Creativity, Sandbox, and What I’m Looking for in a GM

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!)


7 responses

  1. I love your point on how the DM should be the most well rounded person at the table. I agree completely that a DM should have many many resources from which to draw ideas. I often find myself getting ideas from everywhere, movies, books, commercials, songs, random items, it doesn’t matter. A lot of my ideas come from the internet, but more often than not when I’m reading a book I’ll come up with something interesting to put into a game.

  2. Lengthy and a bit rambling but you make good points. The advice is sound. A little rambling never hurt anyone.

    In addition to your points, I’d highly suggest making notes as you improvise. Some of my 1-shot locations became center pieces in campaigns even though they were not designed to be. Copious note taking isn’t required. Just enough for you to fill in later.

    I do love a Toad Dragon having a nice meal.

  3. Again, I generally agree. Sandbox is my preferred type of game as well. To do it, the GM really needs to have a halfway decent idea of how everything works in the universe. Having the internet available to look up real world info instantly is also really nice. And yeah, take notes. I take very sparse notes, which sometimes comes back to bite me, but I generally get by. A lot of sessions start with, “Wait… where in the nine hells were you guys?!”

    And the players should certainly be free to come up with ways to die hilariously, or to wreck the monsters.

    These days, I only read gaming books. So everything is useful somewhere. I also watch a lot of really bad movies on Sci-Fi, so I know what not to do. I don’t mind simple, straightforward writing, because I like understanding the rules on the first pass. The fluffy bits can be pretty esoteric. Have you read the Planescape books for AD&D? They wrote everything as if a character was speaking to the reader, rules and all. It actually did a lot for the setting, in my opinion.

  4. I like your confession of not using the random tables randomly. I, and a few of my old cohorts used to love to roll to see what Fate would serve up, and weigh it semi-seriously for our own amusement before presenting something which should happen in the scenario… but sometimes, a bandit army or two crept in there.

    Reminiscing aside, I agree with your definition of a Sandbox Game… and what to do if they ignore all the bones.

  5. Whew! See, here I expected this post to generate angry retorts of “elitism” and “grognardium.” I’m glad to see that folks appreciated the thought.

    @Paul — I liked the tone of the Planescape books, but I never liked the D&D cosmology so I never bought anything beyond the original boxed set. For a setting, I think writing in a voice like that is a great way to convey the information. I think that’s why I loved the Houses of the Blooded world so much… the writing really conveyed the passions and oddities of the setting.

  6. Great article. Sandbox is the best way to play, IMO. I think it requires that the whole game group have trust that they can get the synergy in motion at the table and, when it arrives, work with it. 🙂

    As GM the best experiences are when the players want to be in the world experiencing what their character goes through – not at the table playing a game.

  7. cauldronofevil | Reply

    “I feel like this rambles more than a little. I’m sorry about that. ”

    Actually that’s been my experience whenever a “heavy improvisation” GM is running a game.

    Maybe it’s a simple as that a lot of GM’s aren’t the most well-read players in the room.

    Maybe it’s that being friends, we read and watch similar things and so it’s pretty easy to see where they are cribbing from.

    Maybe it’s simply that I haven’t met any heavility improvising GM’s that were all that entertaining to play with.

    While I definitely could appreciate those who can pull it off, I think for most players and GM’s heavily improvising is a pretty sure way to rather dull random wandering around….

    I also think that early RPGs were like that simply because there were not as many choices of products out there as there are now. Early GM’s simply didn’t have a choice but to make up alot more than they do now.

    And what the heck is “grognardism”? Or even “eliteism” in this context?

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