Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Sandboxes Growing Into Special Snowflakes

The debate around Special Snowflakery has taken some interesting turns. For one Courtney counterposes what I think is an over-narrow definition of the Special Snowflake setting (and lumps in the heavy-handed/railroady elements that I also dislike) to what he may think is my over-broad and likely murky definition. The principled disagreement is all fine and good, I learned things and got a chance to clarify my own thoughts. 

Strangely, a number of people both on these posts and on Google Plus seem to raise counter-points that I not only agree with whole-heartedly but have been central features of the six-plus years of the Hill Cantons campaign—and a re-occuring thread in the posts here about that play. Small is beautiful, less is more, and that play should drive what is vital in a setting world are all things that I have written about—not as abstract principle—but as part of my own observations about where the players and I where taking the sandbox campaign over the years.

Further the discussion made me think hard about whether or not my campaign world was itself a special snowflake. I mean sure in many ways its a very traditional D&D game: the mechanical baseline is a mostly untouched B/X clone and most all play revolves around micro-site underground exploration. All roads lead to the dungeon is a running and not inaccurate (and terribly funny) joke in the Hill Cantons.

But it has had any number of grand experiments (pointcrawls of all stripes, domain-level play, stupid player classes, etc) and it has grown up with a steady accumulation of highly personalized setting details—up to and including the hubris of actually inflicting that hubris on the world through publishing the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. It's hard to not admit in the end that it has very much evolved into the most special of snowflakes.

How a simple barebones sandbox grows into that whole other thing is an interesting open question and one tied to the zig-zagging actions of the players. Tazrun, a PC thief, dies and the party wants to raise him from the dead so they decide to break out of what has been the geographic delimited campaign zone and go to the big city. Then that big city, half-ruined Kezmarok in my case, becomes a whole new arena for the players—and then itself gets dropped for a wilderness clearing new phase. The world and its details start accreting.

I would hazard a guess that it mirrors other folks sure but steady building up from the ground floor (and yes this is your place to chime in about that experience).

Obviously I speak best to my own experience. Fortunately for me that experience rather well documented over the years here. Doubling back to my indexing project I can kill two birds with one stone.

The Road to Snowflake Perdition
I am tempted to skip right over this as vaguely embarrassing but it all started here, my very first post for a blog that was intended just to be a campaign clearinghouse. The campaign was nothing but a few terse setting dress lines. A skippable but relevant post. 

Five sessions and a month in and I am already pushing at the limits of what I had intended to be a plotless West Marches. Still I apologize for worldbuilding impulses. The links here are wonderful, some classics in the thinking of sandbox campaigning in neo-old school circles of the time.

I try to have my West Marches cake and other quasi-plotted elements too by introducing hare-brained and baroque mechanics to keep me supposedly grounded. Some ideas I have kept with me, like the general dynamic of creating just-in-time mystery but most dropped.

Musing on the campaign “stages of evolution” and wondering if it is part of a generalized pattern for all long-running sandbox campaigns. The comments are interesting (and a shame that the Google Plus side vibrant discussion is lost to the ether.)

Kicks off a series of articles about Top Secret networks and character-based sandboxes. The attempts to do this as part of a espionage part of the campaign were not found to be all that fun by several players (and it took the campaign too much away from site exploration for my own tastes) so it was quietly killed in the night.

I finally recognize that the WM like features of the campaign are long abandoned and wonder why the many other “West Marches” have disappeared.

One of my favorite posts, I evoke the final season of Lost and a high-falutin' literary concept to return to talking about how mystery and worldbuilding are evolving in the campaign.

Taking a cue from Morrowind I talk about how to introduce info dump as an optional experience. (Note I have been way too overwhelmed to do anything like this over the last year of the campaign).


  1. This makes me think about my own long-running campaign. Well, in the sense of being built on generick fantasye elements, my setting is not snowflakey. In the sense of having many details and peculiarities that evolved through accretion and a Grand Design that got bigger or more fine-grained when I needed it to, it is.

  2. There aren't really such thinks as Special Snowflake settings. There are just Special Snowflake DM's. Fiddlyness, unwillingness to play with/throw away canon, tendency to railroad, love of GMPC's and generally inflexibility in a DM leads to a setting being Special Snowflakey, not the other way around.

    Heavily-detailed worlds like the Forgotten Realms tend to attract that sort of DM, but they don't create them. The setting can give them plenty of ammo to indulge the bad impulses, but it isn't the problem in and of itself.

    1. I like how you frame this and think it is an important distinction.

  3. I think Jeremy makes an excellent point.

    I would also add (for completeness sake) that all of the discussion suggests that people don't like settings like the Forgotten Realms or (as Courtney mentions) Star Wars. Obiviously, if they were not liked by a fair number of people, we wouldn't need to discuss their bad qualities, as they would be forgotten. A lot of player's apparently like these sorts of setting, precisely because it allows setting mastery, as mastery is something human beings enjoy and I think more geek-oriented human beings, especially.

  4. When we first got together to game, you let players ignore the Hill Cantons background material and random tables for characters that you provided. Of course, you were more than willing to let us come up with our own backgrounds if we so desired, and you drew on some of that to add to your setting.

    While your game started as a run-of-the mill sandbox using some ingredients with the serial numbers filed off, it did evolve into its own distinct world, with details based on your own additions and from riffing off throwaway lines from the players (e.g. the Sun Lord's cart). However, it's not a Special Snowflake in that you're more than willing to let player characters leave their mark on your world.

    To me, a Special Snowflake setting is one where the DM forces 20 pages of creation myth and socioeconomic history on the unsuspecting players, and the characters aren't allowed to do anything that would upset the creator's intednded story. I don't think I've ever actually played in a game like that, and I hope when I run games, that I'm not that kind of referee.

    1. I always enjoy watching y'all run with the ball on making things up on the sly. Which reminds me that we need to get a game in.

  5. Hill Cantons is pretty much how real campaigns evolve: through actual play. Calling it a "special snowflake" seems a bit derogatory.