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.

Review: Frayed Knights, Skull of S’makh-Daon

This review is long overdue. Of course part of it is just that life and business got in the way, but originally one of the biggest stumbling blocks was I was at a loss for what to say about something I enjoyed so much but had so many complex thoughts on. And for the time it’s taken me to get around to actually writing this, I apologize, since the time it’s taken has not actually made it proportionally better.

A few months back, Cirsova contributor Jay Barnson sent me a copy of his FPRGP Frayed Knights: Skull of S’makh-Daon. While I was playing it, I was absolutely addicted and could not stop until I finished it.

On the surface, Frayed Knights is an exploration-focused first person RPG with a fair share of hack-and-slash, but there’s a great deal of nuance to it that really scratches a lot of itches that someone who has played a lot of CRPGs and maybe burned out on them because of that “seen it all before” feeling will end up still getting a kick out of it and find it highly engaging.

First of all, the writing is great; which should come as no surprise, as Barnson’s a great writer. But the party’s dialogue is consistently witty and entertaining, giving the characters all a unique feel and personality and giving life to a world which is less a spoof than a humorous homage to old-school dungeons and dragons. While not so self-aware as KoDT, fans of that franchise would certainly enjoy the tropes played with. Plus, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that a fan of old D&D would enjoy, not the least of which being that it is set in an expy of the Caves of Chaos.

Something you can’t say about very many CRPGs is that combat was always a dynamic and engaging challenge. Except in areas you may have backtracked to for whatever reason, there was almost never any time where you could just hold down the attack button and expect combat to go your way. While you might settle into a few strategies that are more consistently effective than others, the combination of the pseudo-realtime initiative, exhaustion system, and variable equipment abilities, it was often a unique puzzle to figure out just what the best strategies against certain groups of foes might be – battles could often swing back and forth, and a lucky break or skin-of-the-teeth play could bring you from the edge of defeat back toward victory. One kinda funny part that may be unique to Frayed Knights is that in any fight, even a gimme fight, it is more effective for a magic user to cast a low-level spell than swing with their weapon—your level 1 damage spell is likelier to hit than the weapon against many foes and will also probably accrue less exhaustion.

While there were a couple of particularly tough fights, though, there was never much need for grinding – the biggest problem I had was, due to recognizing the homage to the Caves of Chaos and applying certain assumptions to Frayed Knights, was doing certain dungeons out of order and suffering the consequence. For instance, the Ogre caves present far less of a challenge as a smaller mini-dungeon than the Goblin Caves which, as a major plot dungeon, are filled with a much wider range of tough nasties (like those Shamans who will dish out damage and keep you from downing front-line gobos).

There are some obvious negatives; you might be put off by the low-res textures and simple models or, in some cases, the incongruous assets (generally non-animated NPC models). Graphically, it’s somewhere in the middle-ground between Daggerfall and Thief: the Dark Project. I love both of those games, but the look won’t be for everyone. Really, for me, though, the biggest problem I had was with the game’s scope. And it’s a weird complaint, but Frayed Knights is just big enough that once I was truly impressed by how large it was, I ended up being disappointed by how small it felt. It has a very Episode 1 feel to it; it set me up with expectations of a truly huge world with multiple hub towns, with even more areas to visit and explore, because what IS there is off the one hub town we’re given IS impressively vast.  A part of me wishes that instead of a new game with a new system, Frayed Knights would continue with new cities and new content added (nodes and hubs appear listed as you visit them, and newly visited areas can be quick-travelled to). Frayed Knights ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it made me wish I could actually go and visit some of those other towns and locations mentioned beyond the original hub. But still, there’s an impressive amount of real estate to explore; maybe not to the extent of an Elder Scrolls game, but enough that you might come to expect it, forgetting that the game, as huge as it is, was developed by a small indie team.

The upside of Frayed Knights 2 being on a new system is that obviously it will allow the dev team to make improvements to the engine and graphics, and hopefully optimize things a bit (you get some vast and seamless 3D environments in each location, but at the cost of some really long loading times). I also hope that you’ll be able to port characters, but that may not necessarily be in the cards.

Still, I absolutely think that if you dig D&D and/or CRPGs, you should check out Frayed Knights!

Story or Game? An Oncological Discourse

I was recently solicited for opinions on what I would do if given the opportunity to be the one to “make” D&D. My answer was I’d pretty much make B/X, use Holmes rules for scrolls and spell books, use 1e’s rule for acquiring new spells, and Star Frontiers’ order of battle. But that’s not what this post is about.

One guy replied to the initial question with the following:

To me, it’s not about making more complicated mechanics in an RPG, it’s about maintaining an Improv mentality between DM and players. When you put the story first, everyone wins. Improv and RPG can be ruined when someone tries to win, or be a star of the session.

Let’s take a look at those last two sentences. The first is the total opposite of correct, but the second had some merit (thought it springs directly from putting the first into practice), so let’s hear him out:

“If you say “my character is a badass”, you are already ruining it. You have to be open to what will happen, and let your guy interact/change”

This is true, but I often see it coming from players who emphasize “story first” gaming and enabled by “story first” DMs. Players become desperate for their characters to be relevant to the story rather than function as an integral part of the adventure-machine. Story focused games often marginalize particular characters because they remove the mechanical purposes for that character to be there. Fighters with nothing to fight, thieves with nothing to steal or no traps to disarm, wizards with no new magics to find and cast, etc. will lead to unhappy players.

I say “game first”. Story emerges from the party’s gameplay experience. Plus, that way you avoid a Key-man crisis where one character gets too important to the “story”, can’t die, or the “story” stalls out if that player isn’t able to play. The adventure is the “game” and completing that adventure successfully is the win state. The story is what happens during the game.

What about personal player/character goals?

Personal goals are icing on the cake, and they are critical variables in the emergence of narrative.

  • The DM handles world & setting
  • The Party has overarching goals based on DM’s content
  • The Players have individual goals based on their characters

Story emerges from the pursuit of individual and group goals within the framework that the DM provides. Games that focus on story, however, often impose a top-down structure:

  • The DM creates story and sets party goals.
  • The Party goals must conform to story
  • The Individual goals must jibe with the DM’s story goals, or they may go ignored and unfulfilled.

In this situation, players most willing to conform to the DM’s story will take the spotlight away from players who may have different or conflicting goals.

For example, in the con game I was in that Bruce Heard ran, the airship had:

  1. A murder mystery
  2. A haunted train
  3. A zoo full of magic animals

The top-down story, however, was the murder mystery, so it didn’t matter if some players wanted to ride the train or pet the animals. Players willing to conform to the top-down story imposed on the session got the most playtime and impact at the table.

A non-story game of the Dreams of Aerie module would be “Here is an airship, here are the things on the airship; what do you want to do?” The party could discuss and reach a group consensus based on both party and individual goals. The story then becomes what the party does.

Are individual/personal goals undesirable, a problem, or, at best, superfluous to the party’s goal? Of course not! Your thief’s desire to get rich could provide in-game justification for adventures as you’re offered hooks. A DM’s creative bandwidth is not unlimited, and being aware of players’ individual goals allows them to create content that will be of interest to them. Content is responsive to players’ goals.

But what about player’s attachments to characters? Won’t individual goals lead to players becoming over-invested in characters?

“Don’t go bonkers, but let people stay in the game somehow, no matter what.”

Yeah, because when someone’s character dies, we evict them from the table. This isn’t a Jack Chick tract and you’re not booting someone from the group when their character dies. They’re still in the game. And remember, I said “individuals'” and “players'” goals; a player’s goal can easily outlive any number of characters.

“A good DM will finesse the rules so that there can be consequences just shy of death for a character, just like GoT or other great shows.”

No. Just no.

While I don’t necessarily advocate that characters should be constantly dying, keeping characters alive by perpetual DM fiat destroys the game part of Dungeons & Dragons. Frequent character death at low levels can be a lot of fun, though, because you get to try a lot of new and different things.

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.

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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!