Sunday, May 2, 2010

Musings: Railroads, Sandboxes, and highly motivated NPCs

After reading many blog posts about sandboxes, railroads, and the like, I began to think about my own views on the subject of campaign planning for dungeons and dragons.

On the topic of railroading, I have to say that even during the time that the World of Darkness books exploded into gamer awareness -- railroading was a bad word. Dungeon Masters, Storytellers, and your garden variety Game Masters all condemned railroading (defined as forcing players to go down a particular series of encounters where their choices and activities have little to no impact on what happens). Even those who regularly did it in their campaigns felt (either hypocritically or ignorantly) this way. Therefore, to my mind, the assertion that a sandbox setting is superior to a series of railroad-structure adventures is not up for debate.

What is up for (potentially endless) debate is whether or not "adventure path" or "encounter matrix" adventures -- adventures that identify a series of mandatory, likely, unlikely, and random encounters whose circumstances vary based on actions taken by the PCs and reactions of the various NPCs -- should be lumped together with the railroads.

On the topic of story being absent from sandbox settings, my view is that there should be no end to stories in them. There are the big, epic stories that concern the fate of the universe down to the city-state that your PCs inhabit. There are the small stories about the tinker's daughter and the three reagent elixir that's needed to save her life. And there are the stories of the PCs and the important NPCs of the campaign -- which may end happily, tragically, or uselessly, depending on preparations and choices made, and some measure of luck.

On the topic of highly motivated NPCs -- villainous, virtuous, or somewhere in between -- I am very much in favor of them. When I say highly motivated, I refer to NPCs who are driven to do something and appear to have achieved significant things every time they are encountered. These serve several purposes in a campaign (sandbox or not):

  • they reinforce that the world is continuously moving and changing whether or not the PCs are doing something, that the PCs -- while the focus of the game -- are not the center of the world;
  • they bring in rumors, stories, examples of other cultures and technologies from other areas of your campaign setting -- even those not yet explored by your PCs;
  • they can be dark (or light) reflections of your PCs, showing what they might have become had choices and circumstances been different;
  • they can be recurring rivals and enemies whose final defeat is all the more sweet because of the longstanding clashes;
  • they can act as seeded surprises (for good or for ill) that trigger changes in the campaign tone or setting (i.e. the crazy old coot always playing with his puzzle box finally opens a gateway to the abyss, the village idiot whose mad rambling never made sense is cured by a high level cleric and reveals sage-level knowledge of a coming apocalypse, etc.)
On the topic of "the right way of gaming", I heartily agree that if you're having fun, then your way is the right way. I'd also like to point out that just because other people don't play the way you do, it doesn't necessarily mean their style of play is superior or inferior to yours. I liken it to books:
  • sometimes it is about genre preference -- I like private eye novels, but I don't like serial killer stories; I like urban fantasy, but not epic fantasy;
  • sometimes it's about style -- I like Hemingway's terse lean prose over Gabriel Garcia Marquez's lyrical and lengthy magical realism;
  • sometimes it's about the emphasis -- do your prefer your military fiction to focus on the characters or the hardware? should the writing focus on the tactics, or on the heroism (or lack thereof)?
  • sometimes it's about variety -- I can't read more than three books in a series vs. the more books in a series the better.
People like different things, for different reasons, and people change over the years. And yet somethings will always remain close to their hearts. And ultimately, if they enjoy those things for whatever reason, isn't that what matters?

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