In the last few weeks, the article about the Creativity Crisis (!) hit the web and people started talking about it. I was impressed that it made such an impression with folks and I really appreciate the idea that we gamers have been — apparently — doing something right. Yay us. Go creativity. And I think we are an incredibly diverse and creative bunch. Even the worst player and the most railroad-y DM out there are at least making an attempt to push out and do something creative. Far better than spending a night watching Jersey Shore and its TV-kin. But reality TV hate aside, I have been thinking for a while about writing about sandbox games — and what they mean to me. The problem is, I realized while thinking about it, and reading other posts about Sandbox-style play, that somewhere along the line I missed a few things in my gaming experience… And I feel like I’m more creative for overlooking them.
I started playing D&D, as I’ve mentioned before, with the Erol Otus cover version of the Basic Set. The pre-Red Box years. I think the majority of the old-school crowd calls these the B/X edition. I still own three copies of that book and I love everything about that version of the game – in its own right. I don’t still play it, not because anything’s wrong with the game – I just found other games to play. But a couple of interesting things come out of starting at that point as a gamer. And I have a confession to make.
In all the years I ran D&D – Old school, AD&D 1E, 2E and well, others like them, I never once made a random roll. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean that I never rolled “to-hit” or anything like that, I mean, I never rolled for wandering monsters, I never rolled on an encounter chart, I never used random rolls to pick magic items in treasure hoards. I never once used the dungeon designer to fill rooms on a map I’d created. I just put stuff in that made sense, or that I liked, or that I knew my players liked.
Again – I don’t want to say that anyone who did that, or is still doing that is playing wrong. I certainly don’t believe that. Play how you want, have fun, and don’t let anybody tell you different. I’m sure some of my DMs ran their games this way, and I had a blast in those games.
But what this means is, when I hear the term sandbox, I never think of wandering around a wilderness map and stumbling upon random encounters… If I want that I’ll play a JRPG on a console. When I think of the term sandbox (and sandbox-style play) I guess what it always meant to me was that the whole world was open for business. If the PCs want to go to a tavern and you don’t have a tavern scene planned for the night — you make one up, on the spot and your players have a tavern scene… If your players decide they want to head to the nation-state next door and you’ve never come up with more than a scribbled note, “Nomod-Goria: run by hobgoblins, especially organized militant theocracy…” then you better damn well start steppin-and-fetchin cause that’s where your players are headed…
In one of my favorite games of all time Teenagers from Outer Space there’s a little sidebar in the GM section that says:
“Running a Teenagers game will require skill, determination, and the combined jokebooks of Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy…”
Obviously this is a comedy game, but that’s a pretty tall order isn’t it? To ask a game master to be that funny all the time? Well of course no one expects that — but my point is, the job of the DM (in my opinion) is to be the most well-read, well-rounded, prepared, determined, and committed person at the gaming table. The payoff? The GM always gets to have the most fun in any RPG. I mean I like playing from time-to-time, and even I get burnt out, but my question to most gamers is – “Who doesn’t want to be the GM?”
So, I’m a firm believer in improvisation at the table. Don’t ever let your players know they’ve even strayed off the map (so to speak). You hold all the cards. If your PCs want to go to East New Theris (ENT) and you’ve only made up West New Theris (WNT), the fact is, you know everything you need to about ENT already… It’s just like WNT except that ENT split off years ago during that big civil war. The government split them in two to control the natural resources there and some residents of each section still hold grudges, even 5 generations removed. But the architecture and building styles are the same… the people have a similar accent, the resources that the government wanted have nearly been mined off and now ENT is feeling pretty bad about itself. You’ve now just set up a new place, with gossip for the people, ideas for encounters, possible intrigue, and a bit of history. And it took about thirty seconds.
Don’t ever feel constrained by what’s going on in your head, or if you think the players will think you’re crazy… ham it up, have a good time, and never let them see you sweat. I posted a while ago about games protecting the players… or the DMs. I guess I don’t like crutches period. I always hear people say that they hated prepping encounters for 3.5 D&D but I never had a problem with that… all you need to know is how hard the monster hits. The rest is just fluff. Maybe I’m crazy? Maybe I’ve played Amber too long?
As an example I always remember “nursery rhyme night”… I had a group of Amber PCs stuck in a crazy shadow where none of their powers worked and they were trying to get home. Finally, after much adventuring, they end up in a cave, with a nutty old lady and her followers. They are told that the only way the followers will help them is if the PCs agree to a pretty dangerous deal. The PCs are arguing and confused — pretty sure they can’t trust the nutty lady anyway. Some of them feel like the whole set up was a red herring. It’s going nowhere — so I start rocking back and forth in my seat and singing nursery rhymes in this whispery little voice… the nursery rhymes all follow real world tunes, but are improvised little verses about the PCs and things the nutty lady can’t possibly know. The PCs missed the first one completely (and an important clue along with it) but by the second one they had figured out what was going on and everyone was focused again. I hadn’t planned on doing that — hadn’t planned on offering up the clues I did either — but it focused the session, made a lasting impression, and got the players feeling awesome again decoding the mystery of the nutty – singing – old lady.
I just worry that a lot of DMs/GMs/whatever aren’t that interested in the “hamming it up” part. When I run games I want players testing me and challenging me (in character) at every turn. I want them exploiting the holes I didn’t see when I set up the villainous plan. I want them sneaking into places I’ve never heard of (in my own game world). I want them “off the map” as much as I want them on it. When I say that the DM should be the most well-rounded person at the table, I mean it… Read everything: history, newspapers, science, mythology, kid’s books, detective stories, philosophy, religious texts, and put them into your game. Old school D&D was full of this stuff — I spent a tons of time with the bibliographies in the back of old gaming books. I never even see those anymore. What made me a good DM? The fact that gaming inspired a life-long love of learning. I’m not saying every DM has to be an expert in 17 dead languages or something weird like that — but broad horizons for you make broad horizons for your game.
One more thing: when I open up a “sandbox” of play to my PCs, it isn’t “FAIR.” I’m not trying to kill them, but if they hear a rumor about an old Frog God temple and they go there and it has a big toad-dragon sitting on a pile of gold — and the locals all tell them how dangerous the toad-dragon is, and they see the littered corpses of the TD’s victims, and they go anyway even though they’re all second level PCs… well, then the Toad-Dragon eats well that night.
Of course, the reverse is true as well. If they come up with the most amazing Toad-Dragon-killing-plan ever, then they get to kill the toad-dragon… or at least have a fair chance to.
I feel like this rambles more than a little. I’m sorry about that. New stuff just kept bubbling up while I was writing — and now I’ve saddled you with this incoherent mess…
Suffice it to say, that if I had to give a summary: Be a voracious learner, a dedicated storyteller, and have a willingness to always make stuff up on the spot and you will be my kind of GM. What about you? Am I crazy? Is it too much? Did this post even make a little sense? What does sandbox play mean to you? Do you miss having a bibliography in the back of your books? Do you miss reading gaming books that make you look up every fifteenth word cause the game designers weren’t writing like journalists?
(PS — and always, always, take good notes!)