Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Where I Stand

If you want to know all the reasons I'm wrong about a sandbox campaign, you should first read this, and then you should read this.  I include these links in the interest of providing fair and equal consideration to all sides of this debate.

You may have some trouble understanding what's written there.  Except for the stream of statements that I'm wrong, I did.

Here's the thing about definitions.  If something is not defined, it is very hard to argue about it.  My sincerest desire where it comes to understanding something begins with having that thing defined, and in a manner absolutely clear to everyone involved.  I am less concerned about who is, and who is not, hurt by the definition or by the labels that definition provides than I am that everyone understands what word means what thing.

The links above provide an alternate definition for a sandbox.  It isn't very clearly defined.  It seems to be very convenient for the author's self-aggrandizement.  Extrapolated, it would seem to allow virtually any action to be interpreted in any manner that the author might wish.  As a definition, it simply isn't one.

It is, however, a very emotional appeal towards a label dearly wished for, for reasons that should seem clear:

Sandboxes have more credibility than railroads.

The gentle reader will take note.  This argument has been going on a long time, and in that time a definite connotation has been obtained for the two words themselves.  Regardless of what they mean, everyone has more or less come to accept that a "sandbox" campaign is "good," while a "railroad" campaign is "bad."

This is in some ways an achievement.

It is not, however, indicative of a general desire to surrender the railroading of players.  No, far from it.  The connotation has only encouraged a desire to stop being identified as railroaders.

To this end, any amount of bullshit is acceptable.  To this end, justifications and obfuscations, appeals to emotion, the need to repeatedly define one's world as alive or vibrant (actually the same thing, but still, nuance & nuance), etcetera.

I am fine with this.  No one wants the railroad label.  But please, dear gentle reader, take note.  It remains the case that IF you attempt a definition, and if that definition clearly delineates a certain number of people as being part of the connotatively undesirable camp, there will always arise a minority who will suddenly, earnestly, argue that they are NOT of that camp, that they are bitter about being thrown into that camp, and that clearly the definition is wrong by virtue of this utter certainty that they have.

This will happen in every case, even if you make no mention of any person by name.

Which demonstrates, of course, the hateful connotation of the word in question.  Railroader.

"I'm not I'm not I'm not I'm not I'm not I'm not I'm not ..."

And so on.

Well, here's where I stand.  I am concerned about my players.  I am anxious not to use my power as a DM to make my players feel beholden to me.  I seek to control my natural, human tendencies to see an opportunity to guide my players and to resist - to the best of my abilities - that opportunity.  I am human and I often fail.  However, I know that to take any step to guide, ordain, channel or restrict a player's free and total agency is a wrongdoing.  Not only in the game of D&D, but in any social situation.  Expecting other people to play my game, or to play the game my way, or to use my position to manipulate their play in any way, ever, is wrong.

Even if I do this with the best of intentions.  Even if I do this expecting that they will have a good time.  Manipulation is wrong.  Period.  I will eschew it to the best of my ability in every game I manage.

I am sorry that others feel that certain expectations of what a DM is or what authorities a DM is granted gives them leave to act in any other way.


Josh Graboff said...

I honestly believe that this entire issue arises from miscommunication between parties, particularly on what constitutes manipulation.

Arbitrarily (that is, using your native intelligence to decide that this is the outcome, rather than modeling it with complex political models) deciding that two nations go to war is not, I believe I understand correctly, player-manipulation even if they happen to be in one of those nations, the other, or the borderlands in between. Certainly, they didn't knowingly choose to be in a war, but find themselves in it.

If I understand you correctly, player manipulation would be telling them that they cannot even attempt to escape the war scenario and that they must now participate in it.

I don't think anyone objects to these two statements, but I also don't think (on either side) there has been a clarity in professing the definition not of a sandbox, but of what constitutes an invalidation of player choice.

I could be wrong.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Since you, just now, postulated a case-scenario which exactly conforms to my understanding of player manipulation, I think that clarity has been achieved.

Josh Graboff said...

That being settled, I do not necessarily see this in conflict with the use of the dreaded module. As I said over at RK's, I have never and would never make use of a module because acculturating it to fit with my setting would be more work than simply designing an adventure myself.

However, a well-designed module, as I understand it, is one that presents not a chain of events which must be completed but a number of NPCs (with motivations clearly explained), locations (with histories somewhat detailed), and potentially timetables for a scenario in which the PCs do not intervene.

In short, a well laid out module should look like a DM's own notes rather than a series of scenes to run through.

I think all parties agree that a module which says "Now you are here, there's nothing you can do about it, you cannot refuse this adventure and must play by the rules" is a poorly designed one that has no place in a real game. However, I see no flaws with picking up a sunken temple populated with fish-folk from some contest and then dropping the hook to the PCs when they near its location along the shore to take up or leave as they choose.

Again, I don't think this is objectionable to anyone party to this discussion... though, Alexis, you may rejoin that the very mindset which leads to the production of these floating "homeless" adventures is poisonous. I'm not sure I agree with that, necessarily, but I do not find use in these sorts of things because I would only ever want to run something I'd designed myself for my own ends with its roots sunk deep in my setting.

Alexis Smolensk said...

There are several issues I see:

1) The DM has spent time and effort creating the 'module.'

2) The DM has spent money on the module.

3) The module has been purchased or designed (commonly) without input from the players.

IF the players then refuse to play the module or adhere to the DM's plans to make use of his or her prepared, solitarily-concocted idea, then the DM is effectively snubbed. If the players acquiesce unwillingly or grudgingly (as commonly happens, as everyone knows), then player agency is smashed. It is only when the players wholeheartedly agree to the DM's prerogative to design prestructured events (the dungeon) that neither occurs.

This is called the "buy in." But how many times do players "buy in" because they're expected to, and not because they actually desire to buy in? How many times does guilt play a role in the decision to play the DM's prepared or bought campaign, because it is well known the DM worked really hard or spent a lot of money? How can we know for certain that the players aren't just placating the DM by pretending to accept willingly the module for that evening?

I am too old to deceive myself into believing that this never happens, or can't happen to me or my players.

Solution? No modules. Ever.

Josh Graboff said...

I understand your position much more clearly now, and can see the scope of the argument in a light that reconciles it with my own views. Having no experience in what using a module might even look like, I just imagined that it was hidden away by the overlay of the setting to be the more seamlessly stitched in—but of course, as you point out, that need not be the case and where the potential for abuse lies one must assume that in some circles the abuse will occur.

James C. said...

I think the debate has created two straw-men here. On the one hand is the module using automaton and on the other is the free range DM making ketchup from organically-grown tomatoes and vinegar. If they really exist in these two, pure forms then their assumptions about what the game is are so far apart there's almost no basis here for argument. They inhabit two different worlds.

Most of the rest of us I must assume are somewhere in the middle. Modules, being standardized, often interchangeable components of a system or construction that is designed for easy assembly or flexible use are, to use a food analogy, either the basis for an entire meal or simply a set of ingredients one doesn't need to prepare for themselves. They can be a Stouffer's lasagna or the canned tomato sauce and the pre-ground pork, veal and beef for Sunday's meatballs & gravy.

Or we can use the Lego analogy. Many of the Lego sets nowadays are just that... predefined sets. The kids (or their parents, as is often my case)are expected to build them as a model, with instructions on how to do it properly. Nothing is stopping one from putting the blocks together any way they damn well please, though, as the wookie-headed snake ninjas and futuristic castle/ spaceships adorning our family play room would prove.

Modules are a pre-packaged set of Lego blocks to be used how one pleases. To never use them is a choice. To call them poison or the problem with the game is misplacing the blame, I think.

Nine-toes said...

I am quite sure I will misunderstand or mistate the argument, but I feel compelled to ask since I like the topic and the discussion: To create a medium in which player agency is possible, isn't it necessary, to a large degree, to make that medium independent of the players in order for player agency to be possible? Doesn't there need to be balance in the extent to which the DM world and all things in it need to be both malleable to the players will and immutable? If all things depend on player agency, the world would then be an extension of the players' will instead of the DM's will.

Sorry if I've muddled things. Again, love the topic and the discussion. Hope all's well with you.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Not at all, Nine-toes.

The debate is being repeatedly muddled by mixing "compulsions" and "circumstances." It is being argued that if a DM creates a circumstance (oncoming war, where the party starts at the beginning of a campaign, an authority figure giving the party an order, etc.) that this is the same as the DM defining what things the party will compelled to do.

A "circumstance" is a fact or condition connected to an event or action, but it is not the event itself. Yes, the party must start somewhere. Yes, authority figures give orders. Creatures and the setting itself provide limitations to character agency continually.

Nevertheless, parties who happen to find themselves subject to the orders of superiors, or who are caught in wars, or any other circumstance, must not feel that there is no other possible option to their action except to follow what the DM has determined is the best, most suitable, and ultimately 'expected' action.

To make the DM world, one must, yes, create many, many circumstances, which are out of the player's control. Designating that something is out of the player's control does not dictate that the world is a railroad - though I've now seen that argument made about 30 times this last week, to say that therefore, every campaign MUST be a railroad because it is impossible to create a world that doesn't have things out of the player's control.

The issue is not that the player has total control, it is that the player has FREE WILL. Regardless of the circumstances, the player must be free to do whatever they will.

Of course, occasionally, ignorantly exercising that will at the wrong time and in the wrong circumstances will get the player killed. Having free will does not automatically exempt the player from the circumstances.

BUT ... that free will MUST not be restricted by the DM's wishes for what the campaign ought to be, or what the game should be about tonight, or what the DM has 'prepared' and is ready to run. That free will means that the player deserves to follow his or her own agenda, and not merely to act as expected by the DM because the DM happens to have done a shitload of preparation, or because the DM has bought a fancy new booklet from a store. The player should be free to pursue the course of action that interests the player.

I've said it, and I still haven't heard the argument against it. Free will, player agency, the sandbox campaign begins when the player says, "I don't want to do that," and the DM says, "Okay, what do YOU want to do."

And everyone is happy.

Keith S said...

I think RPGs, like blogs and their comments, are about negotiation. A GM describes a scene, players describe their characters' actions,and a story results. If it is a good story, everyone eagerly returns session after session.

So it is with a blog. Ideas are presented and readers provide their responses. As that dialog proceeds, different understandings are achieved.

Thanks for the "kindergarten" version, Alexis. Sometimes the comments reveal more than the original post.