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 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.
Demon Hunters: Slice of Life is an anthology web series from Dead Gentlemen Productions that funded on Kickstarter last year. It explores the everyday lives of characters within the wider setting, from the eternal duo of Gabriel and Silent Jim to new faces such as Wen, the first succubus to work for the Brotherhood. Alongside each episode comes the ‘Be Vigilant…’ and ‘Ask Sally’ shorts which respectively delve into potential threats to budding hunters and Anti-Tank Sally’s patience.
The series starts with Missionary Opposition with a rolling release of episodes over the coming weeks. As of publication 5 episodes have been released with more to come and as a Kickstarter Backer who has had advanced access, I can promise that the best of the series is still to come.
As an added bonus for fans of the associated RPG Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors I have pledged to release adventure starters inspired by each of the main episodes. You can find Missionary Opposition on drivethruRPG while Lockdown, inspired by an as yet unreleased episode is currently being edited before I start on the layout. And if that wasn’t enough for you the Demon Hunting Manual A771: An Impractical Guide to Mission Planning has also just launched, providing further advice on creating missions and adventures to challenge Chapters from the heights of the Alphas all the way down to the lowly Omegas.
There’s a week to go in drivethruRPGs Christmas in July sale, the annual promotion to clear the virtual shelves before GenCon ushers in a wave of new shiny goodness so I wanted to quickly promote a selection of publishers that are included and worth looking at. All of these are personal picks based upon my own purchases and I did not receive any review or promotional copies.
Spy Master by CM Games
When it comes to spies and espionage there are few individuals more iconic than James Bond, sat the casino table with a martini in his hand. Utilising a system inspired by the equally iconic casino game of blackjack Spy Master works aims to emulate the genre with rapid fire mechanics where players must push their luck as they draw cards to build upon their characters specialities. The rules are designed to support play that sticks closely to the spy genre and avoids the trap of many games that try to build in eventualities for every gadget or weapon. Agent characters are just as deadly when wielding a pencil as they would be with a silenced Walther PPK, allowing for the action to spring forth from each and every scene.
You can find Spy Master on DrivethruRPG
The Cthulhu Hack by Just Crunch Games
Built upon the popular Black Hack OSR system the Cthulhu Hack applied the lightweight approach to the otherworldly incursions of H.P. Lovecraft to create a standalone game of investigative horror. With a focus upon simple, elegant mechanics the system is quick to learn yet provides enough depth to facilitate campaign play and the near infinity mythos of the parental material. Character creation is quick, befitting a setting where character death should be expected and campaigns may require a rotating cast of characters who interact only through the diaries and clues they may leave behind. Well worth picking up for both Lovecraft fans and those who have just begun their journey into the cosmic mythos.
You can find The Cthulhu Hack and its supplements on DrivethruRPG
RPG stock art by James Shields
JEShields should be a familiar name to anybody following my Demon Hunters or Project Cassandra posts as the majority of the artwork I have used in them has been sourced from him. Why do I keep going back to his art? First and foremost because of the consistent high quality and clear style that is available across a range of genres. Second because of the price, both stock art and direct commissions are extremely well priced. Finally because every interaction I have had with James has been positive and professional, both through his patreon and when commissioning artwork directly.
You can find his work on DrivethruRPG and on Patreon
Printable miniatures by Trash Mob Minis
Using miniatures at your game table can turn quickly become either expensive or restrictive as you either expand your collection to allow for the adventure your players seek or limit yourself to what you have at hand. Trash mob mini’s provides a way out with their themed collections of printable mini’s. For only a couple of pounds per pack you get multiple mini’s (most packs have 6) with front and back artwork plus bases. Simply print onto thick paper and cut out to build your encounter. Need a mob of goblins? Then print out multiple sheets and quickly expand your forces. With clear artwork in a fun, cartoony style Trash Mob Mini’s make a perfect addition to any fantasy RPG combat.
You can find Trash Mob Minis on DrivethruRPG
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…
The next entry in Dr Ahoudi’s mutant menagerie is… the Spider-bear!
Inspired by both the image (acquired as usual by backing the patreon of JEShields) and the classic D&D monster the bugbear the spider-bear is a literal take on the name.
Strong, fast, aggressive and able to soak a number of hits the creature is perfect as a lone threat or as the central threat amongst a swarm of smaller assailants.
Download the Spider-bear character sheet now.