Sunday, November 15, 2009

No Fear

This is not intended as a redress against A Paladin in Citadel, who wondered in a comment on my last post if books would give players “some skill, level or ability boost.”

That, right there, is the video game market talking.

It’s all part of ‘Mario D&D’ ... eat a mushroom, crush the monster, move on to find more mushrooms. Paladin only asks the question, how is a book a mushroom?

This is just an excuse, actually, for me to bitch about players. Players have been on my mind most of the weekend, ever since one of the two online campaigns I’m running pretty much imploded for lack of interest/posting. I’ve been asking myself since the middle of last week, is it my fault?

How easy it would be to blame the players, boost my own ego and move the fuck on. Hey, one campaign is working out fine, right? I must be okay.

That is not the way I look at it. I am the sort of person who must patiently deconstruct and pull apart the guts of the thing to try and understand it – to perform an autopsy, if you will. All for the purpose of identifying just what went wrong, and how to avoid it going wrong again.

The fault, I know, is the sandbox campaign. Not so much that players are free to do anything, but that my insistence that there will be no railroading usually winds up with me being in a place where I have to railroad the players just to get some kind of response from them. Which frustrates the living fucking shit right out of me.

In both the campaign I ran last spring and in this one that has crumbled in the last three weeks, I have principally encountered caution (described as ‘sitting hen’ by one player). An unwillingness on the part of players to take action ... usually explained by the players themselves with such phrases as, “ ... he didn't really want to make himself too obvious in his interest and possibly draw unwanted attention ...” This describing the player’s unwillingness to risk a 1st level character with zero X.P.

I’m baffled. What, exactly, does the player have to lose? Maybe someone out there in Mario land can explain why first level characters aren’t expendable. Are DMs giving out electric shocks to players who die at first level?

Granted, the player is a mage. Mages die easily. And as it happens, for the campaign, I’ve had four players join and every player has rolled up a mage (if you only count three players in the posts, it’s because I have one more player waiting to join once the campaign gets sorted out). All told, one pure mage, two mage/thieves and one mage/assassin. This, I think, happened because all four individuals made their characters independently. At a table where we were all playing offline, I think someone would say, “We can’t all be mages! Someone has to play a fighter.” And someone would answer, a bit unhappily, “All right, I will.”

But this is online, and I didn’t tell them to what they could and could not make. No railroading, you see. If they all want to be mages, fine. I will invent a campaign that a party of mages could participate in. No up front fighting, something with an investigative quality, something they can piece together with their brains ... after all, if they have to go toe to toe with someone, they’ll die.

Only trouble is, no one showed any interest in investigating jack shit. I presume they were waiting for me to tell them what they needed to know, failing to recognize that in a sandbox campaign, I’m under absolutely no obligation to tell them ANYTHING. I am a world. I am not a novel. I run people operating in a world. These people can, if they want, do whatever they want. But the world does not revolve around them, there are no preset characters to step out of the bushes in Scene 24 and tell them exactly what they have to do next. They are players ... they are not fucking heroes.

I’m sorry if that hasn’t been made clear by this blog in the previous 281 posts. As a DM, I feel I am under an obligation to provide details, to describe in reasonable detail where the players are, to design obstructions, to create NPCs and monsters, to make them believable, to map out the world, to adjudicate on the practicality of various strategies and possibilities, and to assess damage and provide rewards. But you know what? ... that is it. That’s a lot and that’s enough. If players want more, if they want to have me outline in detail how to move their feet and open their mouths and what drivel to produce with their tongues, lips and teeth, they can go the fuck somewhere else.

Sorry. Lost it there for a moment.

I was saying, no one investigated. Which is fair, which is fine, it’s a sandbox game, no one has to search the body or grill the NPCs with question after question if they don’t want to. That’s what I tell myself. I say it over and over until I begin to realize that no matter how accepting I am, I’m bored.

Bringing me back to the autopsy, trying to gather together some kind of theme regarding this rambling, ranting, shotgun-like post. Bringing me back to the question that has haunted me all day, and which led to this post ultimately inspired by Paladin’s question. I want to thank you, Paladin; you got my brain going, even if it is in every direction. Give me your email, we’ll go get coffee some time.

Why did the three people in the campaign all want to play mages?

My first instinct is to assume that there’s something appealing about the way I’ve talked about mages on my blog. Or that there’s some unknown prejudice against players playing mages in other campaigns. Or that this is some enormous coincidence (remembering always that the fourth person, who’d had a chance to see three mages playing in the campaign, still wants to play another mage with them). And of course, there’s the argument that mages are fairly powerful.

In my offline campaign, the party is engaged in a massive fight against an intelligent foe that is manipulating goblins and dire wolves against them. Although the tools are fairly weak, the unidentified foe clearly has magic use; that and the tactics I’m using has already killed party members (2 first levels) and has come very close to killing others.

The deciding factor on the player’s side has been the influence of two spellcasters, the 8th level mage and the 6th level illusionist. The 9th level druid has just conjured up a treant, so the balance is shifting. Spellcasters are powerful.

They are also, at low level, very weak. The aforementioned mage, Garalzapan by name, spent most of his first three levels throwing daggers at the enemy when his spells ran out by round four. The aforementioned illusionist, Pen by name, was the party joke until he reached fifth level ... the first thing Pen always did was ‘run away’. And the aforementioned druid, Pikel by name, was bailed out so often at low levels by the rest of the party that they still feel Pikel owes them protection money. These are common stories, they pretty much fit into any campaign.

So, are the players so entranced by their dreams of great power someday that they forgot they have to run low-level characters first? Low-level mages who, reasonably, can expect to live by their wits, their cunning and their guts?

Since they don’t have any guts (cautious), they don’t trust their wits (they might offend people), and I’ve seen no signs of cunning, what the hell are any of these people doing running magic users?

Oh, I forgot. They have cool spells.

As DM, I presume, my job is to set up targets for them to knock down with their cool spells - targets who never quite get close enough to, you know, threaten them. Can’t expect them to take enormous risks like asking strangers questions or searching nearby bodies – at least, not until they get that terrific mushroom which allows them to stomp hell out of their enemies.

Now listen ... I’m being pretty nasty here, and I know it. I’m not sure if this post is going to kill the campaign, or get people’s heads in the right place. One way or the other, I can’t let myself be affected by the outcome. I feel from time to time that I have to defend this game, and at this particular time that means being a mean little bugger.

If we ARE going to play a particular race and class, PLEASE, can we have a better reason to do so than that the character throws spells and gets to be powerful by seventh level? Can we think a little farther than, “I like to steal things”? Working at the world that I work at, I’m choked when I find myself faced with kindergarten behavior when it comes to picking the goddamn game pieces. Damn, it’s like fucking monopoly where everyone wants to be the car, ‘cause it goes vroom.

And because I can’t let it go, role-playing games exist to provide a means of obtaining the sort of dangerous, provocative thrill that comes from risking one’s ersatz, avatar existence – while being able to get up for coke between die rolls. People, seriously: NO FEAR.

Nope.  Post didn't work.  I still feel I'm to blame.


Nebu Pookins said...

I'm the 4th player.

1) I didn't actually realize that the other 3 players were all mages. I'd offer to play a fighter, but I don't know if we want to restart making my character all over again.

2) I'm very glad you made this post, because I suspect otherwise I would have played in exactly the kind of manner that triggered this post.

If the other 3 players are like me, then I suspect they're not used to the RPG-style where it's okay for your first level character to die (or for any level character to die, for that matter, unless it's required for plot purposes). I think dying is seen as "losing" the game, in a sense. In Mario-land, when your character dies, that's it, the game is over. There's nothing to do but reload from the last save-file, and try a different tactic. The pen-and-paper analog would be, I guess, to have the DM retcon the events, fudge the dice roll, say "Oh, that dragon actually didn't kill you; instead, it left you with 1 hp, and then the dragon suffered a spontaneous heart attack and died; so congratulations, you beat this dungeon, and get to move on to the next one."

Very few video-games have you, when the main character dies, take on a new character, and continue the story.

Now that I know that it's "okay to die", I'll play my character with a lot more "guts", as you put it, than I initially would have without this post.

JimLotFP said...

In my experience, cautious 1st level characters might someday get to be 2nd level characters.

Fearless, brash 1st level characters tend not to.

Especially in sandbox campaigns where the characters aren't guaranteed level-appropriate challenges.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

To be clear, I don't play video games, although perhaps the video game industry was channelling through me.

Sorry to hear of your frustration. I think there's always tension between how the DM imagines the campaign will unfold (i'm not talking plot here, but shape or tone) and the players' own expectations.

I presume online campaigns are doubly problematic. How do you "go for coffee" with your players and have an honest conversation about expectations, when the players are scattered all over the continent (or world).

Telo Arhen said...

No Fear? What am I, a punk rock surfer with a spike bat and a motorcycle gang on shore? No - I'm a dinky little elf kid gone into the wild world for the first time!

Personally, I would counsel patience, and consideration of the fact that losing a player is destabilizing for the other players also - and the varying degrees of experience players have with this medium.

If players do not interact with something you present, it is not necessarily because we are bored (and hopefully not necessarily because we are boring!)

Immediate justifications & explanations are SO much easier at the table than over the net. But in either form, they're usually pretty immaterial - why I limited my inspection of the body to a visual one doesn't matter so much in-game - only the fact that I did.

Boring play on my part? What can I say?
My next action was explicit and still related (tangentially perhaps) to the events on the deck.

I think the extenuating circumstances of losing a player right off the bat threw a weird wrench in - but we remaining players have expressed interest in continuing.

Big McStrongmuscle said...

Starting a sandbox campaign (especially one as purist as you describe this one to be) is very difficult. There's a certain inertia that needs to be overcome for action to take place, and while some types of players shrug it off effortlessly, not all players overcome that inertia on their own.

The trouble I've found usually is fear, but not the kind of fear you are talking about. I find players (barring the complete novices, who usually become extremely attached to the first character they really like) aren't generally as scared of death as they are of not doing the right things. In combat, there's a clear goal: Kill / drive off / capture the baddies. And PCs are great at combat, because these goals are very obvious. But when they aren't sure what they need to be doing, they freeze up, acting overly cautious for fear of screwing up something irrevocable. When they don't know anything yet, who knows what will happen if they say the wrong thing to the wrong person? This happens to some folks anytime they have a massive array of choices in unfamiliar circumstances - especially playing with a new DM or in a new world. It's also why a lot of people don't like games like Civilization or SimCity.

There are a few classes of players that don't have this problem. Some players become too absorbed in whatever happens to be in front of them at the moment to get paralyzed. Some have experience with your game and know what to look for. Others will set a goal for their characters before beginning the game, and this helps them to decide what to do. But these are the alphas of your pack of PCs. The beta players (and there is nothing wrong with being one: it takes both leaders and followers to move the world) often prefer to make more generic characters, then either grow them as the game goes on or go with the flow of the party. And if all your players are of the beta type, your sandbox is in serious trouble.

I've found a couple of ways around this. Judging by some of your blog posts, you'll probably hate one or two of them, but maybe one will work for you. And in any case, this is just what works for me: YMMV.

You might try starting the players off with a short-term goal to get them moving. "Investigate the murder", "Defend against the bandits", "Make some money before you starve", or "Escape the slave pit before the goblins eat you." Over the course of the adventure, you then produce enough interesting elements that something catches their eye. It might sound a little video-gamey for your tastes, but it works for me nearly every time. The planned adventure usually lasts only the first session and with enough interesting elements, it can jump-start a campaign surprisingly well.

Or - and I suspect you might like this option better - you might try asking that each player start the game with a simple goal for their character. That's a GOAL, not a background - often enough, character backgrounds are just three pages of nothing that boil down to: "I am good with a sword! Yarr!!!" A self-set goal ("Rescue my father from slavery", "Purge Thuringia of the undead", or "Assemble an army to conquer France") will help guide your players without compromising your sandbox. Although a warning: It really really helps to have your players brainstorm these together, or pick one big one for the group - there's nothing worse than the party suddenly deciding mid-campaign they have absolutely no reason to stick together.

Zzarchov said...

I always run sandbox games, these are the two things I demand of players:

1.) they acknowledge they are the storytellers, I am the referee. I will frequently call them on this and say "this is getting boring"

2.) They state what they want their characters to do. Pick anything, but you tell me before the first game

as simple as "be pirates and retire rich" to "save the world from evil".

I will ensure they know a few starting directions (ie, there are major merchant shipping routes here, spices comes from india and gold from the americas.. or there is moria, bad things come from there, usually raiding these kingdoms.)

Carl said...

I don't have any advice or even much that's interesting to say on this, Alexis. I feel and post these same frustrations from time to time.

It's good to know that I'm not the only one who feels this way.

You said something to me when we were chatting on your veranda as I expressed similar frustrations. I don't know if it will help, but it seems applicable and it helped me.

"It sounds like your players don't trust you."

Good post today, Alexis.


Anonymous said...

Big McStrongMuscle has it right. It's a heck of a lot easier to get a sandbox game going if you start with a short term (possibly survival related) goal. The players in a sandbox campaign are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices available to them. Having a definite goal nicely cuts those options down to a manageable number and also helps the PCs get used to acting as a group (useful when the players don't know each other).

Hopefully once they've achieved the short-term goal, the players will have learned a little about the campaign world and the PCs will have formed some sort of idea about the options that they will want to explore as the game continues.

Alexis said...


Given that your world seems to be, looking at it from outside, all traps all the time, I’m not suprised you counsel for caution.

I think everything is a ‘level appropriate challenge’. It is only that most parties seem fundamentally incapable of running away. This might be a video game thing too. Mario moves in only one direction.


The coffee comment was about you, specifically. I am guessing that you are in a specific neighborhood, called ‘Citadel’, with which I am familiar.

My email is


If I were running a Mad Max campaign, yes, I’d expect you to be a punk rock surfer. You might be going into the ‘wild world’ for the first time, but you’re about 90% tougher than the average human being in that world. You have training, you had the guts and the wishes to leave home ... you’re not a waif. You’re a recent graduate of the Harvard School of Business and you’re ready to kick ass.

Or at least, you ought to be.

I have said this repeatedly, but I will say it again:


It is actually very hard for a player to die in my world. They have to repeately spit on people with power and be smug about it. And even then I’ll give them a warning to stop.

Carl said later on that my players don’t trust me. Well, trust me. Why else would you play with me?

Alexis said...

Big McStrongmuscle,

The argument that players are afraid of ‘doing the wrong things’ is exactly the part of it that bugs me. It assumes, from the get go, that there IS a right action. Examining the body notwithstanding (I’ve never in my life encountered a group of D&D players unwilling to check a body, so that threw me off quite a bit), I really don’t have a sense in my world of what the ‘right thing’ would be. I know very well what the wrong thing is ... but I think anyone who has lived long enough to function with a keyboard ought to know you don’t spit into the wind and you don’t step on Superman’s cape.

It’s this sense of thinking that every action is potentially doing either that confounds me.

In actual fact, I did start them off with a “short-term goal.” They’re on the ship and their bound for the Orient. What I did NOT do was treat them like infants, which seems to be the crux of your point.

Now look. I am not the only participant here who has played D&D. These guys all have books, they’ve played in campaigns before, they’ve been reading my blog for months and I’m very much on the record about everything I said in this post. They ASKED to play. Your suggestions overlook the fact that they have a responsibility to manage their own affairs. The very suggestion that they need to be led by the nose, even for five seconds, demotes them in my opinion to students in my classroom. I am not Sensai. I recognize that there’s a lot of condescension and coddling regarding DMs towards players, but I’m not stooping to that. I believe they are adults, and as adults they can bloody well act on their own volition. I haven’t presented anything that is remotely threatening to these particular players, nor have I in any way put them in a situation which is absurd or strange. They’re on a ship. They’re travelling. If they’re timid, its not because I’m giving them reason to be.

I expect that as adults they’re smart enough to figure out, “I need a goal,” without my treating them like little children.


Yes, exactly. They are the storytellers. It is up to them to step on the gas.

And yes, they have been given the starting directions.

Alexis said...


Thank you.


“Having a definite goal nicely cuts those options down to a manageable number and also helps the PCs get used to acting as a group ...”

And how exactly do I ensure that they participate towards the definite goal without railroading or bribing them? You and McStrongmuscle are both saying, basically, “well, railroad them for awhile, and then stop.”

Sorry, a principle is a principle. I have no intention of railroading them for five minutes, no matter what ‘good’ will be done.

The logical comeback would be to argue with the metaphor, “But you bottle feed the baby before you put it on solid food.”

Granted, you haven’t said exactly that, but the metaphor works for what you’re arguing. And I won’t do it. I won’t bottlefeed them.

Telo Arhen said...

OK, I get it - no fear of you as DM! Absolutely none here - I certainly don't feel like I could call you unfair or a 'killer DM' or something. No problem there.

(Captcha: spame (n. fancy spam))

Alexis said...

I got this message sent to my inbox; apparently can't be put into blogspot via open ID, so I was asked to post it:

The Ranger says,

Being a mind driven game, you have to know why you are playing it. My party, on the whole, is totally obsessed with treasure. Two of them admitted it during play using these exact words.

As for the body, I would like to think it would have been investigated due to interest. In truth, the way my party thinks, "If he has clothes, he has something."

This is what's the matter of people with no personal goals. My party and myself live and die for treasure, and often that leaves us helping or killing people ... but in the end I'm here for treasure.

It is a common misconception that a treasure-seeking party could be amused with any given bobble, but in an open end game such as this even a plate may save your life.

Big McStrongmuscle said...

My apologies: I guess I wasn't very clear. I don't start off with a railroad (except perhaps in the case of the goblin stewpot example). I'll start the party with obvious leads on something they might do, but if they don't follow up on it, I won't force it. The whole point is to get them poking around enough that *something* catches their interest, not to channel them towards any one particular outcome.

Ideally (which virtually never happens), I prefer to consult my players beforehand about what their characters would like to one day accomplish. When I have new players to my campaigns, however (Which is almost all of the time these days), I usually end up using a brief scenario to introduce the characters - "bottle-feeding the baby", if you like. Not a scripted thing: Just a really obvious hook or two and a backup plan in case the party turns out to be uninterested in anything around them. Why? For several reasons:

1) I've tried starting new campaigns in a completely sandbox style and run into most of the same problems you did. Unless there is a player in the group willing to take charge of the situation, paralysis usually ensues. Parties that start at rest tend to remain at rest, and those that start in motion etc, etc. (Although I don't usually go so far as to start them in media res.)

2) I'm not so attached to principle that I'll turn down a game that gets interesting faster.

3) I teach a lot of new players (including occasionally, entire groups of them). Many of them aren't quite comfortable with the game, and a simple caper often helps them adapt more readily to the point where they seize the reins for themselves. In the past I've had new players get bogged down in one of those "Well, now what do we do?" situations. Most got bored and were not interested in playing again - understandably, given that their first experience with the game was dull as dirt.

I think that one thing that complicates the situation in D&D is that the paralysis of choice that accompanies most complex games also has a social dimension to it. Assembling a new campaign often carries with it all the dilemmas of learning to work with a new group of people. A player's fear to act may not necessarily be the fear of actions that kill his character, but the fear of actions that make four other people think he's an idiot.

Anonymous said...

I think you have a wrong-headed concept of what railroading actually is. Railroading involves forcing the PCs into a pre-determined outcome. This is fundamentally different from what I am suggesting, since you have no idea what actions the PCs will take, nor where it will take them. For example, if I decided to run a campaign set in the Roman Empire, it would be far more interesting to have the PCs start out in the Teutoburg forest just as the Roman army ceases to be capable of organised resistance I don't know what the PCs will do exactly, but I do know that they are going to have to make some kind of decision and in fairly quick order. If I started them in a taverna in Ravenna, then there are a whole host of other options immediately available and no pressing need to make up their minds. This sort of thing leads (in my experience) to no end of faffing about since the players have no clear view of what exactly they want to do and, even once they do decide what to do, they may well not be really committed to a plan of action. But neither of these two starting scenarios would be railroading. However, the first has a clear short-term goal - avoid being killed by Arminius.

Zzarchov said...

Player dictated "In Media Res" is a good idea.

In the above example of mine if the group decided they wanted to say "be pirates and retire rich" I might have them declare how they all know each other (which is a mechanic rules choice and part of the group template rules) and tell me the type of scene they would like to start on. I'd probably rhyme off a few suggestions too (You've sighted an enemy vessel, your boarding/being boarded, you've got loot to bury, you are hiring a crew, etc) and start in the middle of things. Its still not railroading (they picked the action and the start point), its just starting with a sense of urgency. Its no different than skipping past roleplaying each characters childhood and training for their current career and starting at the begining of their adventuring life.

Alexis said...

You fellows are doing a great job of hanging a lampshade on it, but it still looks like railroading to me.

Big McStrongmuscle,

These are not new players. And they knew very well what kind of campaign I was going to run, there was a previous example of it online. They all expressed an interest, they all said they’d read the previous campaign – so none of them were blind. It was fair for me to assume that, knowing what I was going to do, they would have a prepared strategy.

If these were ‘new’ players, yes, I probably would have pulled out my dusty copy of the Caves of Chaos out and had them kill goblins. Hell, if they wanted to do that, they should have just said, “we will go where people aren’t,” set up camp and waited.

What you said has merit, but not in this situation. I have yet to hear you take into account that this blog has made its position very clear, both by word and by example six months ago.


And why should Arminius want to kill them? What have they done? Isn’t it just a case of YOU deciding what they have to avoid? And if things get dull again, are you going to conjure up another ‘enemy’ with no motive beyond, “Let’s get things moving!”

Call it what you will. Smells like teen spirit to me.


Fair enough. Except that you’re ignoring some facts here. A) I did start in the middle of things; a murder occurred in the first 24 hours. B) I can’t do what you are suggesting because everyone decided to run a magic user.

I would have done as you suggest otherwise.

Zzarchov said...

My apologies, I didn't mean to imply I was unaware of those things. I just mean that say in regards to this murder... Is that something they cared about? Does it matter to them that they are all mages?

For instance, If I was playing a game in the 1930's, we could all be playing academics and that doesn't mean Im concerned with the death of a notable local figure, perhaps we want to be gun fighters in ethiopia and just really suck at it.

In this case you threw them at an investigative challenge.. That doesn't strike me as sandboxy unless they choose to play investigators.

So they all played mages. irrelevant as they are the storytellers, you are the referee. If someone builds a baseball team without anyone who can swing a bat worth dung (all pitchers and catchers) its not up to the referee to let them play catch. If they wanna play ball like a normal team, go to it.

The issue looks to me (as an outsider) like you want to be sandboxy, but you don't want their first characters to drop like stones until they figure out how sandbox games work.

If they choose to play all mages, they can still get into fights and be frontline fighters..they just need to be ready for it (or hire underlings)and suck it up that they will probably die.

The best mechanic is still to ask them exactly how they want to start, that way they know exactly what has gone wrong and why and that it is all on them.

Which to me is the mainstay of sandbox games. The GM is the ref, anything that happens is either your fault or dumb luck and not GM fiat.

Big McStrongmuscle said...

What you said has merit, but not in this situation. I have yet to hear you take into account that this blog has made its position very clear, both by word and by example six months ago.

That's an accurate assessment. I *haven't* been taking it into account, because honestly, I haven't followed your campaign posts terribly closely and don't know exactly what happened. I had no desire to pick a fight with your philosophy here, or to tell you what you should have done; I hope I did not appear to be doing so. The problem sounded like one I had had in the past, and so I related my own experience and my solutions in the hopes that they might somehow be useful. If you can get any use out of them, or can adapt anything to work with your paradigm, great. That's why I posted it. If not, well, it beats having the perfect answer and not having said anything.

I will say this: given that you told your group ahead of time what they were getting into, I don't really see how the fault could be yours. At that point, the buck is already passed. Other than that, I don't know that I have much more to contribute on the subject.

Dave White said...

I've also had this problem, with players who've had years of experience. Something seems to have just sucked all the intrepedity.
In the most extreme example something fell out of the sky about a mile from their current location - the obvious hook for starting the entire game - and their collective response was "let's go tell someone else about this" rather than investigate themselves. In more moderate cases the party wound up retreating from anything that presented more than a moderate challenge.

Just like you, I wish I had a cure. Absolutely nothing seems to motivate my players anymore except having their enemies take the initiative and attack, and they're so passive I can't imagine why their enemies would bother.