Friday, March 23, 2012

Sandboxes & Finales

If I could describe an ideal GMing approach, what I aspire to, I’d probably call it a structured sandbox. A game where I set up situations, draw out roads and decorate the terrain, but then allow the players to move as they wish around that world. I make those roads attractive- with interesting scenery and waypoints. But the players can and should be able to head off into the treeline. If they do so, I can start cutting trails there, building camps for them to make that travel more interesting. And if they stay on that trail then I’ll try to open it up and figure out where that trail might lead. Or I might also post billboards, have roads cut across those paths, show them something of the roads they haven’t traveled. I have stories to tell, interesting stories, and I want to dangle them into front of the players to lure them- rather than forcing choices by laying down tracks. From time to time incidents will lead in a particular direction- a valley that lies ahead. Especially as we get to the end of a campaign, the terrain will get narrower and offer fewer paths, but players can still take a pick axe and clamber up the sides and strike out elsewhere should they decide to.

I want a balance between freedom and guidance. I put in incidents and events for players to react to, and they most often reflect the larger story I have in my head. At the very least they ought to connect to or reflect the themes of the tale I have in my head. The kind of story, more than the literally plotted story. The trick lies in balance- I know when I play, I want some direction. I want some sense of where the story’s going, so that I can react to that. If I know that, I can act to make myself a part of that story or even change it. But absolute freedom, lack of guidance? That’s less fun- I want some conflict, some signposts of play. So my games should point in X direction, but if players go Y or Z or even Green, then I should make that experience equally fun and significant.

Now that’s an ideal, a goal and I suspect I don’t live up to that all of the time or even most of the time. For example, the shorter the campaign, the tighter I plot the storylines. As a modern example, Skyrim would seem to be the an exemplar sandbox game. But in the end, your choices remain fairly limited, your impact on the grand plot remains modest. There’s an A or B state at the end. Ideally I’d like the choices the players make in the course of the story matter to what happens in the climax.

Within limits.

See here’s the dirty secret for me of the sandbox and freedom position in rpg games. At least it is my dirty secret, and I’m going to illogically leap to the assumption that it applies to everyone. I could be wrong, but I suspect it lurks in that back of the minds of many GMs, even those who’ve torn up the railroad tracks and driven the train off the top of a dune. I don’t really want my players to end a campaign with the “Bad” ending.

Of course, “Bad” is a relative term. The ending of the Wild Bunch, where everyone gets mowed down in a hail of gunfire is, in rpg terms, a "Good" ending. Everyone gets to play out their character and they end up with a satisfying TPK that fits within the genre. Seven Samurai’s the same way, with a few players living though having to move on because of their nature. The other PCs have all gotten cool death scenes. The players have made their choices and gotten opportunities to play and everything fits with the tone of the story.

But bad endings, where the players try and fail, where they make horrible mistakes along the way; or where they make terrible decisions along the way- that’s not fun. Or at least it isn’t as much fun. It may fit for some kinds of games obviously: post-apocalyptic, horror, noir. But I’ll argue that the longer the campaign, the less fun a bad ending becomes. That’s why I don’t run long-term Call of Cthulhu campaigns. And even when I run horror games, if they’re longer than a few sessions, then my focus is on how the players can make a difference- how they can actually battle against the darkness. Instead of the real CoC question of when they’re finally going to fail and fall in the battle against a horror which can never truly be stopped.

And I have had a couple of campaigns in which the players did not “Win Big.” I consider end states on a continuum: Win Big (players ride off into the sunset), Win Small (players win, but the cost had been pretty awful and preventable if they’d made other choices), Neutral (a deadlock), Lose Small (loss, but the players have some small victories and could regroup in another campaign), and Lose Big (absolute failure, based on their own choices and actions). I’ve had all of these happen in campaigns, but I’ll admit much less of the latter than the former. In fact, for non-horror short campaigns, I can only think of one: a superhero campaign where the players managed to compromise their own morals and ideals so completely that they became exactly what they opposed. They lost Big.

But most campaigns aren’t about nihilism, they enact a certain heroic or quest ideal. Given that, how does a GM move things that way without railroading? Without cheating? Without shifting the playing field a little? They don’t, I’d argue. The trick is how much the hide that. I still try to force my campaigns to have consequences, dilemmas and often bad choices the players have to make at the end. I want them to feel some kind of cost and struggle to achieve that victory. But I’ll admit every once in a while the players go down a horrible path, bad choices and alienating allies. It doesn’t happen as much as it used to with my groups. They’re by far smarter than I am and tend to see where I’m going to throw horrible obstacles in front of them. They work hard to reduce those problems through planning.

So of course the reason I’m thinking about this SPOILERS is the current buzz SPOILERS about Mass Effect 3 and SPOILERS how some people don’t care for the endings.


Actually, I haven’t played any of the Mass Effect games, primarily because they’re shooters and I’m lame. But in my gaming circle several have. We ended up talking about it a little last session. They’re bothered by the awful choices facing them in the game- in particular "save NPC X or save NPC Y" questions. Used to being able to replay again and again to fix things, places where they have to make those kinds of awful decisions really bother them. Of course that assumes that they like and are invested in both characters. Some NPCs have been with them since the first game, while newly introduced characters might easily get kicked out the airlock. Now know I like tough choices in my games- choices that don’t have an obvious white and black side to them, that have a cost. But as one of my players put it- if they had to choose who would live and who would die between two NPCs they cared for- that they’d campaigned with in my game...well, there’d better be huge payoff for that dramatic choice.

That’s one dimension of the complaints I’m hearing about Mass Effect 3 and the ending. ME 1 & ME2 branched choices out, choices which had a significant effect on the story and the experience. ME3 has even tougher choices to make. However, some people feel that those choices end up thrown out the window when you reach the finale. Essentially the choices you made earlier don’t pay-off or impact the story. Instead those endings are purely a function of the final couple of moments of the game, rendering the work, suffering, and decisions of the earlier games moot.

Mass Effect creates its own problem in promising that the choices made throughout will have an impact. Certainly the early PR has sold the game on that basis. That’s in contrast, honestly, to many of the JRPGs I play and enjoy. Some have multiple endings, but most of those are cosmetic variations. Consider the Final Fantasy series. I enjoy it, but the games really have one of two endings: a) you stop playing or b) you finish and get the ending. Your choices, your contribution affects ease of finishing and possibly the number of achievements you end up with. There’s little expectation about your impact on the actual game world. That’s why I have a love/hate relationship with the two most recent games.


I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII because it was pretty, it had fun combat and I liked a couple of the characters. But the ending’s a downer, with two characters I liked sacrificing themselves to save everyone. I picked up Final Fantasy XIII-2 and played that to the end. It was pretty, it had fun combat, and I liked one of the characters. I enjoyed some of the new mechanics and the chance to see more locations. But then I reached the end, having played through carefully and uncovering just about everything I could (since some stuff only unlocked post-game). And I won by beating the bad guy and watched everything move towards the good stuff- and then one of the two main characters drops dead. And then the cute mascot collapses and dies. And then the world ends because I failed. Followed by the words “To Be Continued…”

Here’s the thing: that’s the ending. It isn’t like I messed anything up. That’s what you get if you finish the game in the standard way. That seems to me a little dark. And if a GM did that, especially in a railroad-y campaign, I’d probably lose my sh*t right there at the table.

What makes this even more weird and potentially unpleasant is that they have said that they’re not making a sequel. Instead they’d said that they ended the game that way so that they would offer room for DLC. That leaves me two ways of seeing this. On the one hand, this is a blatant money grab. They give you a bad ending for your game such that you have to buy additional content in order to actually get a story that doesn’t punch you in the face. I can buy that from a marketing stand point, but I don’t have to like it. There’s an ironic parallel with the Mass Effect situation, in that people have been demanding a DLC which offers an alternate ending, or at least some kind of more satisfying coda.

There’s another way of reading this: that the FFXIII-2 team thought that was a reasonable ending. Perhaps the game is about the bleakness of existence, about the inability to change one’s destiny. Perhaps the cyclical nature of the game, with its time travel aspects is meant to echo those themes. Maybe, like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Watchmen, it’s a middle finger in the face of their fandom. It could be a commentary on the nature of video games itself. I doubt it, and I’m not sure if that makes me any happier than the corporate greed reading.

Tabletop sandbox games have to offer an ending or they just stop being run. Or at least I'd argue that if they don't offer a coherent ending, they end up weaker. A couple of things make crafting a satisfying ending for a sandbox game more difficult. The first lies in the kinds of conflict they offer. Sandbox games often allow players to avoid conflicts outside their comfort zone. In other words those with real stakes, those with added pressures or those not involving physical combat. A truly sandbox game, without restrictions, allows players to do all of the prep and planning- the equivalent of “leveling up” before heading into a situation. If players develop that approach, they may react badly when the GM tries to offer obstacles or additional complications to the setting. They’d rather have control of the stakes and choices and make those on their own terms. Time pressures, traditionally a useful tool for moving things forward, may be resented by players who fight any time lapse.

But that’s a more extreme case. I think a more common difficulty facing sandbox games concerns story resonance. Novels, films, comic books set up a spine to their story. They have controlling ideas, often supported by symbolism, allusion or mention throughout the story. Often these reflect values of the protagonist and the questioning of those values. Earlier references and details can help reinforce the theme of the story and give it more weight or resonance. That’s tougher with an interactive story. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the reasons that Mass Effect 3 tightened the chain of choices, rather than expanding them, was to add weight to the story they told: to make everything show have a role and place in underscoring those themes. A tabletop game faces similar challenges if the game is truly open. At the very least it adds complexity to the kind of improvisation a GM needs in order to craft a sandbox game into a coherent story over the course of the campaign.

Of course I’m making a value assessment: that a game with a story is better than one without. It seems obvious to me that it is, but the question lies in what actually serves as a “story” over the course of play…

As I was writing this The Rhetorical Gamer posted an excellent piece on related topics: "Thoughts on Campaign Down Design"


  1. Wow! Just wow!....I know feel less lonely on the internet world...

    Just a few comments:

    a) I am totally with you on the DM front and I share the little secret you also confessed. I too want the story to go the envisaged way. And I have been guilty once or twice of changing things to ensure it...But in all seriousness these have been the exceptions not the rules. Like for example not letting my Major Evil Bad Guy die in a very early scene where the party managed to roll more critical hits than appropriate before he made his disappearing act.

    b)I suggest you give Mass Effect a try - the story might surprise you in how good it is (provided you ignore all those things you so well described.) I honestly loved the storyline and I cannot see how I am going to be disappointed in the end when I play the third - even now that I had to read the spoilers (they are everywhere)

    c) All in all I tend to summarise things like this:
    - There are no games that offer sandbox gaming AND storyline AND epic moments...I wish I can get my hands on one of them but at the moment you get one or the other or some hybrid
    - A skilled DM could make it happen on the tabletop where a sandbox game also becomes epic and has a good storyline but I think it is extremely tough.
    - No matter how good a story a DM has prepared it won't compare to something EPIC occurring in a sandbox random setting where players simply made it happen because of rolls, random encounters and chance as well as good guidance and on-the-spot creativity of the DM.
    - Prefer to stand in the middle and try to offer both.

  2. It would seem a few of us were thinking similar thoughs recently. I wrote about this (Empty Worlds) earlier this week on the Casting Shadows blog, and just released a video post which continues the topic (Shadowscast - episode 5).

    I have to side with Netlich on the idea that a true sandbox game which is brought to epic greatness by the interaction of the GM, players, and Chance will pay off far more substantially than a plotted arc, if for no other reason than the risks were real and the rewards were earned. Of course, I also feel that the organic and real nature of this story rising into view due to player choice and action/inaction contributes to this effect as well, supported by the knowledge that encounters weren't levelled and they weren't following breadcrumbs from scene to scene.

    I believe both styles are equally hard, but I am finding that people have talents and predilections for one over the other. That includes players.

    Good post~ particularly in taking a stance, but recognizing this may be on a sliding scale, and still leaving things open for debate and discussion.

  3. Great post. If only everyone could lay out opinions and thoughts this way. Even if this was diametrically opposed to how I felt, and it's not, it was a more enjoyable read than most 'pro' posts from others.


  4. I think it's perfectly possible to present controlling ideas and relevant values in a sandbox. These themes just have to be put into the settings, rather than the quest.

    However, it is much harder to get the point across. If your theme is oppression of the many by the few, your quest-based PCs may come across villagers being abused by their lord and liberate them; sandbox-based PCs may help the lord in order to earn some extra gold on the side.

  5. But I think that that is the point of this debate in any case JollyLlama; that you need to set some high level concepts down and then let the PCs go at it...

    The thing is that if in the said scenario you don't prepare the encounters, chances are it could become another bland encounter of killing oppressors, saving the defenseless. You can only hope that something might crop up in session to make it more interesting or unique. For example you might have prepared a chase on the roofs for an alternate experience, or a few NPCs that work with the guards covertly. Things like that are hard to accomplish on the spot especially if you want to make a memorable encounter.

    Of course I am not dishing DMs who do this on the spot and come up with interesting ideas and scenarios to challenge their PCs.I just feel that in most cases these on the spot ideas might lack in depth and complexity compared to ones prepared only in broad strokes leaving the details for on the spot inspiration and the interactions of PCs to shape the final scene. But I stress the word "broad" in the previous sentence.

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