Monday, February 9, 2009

What is D&D: Sandbox v. Adventure Path (Part 1)

Sandbox design or Adventure Path design?

Until just recently, I had not given a lot of thought to the question. From a historical perspective, D&D started with the sandbox. Greyhawk was the early sandbox campaign, with adventures centered on exploring the old castle and the ruins below. Continuing on this theme, the campaign initially was a mega dungeon that supported several groups and then over time, the concept of campaign changed to a series of adventures (or dungeons) with one group (see blog discussion on Grognardia). This in turn has led to a change in design philosophy.

As D&D moved from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, the concept of adventure path was created, but it was a rough attempt to link already written adventures together. T1 was linked to Q1 with the A series, G series and D series in between. Extra material was written to build the bridge to otherwise separate adventures. To be fair, the G series were intended to follow each other, and the D series clearly built on information contained in earlier works. Following this, there was concentrated attempt to link modules tightly together (Desert series) and even large story arcs together through the DragonLance series. Now I would argue that DragonLance is an extreme example, as the modules tried to follow material written in the novels. This proved to be very popular, and the trend continued.

Jumping ahead to 3rd edition and Dungeon magazine, Paizo formally claimed the term adventure path with their Shacked City adventure path which first appeared in the magazine before being produced into a hardcover book. This was followed by Age of Worms and Savage Tide. With WotC pulling back the licensing agreement for Dungeon, Paizo moved forward with their Pathfinder Adventure Path series, which has thus far proved to be successful.

With that short history recap, this brings us up to the present, but what does it really mean? I think we have to go back to the definition of campaign. In the early days, there was not a lot of material available. Dungeons had to be big by default, as demand was high, but the supply of adventures was very low. Gary did not start with a full line of adventures already produced; rather he started with Greyhawk, and expanded it to meet the demand of his players. I also suspect that as he became busy with TRS, it was easier to expand something that he already had, rather can continually created brand new material.

As the game became more popular, and the experience of players grew, the natural result was a sense of pride and accomplishment with what they created with their characters. When a player starts a new character in a long term campaign, there is the expectation that this character could reach the high levels. To be honest, I do not think this is a bad thing, and I think this is fundamental to the enjoyment of the game. Part of the joy of the game includes telling bardic stories of heroic feats of valor, from a character perspective. Not to be under estimated, GM’s enjoy recounting the games in which their players did noteworthy things. I will call this the Valhalla experience, as the tales become a thing of legend through their continual retelling over food and drink.

One could argue that the adventure path is the natural progression of the game. I will say that in any game that continues to have support material created, evolution will occur. As experience in game play is gained, trends will develop. In this case, I will hypothesis that adventure paths are the Darwinian result of game evolution.

But is that good or bad? Do players, and I am thinking of both GM’s and players, find adventure paths more enjoyable than the old sandbox campaign? One thing that I have noticed is that everyone plays the game slightly differently. Now clearly this does not help to answer the question, but I think we can still make some generalizations that give deeper insight into the question.

I am convinced that no player likes extreme railroading on a rigid, predetermined story arc. There is not the same level of accomplishment that exists with this style of play. One could just read a book and cross of the main character’s name and substitute a player’s name. This is not very fulfilling. What is fulfilling is carving out a legacy that included risk and reward. I am going to go on a tangent here for a moment, and compare D&D to gambling. One of the reasons that there is an attraction to gambling is that the outcome is unknown. There is risk in terms of money loss, and there is reward, which could be several times the amount wagered. While I agree that no one likes losing, it is this risk of losing that makes winning extremely satisfying, and keeps one coming back. This is why we enjoy sports, we feel for the underdog, and we revel in the upset. The longer the odds, the sweeter the taste of victory. All of us feel this way to some extent, and we can recognize this trait in our human make up. I hesitate to call it apart of our DNA, but I do believe it is in there somewhere.

The folks that play D&D feel this to some extent. We play to see our characters advance, and to have that shared experience of accomplishment. An adventure path done right plays right into this concept. It provides a series of scenarios that offer the possibility of character growth to a given level. The reward of advancement is built into the adventure design. I think this is the core of the argument for the adventure path as the natural evolution of D&D.

So where does this leave the sandbox, and why does the old guard hold on to this design philosophy? Part of the answer is in rebellion to the forced story arcs in which the risk has been watered down to a point, where the reward does not feel satisfying. The old guard wants the higher risk of advancement that comes with no guarantees of success. Finally, there is also the desire for choice and accomplishment.

This brings us to Freedom of Choice in the D&D game. We talk a lot about it, but do we really want it? In part 2 on this topic, I will dig a bit more in the sandbox design, and discuss a more about Choice.


Hamlet said...

I think that the main difference and main point of contention (from my limited point of view) will always be that the current incarnations of "Adventure Paths" so infamously inagurated by the DragonLance modules attempt to do something that is not conducive to playing D&D, and that is telling a story. They have a definite pre-planned plot written out which the adventures must follow or the entire thing goes off the rails. The story might be good and interesting, but in the end, what it accomplishes is only narrowing the field of "acceptable play" within the context of the modules and most players (especially those of the "old school") chafe at such restrictions.

On the other hand, of course, sandboxing has its fair share of problems, not least of which is that without a very skilled DM at the helm, the entire campaign can feel rudderless and directionless as PC's wander from place to place with no clear goals in mind.

In my estimation, the "best" point is somewhere in the middle. A full sandbox, but a DM who's able and willing to nudge the players in a direction from time to time to get them to certain places.

The either/or type of question always seems to ignore the real issues in favor of what can only be described as ideology.

Mr Baron said...


I totally agree, and in tomorrow's blog I will get into the sandbox dungeons a bit more.