Sandboxes?

I came across a bizarre article by DM David yesterday on Sandboxes with the click-baity title “Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think.” His article uses an idea of a sandbox in a way that no DMs I’ve ever played with or who have written on the subject have used the term.

David seems to be using it to describe some sort of absolute free-for-all, nothing planned, no direction to go, the DM just runs with whatever the players decide to do at that moment. It’s nuts, so of course that notion of a sandbox doesn’t work and is not what players really want.

“Sandbox” in every case I’ve seen it used has meant a gaming environment populated with multiple locations to interact with and explore, as opposed to “Here is a dungeon; you are going to explore this dungeon; here is a town; when you’re not in the dungeon, you’re at the town.” The sandbox is typically full of toys; you can play in it and you play with the toys that are there. Sometimes you get more toys, which is always cool, or maybe you find a toy that was hidden under some sand.

Just because players enjoy exploring dungeons doesn’t mean that they’re not in a sandbox game or that they don’t enjoy sandboxing!

Yet David oddly seems to imply that there is some kind of ‘pure’ Sandbox that is devoid of adventure hooks for players to choose from.

sandbox

“Herpty, derp, you put a castle to be explored in your sandbox? Looks like you’re going back towards the rails, friend!”

While there is some sound advice for open-world gaming in David’s post, it’s all derived from attacking a strawman notion of Sandbox gaming that doesn’t exist.

“I think seeding your sandbox with locations for PCs to explore may be pushing your story too hard!” said no ‘railroad-phobic’ player ever.

A sandbox may not have rails, but it has boundaries and things to do; David’s notion of a sandbox sounds more like a desert.

Anyway, ChicagoWiz has also written an interesting rebuttal to David’s piece.

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DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea went from “This is way too easy for a funnel” to “How the hell’d they expect 0-lvl characters to finish?”*

“Uh… Agatha Agartha, my chaotic alchemist wearing the chaos robe and chaos torc kneels in obeisance and hopes for the best… She uh.. was clearly drawn here to serve the chaos lord–it’s her destiny. Also, she pushes Varra, my elven falconer, into the lava.”

With 30 beastmen, a beastman shaman, a chaos avatar, and no win-state in sight, we settled for a non-standard game-over cutscene. Thing is, if we’d had a standard group of level 1 or 2 PCs, I think we could’ve wiped the floor with them.

 So, I’d say that Sailors may be a good 1st or 2nd level module, but was NOT a very good funnel…

I’d like to take a look at the module myself and see just how bad we screwed up, going from unscathed to unconditional surrender.  Ironically, just as predicted, Stinky Pete the Cheesemaker, my -5 character, was the only PC to survive by virtue surrendering to the tax collectors and not hopping on board the stupid dragon boat. As a local, they assumed he’d been captured by the rest of the party, who they’d believed were chaos cultist due to us wearing chaos robes and, in our cockiness, attacking the search party.

The tax-collectors probably weren’t in the module; I think they were there to keep from whittling away slowly and going back to town. The logic was that a) the Barron doesn’t like people messing around the castle, and b) there was some missing tax money, so we had to leave town or get blamed; the tax collectors would eventually look around the keep for the missing money (which was actually either stolen by beastmen or stolen by villagers/thieves who were turned into beastmen, or the thieves who stole it were captured by beastmen). Otherwise we were all “Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the missing new pairs of boots; your sons are dead, Hiram the Blacksmith. Good job, everyone!”

I think that the problem with a lot of funnels may be the lack of incentive for 0-level characters to risk life and limb. Best Funnel I was ever in, we started as prisoners and conscripts of a sewer militia that was a front for cultists. A quick intro, a tough fight with environmental stuff to take advantage of, and a spooky fungus-filled sewer to avoid the stuff in while escaping. One session and we had our 1st level characters.

Someone has recommended to me that it’s a good idea to intentionally kill subpar characters at the first available opportunity, in part because if they do survive, they’ll wreck your campaign experience, but that’s definitely not something I could subscribe to.

I love my crappy sub-par characters! First game, my crappy thief ended up the longest lived and genuinely scariest party member. By the time we ended that game, she’d made it to level 4, had 9 hit points and a collection of faces she’d cured and turned into masks. Plus, with the way the Thief skill tables work, they can be pretty good at doing their jobs regardless of stats. It’s a great class to dump mediocre characters who survive the Funnel into.

But when it comes to funnels, the downside of killing sub-par characters intentionally is that it reduces your economy of action.

Still, as much as I want to like DCC and still want to play more of it, there’s something about it that leaves me feeling a little let down. I like a lot of DCC’s concepts, but every time we put them into practice, we’re all “Gee, I can’t imagine why we ever stopped playing this system D:<” Clerics suck, the magic system is clunky as hell, the crit tables are dumb and don’t work… Really the concept of the Funnel is the one part that my group actually finds appealing (which is why we ultimately rebuilt WHRPG around the concept of a perpetual Funnel).

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*:Ranged characters. If we’d all picked ranged weapons and not lost a few party members to the tax collectors, we probably could’ve taken the hordes with slings and javelins. Also, given the module’s name, I would’ve expected a more nautical theme, not just the train ride to the boss-fight involving a boat.

Alignment Part 3: Some Examples!

Part 1

Part 2

From the comments the other day:

I’m baffled.
Baffled by living in a world where people can’t figure out what words like ‘good’ and ‘chaotic’ mean and act like it is some obscure mystery.

You know, this is interesting, because in the first part of my explanation, I pretty much state that a major reason that Alignment doesn’t work is because people don’t understand what “good” and “chaotic” mean. The relativist approach means that someone can be playing as a demon whose very existence is a blasphemy upon creation and the laws of nature, but because the player wants the demon to be a “nice guy” or within the confines of his demonic culture he is an upstanding citizen, the player is able to declare for Lawful or Neutral Good, and then the rest of the group wonders why Alignment doesn’t matter at their table.

People DON’T understand the Law/Chaos spectrum any more than they understand the Good/Evil spectrum. For instance, many people think of Chaotic Good as the either the guy who does some good but is inherently selfish or someone who tries to do good but breaks laws while doing so. A lot of people would give Robin Hood as an example of Chaotic Good, but they’d be wrong, and here’s why:

While Robin Hood lived in the wilds and opposed King John and the Sheriff, he was not doing so from an angle meant to upset Nature’s law and/or the will of the heavens. On the contrary, he understood the natural and divinely bestowed rights of Man and fought against a power that was usurping them. Additionally, the power he opposed (John and the Sheriff) are portrayed as being in opposition to the rightful rule of King Richard – in this sense, Robin has positioned himself as an agent of the legitimate and rightful law that is respectful of the rights of man, acting on behalf of Richard, the true authority. Though certain trickster elements are incorporated, the classic portrayal of Robin Hood throughout many iterations in the 19th and 20th century* would be Lawful Good.

So, what would be Chaotic Good? One of the most remarkable literary examples in fantasy would be Tom Bombadil. He is good and beneficent, but he is outside the realm of Nature and Nature’s law. He is unaffected by the magic of the Maiar; in fact, he is so far outside of the scope of the strugle that Middle Earth is going through, it’s acknowledged by the characters in the book that it would be irresponsible to rely on him – though he’s unaffected by the Ring’s power and evil, he’d probably forget about it!

Melkor would be Chaotic Evil, because his modus operandi was the corruption of creation; everything related to him is described in terms of perversion and marring the true and good intentions of benevolent creators. As an agent of perversion, the more he took on a fixed, absolute, corporeal form with which to rule over his Earthly domain, the weaker he became.

Sauron, as a created being within nature (one of the fallen Maiar) adheres to the laws of creation set forth by the Gods (it’s one of the reasons why he is so vulnerable), and though he wields great power and is able to use that power to corrupt the minds of his foes and cast a shadow over the land, he is still within the sphere of Law. Yes, the struggle in Middle Earth during the 3rd Age is between Lawful Good and Lawful Evil, with Lawful Neutral free people and Neutral Good elder races throwing in with LG against Lawful Evil.

Okay, let’s break away from Lord of the Rings for a minute.

I think that one of the best examples of a True Neutral character might be Garrett from the Thief games.

“But he steals things!” you say; “He’s a law-breaker!” you say; “He may save the world, but he’s probably a bad guy! He’s Chaotic Neutral at best!” you say.

All right, those things are all true, but you need to look at the bigger picture.

While Garrett is a Thief who steals things and breaks the law, he is not a wholly evil person. Assuming that Expert is the canonical way in which Garrett completes the missions, it’s clear that he has a code, part of which is to avoid killing at all costs. There is, if my memory serves, only one mission in which Garrett is allowed to kill his fellow man, and that’s because of an oversight in updating the goals for a mission that did not originally feature human opponents (the magi in the Gold version of The Lost City).

In Thief’s cosmology, there is a conflict between Law, as embodied by the Hammers, and Chaos, as embodied by the Pagans and Fae.** The Hammers aren’t the nicest dudes, in part because from a thief’s perspective, they crack down and crack down hard on criminality; while the current crop of Hammers may seem unnecessarily cruel, their order and the God they serve ultimately fall into the schema of Lawful Good. The Fae who are worshiped by the Pagans are inimical to human life (as it is currently being lived), and the Woodsy Lord is intent on pushing man back into a primeval state. His domain is the Maw of Chaos, so it’s right there in the name.

Someone pointed out in the comments on the previous post that Planes can shift in the relationship to alignment as their leaders change, and we see something of that in Thief 2 with Victoria. Constantine is the sworn foe of the Builder and stands against everything they represent; he is Chaotic Evil in Thief’s cosmology. Victoria, on the other hand, is more pragmatic; I’d place her as Chaotic Neutral – while acting as Constantine’s second, she will have his back, but on her own, her primary concern is not a victory of Evil over Good but preserving Chaos against an encroaching order of Law. Even Garrett notices that the nature of the Maw has changed subtly under her. Neutral Good characters like Lt. Mosley are aiming to find some sort of middle ground between the “Chaos” of the pagans and fae and the Law of the Mechanists.

So Garrett’s place in the “prophecies” is as a balancing agent; when the pendulum swings towards Chaos in Thief: the Dark Project, he ends up finding himself allied with Law via the Hammerites who aid him in sealing the Maw of Chaos. In Thief 2: The Metal Age, the pendulum has swung back the other way, too far in the favor of Law, so he becomes an ally of Chaos to fight against the Mechanist takeover of the city. He is not in those positions because he is a nice guy or a bad guy, but because it is his destiny to act as an agent of balance in the greater cosmic struggle around him.

 

*:Earliest incarnations of Robin Hood which do not incorporate much of the now established lore would be closer to Neutral Good or Lawful Neutral, depending on the telling; before the notion that Robin Hood was stealing money from nobles and returning it to the unjustly taxed, most folks were happy with a Robin who was stealing from nobles because fuck the nobility; with nobles as pieces of a framework of divinely ordained Law, such a Robin would be slightly more chaotic, since he was acting against the natural order of things (divinely righted stripped of their rightful treasures) – when the definition of the order which Robin was opposing changed, along with his reasons for opposing it, the character became Lawful Good.

**:Note that Nature in Thief’s cosmology is depicted as chaos/chaotic as opposed to the mechanical order believed to be set upon the universe by the Master Builder.

D&D Alignment Part 2: D&D’s Cosmology

Q: Why don’t alignment mechanics work in 5e?

A: Because alignment was a mechanic used in conjunction with a rarely used portion of the game.

Alignment in #dnd is not supposed to be a personality test but a simplified representation of how a character or creature relates to the cosmos in chart below.

Cohn_blank_planes500

A shift in D&D’s cosmology combined with the move away from a human-centric model for the adventuring party effectively broke how alignment worked.

While some people have argued that player-selfishness is part of what’s going on, you need to look at alignment not as a play-style but as a mechanic. The alignment mechanic represents an aspect of the world in which D&D is set. Trying to drop that mechanic into a different cosmology just doesn’t work without rebuilding the cosmology it represents from the ground up. It would be like trying to apply Tolkien’s concept of light and dark elf to other settings’ elves, bereft of any meaning due to the absence of the Trees of Valinor in said other setting.

Isn’t alignment just a reflection of the cosmos through a character’s behavior? To an extent, but not exactly. Alignment in D&D is not necessarily an indicator of behavior: a character can be “good” but not fall into the “GoodTM” column of a cosmology. Just look at the “virtuous pagans” in Dante’s hell.

For alignment to work mechanically as designed, it needs to be treated almost like a birth-sign. You don’t necessarily have to adhere to all of the associated tropes and traits strictly, but you need to assume, for game purposes, that there’s something greater in effect beyond your own understanding and control. You also might need a touch of Calvinism in your setting for alignments to work as designed, too.

Changing alignment should not be done lightly, because you aren’t just changing some behaviors or habits – you are revolting against cosmic forces and changing your destiny.

Alignment is generally more important at higher levels, since a bunch of low-level mooks have little effect on cosmic affairs. As a mechanic, alignment exists to say that “this person is aligned cosmically with x in a tangible way” for purposes of spells and magic items.

As one gets access to specific magics or has done things which have drawn the attention of extra planar beings, alignment matters both mechanically and for story purposes. At lower levels, detection and masking magic reveal or conceal those tangible connections to the cosmos. “Hide Alignment” isn’t going to keep someone from noticing whether you’re an obvious asshole or nice guy, but it will keep someone from seeing the tangible links you have to the greater conflict playing out across the planes. But until you’re a heavy, those tangible links will be relatively insignificant most of the time. But it’s those same links that explain why certain magic items work in certain ways for or against certain adversaries – they are attuned to the cosmic struggle in the same way everything else is; alignment is a wavelength, which also perhaps best explains the bizarre phenomenon which is alignment language.

Picking an alignment which fits your character’s personality and shaping the cosmos around those characters’ alignment choices is doing it backwards, which is why many people find alignment rules baffling. Unless you are actually using AD&D’s implied setting and cosmology, of course, there’s no mechanical reason to keep alignment. It becomes almost purely cosmetic since players and DMs use it mostly as a personality marker. It can be entirely discarded because it’s a rule that explains a character’s relationship to 1e AD&D’s batshit cosmology!

Please keep in mind, I’m not defending alignment as a mechanic, I’m trying to give context of WHY it’s not working the way people think it should.

The reason I like the 1 axis scale is that it’s a pretty simple range of “Is this character aligned with Mankind or aligned with Fae?”

D&D Alignment

Thought I would post this here for posterity; I wanted to share my thoughts on why people complain about the 2-axis alignment system in D&D doesn’t work, why it gets thrown out, or has no real impact on the game.

To those saying alignment doesn’t work in 5e: D&D’s bi-axial alignment system has NEVER worked (at least it doesn’t seem as though it’s really worked as intended), but moral relativism totally kills it. Now, I’m not even talking about real-world moral relativism, cultural rot, yadda-yadda-yadda, but the trend towards standardizing monstrous and non-human PCs.

By using two axes, chaos moved away from, in the minds of gamers, opposition to Laws of Nature to opposition to the Laws of Man.

The Law of Man can be good or evil, but the cultural/moral relativism introduced by moving the adventuring party outside of the traditional heroic fantasy framework makes it even more difficult for the alignment system to usefully reflect anything about a party.

A “Lawful” party would act on behalf of the world of man against the world of fae/demons/tangible evils, while “chaotic” parties would treat with those forces for their own benefits. A “Good” party in the two axis system would act on behalf of the commonweal, or to its benefit.

But when everyone is playing half-demons, orclings, and priests of nebulous gods of mystic ambivalence, then, yeah, alignment means jack. The cultural and moral framework of elves, half-demons, fae-cat-girls, and all of the other dumb shit you see in post TSR D&D are so alien to the traditionally western framework of morality that both the 1 and 2 axis alignment systems were designed to model, of course it’s not going to actually work!

PC Bushi noted that it might be useful for stuff like Protection from Evil, but Protection from Evil was originally in a system without the Evil alignment axis! Evil was supposed to be so self-apparent to people who were around the table that it didn’t need to be explicitly spelled out what Evil was. The big problem with alignment is that the sort of parties people run today often look like out-of-depth monster encounters old parties had to fight: “You see two orcs warriors, a half-demon thief, a cat-man with a lute, and an elf wizard. They are the lawful-good party at table 2.”

While the alignment system has never been very good, a lot of folks complain that it doesn’t work without really understanding WHY it’s not even working for what they think it’s supposed to be use for or why so many DMs just toss the whole thing out entirely. A DM doesn’t have any justification for dealing with alignment mechanics for your blood-god-worshiping cat-elf being Lawful Good within the framework of its own culture. It’s easier to just ignore the implications of a system that was initially built upon an objective approach to morality within a cosmology rather than attempt to apply that framework to alien cultures and moralities.

Related Reading https://gamingwhileconservative.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/the-angry-gm-is-a-fking-coward/

Related (TL;DR) Reading http://theangrygm.com/conflicted-and-misaligned/

Note: More on this later, as I expound upon how D&D’s in-game cosmology accounts for much of the mechanical aspect of alignment and why it “doesn’t work” at the table in many folks’ games.

The Real Problem With Story Games

The real problem with story games isn’t that the game has a story. It’s not that a system has too much crunch or too little. Some people think that the solution to a story game is more crunch because they think that the problem is that the story game just doesn’t have the robust mechanics necessary for a gritty adventure. Except it’s almost never the mechanics that leave story games hamstrung but the attempt to use a game to tell a story rather than allow a story to emerge from game-play.

Games and gaming, and especially tabletop rpgs, are about player agency. It’s an interactive medium where the player’s actions and decisions have outcomes and affect the environment, setting, and conclusion. The problem with so many story games I’ve played is that players are denied agency, or at best given the illusion of agency, in the name of ensuring that the story is told.

So many story games I’ve played in, regardless of the system (yes, I’ve been in a B/X story game with next to no player agency), have failed at the “game” portion of story gaming. Instead, what players tend to get are story nodes with false challenges that amount to “roll high enough that you will be allowed to move to the next story node”. There’s not much actually determining what story node you’re going to next, nor is there any real penalty for failing to roll high enough other than delaying the inevitable progression towards the final story node.

No matter what, eventually, the rails are spotted, the lack of agency becomes apparent, and I can’t help but lose all interest in what’s happening.

In a recent game, there was a series of the aforementioned challenges. They were just window-dressing, though: cool things to ooh and aah at that had no real bearing on the outcome of the scenario. Yes, we might scrape a knee from failing a saving throw or two, but even failing every last challenge miserably would only ever result in insignificant damage to characters in such a way as to only delay, somewhat, the inevitable victorious conclusion of the story.

Imagine playing a racing video game: imagine blasting through an obstacle course at over 100 mph, narrowly avoiding all sorts of perils. You think you’re doing great, but then you slip – you run into a wall. Except you don’t. Your car bounces off and continues on, unaffected by your blunder. You begin to ask yourself, was I really doing well before? You begin to try to ram your car into walls, barrels, pylons, tank-traps, you name it, but so long as you’re holding the “go” button down, you keep on going, and the computer keeps the other racers just slow enough that none of them are able to overtake you despite your intentional mistakes. I can’t fathom anyone finding that to be a rewarding experience!

Now, I’ve also been in story games where the party did “lose”, but there, one had an incredibly drawn-out and ponderous route to reach the one point of the game where player action did matter, and it would all come down to one big fight, more or less regardless of how the players got there. And frankly, that’s not all that fun for me either.

Let players actually do things. Let them mess up and lose. Let them sequence break. Don’t make a game a series of rolls to see if you can tell your players the next detail you want to tell them. And if there’s an island that is obviously the important place everyone is supposed to go to and 5 minutes in a player says “Let’s find a canoe and go out to the island”, there’s no point in dithering around for two hours waiting for the “story” to reveal that you’re supposed to get a canoe and take it out to the island!

High level design concept for a Fangbone! tabletop game

This is really just a broadside, where I’d start if I were to make a Fangbone! tabletop game. Needless to say, there’s no nitty-gritty, yet, because I just came up with this in the shower the other day – plus, since it’s a branded IP that I’m not affiliated with in any way nor being paid to design for, fleshing this out into something playable is extremely low on my list of priorities. Still, I thought I’d share.

Fangbone!_production_art

2-4 players

Character-deck based, similar to Red Dragon Inn.

Players:

  1. Drool
  2. Fangbone
  3. Bill
  4. CID

Note that for 2 players, player 2 controls both Fangbone and Bill characters/decks.

Game starts with the Fangbone player in possession of the Toe of Drool.

Drool player plays monsters, cards to enhance monsters, and cards that directly affect human players.

Drool player’s objective is to a) gain the Toe, b) open portal to Skullbania and get the Toe through. A monster gaining the Toe leads to a “sudden death” of X rounds before the Toe is lost and Drool player wins.

Fangbone/Bill player(s) goal is to defeat X number of Drool’s monsters while keeping the Toe between the two characters/players. Fangbone/Bill players always win and lose as a team (b/c battlebros). Certain cards may enable trading the Toe between characters – e.g., a monster seizes Toe from Fangbone, Fangbone player has a card allowing him to pass the Toe to another character to keep Drool player from capturing it.

CID player’s goal is to be in possession of the Toe when Drool’s final monster is defeated in the round. CID player may actively help or hinder Fangbone/Bill player(s) throughout the course of the game, but will lose if Drool possesses the Toe and opens the portal.

Drool would have two decks; one would consist of monsters and minions with different strengths and abilities-a round would begin with Drool playing a monster/minion with which he will attempt to seize the Toe. The other deck would consist of spells and actions that would allow the monster to take the Toe, evade attacks, weaken other player’s characters. Monster would have its own stats and fixed set of actions it could take in addition to those played by Drool.

Human players would have cards similar to the monster, but actions would be limited to playable cards. Characters have a limited amount of “health” each round. If the character becomes KOed, they lose action(s) and the player/character/monster that KOed them takes possession of the Toe.

Fangbone’s deck would consist largely of offensive actions, featuring weapons, animals, and Skullbanian characters.

Bill’s deck would consist largely of defensive actions, featuring earth stuff, classmates, etc. Bill’s damaging actions would make up a smaller portion of his deck, which instead would provide assists, and combos to Fangbone and recover/prevent loss of the Toe. Slightly more health recovery cards.

Cid’s deck would consist of thiefy “Shadowstepper” tricks, largely to prevent damage, prevent loss of the Toe, and to take control of the Toe.

Note that for balance, a game featuring Cid or any other additional characters, Drool player may need additional cards/actions/monsters.

If I were somehow tasked with actual creation of a licensed Fangbone game, I’d almost certainly opt to take these design notes and approach experienced card game designers (Red Dragon Inn or Epic Spell Wars teams) with additional setting info, characters, monsters, cards, and go from there rather than try to build it myself from the ground up. But hey, the 1st stage thinky work is already done!