Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Sandbox is Still a Sand BOX

I'm a huge fan of open world type games and I'm constantly trying to better my ability to run them.  The weird thing is half the time when I go looking for tips on improving my games I come across just as many horror stories of games gone rogue and players spending entire sessions doing absolutely nothing.  With all that out there I figured I'd lay in my two cents on how I've been running open world games over the years.  I know I'm not the only one out there with this, but more helpful information is not exactly a bad thing.

1. Pre-Game:
If you're looking to run an open world type game then discussing and agreeing with your players about what they will be doing in that world is more important than ever.  If you have one random character that isn't interested in doing what everyone else is doing the "rail road" can more or less force that way ware player back on track.  Ope worlds by there nature do not have such a railroad and those players can freely drift off to no where.  This is how you get Gary the 8th Level Paladin running a tavern rather than saving the kingdom.

2. Plot:
Speaking of a lack of railroad (or driven narrative that forces players in  a given direction), all too often do I see GMs make the mistake of thinking that lack of a rail road means lack of a central plot.  I'm pretty sure a decent amount of this comes from playing video games like the Elder Scrolls series where more players just ignore the main plot and go off to do their own thing with that main story just hanging around till they get bored enough to check it out.  The thing is even though they are both RPGs a table top game is NOT a video game.  First of all in a table top game you can do much much more than any video game can account for.  Second all those things (especially combat) can take much more time than a couple button presses and what would be 3-4 hours (a typical session's worth of time) of side tracking in a video game could take literally months of sessions at a table depending on the system.  And unlike a video game this table has an entire group of people around it that mike not give to craps about you yet again harvesting every flower in sight because they're pretty.

Even with the simple time allotment issues aside there is still the fact that a plot drives the action and adventure of a game.  Even in video games where players ignore it the plot is still there because without it the game is just just a place to kill time.  If you're running an open world there might even be multiple stories going on so your players can pick and choose what interests them, but they DO have to be there in the first place.  Something to remember is that the plot is usually the reason why heroes are around and if nothing threatening ever crops up then there's no need for heroes and it doesn't matter how well trained your fighter is if he never picks up a sword to use it.

3. Things to Do:
Ok this kind of over laps with plot, but there are some fundamental differences.  A plot should be some what bigger than any single adventure can fill, it's the over arching story that brings players back to the world session after session.  The thing is while yes you can have every single encounter and location the players visit central to the plot that then becomes more of a rail road disguised as being open than an actual wide open world.  One of the big tricks is to little the world with smaller issues that the heroes can stumble on and help with.  The most common time for these to crop up is when then go to new locations, but familiar NPCs can get into trouble seeking help even in the middle of a bigger adventure leaving players with the decision to help a friend and possibly delay or even lose their current goals or let a friend fall tot heir fate.  The trick here is to make these small side problems some what generic when you write them so that they can fit where ever the players may be.  A varied selection of threats and problems also helps here as it gives more options as to what would best fit at any given time.  Something to remember though, is don't leave them generic when presenting them to your players.  Tailor them to the current environment and fit them into what might be going on around your heroes.  This is also a good way to keep games going when the party wanders in a completely unplanned direction.

4. Ticking Clocks:
I said earlier that table top games are not like video games and this is one of the big differences.  In video games heroes can just drop story lines and pick them up as they please, not so in a table top game.  If the heroes let a threat continue feel free to let things get much worse.  This doesn't mean you need every detail plotted out, but a simple time line of what will happen at different intervals if no one stops or solves the issue can make a big difference and definitely help drive your players to pick up stories as they come across them.  Remember, the players are the heroes of the story and probably the only ones capable to handle many issues (especially at higher levels).  On the flip side maybe they aren't the only heroes and some one else saves the day when they cut and ran.  Feel free to have that happen and then show your players all the fame and glory the other heroes get for their bravery.  Trust me, when heroes hear a bard sing tales of another heroes slaying a beast they know they could have challenged they will not be happy about their choices.

5. Island of Adventure:
This one again brings the focus back on plots, but it's the last one I swear.  This isn't so much a tip about the world you might build, but more about how to handle stories in an open setting.  I learned this trick from Savage Worlds, but it works in any game.  The trick is when you craft your big plot lines feel free to leave them just vague enough that some of those points in the story can move around the map.  Sure the villian's lair isn't going to move once the heroes find it, but if the story has a point where they are ambushed in a tavern that can be any tavern.  sure the story might be that they are ambushed because X town is being infiltrated by the villain's goons and seeing heroes arrive made them nervous, but whose to say the X town can't become the town they are in too.  Another way to handle this is if in a dungeon your party HAS to find a specific room then make sure one of the rooms they find is that room.  Obviously this should only be saved for the really important parts of a game, but it is still much better than telling you're players "no you HAVE to go this way".

Some players have argued this ruins their agency(fancy world for power of choice), but the thing is this is a game.  It isn't about 100% free will since that would just cause chaos.  Instead the secret it to allow choices and make those choices feel like they matter.  Granted they SHOULD matter either way, but when the game has to go one way or another it's the GM's job to make the path feel natural and chosen.

1 comment:

  1. Good post... I was working on a very similar post about rail road vs. sand box and you hit many of my high points.... Looks like I need to rewrite it a bit. :/