Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Admittedly, there has been a considerable amount of complaining on this blog of late; I have not posted any rules or maps or spreadsheets, that sort of meat that I have recently called for, primarily because I have been arrested with certain philosophical pursuits which have been time consuming. What time I have spent towards D&D I have used to crunch numbers in an attempt to make my massive 20 meg distance table more accessible, which I’ve done by making it a 40 meg spreadsheet with a great deal more information on it. Sadly, it isn’t the sort of the thing that makes good posting material.

If you are going to have a blog that lasts more than two years, I can suggest strongly to you that you develop a set of features … which will give you something to write about when nothing comes to mind. My Civilization posts, for example, which I’ve been putting out for months now, and will put out for months yet. They do tend to be a bit dry, however, and I have been thinking about something I could rant on regularly that would have more … zest, shall we say. I think I’ve hit on something which, unfortunately, both inspires me to write and also suggests I am setting myself up for a mighty fall. Nevertheless, nature hates a coward, so we shall give it a try. Don’t think too ill of me if in a month or two I simply give it up.

There is a list, available here, under the pompous title: The Grand List Of Console Role Playing Game Cliches.  It is very good for a laugh.  For me, I figure, if I'm going to bitch about things, I might just as well do it by the numbers.

Now, while I know these things are supposed to apply to video games, they don't just apply to video games.  For example: the first one on the list:

Sleepyhead Rule: The teenaged male lead will begin the first day of the game by oversleeping, being woken up by his mother, and being reminded that he's slept in so late he missed meeting his girlfriend.

I'm just going to say right up front that I am throwing out all references to video games, manga, anime (where this applies in spades) and so on ... because I want to talk about only the one RPG in particular.  If you have any personal comments to make about video games and this rule, please feel free to write them in your own blog.

Writing a lede for a story, that being the journalist's word for the first sentence or the first paragraph, is a bitch.  That's why the initial opening of virtually every kind of game begins with a terrible, obsequious cliche - you walk into a tavern; you awake in an inn; you arrive at the town gates; you're at the town gates and you're leaving ... and so on.  Openings always suck.  The story hasn't happened yet and you don't want to commit the players to anything before they've had time to breathe.  For example, try starting your players off with,

"You all meet for the very first time as together you flee two hundred villagers armed with pitchforks and clubs ... one of you must have said something wrong."

Now, I just know someone is going to write a comment that says, "I have started a campaign this way!"  Like that was a good thing.  It really isn't, since it just requires the DM to come up with a cheap deus ex machina gimmick (a convenient hiding place, someone suddenly arriving and standing the villagers off, etc.) ... and you are right back where you started: dullsville.  Most times, that machine of the gods is nothing but a huge hook, to start the story off.  I won't, at the moment, go off on why that pisses me off - the gentle reader should know I'm not a fan of story-driven D&D.  I'm just not.

If you want a sandbox, you've got to realize that starting off the adventure as a 'sleepyhead' is the RIGHT way to start.  I don't know about you, but no matter how fucked up my day is, I usually start it by getting out of bed.  Not always my bed ... but when that does happen, it's in the middle of the story and the characters ARE entitled to a beginning.  They shouldn't be robbed of it.

Yes, it will almost certainly be dull.  I heard the typical bleating with my last post about how DM's should make things exciting for the players, but let me tell you something - fuck all that.  I am not the tap-dancing fucking entertainment director on a cruise ship.  I've said that before, but the sheep just don't hear me.  I DO NOT ENTERTAIN MY PLAYERS.  I create a world, where my players are expected to entertain themselves.

Sure, I might mention in passing that the girlfriend did stop by, and that sleepyhead did miss the girlfriend, but that is not handing the party an adventure on a silver platter.  I will throw out some very gentle hooks, some very gentle hints ... but not to tell them what to do.  I do it because shit happens.  If you stand on a street long enough, you will see shit happen.

In the meantime, D&D is sometimes boring.  It should be ... any dramatist will tell you, that's how you build tension.  You establish a baseline of careful mundanity and ratchet the moment up to GODLEVEL terror.  It is the careful and clever pacing of an H.P. Lovecraft novel.  The sort of pacing that will still be around when Michael-scream-from-the-start-to-the-end-Day reaches his inevitable "who the hell is he" status.

So yes.  Allow for a small bit of calm, uninteresting behavior on the part of the sandbox characters.  If it isn't boring them, it shouldn't be boring you.  Of course, if it is boring them - and it often is - let them wallow in it at least a little while, long enough to admit they don't really have this whole sandbox thing under control.

It will teach them how to appreciate when things do start to happen.


Anonymous said...

As someone who usually starts a campaign with explosions, chases and/or PCs scaling moonlit cliffs while having flashbacks the sleepyhead approach seems awfully linear to me and I like my drama a bit Nouvelle Vague meets Jerry Bruckheimer. BUT I will give sleepyhead a go.

Anonymous said...

Like Sean, I've started plenty of campaigns off in media res. The difference is that each time I did it ended up being a mistake for me, at least as far as having a "campaign" was concerned. It took me years to figure out that the problem wasn't how exciting that opening moment was, nor that it wasn't integral enough to my over-arching "plot". Because some of them were very exciting moments and had recurring, far-reaching effects. The problem, of course, was that the players as a whole generally couldn't give a flying fuck about whatever circumstance I manufactured to put them into the mess, even if I did avoid providing some heavy-handed resolution for them. They just had other ideas about what they wanted to do. If I'm a subscriber to the sandbox campaign style now, its only because I've already taken my lumps as the "frustrated and unfulfilled fiction writer as DM"

Kevin said...

I just started an online sandbox game, and found myself somewhere between 'sleepy' and 'in media res': I told the players 'you can enter this scene, in the village green, at any point you're ready to do so. It's midmorning; you're in this village.'

Then, in the village green, I placed two NPCs: a farmer trying to get the militia captain to help him, and the militia captain, who wasn't interested.

That gave me a 'hook' to ease sandbox-wary players into the setting, but also let players dictate their own 'wake up in the morning' moment. With, actually, fairly hilarious results.

Zzarchov said...

I always start a game a session beforehand with "tell me what brought your characters togethor and what type of adventure they are TRYING to accomplish, and I'll flesh out a starting point from there"

it could be "we want to be pirates" or as complex as "We want to be fleeing to the edges of civilization to start a new life and build our own manor and estate through religious and military campaigns".

Then I put them off in a place where they can do that, explain the area a bit and ask "So how did you get here?"

If they are new players I'll ask a series of leading questions. I might ask for example "Why can you never go home?". This forces two things upon the player, that they are not home now and they can never go back to home. It also gives a reason to adventure: You need somewhere to live.

I don't like that level of handholding, but its effective for players new to a setting or RPG's in general.

Mike(aka kaeosdad) said...

Nothing to add(next to no time to comment on anyone's blog lately) except fuck yeah! Looking forward to reading the rest of your rants about crpg cliches.

Doug Wall said...

I have spent many campaigns trying to breathe new life into the "You all meet in a bar" cliche, mostly by kicking off the adventure by having something happen there. In fact, in my last campaign, my players told me that they are going to be staying miles away from any bars because they have an alarming tendency to explode.

Badmike said...

Last campaign I had all the characters meet in a bar....and then a white dragon crashed into the bar and killed almost everyone. And then the frost giants and frost witches and other dragons attacked. It seriously rocked. We are still playing three years later and they still talk about that beginning. Screw sleepyhead!