Thursday, November 4, 2010

Introducing Mystery and Legend into a Sandbox Campaign

I have never been a great fan of top-down world creation. wait...that's not entirely true, in many ways I am a quite the conflicted fan. In truth, I love me some great, big complicated story arcs. Stories with intricate dense layers with enormous casts of highly-imagined characters told over luxuriously, long stretches like HBO's The Wire endless fascinate me in much the same way picking up the Brothers Karamazov did.

While Lost by the end of its run made me want to poke out my orbital cavities with two steamin'-hot rods, I have to fess up to a great love of it's ability to spin out layers upon layers of mystery, discovery, and more mystery. The first few seasons quite simply hit a nerve that I haven't felt in speculative fiction for many years.

As a player and GM though these approaches in game form more often than not leave me stone cold.

The arguments in favor of a bottom-up, not-overly-determinative, mostly-plotless campaign I will put aside for this post as I have written about it on several other occasions--and frankly many others in the OSR blogosphere have articulated it far better than I ever will.

Suffice it to say that I don't want players feeling like they've wandered into a five-act play with their bit parts already written. I want their story of in-game exploits to be the real story and not some Big Ass Story hanging like a lead weight over the table.

Still...still...still I find no matter how much I have tried to tailor the Hill Cantons to be the West Marches that my GM brain abhors the vacuum too much. All the little ambiance bits, the set dressing for all these dungeon and wilderness comings and goings, seemed to want to start pulling itself together into Something Larger Going On. A lunar eclipse here, a cursed item there, an NPC taking on a sinister cast, and the pieces start to look more and more like that much dreaded “p” word.

I quickly found to keep the campaign at it's core a player-driven sandbox I needed to just be honest and figure out some systematic ways to incorporate enough of these elements—without letting them swamp the central arena of locale-based, non-linear exploration.

The following is the basis of a method I have developed to create some Lost-like layers of hooks and events (the whirly moving bits of a sandbox world that happen off stage) with a minimum of high-handed stage direction. Ironically it is a system based on one of the most brilliant trainwrecks of top-down world creation to grace the pages of Dragon magazine, “Believe or Not Fantasy Has a Reality” (referenced last month).

In that piece Doug Bachmann introduces a very interesting way to present legend and myth in layers that players can peel away with some sweat and toil:
“Legendary material is probably best placed on note cards. The object is to have enough clues on a subject to be interesting, yet not so many as to create clutter and unnecessary complication. Each card should identify the Legend, indicate the level of information, and state the clue(s). Levels of information...are as follows:
* 1. Knowing only the topic, only that it exists.
*2. Dictionary or atlas-level clues.
*3. Increasingly detailed information, yet not enough to determine the truth or relevance of the Legend.
*4. These clues allow a player to evaluate and judge the truth or relevance of the Legend.
*5 Threshold I. Information at this level gives a player a sense of knowledge and accomplishment. Some Legends stop at this level, but a player will not be able to tell if the clues go on to higher levels.
*6. Clues here merely indicate that more clues follow.
*7. Beginning of higher level clues.
*8. Expanded clues: Information here is useful in game activities.
*9. Relatively complete information; this allows judgments and evaluation of what is likely to remain in the Legend.
*10. Threshold II. All clues are filled out, completeness.”
By broadening this system to not just include legends but explorable campaign elements in general, a modern sandbox GM can create “just-in-time” branching ways for players to follow up and explore—or not explore—at their leisure.

I will detail my exact method in a follow-up post tonight or tomorrow. Stay tuned fair readers...

[Editor's Note: Just noticed that ChicagoWiz has a great post today on tips for creating a sandbox campaign well worth checking out.




  2. @anonymous
    My other life as a critic of lean production/management catches up with me. Dude, there are no inventories of ideas stocked up here, we just work our elves to the bone with our crazy GM kaizen "manage by stress" SOPs.

  3. ckutalik, can you explain your response more. I get the vibe but I'm, not deep enough into lean to totally understand

  4. As a general rule I don't mix politics and my day job work as a journalist with my half-assed D&D blogging, but here you go:

  5. Excelent! can I translate the two parts into spanish and post is in my blog?