Friday, January 16, 2009

Sandbox vs. Story

First of all, I should give a tip of the hat to the very entertaining and thought-provoking blog I stumbled upon called 'Grognardia'—hosted right here on blogspot. Its author, James Maliszewski, is an eloquent writer, who's thoughts on gaming inspired me to start my own ramblings, even if they really are (ultimately) only for my own gratification.

In many ways, I very much agree with James in his views on gaming in general and the rather bleak path that many 'modern' games seem to be treading now. And yet my own odd upbringing in gaming (detailed in earlier posts) has given me a different view on the whole idea of 'story driven' adventures.

I'll start with a brief explanation of what I mean by sandbox and story-driven. Sandbox is a method of gaming whereby the game-master sets up a world or scenario then turns the characters loose in it to do whatever strikes their fancy. The 'goal' in this kind of game is whatever the players set for themselves—wealth, power, etc. Whether they achieve it or not is a combination of their own decision-making and pure chance.

Story-driven games are those that include a specific plot through which the players progress, essentially making them characters following a particular plot line from point to point to achieve the goal (whatever that may be).

I've played in and GMed both types of campaigns, and I can see the fun in both. But as my particular tastes matured, I found out that the story-driven method was ultimately more fulfilling for me as a GM—and luckily, I found a group of players who found it likewise fulfilling for them. 

It is probably no coincidence that my love for story-based gaming really began with the Star Wars RPG. It was explicitly stated in those rules that the story was the key—even going so far as to show how to plan adventures in an episodic manner. The Tatooine Manhunt module was an excellent example of this. 

The criticisms of story-based gaming generally center around how the plot can railroad players into a linear progression, preventing them from feeling as though their actions really have any effect on what's going on around them. From my own experience, I have found this concern to be valid—done the wrong way, story-based adventures can be frustrating or even just plain dull.

The real trick to running a successful story-based game is flexibility. Yes, there is an over-arching story, and usually specific plot points that have to be hit. But never force characters to stay on those rails. Always give them enough room to pursue their own tangents and alternate routes. They will often surprise you with their own ingenuity, coming up with ways that may even skip some of those set-piece episodes you planned on. Flexibility also includes coming up with contingencies for failure, because sometimes the character's actions mean that the 'happy ending' to your story may not be as happy as you'd intended (for my players, they should well remember their glorious failure on 'Mission to Lianna'). 

Another must for story-based gaming is at least some kind of initial buy off by the players. They should know its a story-based campaign or adventure. They have to want to be part of the story you're telling (i.e. if you want to do a classical Star Wars campaign, then the players have to want to be rebels). By investing themselves in the story, the players are essentially choosing to go along for the ride—choosing to let their characters become involved in the 'plot of the week' by being ordered on a specific mission.

And finally, what I consider the third key to good story-based gaming: making the characters the heroes. This may sound obvious, but if the NPCs in the plot overshadow the PCs then they may well feel they are just supporting characters in someone else's story. No matter how cool your GMPC (or Feature Character) is, he should not outshine the main characters in your story. Also, give the characters a chance to become truly 'epic' heroes through their actions. In Star Wars especially, but in many other games as well, Player Characters represent people who are head and shoulders above the normal folk around them. Let them be exceptional. That way, even their failures seem to have more impact on their world. It is empowering, I think for players to feel their characters 'oats'. After all, when we imagine ourselves in movies, who do we want to be? Some pogue in the background? or the hero?

This all having been said—and my preference for story-based plots now out in the open—I have to say that the best campaigns actually include both kinds of plots, in a mix. Sometimes, in the course of a story, a player may pick up on some particular aspect and want to investigate it more thoroughly or they may have some bit of their character's background they want to explore. This is where the sandbox returns to the mix, with the players leading the direction of the campaign for a while.

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