Trying to get my blogging sea legs back again I seem to have stopped suffering from the “not having much sufficiently different to say” problem (a sclerotic affliction that seems to affect a rather large number of gaming blogs that age past three) to the more germane, if somewhat manic publishing quandary of having a spate of things I am so pumped about writing out that this thought train begets that thought train—and the danger of “option paralysis” starts to set in.
Writing out a rather detailed analysis this morning of how the Hill Cantons campaign evolved between its three major play groups (and 3.5 years) I was struck by how similar the overall arcs where between each of them. Though each (sub)campaign was/is very different in feel by dint of the wonderfully deviant and unique stamp each group of players brought to the table, all three groups--the Austin, San Antonio home, and Google Plus (which just celebrated its one year anniversary) parties--have seemed to fall into the the same broad brush strokes patterns when I put my mind to it.
Phase One: Buffet Period. Lots of roaming around the map, bouncing around, feeling out the walls of the sandbox metaphorically. Explorations are generally quick and limited, popping into one place for a session then another. A good deal of time is usually spent figuring out what to do especially in the beginning of a session. Generally a somewhat dangerous period for the PCs as they are low level and feeling out the “danger contours” of the sandbox.
Phase Two: Settling In. The group becomes more focused and goal oriented. Leadership or group decision dynamics start to settle in and become stable (though this can be unsettled when differences start to set in later). A home base “in town” is found and generally stuck to for a while. The group starts to build relationships with NPCs: patrons, useful contacts/sources, hired help, etc. Money and other resources are still pretty limited but growing and starting to allow for more choice.
Phase Three: Long Haul. Usually the group becomes fixated on some kind of long focused exploration arc, thoroughly exploring one site or “quest”. Fatalities start to ramp up again as the more dangerous areas of the big site/quest are reached. The party is slowly, but surely gaining power and resources. The home base may be upgraded and the hireling list starts to take on the appearance of a private army.
Phase Four: Rock to Rock. The long arc plays out and then the group starts bouncing around from sites or hooks again. Usually shorter bouts but with more focus on party-derived goals. The party will either stay in this pattern for a while, jump back into the previous phase (but never with the same intensity of purpose) or move on to the next.
Phase Five: Maturing Goals. Players start really digging into long-term goals of their own devising. Great long schemes come into being with some significant time spent out of session dealing with individual player's machinations. Some divisions may start arising as the players find themselves leaning in one direction or the other about where to put game time into. The characters are solidly mid-level now and PC death is rare. (Hireling/henchmen--who stay in a lower power rang--death though can skyrocket in the face of the ever-mounting dangers.)
I feel like there are more phases beyond this last settling phase. To be honest I just haven't gotten there yet with any of the three groups (and that reminds me that I want so desperately to get the home face-to-face group back playing in the next month), but I seem to remember back in the hoary day that Phase Five mature goals begin taking on long roots and the players become big name players who are increasingly as directive as the GM in where the campaign grows.
Now obviously these patterns could be totally specific to how I run a game and the kinds of players I like to roll with, but it does make me wonder if people who run similar campaigns over long periods of time are seeing patterns. Are they ballpark similar, wholly or partially divergent or what?
What dynamics have you seen develop at your table and do you feel that they have some kind of distinctness to them that you can generalize from?
I've certainly found phase one is true in any case, in fact I find that phase one can be a really hard period to work through for players who are used to more story driven games. Instead of letting this exploration happen they keep looking for 'the hook' - ignoring the 20 hooks lying around. Theres lots of temptation or pressure to 'rework' the sandbox in this phase and give them some rails to ride if some of the players are struggling but it's important to get them to work through this phase so they get to see how rewarding it is when things grow organically and their PCs roll into a town and see familiar sights and faces and feel the repercussions of the actions that they chose.ReplyDelete
Haven't made it to a phase three yet, but I keep hoping.
It seems really clear to me reading the comments here that a lot of sandbox campaigns get stuck in that first phase.Delete
Why do you think that is, Mr Todd and others? I mean reasons other than being stuck in the old-new plotted mindset.
I have a friend having exactly that problem: the players getting fixated on what they are sure is The Hook and beating their faces bloody against something they should have walked away from and tried again later. This is the effect of years if not decades of the standard game being a series of story arcs, especially with that DM.Delete
As I understand it, the players who could not make the cognitive leap to what a sandbox is really like dropped out to a more rail-y game and the remaining players have entered Phase Two, possibly Phase Three.
I've only ever run the buffet phase so far. I noticed when it comes to FLAILSNAILS it basically cannot move beyond that phase unless you have a core group of players. If it is all rotating cast all the time, it just about stays there.ReplyDelete
That's really interesting and useful to me. I'm glad you've got the posting bug, because I really value reading stuff from an experienced DM Who is reflective and analytical.ReplyDelete
So, I'm wondering about how many sessions it took to move from one phase to the next. Also, how did your job shift as DM in response to the phase shifts?
There's nothing hard and fast about the time between sessions--and there is a great of finessing involved with these broad categories. Each phase was highly variable depending on the group style and the individual tensions.Delete
That said the first phase was fairly short for both face-to-face groups, maybe 3-4 sessions before cohering as a group. The G+ group because it was originally structured under the revolving cast system of FLAILSNAILS would have likely stayed there in perpetuity if I hadn't intervened (I basically created a more stable, mostly-closed stable pool of 9-12 players and consciously talked out with some of them why it would be advantageous to hunker down a bit more.)
Great and timely post. I feel that my home campaign is currently struggling at the buffet. I had vague feelings of something "next". You've provided some specific possibilities to mull over.ReplyDelete
My sandbox group started out bouncing, then began systematically exploring the countryside. As they found an area of interest, they explored it as thoroughly as they felt capable (until the dungeon danger started hitting back hard) and then they'd go somewhere else. At one point they really settled down and got beseiged, and while they lost the keep their enemies won a phyrric victory. They then continued with their prior wander-delve-flee model.ReplyDelete
My campaign has reached phase three: after having reached the astral sea, they decide to take on the githyanki lich queen. In order to do that, they founded their own domain (using the An Echo Resounding rules) and are now trying to expand it.ReplyDelete
Glad you're posting again. What phase do you think our tabletop group is in right now?ReplyDelete
Speaking of, we need to get together again for a game.
That long stretch in the Mountain Hall was obviously Phase Three and I suppose it was Phase Four that most of the last sessions were in (though much more focused and "long hauly" than the G+ group).Delete
Yes let's! What about next weekend?
My Southern Reaches campaign reached Phase Three, with one or two players jumping ahead to Phase Five. When I start my new campaign next years (currently titled: Blood, Gold, and Lizards), I expect to see more of the same.ReplyDelete
The difference I see is that my group did not seem to hit Phase Four. I may be wrong, but I don't recognize that pattern.
Phase Four is very pronounced in both play groups and feels a lot like a "correction" from the original gear-down period.Delete