mission. One PC was recuperating, having recently been turned into a vampire. The rest decided they wanted to get flowers for her and being a rookie GM I made an offhand comment that that section of the Warehouse (an interdimensional essentially infinite storage space) had been declared off limits for some reason or another. I’d been trying to redirect them back to the job at hand (I’d yet to come across the idea of “Yes and…”), instead they ventured off into the unknown assuming the comment was a plot hook.

We’d not even started the adventure and they’d already managed to break it. I was flummoxed. I could handle players getting creative in solving puzzles or side stepping encounters but bypassing the entire adventure? That was new and from the look on my face they knew how much they’d thrown me.

So I did the only thing that was fair, I literally screwed up my notes, admitted how much they’d evaded my prep and called a 10 minute beer break. Looking back I can’t remember the details of what I’d planned but I can tell you that the adventure we ended up with was far more creative and entertaining. It eventually led to the Chapter imploding in on itself with the vampire PC giving in to her hunger for blood and turning not one but two of the other characters after having been attacked. We ended on an epic fade out with the Chapter fighting amongst themselves in a grand library while trying to rules lawyer their way out of a Demonic contract.

It was amazing and taught me a lot of vital lessons about GMing.

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.