Friday, February 13, 2009

What is D&D: Sandbox v. Adventure Path (Part 2)

The sandbox design is an open area of play, with encounters anchored to locations rather than events. Some sandboxes can include entire world, and some only include a dungeon and the surrounding area. The appeal of this style of play is the free form play style, in which the players can make choices as to what they want to do, and the story line centers around these choices. The characters are the main focus of the story. What’s not to like?

Actually, there are a number of issues and challenges with sandbox adventure design and execution. In order to make a sandbox work, the GM needs to be very familiar with the area, and be ready for the unexpected. Speaking for myself, when I run sandbox adventures, I like to have the area memorized with a lot of notes so that I am ready for anything. Now I have met GM’s that can ad lib a pig farm and turn it into an exciting adventure, but that takes a special talent that not every GM has. I think it is important to recognize this, as sometimes there are assumptions that all GM’s are equally talented, and that is not quite true, as we are all different, with different strengths and weaknesses in our refereeing style.

I think the key challenges for sandbox play are as follows:

1) Lack of direction which can bog down play
2) Loss of interest, as there may not be an obvious goal to accomplish
3) Lack of coherent or organized theme through excessive use of random encounters leads to a loss of overall interest in moving forward
4) Players may outgrow their sandbox
5) Increased pressure for the GM in terms of preparation with large sandboxes and numerous player choices
6) May not be sustainable for long campaigns

One of the main advantages of this style of play is the Freedom of Choice that is inherit in this style of play. However, is this really an advantage? Do players really want choices in their adventures? On the surface, the answer is clearly yes. Everyone likes choices…to a point. I believe that too many choices actually leads to a paralysis of play, as the game reduces to discussions on what to do next, with no clear direction emerging out of the conversation. I think there is a natural tendency to withdraw rather than engage when confronted with vagueness of purpose. When this happens, it is time to regroup and start over.

When this issue pops up, I have heard GM’s complain that their players are unwilling to explore their world, and I have heard players complain that there is not enough to do to keep their interest. Both are right, it’s just the frame of reference is different, and that makes all the difference in terms of enjoyment of play. This is why I believe that the opening hook has to be a good one, as that is the first thing the players are going to focus their attention on. I believe that it is critical that a campaign get off to a good fast start, as that provides momentum for the game. This helps offset the potential for a rudderless mid game drift, which is one of the major pitfalls of the sandbox style of play.

To wrap up this point; while we all like choices, we really do not like ambiguity, and we would really rather have a bit more structure to our lives. This is definitely true in our professional lives, and this carries over to our game play. A limited set of choices is good, too many choices and we start to bog down, which ultimately effects our fun quotient. The reality is that while we may say we like choices, we may find more enjoyment with a limited set of choices, rather than an unlimited set of choices.


So this brings us back to the opening question, what is D&D, the sandbox or the adventure path? I am sure that there are zealous proponents of both, that can point to great games that they have had with both styles of play. But which one really captures the spirit of the game? That is a tougher question. Some critics may be comfortable stopping here, but this does not satisfy me, which is what prompted me to write the article. Leaving the discussion at this point is a bit like kicking a FG for the tie rather than go for the win, so I will press on.

Clearly D&D started with the sandbox style campaign. However there has been a certain amount of evolution in the game. While some may say that this evolution has been bad for the game, and I am not sure that we can make such a wide sweeping generalization. The popularity in the early days of plot and story, is significant, and represents a valid direction of the game. With this said, I do not think we can dismiss it out of hand.

I will offer something of a middle ground, and I think that it is a fair position to hold. I like the legacy roots of the sandbox game, but we need to recognize the limitations of this style of play. We also need to recognize the limitations of the adventure path, with extreme versions of this style being similar to reading a story of someone else’s character, which leads to a lack of accomplishment, and hinders enjoyment. I think the sandbox mini-campaign, with one or more plot arcs is probably the optimal game design that offers the best of both world, and leverages the strengths of both styles. I will go on to say that I think this was present in some of the early modules, including the classic G and D series. While the series offered a wide range of options for the players, there was a central theme that could be adjusted by the GM, and I think that it was a critical element to the success of the overall series.

Next up, I will dig more into the evolution of the mechanics of the game. I think the D&D game encourages evolution, as creativity is an important part of the fun, but is it all good?


Ironbeard said...

Thanks for a great post. I completely agree with you that a blended sandbox/adventure path model is probably the best.

In fact, I wonder if it might not be best to jettison these concepts completely, or better yet, replace them with the more unitary concept of PC "free will." I think that terms like sandbox or adventure path are a little problematic in this context because they refer ultimately to the structure of the imaginary game world rather than the actions of the PCs in that world.

I think it may be more fruitful to define things from the player's perspective by using the concept of PC "free will," meaning that no matter how the game or campaign world is set up, the PCs must be free to do whatever they want.

Viewed this way, it really doesn't matter if the DM wants to introduce story events into the campaign as long the PCs are free to react to those events however they want and that events do not have to occur in a predetermined sequence (or to happen at all for that matter). In other words, Game play does not have be anchored exclusively to locations, as opposed events. All that matters is that players can do what they want and that outcomes are not predetermined.

Your point about the G and D series is excellent and perfectly makes the point. While this module series is usually touted (correctly I believe) as a paragon of old school style play, there is clearly an implied story there, a mission. Of course, the outcome or specific narrative trajectory of the story is not predetermined. But that said, the primary intent of those modules was not to just turn the PCs loose in the underdark and let them wander around as they saw fit.

The players will most likely fight the Drow minions in D1, then move on to fight the Kua Toa and then engage in some sort of ultimate confrontation with the Drow. This is the story arc implied by the series. The key is that the players do not have to do this if they do not want to. The players could just decide to wander around and explore the underdark (though I'm not sure that term was used back then).

The point is is that what makes those modules old school is not the presence or absence of story elements (they are clearly there), but the fact that its assumed that the players will react and engage with those elements as they see fit and of their own free will.

I think that if we define matters from the players' perspective like this, then we are less likely to fall into the situation you describe so well in your post: the PCs are just kind of wandering around and the DM feels that he is betraying the underlying principles of the game if he tries to nudge or point them in any particular direction.

Maybe its a subtle distinction, but I believe its an important one.

Anyways, thanks for the post.

Mr Baron said...

Thanks for the comments. I think in order for the PC's to have "free will" a certain amount of flexibility has to be designed up front. It is interesting to think that as more flexibility and openness is built in, the probability that the players may have trouble engaging in a meaningful way increases. There is an inverse relationship that needs to be understood by the GM. I am approaching it from a GM perspective, as I am using my blog as a way of kicking around ideas which I would like to incorporate into my next game. Clearly I would like the characters to feel like they have free will, and not feel like the outcome has already been predecided, however, I think play is improved when there is an overall theme or plot arc that they can interact with. Occasionally a GM is going to have to give the players a "push" in a direction to prevent play from bogging down.

There are some other comments that I want to kick around, but I will save that for tomorrow's blog :)