Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sandboxes And The Roguish Work Ethic

Gamma sloths have a low AC and are immune to radiation, so I announced their fur must be shiny and metallic. Joe latched onto this fact and decided that his lich's biker jacket needed a fur lining. Have I mentioned that my players are rad to the max?
-Jeff Rients

Heroes have morals...villains have work ethic.
-Reminder written on whiteboard in office of the development team for City of Villains

Ok, so picture this:

A GM somewhere writes out the city of Metropolis and the city of Gotham and the rest of the world of DC Comics in excruciating detail. The train lines, the shopfronts, which hot dog store owners are secretly shark-men, every inch of it. It's all ready to go.

Now here comes a PC playing Superman, into this sandbox.

"So what do you want to do today, Supes?"

"Uh, I guess I'll go on patrol."

Off he flies.

"Do I see any crime?"

"Umm, nope, not much, Metropolis is a fully-functioning independent world going about its business."

"Ok, I keep going. Now do I see any crime?"

"Ok, some jamoke is robbing a bank."

"Well then I stop him!"

Now, what I want to say here is that this isn't really a sandbox. Why? Because Superman doesn't have any strategic choices here, really. He could decide to patrol (say) the docks instead of (say) the south side of town, but that's not a meaningful choice--i.e. it's like arbitrarily deciding "left or right"?

If nothing much is obviously going on, he keeps looking. If there's a crime, no matter how small, he has to stop it, because he's an Upright Hero. If there's a bigger crime, he has to stop that one first, because he's an Upright Hero.

While he has many interesting strategic and tactical choices about how to stop a crime, he doesn't have choices about which adventure to go on. ("Adventure" in the traditional sense--on his day off he could choose to stay home and read or curl up with Lois by the fire, but you get the point.)

Now let's say we have this same sandbox but the player is playing Lex Luthor.

"What'll we do this morning Lex?"

"Hmm...I say we send out some drones and look for weak spots in the worldwide nuclear security apparatus."

"Do you have drones?"

"I'll roll on my Drone-Making. Oh, also, I want to blackmail the president, did I already say that? And then, hmm, I notice on this geological map that a mound of Fuckeverythingupium is just lying there underneath a mountain in Madagascar, I'll want some of that, and..."

In other words, whereas a villain confronted with a sandbox world will immediately start generating ideas, Upright Heroes (typical heroes) need a plot. Without the bank robbery, Superman would just endlessly circle Metropolis, then go to work at the Daily Planet. Without the whole problem with the Ring, Frodo would just sit and hang out in the Shire forever being wholesome and loyal and sipping tea. Without fires, firemen just hang out in their firehouse, Ever Vigilant, playing cards.

Now I don't actually want to talk about playing villains, I want to talk about playing Roguish Heroes. Grey Mouser, Conan, Cugel, Han Solo, and the stereotypically larcenous Old School D&D PC.

Now a Roguish Hero is not the same as a villain, and I am not saying everybody should play Lex Luthor but, functionally, pulpy roguish protagonists and villains have an important thing in common: they want something from the world. Gold, power, the admiration of attractive members of the opposite sex--something. The Upright Hero doesn't really want anything--or at least not anything that would bring him/her into violent conflict with the world as-is. The Upright Hero is not usually proactive, s/he waits until s/he sees injustice (even if it was an injustice that was there all along).

I bring this up because two big ideas associated with the Old School renaissance are:

-Sandboxes instead of Pre-Written Plots, and...
-Roguish, Pulpy Heroes rather than Epic Fantasy (Supermanish) Upright Heroes.

And my idea here is: sandboxes and roguish protagonists don't just go together by coincidence, they go together because they work together extremely well.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I set my (thoroughly amoral) PCs loose on the sandbox city of Vornheim and realized that I had to do absolutely zero work to make a day's play out of it. The girls were in the city, they wanted some money and some answers, they basically wrote the adventure themselves. I sat back and did voices.

There's a reason why the stereotype of Old School D&D is a bunch of amoral bastards running around killing things and taking their stuff--and it's not just because of the x.p. system. It's because people who just want treasure don't need to be given a reason to go into a cave or a lair or an abandoned city or the HQ of the local Wizard's Guild and they can pick freely which one they want to do first, since the fact that the lair contains a despotic vampire that plagues the countryside and the cave just has a dumb animal with big teeth in it doesn't automatically impose a moral imperative on Roguish PCs to deal with the vampire first.

Likewise, there's a reason that, as pre-plotted adventures became more popular in the mid-80s, D&D tended, more and more, to assume the PCs were Upright Epic Heroes.

A hook isn't automatically a hook for a bunch of lovable rakes:

"A cleric has been found dead in the town square."

"Well why should we care?"

"The church is offering a reward of 600 gold pieces to find the killer."

"Um, couldn't we just sack the church and make more than that? I mean, who was this cleric anyway? Maybe he deserved it..."

When you're a thief, the world is your sandbox. When you're an Epic Hero, it's a big fire house you sit around in waiting for a fire.

Many additions, axioms and qualifications to point out here:

-Obviously just because you got into trouble due to greed, venality, or someother roguish or rakish motive, doesn't mean you can't then become, in one way or another, heroic. Ask Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser--or Conan. Point is, Rogues can make their own plots in a way Upright Heroes can't.

-Gary noticed some of the contradictions here, which may be one of the reasons he proposes a Sandcastlebox--that is, in the AD&D DMG, there's the idea that in order to build a stronghold you have to clear out all the monsters in a (something)-mile radius. This makes the PCs sorta Upright Heroic (they're killing monsters that might prey upon the townsfolk) but makes them proactive and gives them choices (which monster-den to explore first?). It's maybe worth noting that I can't immediately think of any literary antecedents to this kind of large-scale-teratocide-as-an-end-in-itself behavior. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

-There are, of course, any number of other reasons to go around adventuring, I'm just talking here about the two main genre-defining ones.

-There are also lots of other reasons that mid-to-late-era D&D became more about heroic fantasy than pulp catch-as-catch-can, but this is clearly one of them.

-The entire formulation above assumes that the world is, more-or-less, "good" or at least innocent. Or at least the non-hidden parts of it are. If the entire world is corrupted by some single terrible force, then the PCs might be revolutionaries, and thus wake up every morning free to hatch this or that scheme to weaken the vast empire. Morally, these revolutionaries would be like classic Upright Heroes (they're idealistically motivated), but functionally, they'd be like pulpy Rogues (opportunistic, free to choose their targets, free to scheme). This is one possible way you could run something like, say "Vault of the Drow". A sort of Anti-Sandbox.

-Then there's the Quicksandbox. The world isn't dominated by a single evil, it just completely sucks. This is the basic post-apocalyptic set-up. (It also could just be any old world if you're desperately poor.) Basically--anything any PC tries to do (find water, ammunition, eat pie) is so hard and beset with so many mutants or gangsters or cave bears that heroic effort is required just to do anything. In this case, it doesn't matter if the PCs are Upright Heroes or Roguish because either way they have to act Roguish (i.e. plot, scheme, choose their battles) because otherwise they'll just die immediately. Survival is the plot hook. The only trick in making this kind of thing a true sandbox would be making sure the GM gives the PCs enough information about what's around them that they have different options about where to look for various commodities. Supermarket? Army barracks? Spooky old house?

-A mix of the above two ideas would be a world that completely sucks AND is dominated by a single evil but this evil is not something the PCs could ever dream of fighting on their own (absent some Plot helping them)--like the Warhammer 40k world. In this case, Upright Heroism is a weirder motivation because the Upright Hero is pretty much constantly aware that no matter how hard s/he tries the Emperor is still the Emperor and the Upright Hero will have to choose at what point moral action is beyond his or her abilities. The Upright Hero could become a proactive schemer by selectively deciding to get all outraged and proactive about certain given injustices (and not others) with no plot help. It'd be a somewhat strange campaign, but it'd also be a lot like real life.

-There are examples of proactive, scheming Upright Heroes in comics and elsewhere--an obvious example being The Authority. However, it's worth noting that, if the world is a more-or-less fully functioning, not-obviously-always-evil one, this stance is inherently political. Which makes them sort of like the revolutionary anti-sandbox type hero and/or involves them in all sorts of moral ambiguities which the campaign may or may not want to be about.


So I wrote this post about how roguish characters and sandbox-style play go together very well.

Lots of people liked it.

However, lots of other people seem to have misunderstood it.

So I'm explaining it all over again:

Let's start by defining some terms. This is not what these things mean all the time everywhere, just what I assume they mean when I'm talking about them on this blog, ok?


An imaginary location (dungeon, city, country, continent, world, universe, etc.). The location may have unusual adventure seeds or plot triggers embedded in it (the bank teller is an alien!), but it may not.


An episode involving conflict (often violent) between the PCs and some other entity that keeps the DM and players entertained and for at least one session.

(And yes, I know how narrow it is to insist on conflict as a necessary component of adventure, but I'm just talking about stuff that happens in RPGs I want to play.)

Ok, so, example: I have made a super-simplified sandbox. There's a map of it up there.

We must imagine that this represents roughly the sum total of knowledge the PCs have about where stuff is in the world, and that all these places (church, etc.) run more-or-less the way you'd assume such an institution would run in the real world.

(I know that's silly, but this is a simplified example.)

Also, assume there is a list of NPCs (some known to the PCs, some not) that the GM has described in enough detail that s/he knows how they'd react to most situations.

Now, looking at this map, and desiring only money and/or power, a roguish PC could devise any number of schemes:

-Steal a car from the used car lot, use it to aid in the getaway from a bank robbbery, ditch the car by the church.

-Bribe an orphan into aiding him in the commission of a crime since nobody would suspect an orphan.

-Steal a car, pile lots of orphans into it, ransom them off.


(Obviously if my sandbox was more complicated and the PCs knew that complicated new info they could generate more and better schemes.)

Now, the thing about all these schemes is: if the PCs try to enact these schemes during a game, and thus turn them into adventures, the adventure writes itself.

The players know more or less what kinds of things they can expect to happen if they try to steal a car, and can plan accordingly.

I, as a GM know how my cops, security guards, etc. (either because I have them pre-written as NPCs or because I run them as typical examples of their profession) would react to the movements of these roguish PCs if they saw them, and can simply have them react accordingly.

As the GM, I can choose to add complexity to the situation during the game, but I don't have to if I don't want to.

The point is: because I have a sandbox and a group of rogues, I already have the minimum amount of stuff necessary to play the game for several hours. I don't to design a conflict, the PCs have done it themselves.

Now, looking at this same map, a player who is playing Superman likewise has many options:

He could go to the orphanage and try to cure a disease some sick orphan had.

He could try to free Mon-El from the Phantom Zone (in the privacy of his own home, I suppose).

He could go to the used car lot and ask if there was any trouble over there.

He could go to the church and see if there was any trouble over there.

He could try to help out with the church's canned food drive.

He could try to make sure the bank's security situation is up to snuff.


But here's the difference:

While any of these things may result in a conflict (and thus an adventure), the Superman PC--unlike the rouguish PC--has no idea of what the shape of that conflict will be.

(And neither does the GM--unless s/he's already planned for the possible eventuality that the PC might do that thing. "Oh, I have a 'helping with the canned food drive' villain all ready.")

Superman does not choose sketch out a violent conflict. The rogue does. Superman chooses from a set of options whose consequences (conflict-wise) are mostly unknown.

Now, obviously if the Superman PC decides to go to the church, than the player playing Superman at least can reasonably expect to have a conflict somehow involving a church, and if Superman goes to Planet Sigma 12 then the player can reasonably expect to have a conflict in outer space, but beyond such broad strokes, s/he does not choose.

For Superman, choosing between the orphanage and the bank may be choosing between fighting the Joker and fighting Darkseid, but the player doesn't have any way to know that. So Superman is not designing a conflict by choosing a course of action, he's just blindly walking into option A instead of option B.


In the case of the rogue, the PC (some bank robber), the player of the PC (a real person), and the GM all have (in a way) the same goal: to initiate conflict. In the case of Superman, the PC (Superman) and the player (Doug or Jimmy or whatever real person is playing the game) have different goals. The player, if s/he's playing more-or-less in character, has to "trick" his/her PC into entering conflict, or else simply have him/her vigilantly wait for whatever conflict the GM wants to provide.


In other words:

If a GM is dealing with rogues in a sandbox, s/he can "front-load" a very large part of the creative effort by putting it into describing the location yet still offer the players genuine choice. "Here, I made a place full of goodies and resources to help you get those goodies and obstacles of various shapes and sizes to getting those goodies, pick your poison."

(Not that the GM has to tell the PCs every pre-written detail of the sandbox. But the idea is the GM doesn't need to throw in unknown twists and details if s/he doesn't want to. The rogues are already choosing a course of action that will lead to chaos, change, and adventure. Even the simplest bank robbery with stereotypical cops is going to result in enough dice rolling that unexpected stuff will be generated by the mere playing of the game.)

On the other hand, if the GM is dealing with Superman in a sandbox , the GM cannot just "front-load" the creative effort by putting it into describing the location (the sandbox) and its people and still offer the player as much choice. This is because the GM must also pre-plan or improvise wholly unexpected conflicts that will occur if Superman chooses to interacts with these locations.

(Note: This applies to my example. None of what I'm writing here is true if Superman is on Apokolips or in Hitler's Germany or something--for a discussion of those kinds of situations, see above.)

Or to put it another way: Superman doesn't start an adventure by designing a conflict for himself. The rogues, on the other hand, know that just doing their job will generate conflict, so they're designing a conflict as soon as they decide to go to work.


A guy named Fat Alibert pretty much said it all this way in the comments section of the original post:

Having a character move to a location to initiate a DM prepared encounter, select a plot hook from a plot hook dispenser, or choose to perform a task that doesn't bring him into conflict ISN'T the same as a character who initiates his own choice of conflict based on what he knows of the sandbox and his own motivations that run counter to the status-quo.


Here are some things I'm NOT saying:

-I'm not saying sandboxes are the only way to go.

-I'm not saying rogues are the only way to run a sandbox, merely that they make it easier.

-I'm not saying that the DM shouldn't ever throw in plot things or improvise or add in new, creative ideas once the PCs have started playing in the sandbox, merely that this is made optional rather than mandatory by the rogue + sandbox format.

-I'm not saying there's no good reason to play Superman-type heroes.

-I'm not saying that you can't give rogues plots. Merely that they don't necessarily need them just to play the game.

-I'm not saying that you couldn't create a sort of world that was unusually inimical to Superman (like a fascist state or a post-apocalyptic world) and thus transform Superman's role completely and make him as pro-active, schemey, and conflict-shaping as any rogue (see above for a taxonomy of ways to do that).


JDJarvis said...

If I was Superman I'd fly to North Korea and shave Kin Jong Il's cranium with my heat-vision.

Ursca said...

Great post! Some of the best games I've had have been in a sandbox Warhammer campaign playing a charlatan. ('Yes sir, there's a toll here, to fund the new bridge. You just need one of these cockades, only 6 schillings. Word to the wise though - Keep it to yourself. If the merchants get word of this, they'll take the long way round, and the quicker we get the money for the bridge, the sooner we finish with the toll. Good man.')

Funny really. The worse your players are, the easier it is to weave a story around their mishaps.

Blair said...

I far more enjoy scheming about how to fake a "Travelling Whore Circus" to draw out the bandits we're hunting (for the reward and their loot of course) than being the heroic bandit hunting crusader.

I absolutely love scheming!

Sniderman said...

Great post as always. Plus I've added "Fuckeverythingupium" to my personal lexicon. ;)

nextautumn said...

This is a goddam genius. This post expresses a lot of truth and puts into words a lot of what others fumble to get at. It reminds me so much of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station:"They were immediately and absolutely recognizable as adventurers; rogues who wandered the Ragamoll and the Cymek and Fellig and probably the whole of Bas-Lag. They were hardy and dangerous, lawless, stripped of allegiance or morality, living off their wits, stealing and killing, hiring themselves out to whomever and whatever came. They were inspired by dubious virtues . . . Most were nothing but tomb raiders. They were scum who died violent deaths, hanging on to a certain cachet among the impressionable through their undeniable bravery and their occasionally impressive exploits."

JoeGKushner said...

But... it really depends on what your assumptions are in certain genres. For example, in most Super Hero genres, it's... well, boring to do the hum drum stuff. In that horrid Superman carton where he fights Doomsday, there was at least one scene of Superman using his awesome technology to try and cure various diseases. It's part of the genre. You don't see the Fantastic Four changing the face of the world with their radical techniology because it would change the face of the modern setting and remove the reader from it. Note that this isn't necessarily a bad thing as some of my favorite 'super hero' comics like Planet Hulk, have done just this, but to handwave away the whole thing with base assumptions that it's similiar for all works... well, let's see a similiar break down on the Boys. They are gathering intelligence and doing the leg work often. It's a far different type of super hero comic though.

Zak S said...

I understand your point, but the fact is, even the FF (explorers) need a "DM" to throw villains in their way. And Superman curing diseases is NOT a complete adventure.

No matter what these upright heroes do, they do not get into violent conflict (the fun stuff) without some imposed plot in their way.

Geek Ken said...

Fantastic post.

Jumping in here from a 4E perspective, under the current theme for D&D I think for the morally ambiguous (or 'unaligned') group, a lot of WotC material is cumbersome for a DM to implement. You've got this points of light feel to the game, which is all fine and dandy, the players are these heroes in a dark and dangerous world. No one else is going to save the village from the goblins. It's up to the PCs. It works, except when you've got a group that is driven more by the emptiness of their coin purse, rather than a drive to do good deeds.

Now I love the concept WotC has for adventure hooks. You give the DM a few ideas to draw the player's into wanting to explore that dungeon. But typically with a savvy group of RPers that are a little self-motivated with their ethics, many of these adventure hooks fall flat. I think that's the conundrum for a lot of published 4E material.

D&D is all about adventure (at a basic premise, killing monsters and looting treasure). The current version does that very well. But at the same time it tries to tag on ideas and hooks to push players into action by tugging on their sense of doing good deeds. Get a string of adventures together where the players continually 'have to do the right thing' and I think you risk having a group feel like they're being led around by the nose, slipping onto the storyline rail. So I think for some players under this points of light setting, they are constantly going to be at odds with the DM's view of the world. It's too bad WotC jumped on this and shied away from a world more like Conan or Kull.

I gotta also agree with a comment above, it's a lot easier preparing for a group with questionable ethics, rather than a bunch of do-gooders.

Chris said...

@Geek Ken: WotC should probably have gone with a Pendragon Ideals/L5R style Glory mechanic (you get minor mechanical perks for being an exemplar of heroic behaviour) if they wanted to incentivise Big Damn Heroism as an end in itself. The traditional D&D "kill-loot-power-repeat" cycle does not really have the Paladinic behaviour as a natural emergent outcome.

@Zak: Excellent post. This is another one for my "Wisdom of the Blognards" folder.

Trey said...

@Zak: Good post. I had been thinking about the nature of adventurers recently, but hadn't thought of the agnle of how sandboxes both support and are supported by it.

@nextautum: Great minds thinkg alike. I just wrote a blog entry on a similar topic starting with that same Mieville quote:

mordicai said...

The superior Superman player says "I go to my Fortress of Solitude to continue work on my Phantom Zone projector to contact Mon-El; did I mention I want to cure his lead weakness?"

Etc. I don't think reactive players are a problem with heroism (not that I demand heroic players...) but rather just a Problem.

Zak S said...


I disagree.


Like I said above to Joe, curing a disease is not typically an adventure. It does not bring him into violent conflict with anyone. The DM MUST invent a foe preventing Superman from curing the disease (a plot) in order to make this an adventure.

There are ways to weasel out of that (i.e. Supes shrinks himself down to the size of a lead atom and beats up all the lead) but, basically, I stand by my contention: Superman has not got anything INTERESTING to do in a sandbox until he has an active foe messing around in it.

kelvingreen said...

As I recall, that Mieville quote is a direct nod to his old D&D days, so is definitely appropriate.

SC78 said...

The Vault of the Drow anti sandbox worked great the first time I played through that mod. I'm not sure if the scale of the area was miscalculated but it turned into many sessions of guerrilla warfare, freeing and arming slaves to use as canon fodder while we stormed the fane of Lolth. Good times indeed.
Characters with their own agenda are always easier to just let them do all the work and as you said, just do the voices.

stirgessuck said...

I think this is basically about status quo. Characters who are invested in maintaining the status quo are going to have less to do than ones who want to change it.

Here's a scenario:

The duke of the region is a stern but fair and wise man; the uncle of the ex-duke who died a few years back.

Hearing of your exploits, a cleric approaches your group. "Thank the gods you are here! I run the orphanage in the village and I've been harbouring a terrible secret. This young boy of twelve is the ex-duke's bastard son! By our laws of succession, the duchy rightfully belongs to him! But the current duke would surely hang me for such treason. Will you help this boy regain his birthright?"

I think a Morally Upright party could go either way on this one. Everyone involved could even be Lawful Good, and it's still likely to end in blood and tears.

Zak S said...

Re: status quo.

Yes, definitely.

Regarding your example, though--that's still a hook. My point is Rogues don't need hooks.

Barking Alien said...

Hmmm...great post but the nature you are initially attributing to Superman and his universe may be a matter of perspective. Its also up to the GM to have the shovels and pails laid out in the sandbox for the PCs to play with. Personally, I always hide a few toys so you need to dig into the sand.

For example, if PC Superman wants to patrol, I'm ready with an Intergang plot I've been working on. If he had headed over to Coast City to check on his good friend Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, he'll find that Hal could use his help with a cosmic powered opponent. Maybe Clark decided to pay a visit to Bruce and is now involved in solving a murder mystery with clues tying the culprit to both Luthor and Two-Face.

I tend to agree with Mordicai. While "curing a disease is not typically an adventure", I prefer atypical adventures. It certainly could be an adventure if the cure if defended by monsters or exists in an ancient ruin.

It happens all the time in my Star Trek games. At the start of an 'adventure' I'll ask everyone where they are on the ship and what they are doing. The ship's engineer might say he's in the engine room trying to adapt that experiment warp system they discovered three sessions ago to the ship's current drive. The science officer and doctor are working an a modification for the helmsman's cybernetic arm. The captain's in his ready room reading a book on Vulcan poetry he borrowed from the Navigator. The adventure might begin with them getting hailed by Starfleet Command or...

The experiment drive sends the ship into an alternate dimension!

Work on the cyborg arm reveals a secret compartment with a coded message disk!

One of the Vulcan poems mentions the name of a mythical creature from ancient Vulcan legend that has the same name as the creature the PC ship encountered in their first mission!

All this comes about or can come about because of the players initiative and saying something other than, "I'm at my post on the bridge", "I'm monitoring" or "I'm asleep in my quarters."

In D&D, Traveller and Post-Apocalypse games I rarely set up pre-written plots. In Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes and Giant Robots I set up pre-written plots that are loose enough that player input and decisions can vastly change what happens.

Zak S said...

No., That's not true.

"The experiment drive sends the ship into an alternate dimension!"

"Work on the cyborg arm reveals a secret compartment with a coded message disk!"

These are not things that the PCs chose OR that were already immanent in the world. These were things you the DM had to make up in order to respond to PC choice.

Just because you have an adventure ready for if Supes goes right and an adventure for if he;s goes left does NOT make left v. right a meaningful strategic choice for him. He has no idea what the risk-benefit or tactical situation of either direction is.

He;s not choosing an adventure, he;s choosing an arbitrary direction and then bumping into whatever adventure the DM puts there.

Even with the "finding the cure" plot, whatever things Supes needs to make that cure is NOT his choice. The DM ends up making up to throw in his way.

With a Rogue: world+ intention= violent conflict.

With Superman, it's world+intention+DM MAKING SOMETHING UP TO ENSURE THAT THE THING SUPERMAN WANTS TO DO ISN'T TOO EASY= violent conflict.

Players can "give input" with Upright Heroes, but with a villainous or rogue character, they actually KNOW what kind of trouble they're gettin into before they get into it. And choose to do so.

Stuart said...

Superman beating up bad guys and getting good press is functionally the same as killing monsters and taking their stuff.

A reactive Superman player dithers around Metropolis waiting for something to happen. A proactive Superman player will check out (as mentioned above) Coast City... nothing?... Gotham... nothing? (seriously?)... okay get the boys and lets see what's shaking on Apokolips.

This is essentially the same thing as moving from hex to hex. The player is exploring the campaign world looking for things of interest.

You're right that a good character needs a not-so-good world to be proactive in... but whether it's DC Comics or D&D, there's monsters around that need their asses handed to them. :)

Barking Alien said...

I see what you're saying. What about this...

In my original D&D campaign universe (which is far more like a superhero game than a traditional fantasy one) one of the things the members of the world's foremost 'good guy order' have gotten used to is something called the 'Quest Board' or less formally 'The Postings'.

Quest/Adventure and/or Mission descriptions are posted up on a large board with places beneath to sign your name. PCs sign up for the mission they are interested in going on.

In some cases, players may have a less often used (alternate) PC in addition to their main one who is better suited for some quests then others (always wanted to use that Half-Human/Half-Aquatic Elf Rogue? Here's your chance if you want to sign up for the adventure to find the sunken Pirate Ship). The players will discuss which adventures seem most interesting and then 'sign up' for that one. I then run that adventure.

Fat Alibert said...

I back Zak's view on this one.

Having a character move to a location to intiate a DM prepared encounter, select a plot hook from a plot hook dispenser, or choose to perform a task that doesn't bring him into conflict ISN'T the same as a character who initiates his own choice of conflict based on what he knows of the sandbox and his own motivations that run counter to the status-quo.

JoeGKushner said...

If you want to see a reactive Superman, get Red Sun. It showcases Superman raised in Russia and essentially taking over the world, using mind control, and all sorts of other things. But it's an elseworlds tales because it shakes up the status quo. This is what I'm trying to get across. Comparing comics should really be taken to comparing them to say, television. It's rare that the characters are doing a lot save having things happen to them and being 'interesting'. In any scenario where the status quo needs to be the same session to session, that's going to be the standard no?

ancientvaults said...

As mentioned above, the Warhammer Fantasy world is also great for this and I borrow some of the angles for my oldschool games.

The Warhammer world is doomed. Chaos gnaws at the very fabric of reality, despots enjoy figuring out new and crueler ways of dealing with their populace and the undead can either manipulate or hammer anything in their path.

So why not get involved in some dirty dealing to enjoy what few pleasures there are to be had? We always have scams going on in the Warhammer world, the problem/exciting bit is the point where the scams get too big to control and it gets the attention of Witch Hunters or Aspiring Chaos Champions or Vampire Nobles, etc.

laowai said...

This is a brilliant post, Zak. Alfred Hitchcock once said "The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture." The villains/rogues are the ones that GET THINGS MOVING.

mikemonaco said...

Excellent post, and great discussion.

Zzarchov said...

I too must back Zak 100% on this, making the game rules support proactive play for all characters (not leaving poor supes sitting around waiting for the dm to drive the plot truck up and start dumping) is one of my prime rules design goals.

It isn't an easy task, and for a character like supes who starts with it all, it wouldn't work.

Someone like a (young) batman it could though. He has to find a ninja trainer, find an engineer to build his batmobile, do some financial wheelings and dealings to pay for it all, go find some people to act as spies and moles.

Some games it works easier than others.

Andreas Davour said...

A very good post. It also ties into some of my late musings. Food for thought. Thanks!

DestroyYouAlot said...

I'm gonna add here that I'm running a city-and-megadungeon campaign with an all-evil party - and damned if it doesn't write itself. Any given night I've got players going on thief and/or assassin missions (I wrote a table), wandering the streets looking for trouble (got a book with GREAT tables), or checking in with their army of prostitutes (here I confess I have no table). And they have WAY more roleplaying options in the dungeon. (These guys can just HIRE the monsters if they feel like it.)


Andrew said...

So, so true on so many levels. It's basically the difference between reactive and proactive. Most superheroes are reactive. Most D&D games are reactive, particularly pre-written modules and tournament-style adventures.

I met and befriended a Storyteller for oWoD games a few years back who specializes in rogue-sandbox game setups. He creates interesting NPCs and locations with no set goal for the players, and expects the players to determine the course of the adventures. Fortunately I take to this kind of game rather easily. The key is to make sure the players understand this. Unfortunately, it is harder to do this with D&D (any edition) because the nature of the genre, as the author points out, is reactive style rather than pro-active. It is possible, but it requires changing the way you think about the game.

Re: one of the comments above, I still fondly recall one game session where the players went totally off the tracks...three out of five of them got arrested that session...all on different charges...we never got to anything I had planned that day, and the third arrest left me in hysterical laughter for about 5 minutes, forcing a break. I still fondly recall that as one of my favorite game sessions in college, and as a DM in general!

tesseractive said...

This is a really great article, and one of the most thought-provoking things I've seen about campaign design. I'm currently working on a setting for players who will tend to play upright heroes, so this right away suggests that if I want to give them maximum latitude, I should give them a crapsack world (to borrow a term from TV Tropes), where they will encounter conflict at every turn, and they can then decide which problems they want to involve themselves with and in what order. That helps frame the setting design much better, actually.

piles said...

Nice insight Zak. My first reaction was 'this cannot be', but after some thought I am becoming convinced that you are after something essential here.
Anyhow, it made me wonder how Superman could act pro-actively in a sandbox campaign. The first thing that came to mind was that Superman could help the poor/weak/innocent but that doesn't necessarily lead to conflict and is therefore not a valid option for this discussion. The thought that immediately followed was that Superman could go to Luthor's house just to check it out. This would be pro-actively acting, but whether conflict arises or not, is up to the DM; you may have guards around the house who may act in a similar way as the cops when robbing a bank in case of the rogue-sandbox. But if Luthor is up to something, then this would be the typical DM-needs-to-prepare-for-this type of adventure. So, I agree, there seems indeed to be a difference between running sandbox campaign with a hero party and with a rogue party.
On a tangent, I really love when players (no matter on which side of the screen I sit) bring in stuff in the form of speculations. This might be accidentally ('This is the third monster with only cp and gp in its treasure and no sp; what is going on?', when treasure was rolled randomly), or a deliberate try to steer the world ('The shop keeper's face is remarkably similar to that of the recently slain leader of the Scorpion Cult'). Although, this is not an example of 'the adventure writes itself', the players are linking locations/events/NPCs, and, by DM's fiat, may help to develop plots and thus adventures.
PS. do comments get read when written 50+ months after posting?

Zak S said...


Grey said...

Excellent post

(vampire games are a great example of this)

generalizing it to:

naturally occurring conflict is proportional to the gap between the status quo and the type of players

which generates lots of food for thought.