Monday, December 18, 2017

Playing in Sand

I should be at work today, but the stone kiln oven is broken and the restaurant is closed.  And so, I can write something.

I've been thinking about the sandbox mentioned in the last post, and came across this utterly non-RPG webpage, 8 Reasons Why Playing in the Sand is Good for Kids.  It's a paid-for-article for eBay, but I think it cuts to the point:

  • 1.  It is an Open-Ended Medium.  "No matter the skill or cognitive level of the child, sand is an appropriate play object."  "There is no specific right or wrong way to play with sand."
  • 2.  It Stretches the Imagination.  "Older children can expand their creativity and imaginations through the designs of a variety of buildings, towns and castles." (!)
  • 3.  It Promotes Physical Development.  [We an insert mental for physical, so that this quote still applies]: "Most children do not notice the physical involvement of sand play because they are too focused on their play and the task."
  • 4.  It Encourages Social Skills.  "[Children] are often faced with problems involving sharing tools, negotiating for play space, and compromising on what to build in the sand."
  • 5.  It Promotes Cognitive Development.  "Children learn to problem solve as they try to figur out how to prevent their towers from continually falling over or their moats from collapsing in on themselves."  "Children learn more vocabulary words that fit specifically to sand play, as well as chatting with other children in the sand play area."
  • 6.  It Teaches Mathematical Concepts.  "Through trial and erro, children are able to make predictions about which type of container holds more or less sand."  "With maturity, children can learn how many scoops of different sizes it takes to fill a container."
  • 7.  It Encourages Scientific Experiments.  "Observe as the children make their own experiments to discover information not only about sand, but also about basic scientific principles."
  • 8.  It Incorporates Artistic Expression.  [Can't say there was a good quote here].

Clearly, a lot of D&D players need to spend more time sitting in a sandbox, missing skills they should have learned a long time ago.

I'm thinking of how (2) perfectly describes my present experiments with infrastructure.  It has me thinking, too, about how a setting ought to work.  As a DM, once my imagination has shaped the sand, producing a modelled environment, I then enable the players (no, not the characters, I mean the players) to shrink down and begin clambering over the sand pit, which is now huge for them.  They see themselves as characters, but it is they themselves who must manage the towers, the creatures crawling among the grains and the unknown distances between the various features I've created.

Yes, I could take my hand and sweep sand over them, but that would only return the players to their normal sizes, accomplishing nothing.  To retain the desired experience of the sandbox, I have to let the players search on their own, with as little further influence from me as possible.

This was my original concept, dreamed up when I was a young DM of 16, of getting myself "out of the loop."  I've referred to this many times on the blog.  It means that my immediate will and prejudices are not part of the experience they players are having.  I continue to cling to the idea that the world could be, in some way, self-perpetuating ... and that is how I try to design the structure of my world from day to day.

That way, when the players take an action, I don't have to think, "What should I do to keep them interested?"

I can think instead, "How would this world, this space, this setting, logically respond to what the players have just done?"

DMs are largely consumed with the philosophy that it is their role to make the players reactive.  We can see this philosophy voiced continuously by virtually every pundit in the game universe.  Take this example from Colville's video yesterday:
"... it's our job as Dungeon Masters to tell the players, 'what.' [garbled] ... Kalarel the Vile is collecting dead bodies and building a giant tower of undeadness, so he can summon Orcus, he thinks.  That's the what.  That's what you have, what you can do to stop him."

There it is.  Not "what do you do?", but "How will you do this?"

But I think a far better philosophy is that it is the players' role to be proactive, and the DM reactive.  Where the dialogue ought to go like this:
"Kalarel the Vile is collecting dead bodies and building a giant tower of undeadness.  You have no idea why.  Elsewhere, there's a town festival that is supposed to happen next week, and people are fervently making costumes.  It's too late to buy any.  Oh, and the town was unable to ship its beer supply out last week, and now it is too late in the season, so beer everywhere is half price."

And then, nothing.  Not "what do you do?"  Just, here, the things you notice about the setting is this.  I'm ready to answer questions or transition your instructions, once you give me your instructions.

Guys like Colville are so sure they have this DMing thing sorted ... but they're really not thinking through the principles outlined in the sandbox above.  It isn't about the sand's agenda.  It is about what the designers see in their minds.

Post Script:

I do recommend finding me on facebook.  I'm the only Alexis Smolensk in the English-speaking world, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding me.


Drain said...

Yeah, on the whole, I'd say the whole mixed-model is more my speed, with the emergent railroads easily plonked down at the behest of enterprising players as tycoons. Note that behest isn't whim, the world must push back, else all will careen into gonzo at the first bumps of boredom or someone having a shitty day or being somehow bent out of their usual shape.

_pure_ sandbox play is more of a platonic fiction that doesn't really survive contact with other human meaning-searchers at a table.

I did, once upon a game, try to offer players as much free rein as they could take but quickly (actually, scratch that, it was *way too slowly*) understood that they have got to have their training wheels unscrewed first, or they'll be left dumbfounded with so much freedom and blinking back their beady eyes at the ref until he provides warm spoonfuls of meaning that they'll be comforted.

I do believe in good and bad players and in the fact that for both it is hard to kick the habit and be weaned of the whole princess->dungeon->dragon->win routine.

It's uncomfortable, and no one sits down at a gaming table thinking they've just signed up for some discomfort, no matter how sorely it might be needed and how much payoff it might generate in the future.

Ozymandias said...

Freedom is a scary thing to those who have their lives in chains.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nevertheless, you boot them out the door. It's no good coddling them.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

A part of me wonders whether the once-common sand table used for wargaming, and presumably by some early D&D players as well, was an attempt to recapture the experience of playing in the sand. The things built, and the games played, therein grow more complex, but the medium is largely the same.

If a referee is lucky, their players won't respond to attempts to make them react. I've tried having "big bads" in the past, and my players are both stubborn enough not to bite on the plot hooks, and forgetful enough that the hooks' very existence is wiped from their memory before too long. But with their own goals (formed from pieces of the environment acting independently of themselves), the players don't forget them, and their stubbornness is an asset in trying to achieve them.