Thursday, April 28, 2011

How I Prepare for a Sandbox Game

There's a couple of reasons I don't have to prepare much for the games I run. Much of it comes down to the fact that I've already done it all in advance or are taking advantage of the players arguing amongst themselves:

Maps: I have an entire binder of dungeon maps just waiting to be used. I wrote these up a couple of years ago--maybe 50 of them, and they haven't run out (I've even reused many of them with great results--restocking the maps on the fly, of course). There are also many maps to be found on the internet. Personally, I enjoy making and using my own. I often draw maps for fun, without any real purpose and intent, and stick them in my DMing binder.

During the game, I stock the rooms semi-on-the-fly. By that, I mean I usually have a decent idea of what any particular dungeon/map is going to be like beforehand. I've found that I tend to make very similar choices whether I'm stocking when prepping the game or two minutes before the party enters a room.

Yes, your right, while the party talking amongst themselves about what to do next, I's populating my dungeons.

To do so, I using a mix and random tables and whenever comes into my head based on what I know about the dungeon. As the process goes on, a usually end up with a very clear idea of what the dungeon is and is current and previous purpose in the game world. By that time, I generally stop using random tables altogether: instead I close my eyes and envision what comes next.

At any given time, I try to stay about two or three rooms ahead of the party in any given direction, otherwise they might feel like their choices don't matters. As many of you know, making sure that player choice is the determining factor in success and/or failure is a big deal to me.

Tables: I love tables. Like maps, I make them for fun. Unlike maps, I also love grabbing them from the internet. I have anywhere from 10 to 20 tables in my referee notebook at any one time. After a couple of months when many of the interesting possibilities have been used up, I'll swap a table out for another one in order to keep things fresh. During the game, I'm nearly always rolling dice on various tables, looking for inspiration, and sometimes using ideas whole cloth. The best table I've found is Risus Monkey's Dungeon Words!, which I find myself using just about every single session.

For example, my entire last session was inspired by a table of 50 prophecies I found on someone's blog (sadly, I forget which), although I think it may have been the Underworld Kingdom. Here is the result that came up: "The priests words are poison," or something similar.

From there I created a primitive society where the priests and elder vied for political power. The session resolved around how the priests dealt with the random appearance and demands of local slavers (who the party was already familiar with). The priests took disreputable men during their confessions and tried them up in the basement of the temple, keeping them there to appease the slavers in preparation for their next visit (otherwise, they'd level or raid the town). The priests believed themselves to be ridding the village of its scum. The village elder had gotten wind that the priests being involved in several disappearance. Believing they were selling their captives to the slavers for their own gain, she asked the PCs check it out.

Campaign Q&A: At the beginning of a campaign, I take a good 10 minutes to explain the basic concepts of the world to my players. I don't go into a ton of detail, but give them the basic stokes I've painted. After that, I open it up to a group-wide Q&A and will answer ANY question they ask, usually creating the answer on the fly. By the end, I have a very clear idea of what the world is like and which aspects of it my players are most interested in.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sandbox Gaming: A Brief How-To Guide

In response to JB's post, W is for Wandering Adventures, on the BX Blackrazor, I have decided to write up a brief how to guide for sandbox gaming.

Let me first say, however, that I don't subscribe to the school that believe the sand is the be-all end-all of campaign concepts. If that were the case, Pendragon (can you say meta-plot) would not be along my top 3 favorite role-playing games (along with D&D and Classic Traveler). There's nothing mystical or otherworldly about sandbox gaming, and the worst thing you can do as a potential sand-box referee is to place it upon a pedestal.

I often find that the concept of a sandbox to be intimidating to many would-be referees--as if it necessary to put in 100 hours of work before the start of play. I tell you what guys. I run sandbox campaigns near exclusively and I don't think I even put in 100 hours of campaign prep a year. For my current campaign, the only work I've done away from the game table is to make a shoddily scrawled map and label a couple of island (I really must get around to writing up session reports).

Similarly, my plays are rarely bored durning play. The way I keep them interested is not by planning out everything beforehand and seeing what they do with it, but watching their facial expression, learning their interests, and acting/adopting the situation accordingly.

Instead of spending hours and hours in prep work, I try to focus my energy to these five basic principles (which are not exclusive to gaming and can to applied to most aspects of daily life):

1) Confidence
2) Flexibility
3) Improvisation
4) Reading Like a Maniac
5) Being the "Yes-Man"

Those are my five easy steps to being a sandbox referee.

Now allow me go through to explain each in slightly more detail.

Confidence: Confidence is NOT being the most egotistical or an unmoving wall of intellectual greatness (although those can be helpful). Confidence is not second guessing yourself and being able to open yourself and your ideas up to your players without the fear of potential backlash (which is extremely rare in the gaming world, in my experience; this isn't a dissertation or anything).

Don't worry that you don't have everything completely though out or that your players might not go along with what you're coming up with. In fact, minor inconstancies (and even major inconsistencies) can lead to great adventure hooks. Just act like you've had everything planned out from the get and keep asking questions of your players during the session ("what do you think the duke is planning), and riff off of their ideas.

Flexibility: Be willing just to go with the flow. Don't worry if you don't know where the river is going; just get in the boat and ride. The most important thing is to keep at least one eye on your players' expression at all times; try to figure out when they're bored, excited, disappointed, etc. Don't worry if they're angry, aloof or whatever. The key is to drag their emotions along for the ride. You want to keep them engaged, but don't worry if those emotions are negative 5 or so percent of them time, as long as they're excited, laughing, etc. for the rest.

Similarly, if something isn't working, either for your or your players, don't be afraid to take it in another direction. Mix things up; don't get too attached to any one outcome. Just go where the fun is, even if it doesn't quite make logical sense (that's when you start asking questions of the players and mining them for possible solutions). Turn the inevitable inconsistencies into adventure hooks. Maybe you forget the Mayor's name. Great, make up a reason why that's the case and offer to your players to figure it out. Better yet, ask the players why you think the Mayor's using a different name and riff off their ideas. If they just stare at you, puzzled, you're doing your job RIGHT.

Improvisation: Just go for it. I think I've covered most of what I want to say in the Confidence and Flexibility sections. To reiterate: don't be afraid to that a road you don't know were it will lead; just watch you're players expressions and adjust accordingly.

You dreams, book, movies, and--especially--the shower to generate potential adventure ideas that you can plot into your campaign. 90% of my D&D related thinking get's done at 5:30 in the morning.

Read Like a Maniac: I'm an English and History major. I do a LOT of ready for classes. And when I'm don't with that I read some more. I find being the best read member of the group to be a real boon when refereeing an improvisational sandbox.

Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide is great and all, but is a bit intimidating if you're looking for somewhere to start. Here're my suggestions, specifically aimed at sand-box gaming:

1) Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
2) Tales of the Dying Earth
3) A Princess of Mars

Being the "Yes-Man": If a player want to do something, in game, go for it, let him/her do it--figure out how to let him/her do it--and turn it into a source of adventures and an adventure itself. Player-character run organization (stores, gladiatorial arenas, castles, entire countries, even a manager all have great potential). This is, by far the easier, and most important. As long as you learn to say yes and turn your player's desires into adventures, you've got your game made.

Conclusion: That it, that's what I do. Yes, I drew a map for my current campaign and wrote up s list of rumors for my City State of the Emerald Eye game. haven't haven't really done too much more prep work than that. Furthermore, I find that my adventures become much more interesting/creative/unexpected when I just let the world develop naturally and just allow the game to make its own course.

So good luck, and remember, just loosen up and have a good time. Don't take things too seriously. Cheers!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

BX Blackrazor on Skills

It's isn't often I pimp other people's blogs, but JB's post on skill on BX Blackrazor, is awesome. I highly recommend you check it out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sword and Planet

Starting again to read the Barsoom series and after spending the last week pouring over Carcosa, I'm beginning to realize how much I love the swords and planet genera. Maybe swords and planet isn't quite the right word, but I've been discovering two specific setting aspects I really enjoy:

Ancient Technology - I love the idea that what we would normally was futuristic technology is actually ancient, so ancient that it is no longer complete understood, or even misunderstood.

Not so Nice Magic - Magic in D&D is just a little too clean, a little too nice, and a little too common for my tastes. One of the reasons I enjoy Carcosa so much is because there are non-rules reasons for characters not to be using magic all the time. They don't need to be limited in the number of spells they can cast per day because 1) rituals are so difficult to use (need to have all the right ingredients, at the right time, in the right place) and 2) it's just plain evil. If you are willing to use rituals in Carcosa, it says a lot about your character (whether you sacrifice children or study the ancient ways of the extinct Snake-Men and have decided to use banishing rituals exclusively).