Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Perfect World

To start off

The Platonically Perfect Sandbox would have the following characteristics:

1. The places are interesting.

2. The places are distinctive enough in the DMs mind that s/he can refer to them and think up details about them when they're off-screen. S/he knows what each one is "about". (This can be either because s/he is intimately familiar with them or because they are based on ideas s/he can grasp "This is the place that's like Vienna", "This is the lava dungeon").

3. Travel between any place and any other place involves going through another, equally interesting, place.

4. There are at least 2 choices about how to go on any trip and both/all are attractive for different reasons. There are, however, few enough choices that the PCs--as a group--can parse them.

5. Every place contains at least one good reason to visit every other place.

6. The NPCs are interesting, but--more importantly--each has as many connections (possibly hidden or through intermediaries) to the other NPCs as the players' suspension-of-disbelief will allow. (Practically speaking this number is very high since the players will probably not find out every connection for every NPC.)

7. There are enough locations and NPCs that the players don't exhaust them and new ones never have to be made up (the possible relationships are already latent in the places and people from the point of creation, meaning the DM never has to tweak), yet there are few enough that the DM can call them all to mind whenever necessary and the PCs--while not needing to be able to remember all of them--can keep track of enough of them that they basically know what's going on and can make decisions. (This is, in most cases, impossible.)


How I got there and some related ideas:

So I was thinking about how well this worked out.

Another Dispatch From The Department of Obvious:

When you're DMing, things you can remember are good.

Whenever you hear about someone rolling with Professor Barker or Ed Greenwood or some other pillar of the hobby, they always talk about how the person just seems to spin it all out, noteless.

This is because they know how the gameworld will respond to PC actions. Because they know the gameworld like the back of their hand (better, actually. How bored do you have to be to know the back of your hand?). Because they wrote the gameworld.

Those of us who do not have time to write an entire gameworld will take solace from the knowledge that these folks also know it because it tends to act like earlier analogues. Ed Greenwood knows Waterdeep because he wrote it but also because it acts a lot like Lankhmar which in turn acts a lot like noir-era Manhattan wearing Medieval London's clothes.

Details you can't remember and must write down are not bad: they often indicate (say, in a dungeon puzzle) a level of interesting complexity. However: the more you can remember, the more you can improvise, so rememberability is essential in a sandbox.

Here's a formula that's, again, obvious, but is useful to lay out at this point:

On any given game day, the value of whatever worldbuilding was done behind the setting you're using is equal to all the details you can easily access on paper for where the PCs actually are plus anything you can remember that day.

An example of often useless (in a game sense) world knowledge: the extended Cthulhu mythos in a Call of Cthulhu game. While conceiving the adventure it might be useful to know or have access to which Lovecraftian power has which modus operandi, but while actually running a given session at the table all you really need to know is what's going on with whatever single aspect of the Mythos you are trying to freak your PCs out with that day. Knowledge of offscreen pantheon (or panexodemoneon) elements doesn't come up much since Cthulhu is basically a horror game, not a game about magic and astral exploration. Usually.

An example of useful world knowledge in Cthulhu would be: knowing what the 1920's were like. Every single detail you have about the era--its politics, technology, social patterns--might come up if the PCs start getting creative. If you know the world, you can counter-punch confidently.

To some people, history is memorable to begin with and things that happen in real life constantly reinforce various historical facts ("Hitler was bad and his friends wore leather"), so it's easy to remember. History really all does weave together seamlessly so if you can manage to remember it you can get a lotta mileage out of it. A more interesting test-case of what makes a world-as-sandbox work is when the world is fictional.

As a thought experiment, here are some fictional things I can remember and how useful they'd be as templates to re-skin for use as D&D sandboxes or (more likely, at least in my case) parts thereof:

-The basic Lord of The Rings set-up. Not as useful as it seems at first because many interesting things about it are already integrated into the game (dwarves v. halflings for instance) and most of the other relationships are so powerfully centered around the central Evil Empire Vs. Everyone conflict that most locations don't relate powerfully to anything but that. Exceptions: Gollum is swipable (creepy NPC wants magic item even more than you and the Big Bad do) as is Denethor, the steward of Minas Tirith (NPC in temporary control of an important place doesn't want to give it up and is father to two PCs or good NPCs).

-Lunar: Silver Star Story, the video game. Very useful because the games's made up of a set of "themed" areas that are interconnected in ways that are pretty easy to remember if you played the game as well as several broadly-drawn NPCs that likewise are all inter-related. Plus it's already a fantasy setting. You can take the idea of like "High Priestess of a local vanilla religion who turns out to be a member of an evil humanoid race and ally to the big bad" and every other element in the setting has a relationship to that built in.

-1001 Arabian Nights. Not so useful because really no-one in the stories is connected to anyone else and no place is connected to any other place. It's full of good ideas, but none of them automatically imply any others.

-Alice's Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking Glass. Kinda useful because I can remember the "schticks" fairly well but limited because: 1-Most of the problems aren't "weaponized" (like, the Mad Tea Party is great, but turning that into a D&D scenario is as complex a problem as simply inventing one from scratch)(which problem you see graphically illustrated in the Dungeonland module whose solution is: everything is a monster you fight) 2-The relationships are fairly simple: everyone either works for a Queen or escapes her notice. Outside the opening shrinking/growing chapters, the geographical relationships aren't interesting.

-The original Star Wars. Somewhat useful because, unlike LOTR, the relationships aren't solely built around the Empire vs. Everyone axis. Like if I said "Do an adventure that's basically a fantasy version of what happens on Endor" you could pretty much write that adventure yourself: PCs sent to sabotage baddies in their base, notice or are noticed by superstitious natives, must recruit natives to help them (or succeed despite them). If I say "Jabba the Hutt but in the Middle Ages" you've got a bad guy, his characterization, a location (with a trap, a kind of monster, and some of the map), an environment, a plot (revenge against your party's rogue). However, unlike in Lunar, Jabba and the Ewoks aren't really related to each other.

-Game of Thrones. Semi-useful. The locations are really just based on real-world analogues or familiar fantasy archetypes, so they don't provide details you wouldn't have already like: how would a random encounter in King's Landing be different from one in Lankhmar? Exception: maybe The Wall. The castles are interesting but not, mostly, in a this-dungeon-is-unlike-that-one sense. The NPC inter-relationships are kinda useful but half of them are fairly good guys with uncomplicated desires, which doesn't give a DM much to go off of in terms of adventure fuel. The "bad half" of the cast is pretty good. If I put on a random encounter chart: "this NPC is basically Cersei Lannister and everything that implies" you basically got a whole gob of plot to play with, plus several NPCs with reasons to do things. Provided you can keep it all straight in your head.

-Shakespeare. Inter-relationships: good. Geography: bad.

-Superhero comic books: Most comics I can think of have simultaneously too many and too few relationships between characters: like Doctor Doom has been both ally and foe to Reed Richards many times but basically one's bad and one's good and that's that. They're probably related by marriage somehow at this point if you count future continuity, but not in any way that seems actionable over-all. The good guys are all allies, the bad guys are (often) all allies. The thing to do would be to zoom in on one story arc and use the relationships there. The individual bits of geography in comics are interesting, but movement between them is not really an issue so there's nothing to build a sandbox structure out of.

-Fafhrd/Mouser stories: inside Lankhmar they're useful, ones outside are less useful.

-Zork: Hardly any NPCs. The scale is too small--basically what you get in a Zork game is a single dungeon. Not much to base a "how this world would react" algorithm on.

Ok, so taking a look at all this, the ideal "rememberable" template for an open D&D world would be:

1-It matches the requirements at the beginning of this post as well as possible

2-It has conflict, but the conflict isn't just along an axis where all the good people are lined up against all the bad ones

3-It's got pre-modern technology, so that: 1-movement between places can't be instantly negotiated by airplane or starship and 2-the obstacles don't require a lot of "translation" in order to be usefully D&Ded

4-The DM is familiar enough with it to remember it all

To me, most published RPG settings don't really fit. They are so worried about making the world real-seeming enough that they don't provide adventure fuel. Places are hard to keep straight ( like I know in real life Ottawa is a lot like Philadelphia but in a game I need them to be different, travel from location to location is barely considered (even in something like the Majestic Wilderlands, most routes between points of interest in a given area basically present similar challenges), connections between places are generalized beyond usefulness ("Dorkendale is a major trade hub for the area south of the Scrublands".

What does fit is--maybe not that surprisingly--video games. Even something simple like Super Mario Brothers punches way above its weight class here. This is what I can remember from the first game:

you start above ground
then go into a fungus-infected dungeon
the dungeon can lead to an ocean but also has 3 connections to other places, one of which is sort of Halloweeny and I can't remember the others
proceeding by the most direct route across any place gets you to a lava dungeon, one of which has an eternal-loop puzzle
there's a princess who is moved from castle-to-castle by the big bad, she is allied with fungus people
there are also cloud cities accessible via beanstalks in certain places

That's already more rememberable adventure fuel than I got reading all through the entire Forgotten Realms set. And that's just what I remember without looking at the game. Imagine if you actually went back and played and drew a map. Or, perhaps more to the point, played the Super Mario RPG and remembered that.

Maybe this seems like a depressing conclusion to you: computer RPG environments make better templates for sandboxes than anything else out there. I don't think it should be, though. The Fortress of 10,000 Mists can still be as weird or literature-damaged as you need it to be, the only thing it's borrowing from Cloud World is the plumbing. As long as it doesn't leak, who cares where the plumbing's from?


  1. everyone mentally slaps me upside the head when I say this. but a great model of a sandbox is world of warcraft.

  2. I have been looking at the world of Albion in Fable as a possible setting for a while. It matches most of what you're talking about here.

  3. Thumbs up. I recently added this sparse room description to my dungeon notes: "A beanstalk rising through a hole in the ceiling and a man-sized metal pipe going straight down into the floor. The beanstalk extends into the clouds and the pipe leads to a surreal treasure room."

    Haven't decided yet if an Invincibility Star will be tucked in there somewhere, but I don't see why not.

  4. That's not depressing at all, it's obvious. The whole point of (many) video games is providing environments that are fun to explore and internally consistent.

    (Of course...it may be obvious looking at it this way, but it certainly bears repeating and talking about some more!)

  5. Ghouls and Ghosts, the NES Castlevanias, all the Zeldas, Ninja Gaiden - they all just fall into place. I even have maps of most of them in my old mouldering box of Nintendo Powers. Gorgeous! Great idea. I didn't expect this part of my brain to ever be useful again.

    On the subject of video games and the OSR - I don't have an OSR blog, but if I did I'd write a post about how Dark Souls on the X360/PS3 should be played by OSR gamers who own those consoles. It's a megadungeon in current-gen video game form - nothing but dungeons, monsters, traps, and spells ripe for the picking. I've already used some parts in my current game.

  6. Some of the early Final Fantasy games (especially the first one) would make for a great setting. More than half of the series content was either ripped off or inspired by D&D (Bahamut the dragon anyone?). The world of Dragon Age could work as well, but then again the majority of the plot is surrounded by an "us vs them" mentality.

    The world I'm working on for my upcoming 3.5 sandbox includes the following:

    - Elements of Faerun and Eberron are treated as two separate continents. Parts of Rokugan will be included as well.

    - All "non-campaign" content from the core books will be on a continent I'm creating as the starting point for player characters.

    - A lot of material will be inspired from the fantasy I grew up on, so you can say this adventure is almost like a mega crossover fanfic.

    - The name of the campaign is called "Career Mode", so you kind of have an idea of what the game is about once you hear the title. The player characters are role playing their "adventuring career" from levels 1-30. This gives the PCs freedom to explore the world while I as the DM get the chance to create a permanent setting for future games in the process.

  7. Ever read the Oz books? Lee Gold mentioned them as a big inspiration in her GMing, because of the impression Baum gives that every square inch of Oz has something interesting on it.

  8. Ok, Psychonauts sandbox;

    -PC's are kids in a camp (Use halfling stats or halve HP or make all the monsters giant. Or don't). It's got a forest, a swamp, a mountain, and a beach. Under the ground is a secret base. The beach faces a lake with a drowned city underneath. Across the lake is an insane asylum on an island.

    - You make a decent amount of NPC kids, and give each one a horrifying psychological problem and relationships with the other NPC's (Psychonauts comes with 20 pre-made).

    - The PC's find an item that lets them go into the mind of any NPC. Each NPC has a small dungeon in their head, themed on their personality. Changing things in their mind-dungeon changes their personality (Kill a raging bull, they stop being angry. Put something in there, they become obsessed with it).

  9. Final Fantasy XII was a wonderful sandboxy game, so much so that the main plot sort of faded into the background a bit.

  10. The best RPG books have a designer-critique and playtest process which should, theoretically, separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of sheer wordage. I mean, if you're writing an adventure for public consumption, but not playing it first, the salient parts of the idea might not become really apparent to you. If it's not being playtest, it might not become apparent at all.

    Computer games, on the other hand, have to be playable from a very basic stage, and that requires significant replay on the creator's part at the very least. The salient details emerge very quickly, and often there's just not enough production time to throw in unimportant or more-boring-than-the-rest-of-the-plot details.

    So they end up forcing people working on them to pay attention to the possibility that anything they put in is unnecessary crap or too boring to be important. I don't know how many RPG books have a production schedule which allows them to really do that, unless they are something where the GM collated notes from some idea that went really well in play.

  11. @huth
    I'm not sure I get your point here--is it that RPG lead times are too long? I don't think that's really true.

  12. It's not the time, it's the focus.

    I mean that RPG setting design rarely seems to put the material through a wringer in terms of asking "What do we actually need to get this across?" And that carries with it an implicit questioning of the thing people are trying to get across.

    That doesn't mean that many don't do that, but it's often in reaction to common boring stuff they've seen in other games. Being interesting—like presenting city-quarter-generation-charts instead of a paragraph of fishmongers—requires a certain aggressive stance which... look, interface design isn't high on the list of priorities for most people writing RPGs. Usually the format is just borrowed from whatever they enjoyed playing when they were kids. Instead of asking, even hypothetically, "Does this suck, even a little? What other options are there to do this?" there's a tendency to imitate whatever they're used to. Because computer games often require a greater effort to implement anything there's always someone asking that question. I believe thriftiness drives innovation.

    I guess I just wish there were more people approaching it with the same questions—"Is this interface too cluttered? Is a cutscene best for this, or should we integrate the clues into found objects? Is there anything we're wasting time [writing/programming] that no one uses?" I just spent a month redesigning statblocks so that I didn't hate and loathe them for all that they represented, so maybe it's a raw issue for me.

  13. So, yeah, the most obvious examples: trying to fit a whole dungeon on a single US letter-sized page forces you to decide what the salient details are and then forces you to decide how to communicate those details most efficiently. Forcing you to explain all of a monster's powers in a quarter of a page makes sure that the GM will remember what each of them does, and won't say 'fuck it' when asked to look it up. Having non-grognardian players (or being one yourself) forces you to ask what the point of Feat X really is and whether you care enough to implement the rule that makes it important.

    Not that this sort of formal advice ('how many pages should your adventure notes be') is totally lacking outside of Vornheim or the OPD contest, but it could definitely show up more often. Especially in published adventures.