Monday, January 11, 2010

Rogues And Sandboxes (Basic Edition)

So I wrote this post about how roguish characters and sandbox-style play go together very well.

Lots of people liked it.

However, lots of other people seem to have misunderstood it.

So I'm explaining it all over again, hopefully more clearly:

Let's start by defining some terms. This is not what these things mean all the time everywhere, just what I assume they mean when I'm talking about them on this blog, ok?


An imaginary location (dungeon, city, country, continent, world, universe, etc.). The location may have unusual adventure seeds or plot triggers embedded in it (the bank teller is an alien!), but it may not.


An episode involving conflict (often violent) between the PCs and some other entity that keeps the DM and players entertained for at least one session.

(And yes, I know how narrow it is to insist on conflict as a necessary component of adventure, but I'm just talking about stuff that happens in RPGs I want to play.)

Ok, so, example: I have made a super-simplified sandbox. There's a map of it up there at the top of the post.

We must imagine that this represents roughly the sum total of knowledge the PCs have about where stuff is in the world, and that all these places (church, etc.) run more-or-less the way you'd assume such an institution would run in the real world.

(I know that's silly, but this is a simplified example.)

Also, assume there is a list of NPCs (some known to the PCs, some not) that the GM has described in enough detail that s/he knows how they'd react to most situations.

Now, looking at this map, and desiring only money and/or power, a roguish PC could devise any number of schemes:

-Steal a car from the used car lot, use it to aid in the getaway from a bank robbbery, ditch the car by the church.

-Bribe an orphan into aiding him in the commission of a crime since nobody would suspect an orphan.

-Steal a car, pile lots of orphans into it, ransom them off.


(Obviously if my sandbox was more complicated and the PCs knew that complicated new info they could generate more and better schemes.)

Now, the thing about all these schemes is: if the PCs try to enact these schemes during a game, and thus turn them into adventures, the adventure writes itself.

The players know more or less what kinds of things they can expect to happen if they try to steal a car, and can plan accordingly.

I, as a GM know how my cops, security guards, etc. (either because I have them pre-written as NPCs or because I run them as typical examples of their profession) would react to the movements of these roguish PCs if they saw them, and can simply have them react accordingly.

As the GM, I can choose to add complexity to the situation during the game, but I don't have to if I don't want to.

The point is: because I have a sandbox and a group of rogues, I already have the minimum amount of stuff necessary to play the game for several hours. I don't need to design a conflict, the PCs have done it themselves.

Now, looking at this same map, a player who is playing Superman likewise has many options:

He could go to the orphanage and try to cure a disease some sick orphan had.

He could try to free Mon-El from the Phantom Zone (in the privacy of his own home, I suppose).

He could go to the used car lot and ask if there was any trouble over there.

He could go to the church and see if there was any trouble over there.

He could try to help out with the church's canned food drive.

He could try to make sure the bank's security situation is up to snuff.


But here's the difference:

While any of these things may result in a conflict (and thus an adventure), the Superman PC--unlike the rouguish PC--has no idea of what the shape of that conflict will be.

(And neither does the GM--unless s/he's already planned for the possible eventuality that the PC might do that thing. "Oh, I have a 'helping with the canned food drive' villain all ready.")

Superman does not choose to sketch out a violent conflict. The rogue does. Superman chooses from a set of options whose consequences (conflict-wise) are mostly unknown.

Now, obviously if the Superman PC decides to go to the church, then the player playing Superman at least can reasonably expect to have a conflict somehow involving a church, and if Superman goes to Planet Sigma 12 then the player can reasonably expect to have a conflict in outer space, but beyond such broad strokes, s/he does not choose.

For Superman, choosing between the orphanage and the bank may be choosing between fighting the Joker and fighting Darkseid, but the player doesn't have any way to know that. So Superman is not designing a conflict by choosing a course of action, he's just blindly walking into option A instead of option B.


In the case of the rogue, the PC (some bank robber), the player of the PC (a real person), and the GM all have (in a way) the same goal: to initiate conflict. In the case of Superman, the PC (Superman) and the player (Doug or Jimmy or whatever real person is playing the game) have different goals. The player, if s/he's playing more-or-less in character, has to "trick" his/her PC into entering conflict, or else simply have him/her vigilantly wait for whatever conflict the GM wants to provide.


In other words:

If a GM is dealing with rogues in a sandbox, s/he can "front-load" a very large part of the creative effort by putting it into describing the location yet still offer the players genuine choice. "Here, I made a place full of goodies and resources to help you get those goodies and obstacles of various shapes and sizes to getting those goodies, pick your poison."

(Not that the GM has to tell the PCs every pre-written detail of the sandbox. But the idea is the GM doesn't need to throw in unknown twists and details if s/he doesn't want to. The rogues are already choosing a course of action that will lead to chaos, change, and adventure. Even the simplest bank robbery with stereotypical cops is going to result in enough dice rolling that unexpected stuff will be generated by the mere playing of the game.)

On the other hand, if the GM is dealing with Superman in a sandbox , the GM cannot just "front-load" the creative effort by putting it into describing the location (the sandbox) and its people and still offer the player as much choice. This is because the GM must also pre-plan or improvise wholly unexpected conflicts that will occur if Superman chooses to interact with these locations.

(Note: This applies to my example. None of what I'm writing here is true if Superman is on Apokolips or in Hitler's Germany or something--for a discussion of those kinds of situations, see below.)

Or to put it another way: Superman doesn't start an adventure by designing a conflict for himself. The rogues, on the other hand, know that just doing their job will generate conflict, so they're designing a conflict as soon as they decide to go to work.


A guy named Fat Alibert pretty much said it all this way in the comments section of the original post:

Having a character move to a location to initiate a DM prepared encounter, select a plot hook from a plot hook dispenser, or choose to perform a task that doesn't bring him into conflict ISN'T the same as a character who initiates his own choice of conflict based on what he knows of the sandbox and his own motivations that run counter to the status-quo.


Here are some things I'm NOT saying:

-I'm not saying sandboxes are the only way to go.

-I'm not saying rogues are the only way to run a sandbox, merely that they make it easier.

-I'm not saying that the DM shouldn't ever throw in plot things or improvise or add in new, creative ideas once the PCs have started playing in the sandbox, merely that this is made optional rather than mandatory by the rogue + sandbox format.

-I'm not saying there's no good reason to play Superman-type heroes.

-I'm not saying that you can't give rogues plots. Merely that they don't necessarily need them just to play the game.

-I'm not saying that you couldn't create a sort of world that was unusually inimical to Superman (like a fascist state or a post-apocalyptic world) and thus transform Superman's role completely and make him as pro-active, schemey, and conflict-shaping as any rogue (see below for a taxonomy of ways to do that).


For the benefit of people who are coming to this discussion late, I'm posting the entire original post below--it contains a number of important ideas glossed over or ignored above, so read it if you care...


Gamma sloths have a low AC and are immune to radiation, so I announced their fur must be shiny and metallic. Joe latched onto this fact and decided that his lich's biker jacket needed a fur lining. Have I mentioned that my players are rad to the max?
-Jeff Rients

Heroes have morals...villains have work ethic.
-Reminder written on whiteboard in office of the development team for City of Villains

Ok, so picture this:

A GM somewhere writes out the city of Metropolis and the city of Gotham and the rest of the world of DC Comics in excruciating detail. The train lines, the shopfronts, which hot dog store owners are secretly shark-men, every inch of it. It's all ready to go.

Now here comes a PC playing Superman, into this sandbox.

"So what do you want to do today, Supes?"

"Uh, I guess I'll go on patrol."

Off he flies.

"Do I see any crime?"

"Umm, nope, not much, Metropolis is a fully-functioning independent world going about its business."

"Ok, I keep going. Now do I see any crime?"

"Ok, some jamoke is robbing a bank."

"Well then I stop him!"

Now, what I want to say here is that this isn't really a sandbox. Why? Because Superman doesn't have any strategic choices here, really. He could decide to patrol (say) the docks instead of (say) the south side of town, but that's not a meaningful choice--i.e. it's like arbitrarily deciding "left or right"?

If nothing much is obviously going on, he keeps looking. If there's a crime, no matter how small, he has to stop it, because he's an Upright Hero. If there's a bigger crime, he has to stop that one first, because he's an Upright Hero.

While he has many interesting strategic and tactical choices about how to stop a crime, he doesn't have choices about which adventure to go on. ("Adventure" in the traditional sense--on his day off he could choose to stay home and read or curl up with Lois by the fire, but you get the point.)

Now let's say we have this same sandbox but the player is playing Lex Luthor.

"What'll we do this morning Lex?"

"Hmm...I say we send out some drones and look for weak spots in the worldwide nuclear security apparatus."

"Do you have drones?"

"I'll roll on my Drone-Making. Oh, also, I want to blackmail the president, did I already say that? And then, hmm, I notice on this geological map that a mound of Fuckeverythingupium is just lying there underneath a mountain in Madagascar, I'll want some of that, and..."

In other words, whereas a villain confronted with a sandbox world will immediately start generating ideas, Upright Heroes (typical heroes) need a plot. Without the bank robbery, Superman would just endlessly circle Metropolis, then go to work at the Daily Planet. Without the whole problem with the Ring, Frodo would just sit and hang out in the Shire forever being wholesome and loyal and sipping tea. Without fires, firemen just hang out in their firehouse, Ever Vigilant, playing cards.

Now I don't actually want to talk about playing villains, I want to talk about playing Roguish Heroes. Grey Mouser, Conan, Cugel, Han Solo, and the stereotypically larcenous Old School D&D PC.

Now a Roguish Hero is not the same as a villain, and I am not saying everybody should play Lex Luthor but, functionally, pulpy roguish protagonists and villains have an important thing in common: they want something from the world. Gold, power, the admiration of attractive members of the opposite sex--something. The Upright Hero doesn't really want anything--or at least not anything that would bring him/her into violent conflict with the world as-is. The Upright Hero is not usually proactive, s/he waits until s/he sees injustice (even if it was an injustice that was there all along).

I bring this up because two big ideas associated with the Old School renaissance are:

-Sandboxes instead of Pre-Written Plots, and...
-Roguish, Pulpy Heroes rather than Epic Fantasy (Supermanish) Upright Heroes.

And my idea here is: sandboxes and roguish protagonists don't just go together by coincidence, they go together because they work together extremely well.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I set my (thoroughly amoral) PCs loose on the sandbox city of Vornheim and realized that I had to do absolutely zero work to make a day's play out of it. The girls were in the city, they wanted some money and some answers, they basically wrote the adventure themselves. I sat back and did voices.

There's a reason why the stereotype of Old School D&D is a bunch of amoral bastards running around killing things and taking their stuff--and it's not just because of the x.p. system. It's because people who just want treasure don't need to be given a reason to go into a cave or a lair or an abandoned city or the HQ of the local Wizard's Guild and they can pick freely which one they want to do first, since the fact that the lair contains a despotic vampire that plagues the countryside and the cave just has a dumb animal with big teeth in it doesn't automatically impose a moral imperative on Roguish PCs to deal with the vampire first.

Likewise, there's a reason that, as pre-plotted adventures became more popular in the mid-80s, D&D tended, more and more, to assume the PCs were Upright Epic Heroes.

A hook isn't automatically a hook for a bunch of lovable rakes:

"A cleric has been found dead in the town square."

"Well why should we care?"

"The church is offering a reward of 600 gold pieces to find the killer."

"Um, couldn't we just sack the church and make more than that? I mean, who was this cleric anyway? Maybe he deserved it..."

When you're a thief, the world is your sandbox. When you're an Epic Hero, it's a big fire house you sit around in waiting for a fire.

Many additions, axioms and qualifications to point out here:

-Obviously just because you got into trouble due to greed, venality, or someother roguish or rakish motive, doesn't mean you can't then become, in one way or another, heroic. Ask Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser--or Conan. Point is, Rogues can make their own plots in a way Upright Heroes can't.

-Gary noticed some of the contradictions here, which may be one of the reasons he proposes a Sandcastlebox--that is, in the AD&D DMG, there's the idea that in order to build a stronghold you have to clear out all the monsters in a (something)-mile radius. This makes the PCs sorta Upright Heroic (they're killing monsters that might prey upon the townsfolk) but makes them proactive and gives them choices (which monster-den to explore first?). It's maybe worth noting that I can't immediately think of any literary antecedents to this kind of large-scale-teratocide-as-an-end-in-itself behavior. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

-There are, of course, any number of other reasons to go around adventuring, I'm just talking here about the two main genre-defining ones.

-There are also lots of other reasons that mid-to-late-era D&D became more about heroic fantasy than pulp catch-as-catch-can, but this is clearly one of them.

-The entire formulation above assumes that the world is, more-or-less, "good" or at least innocent. Or at least the non-hidden parts of it are. If the entire world is corrupted by some single terrible force, then the PCs might be revolutionaries, and thus wake up every morning free to hatch this or that scheme to weaken the vast empire. Morally, these revolutionaries would be like classic Upright Heroes (they're idealistically motivated), but functionally, they'd be like pulpy Rogues (opportunistic, free to choose their targets, free to scheme). This is one possible way you could run something like, say "Vault of the Drow". A sort of Anti-Sandbox.

-Then there's the Quicksandbox. The world isn't dominated by a single evil, it just completely sucks. This is the basic post-apocalyptic set-up. (It also could just be any old world if you're desperately poor.) Basically--anything any PC tries to do (find water, ammunition, eat pie) is so hard and beset with so many mutants or gangsters or cave bears that heroic effort is required just to do anything. In this case, it doesn't matter if the PCs are Upright Heroes or Roguish because either way they have to act Roguish (i.e. plot, scheme, choose their battles) because otherwise they'll just die immediately. Survival is the plot hook. The only trick in making this kind of thing a true sandbox would be making sure the GM gives the PCs enough information about what's around them that they have different options about where to look for various commodities. Supermarket? Army barracks? Spooky old house?

-A mix of the above two ideas would be a world that completely sucks AND is dominated by a single evil but this evil is not something the PCs could ever dream of fighting on their own (absent some Plot helping them)--like the Warhammer 40k world. In this case, Upright Heroism is a weirder motivation because the Upright Hero is pretty much constantly aware that no matter how hard s/he tries the Emperor is still the Emperor and the Upright Hero will have to choose at what point moral action is beyond his or her abilities. The Upright Hero could become a proactive schemer by selectively deciding to get all outraged and proactive about certain given injustices (and not others) with no plot help. It'd be a somewhat strange campaign, but it'd also be a lot like real life.

-There are examples of proactive, scheming Upright Heroes in comics and elsewhere--an obvious example being The Authority. However, it's worth noting that, if the world is a more-or-less fully functioning, not-obviously-always-evil one, this stance is inherently political. Which makes them sort of like the revolutionary anti-sandbox type hero and/or involves them in all sorts of moral ambiguities which the campaign may or may not want to be about.


  1. "He could try to free Mon-El from the Phantom Zone (in the privacy of his own home, I suppose)."

    So that's what the kids are calling it these days?

    Great post.

  2. I've not ran into too many people who would play Superman-types (my definition being a totally selfless individual who has no real motivation for himself or any purpose except to save puppies and helpless citizens.) In the case of "do-gooders", they usually have some sort of idea of what they want to do or how they might want to affect the world already - or through interacting with my sandbox, they latch onto an idea.

    If someone was so one dimensional to not give themselves a purpose in life in my worlds, then I guess they would wait for the next fire alarm, but man, that would be a very boring game. I would hope that Superman would go do those things that you listed above... many of which I think would involve investigation and going to places and doing things where he knows there will be conflict and he can plan for it (recon, research). To that regards, he can shape the conflict to his purpose.

    Interesting post! Have you read Alexis at Tao of D&D? You and he would have a very interesting conversation, I think.

  3. I'll now concede your description of the nature of this type of situation to be essentially correct. The original post gave me a somewhat different outlook on what you were describing.

    As in many factors of the hobby, I've had rather different and perhaps unusual experiences. For a good portion of my time in the hobby, my players have played the good guys. Not the let's-choose-Chaotic-Good-and-than-go-around-creating-wanton-destruction-and-murder good guys but real heroes. I also run D&D type games much less often than Star Trek, Star Wars and Superheroes.

    Even in D&D and Traveller though, my players often play selfless heroes and while they may not all be Superman, some are Batman-like, Green Arrow-like, Green Lantern-Like or Wonder Woman-like in their attitudes. Sometimes there are multi-possible plots going on they need to respond to, sometimes they patrol an area to be if there's trouble and sometimes they start their own projects. One project I recall from my D&D universe was as follows...

    Several adventures after encountering a group of Elves and Dwarves who had a long standing border conflict, one of my players wanted to go back their and mediate a truce and diplomatic ties between the two nations. It was the players idea to do this, not mine and it did indeed generate its own adventure.

    Bottom line is yes, the Roguish PCs often generates or helps to generate the nature of a conflict for the GM. For me personally, I see the process of GMing to be a back and forth where they respond to me and I respond to them. I generate alot of material before hand in the form of alien species, villians, locations, magic items, robots or whathaveyou but 85-90% of the actual session time is ad libbed.

    This is an awesome and extremely well thought out post and indeed it has generated a great deal of conversation. What more could you ask for?

  4. I'm going to continue to play devil's advocate here.

    Lets say you revise your sandbox a little. Next to Lex Luthor's house you put "Lex Luthor's Work Camp" & next to that you put "Brainiac's Death Camp." Over on the other side you put "Slums where Joker is hiding" & next to that "Wharf with secret organized crime division."

    Then you say: okay Batman/Superman. Here is your sandbox.

    What the status quo is changes who is reactive versus active, you know?

  5. I think most player's would agree with Zak, here. YMMV, but, I rarely have players choosing or asking to play "Good" aligned characters. It's almost always, "Can we be evil?"

  6. This post has officially cemented your status in my mind as a Certified Gaming Genius (TM).

  7. Mordicai--
    I already covered that situation in the "anti-sandbox". Twice now.

  8. Yes to all the above.

    It's also easier on the rogue's player -- he can just keep his head down and keep robbing orphanages.

    Superman's player tends to need to pay more attention to what's all going on everywhere in the sandbox.

  9. The great thing about roguish PCs is that not only do they create their own adventures, but each exploit tends to snowball and cause all kinds of unintended consequences that end up creating wakes that the PCs can surf off of. Soon enough they are dealing with the consequences of their actions from previous sessions and not only have they created their own adventures, they have changed the sandbox itself to the point that you might as well say they have created their environment as well.

  10. I think Carl raises an excellent follow-on point. When the PC's activities then start creating consequences that feed back as more plot hooks and sandbox changes, then the game has achieved something special.

    PC initiated missions + GM initiated plot hooks + PC consequence driven plot hooks = Collaborative evolving sandbox = Gaming G spot.

    - Fat Alibert "Making Porn with D&D players" 2010.

  11. Your basic thesis here ties into one of the elements of fiction writing that I find myself frequently bringing to the attention of new writers: character motivation. To put it simply - every character in every scene has their own goals and motivation. Good writers remember this, and use it. Newcomers don't remember this, and so their minor characters all look and act like spear carriers -- they exist only to let the major characters pursue the plot.

    Angling this back to where you're going: one thing I've been using for a long time is a home-made "Table of Entanglements". I generally stick with skill-based systems over class-based, and as such, there's usually a "development period" for each character. They have a sketchy backstory in which they've been acquiring all those useful skills, y'see.

    But -- what about the stuff that happened to them while they were learning to be heroes? Well, you get one roll against the Entanglements table for every year or two of development time. And as a result, when the characters actually start, they usually have all kinds of interesting hooks and ideas attached: scars, wounds, enemies, relatives, friends, prices on their heads, bits of important knowledge, diseases, etc.

    It works. I had one group that spent several months of real time questing for a cure to a particularly nasty STD that one of the characters started the game with. (Magic disease from unnatural congress with a non-human creature.) I didn't even bother with hints and suggestions. They decided to go find a cleric who could handle it - and it developed from there. Turned out to be tremendous fun, too.

    Backstory: you give it to the players. They love it. They keep it. And they get really excited when you tie it into the game-play.

    1. Please tell me you're willing to share your "Table of Entanglements," I'd love to try it out!

  12. Arriving all late, I would just like to express a sincere "so THAT's why all my cyberpunk sessions kick ass but my fantasy games kind of stutter"-thank you.