Monday, April 26, 2010


If you are following my online campaign (and there’s no reason you should be), you will have just witnessed a thud as a major plot became evident at the instigation of the character - you can see it here. Basically, it has just been revealed that events happening last year, that involved opening a hellgate in the town of Dachau (and which had the characters taking a peripheral part in) was all to arrange for two dopplegangers to be placed into the roles of town mayor and - what is not stated on the link - the chief of the guard.

I have been sitting on this plot point for more than a year ... literally, since I began arranging the reveal, which just happened, with a post I wrote on February 25, 2009. In that post, I included a quite common bit of description (spelling corrected):

”And above that, a third notice, which reads, “The Lord Mayor’s election is to take place on the 24 May 1650. The following citizens have been nominated to date: The competant Lord Mayor Martin Folkes. The competant Councillor Erich Kinski. The competant Patrician Eduard Johannsen. The experienced Patrician Eberhardt Hornung.”
Therein began the tale. All four of the gentlemen have been accounted for, and the party has been adroitly moved into the political sphere of one of them. When I ran this campaign, with other people, last spring, I dropped bits and hints from time to time … but it would have been very hard to see just what I was doing behind the scenes, just from those hints. If the party had seriously chosen to investigate, there would have been stronger clues. But it never happened that way.

If the one character in the campaign, Delfig, had not returned to Dachau, chances are that I would never have revealed any of this, EVER. That is the thing about a sandbox campaign:

Sometimes, you never get to know.

As a writer, I am mentally sitting on a number of plots that I have never written, for novels that I plan to write someday, and even for novels which I have given up on and which I will never write. I think about what a particular character will do, and how points A and B will come together … and as a novelist, it is my work, my art, to carefully install the various complicated clues into a work in order that when the reveal comes in chapter 17, the reader will think, “Ahhhhhh!”

Where D&D is mainly different is that, most of the time in my sandbox campaign, I’m not able to make the reveal. I set the clues, I add the various descriptions here and there - they are in turn ignored or forgotten by the party - and I am all ready to show that the small insignificant scribbling on the third floor of the house where three goblins were killed was really a sign that will lead the way directly to …

When the party changes its mind, loads up and leaves town, and never finds out what that scribbling was all about.

This would, I imagine, drive most people to drink. I find, however, I am enormously comfortable with it.

I simply put that little piece of information on the shelf, where one day I may get to use it again somewhere else, or where I may forget about entirely. Or I may, like the books I have conceived of but which I will never write, take the thing down again while I’m sitting at a bus stop or waiting for a film to start. I’ll roll it over in my mind and wonder if it was really as good as it could have been. I’ll investigate the angles and try to improve on them. And when I’m satisfied that it’s taught me something, I’ll put it back and move on.

Nothing worthwhile is ever wasted. Even if I am the only one who will see it.

There are other combinations of clues and connections which I have in mind, both for my online parties and for my offline. Some of these I will carry right to my grave. Some of these I will think about explaining to someone, somewhere - because I like them that much. Most of the time that I do that, however, I find myself a bit dissapointed with the response. I think they’re good reveals. Within the framework of an adventure, I’m sure the party would find them good reveals. But outside that framework -

Well, they are just plot points. No big deal. Just another bit of another story, where the listener has nothing invested.

Just now, if the gentle reader has not been following the campaign, very little will be thought of in terms of the emotional effect that Delfig is undergoing, right now.

But to Delfig - that “Ahhhhh” moment was everything.

I am wondering how it will come out.


I had wanted to emphasize more upon how it is that a DM must keep hidden many of the twists, turns and so on that are in his or her brain when running a sandbox campaign rather than a single-shot adventure - how keeping mum can last for months, even years ... but I suppose I concentrated too much on the event at hand.  Overall, I had wanted to start a discussion on why its best to keep our mouths shut.  Even when that's hard to do.


Andrej said...

I had a sense the doppelgangers were involved in the goings-on, particularly last week when Emmanuel mentioned that they had never been delat with and were likely still about. That did nothing to diminish the "aha!" monent though. Whatever happens to Delfig at this point must be considered worth it just for that.

Oddbit said...

I found it particularly "Aaaah" and I wasn't even following during the origin of the story, just the last half of the Serafina arc.

Cayvie said...

"Overall, I had wanted to start a discussion on why its best to keep our mouths shut. Even when that's hard to do."

ok, why is it?

i mean, i frequently tell people what was going on behind the scenes once a game i run ends. is that bad, to you?

R said...

@ Cayvie - Personally I found out early on that it kills motivation if your PCs know that they can just ask you about things after the campaign is finished. In the campaign I ran last year there were a handful of mundane items found with cultural markings that didn't make any sense to anyone in the group, but the characters never had time to investigate (even though they wanted to badly) - which made their decisions all that more critical. The players knew that the only way to figure out what the hell those markings were (if they were anything at all) was to have their characters look into it.

This leads to actual conflict and tension in decisions sometimes ("But if we leave now, we'll never ever know what was behind that weird door!" etc.).

Venting said...

R is absolutely right in this, Cayvie.

I would add to it the prospect of bluffing, straight out of poker (and other strategy games). You cannot create an effective bluffing success if you always show your cards.

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Carl said...

Looks like you picked up a spambot, Alexis. You're getting famous.

This article, or rather the one you had intended to write when you set out -- as per your post script -- describes one of the most difficult things for me in an open or sandbox game.

I drop hints constantly. Adventure is literally everywhere, but my parties will rarely follow a lead. Instead they seem to prefer running down the absolute most insignificant detail of a piece of "color" description I drop into a travelogue as if it were the formula for the Philosopher's Stone.

One example, and then I'll retreat. I had a party travelling across the Ethereal Plan in a ship built for this purpose to a portal to the Plane of Fire to meet with a disgruntled Ifrit in order to exchange some items for some other items. In a random encounter (rolled off a table in the back of an old Spelljammer supplement), they found the body of a magic user -- literally Ethereal flotsam -- and spent the entire evening investigating every aspect of his body, his possessions, the area around him and so forth. I had nothing for them, even going so far as have them find calling cards on this poor former soul that were inscribed, "R. Herring"

I feel a bit guilty now that I didn't improv better around this, but I needed to introduce a new PC and their investigative activities delayed this happening to the point where it pissed off the new player so badly that she never came back.

This kind of thing happens in my games. It's almost like the actual adventures don't hold near the potential of the, "You stand in the marketplace observing the farmers dismantling their displays. You can smell the iron-tang of blood from the evening's sacrifices wafting over the crowd and hear the faint murmur of the priests' prayers mingling with the ribald language of the country folk."

I don't want to introduce rails, but I'm starting to think that it's almost best to just make everything up on the spot. Improvise everything rather than try to build a plot. Throw around a bunch of disconnected elements like a dead body, a lost child, an old letter, a basket of rotten fruit, an abandoned house, and then stitch them together after-the-fact rather than torture myself with keeping track of a dozen or a score of plot lines that may never be examined or even stumbled upon by the party.