Now, this isn't a what-we-did-in-the-last-session sort of post. It is only that the party decided to quit the dungeon, opting instead to make our way to the edge of human-civilized lands and start border raiding on the far-off orc empire. Like young people who have a dream of adventure, we've loaded up the party's donkey and draft horse, and we're on our way.
My daughter's issue with this is a common one: what in hell does she do with us as we make a thousand-mile journey to the edge of civilization?
Let's have a look at the situation, since it is something every sandbox DM is faced with from time to time.
1) Because we're low-level players, 2nd to 5th level, and because we've been dungeoneering, we haven't left a lot of enemies still left alive. Intrigue level is therefore pretty nigh zero.
2) The journey isn't a straightforward one. To get where we're going, we have to cross a range of mountains (the Carpathians) in a somewhat wild section (Ruthenia, in Western Ukraine), while skirting the edge of the Ottoman Empire, and thence crossing from Poland into Southern Russia, a land filled with hills and cossacks. This suggests plenty of possible tensions. Naturally, one would not wish to snap one's fingers and say, "You're there."
3) Being not me, however, the experience and knowledge she has with the various elements of the journey are not great. This is an enormous obstacle to her running us as players.
One of the benefits to having maps that are blank, featureless hexes is that blank, featureless people are not sorely tried in rising to the occasion. They merely need to announce that the players have crossed the blank, featureless plain and are now on the other side. There is none of that inconvenient history, geography and culture to get in the way. No, there are no special peoples who dwell on this particular plain hex (in fact, there's no people whatsoever except for a few farmers), they don't have any sentimental hatred of foreigners, the weather is Hollywood-perfect and as long as a 1 on a d6 is not rolled, the party might just as well be crossing a whiteboard. A string of six or eight perfectly blank hexes only means the d6 must be rolled six or eight times, and once that occurs, the party is safely on the other side, potentially without any incident at all.
This is the way my daughter ran a world when she did so with her friends from school, before she came to be into my universe - something she put off doing for years, which I respected. I've said before that I feel children ought to be fully sentient before being allowed to play D&D - age 11 or so - or else they will build bad habits in terms of perceiving what the game is about. By the time my daughter was 11, my particular world was highly unstable ... and by the time she reached 13, and my life had returned to stability again, she was unsure that my serious way of playing was for her. Three years of playing with high school students convinced her otherwise, and she (her partner, and some of her friends) have been playing with me for six years now.
She wants to play a better campaign than just a whiteboard. But now that she has found herself faced with the grim reality of filling in that blank, featureless space, the pressure is on.
Let me explain the point of this post. If you, the gentle reader, were to produce a night's running without any thoughtful preparation - i.e., you did not expect the party was going to suddenly strike out in an unexpected direction - you couldn't be blamed for producing a campaign that suffered a little from cliche. We all do it. For example:
- The party is walking along the road and finds a crisis is going on: an Inn is on fire. The chances of this happening at the exact time the party is wandering by are ridiculously tiny ... but the Gods play for convenience, not for odds.
- The party is walking along the road and are met with others who desperately need help. Good thing the party is here.
- The party is walking along the road and are randomly attacked.
- The party is walking along the road and fall in with others going in the same direction, who have an interesting story to tell about some feature nearby.
- The party is walking along the road and the weather forces them to seek shelter in some potentially awful feature nearby.
- The party is walking along the road and are met with people who accuse the party of being someone else.
- The party is walking along the road and find a person who is dead, unconscious or otherwise harmless and unable to convey any information, and find clues as to what happened.
What's important isn't the initial set-up. What is important is the quality of the character one meets on the road. Letting Rutger Hauer into your car gets pretty freaky. No matter how implausible, it makes a better horror film than picking up Jessica Tandy (some would disagree). The real question isn't "What happens?" ... it is, "HOW does it happen?" How do we get the players to agree to help out the fellows who need help? How does the dead body look when it is found? How really odd are the other travellers going the same way as the party? How awful or strange or unexpected is the terrible disaster taking place along the side of the road? Just how bad or extraordinary or disturbingly personal is the weather?
Hollywood is a terrible story teller, and yet it has the inconvenience of being all-pervasive as an influence on D&D sandboxes. Hollywood features a group of assholes sitting in a room talking about where this story is going to take place, and what products will be in the story that can be sold. It talks about the jobs the characters will have, and the relationships the characters will be in, and then casts actors on the basis of those designs.
If somehow a great character is born out of those conversations, it's pure chance. 'Cause Hollywood doesn't care about character. They're still trying to figure out why Indiana Jones was popular. They've been trying to repeat Indiana Jones for thirty years and their efforts have been mostly a dismal failure. They think Jones is tough, fearless, resourceful, handsome, correctly dressed and so on.
It is a complete mystery to them that Jones feels pain ... so they make Indiana Jones character after Indiana Jones character that doesn't. They are oblivious to the moment that Jones hesitates with visible fear before he does something insanely dangerous, so they make Jones characters that don't hesitate. They fail to realize that really, and for the most part, Jones doesn't know how to do a lot of things - he can't fly a plane, he has trouble starting boats, he makes a lousy purser and a lot of the time he does stupid things that get him into trouble - but Hollywood goes on making amazing characters who look like Jones who instead can do everything. What he looks like isn't that important, but Hollywood thinks it is. It's the sweating from working hard and the eyes desperately seeking a way out that appeal to a woman's instincts to clean him and help him. If the actor sweats and can look simultaneously scared and determined like Harrison Ford, women will think he's attractive.
I guess what I'm saying is that character is a lot more than what somebody does or how someone is dressed. "Barbarian" isn't a character. The Greeks used the word to describe people who were not Greek. If your NPC Barbarian's behavior is based on how you think a 'Barbarian' behaves, congratulations: You've just invented Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
You've got to think more deeply about these characters that are standing by the road asking the players for help. You've got to consider how they got where they are, how they came to be covered with little nicks and scars or how it happened that they lost a leg. Don't hold back in giving this information. Make it clear that the lost leg is directly involved in what the characters are being asked to do. Make it clear that the NPC would willingly lose the other leg, if he could go, only that then he couldn't get back. Create a character foible or habit, an abiding opinion, a vicious streak or whatever, and then squeeze all the juice out of it that you can. One decent cold-hearted bastard who keeps kittens in his bag for his morning meals - for a REALLY GOOD reason - is worth a thousand interesting settings.
The problem with these posts suggesting this or that for the DMs out there is that they are necessarily vague and abstract. There isn't any table I can offer for the creation of characters. I can provide a hundred lists for products and hit point comparisons and region statistics, but there's nothing that can be done to infuse you, the DM, with the knowledge of how to make a good character. It can't be done with rows and columns. You have to be the sort of observant creature who watches the way a character's cheek flutters or how flexing their hands in a particular scene helps establish the tension. You've got to be able to pick out from the order of the words in a sentence just how the author is attempting to manipulate you into believing that this guy is a dope and that guy has it all together.
I can't remember saying this on this blog before, but it's worth repeating. It is an important guidepost for determining whether or not you are able to see what's really there, or if you're only deluding yourself. For a number of computer programs, if you make a picture frame, and then import a picture into it, you'll be asked a question: Do you wish to change the shape of the picture to fit the frame, or do you wish to change the frame to fit the picture.
In observing anything, the goal is to make yourself change your frame to fit the picture you're given. This is the only way to see the picture clearly. If you change the picture to fit your frame, you distort the picture and you'll never really see it.
If you are an artist, you want to force your audience to change their frames. You want to create a picture so compelling and profound that even after they've changed the picture to fit their frames, it will disturb them and they'll go back to find out what the picture really looked like. This, to me, is the definition of great art - that when it is deformed by the blank, featureless minds that refuse to see it, those same minds find they MUST return and see it properly, the way the creator wanted.
It isn't impossible. It's hard, it's very hard. But it can be done.
Let me finish, for the benefit of those who think that I am just a collection of complicated tables and insane, unnecessary details in a painstakingly 'realistic' world that feels as though it wouldn't be much fun. You suffer from a great misconception, demonstrated brilliantly by this recent effort by a brilliant creator. My world isn't boring because it is filled with tables. My world has tables because I am struggling to create a gigantic frame which will encompass the impossibly complex world I find myself having to handle. I know it is an impossible frame to create. I don't worry about that. I'm only looking for a place where I can stand and look at the magnificence of a world I did not create, but from which I obtain an indescribable awe. This blog, and these many tables, and this hopeless attempt to describe the potential of this game to capture an ever greater bit of this world, are all intended to force the gentle reader to fix their frame, whether they want to or not.