Wednesday, March 30, 2011


My daughter has been running her campaign intermittently these last eighteen months, making an attempt to get a hold of my system and learning better how to run a sandbox game.  Still, up until the weekend, it has been a dungeon campaign.  She's been clever in setting up combats, keeping the interest going and creating some political intrigue along the way ... but the time had come that we succeeded in finding our way out, enabling us to get back to the nearby town and finally purchase some much needed supplies.

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.
And so on.  Story after story, film after film, these same patterns are followed.  But let me go on record that there's nothing wrong with the cliche.  It has worked effectively for eight hundred years or more, right back to the Song of Roland and Le Morte d'Arthur.  People walk along roads.  Things inhabit places next to roads, or also walk along roads, or just wait for people who walk along roads.  The 'road trip' is a time-honoured story device.

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.


Anonymous said...


Dave Cesarano said...

This is a really good post, and it made me think up a few things.

1) Hollywood shouldn't really be where we seek character and plot, but rather setting, look, and atmosphere. I can't underemphasize the importance of good literature on one's game. English majors shouldn't just play White Wolf games, and likewise, D&D players don't need to simply stick with Gygax's Appendix N in search of a good story (indeed, some of those Appendix N works are actually quite lackluster in characterization and plot, although they employ nifty gimmicks and mcguffins).

2) Overworld journeys for me are a blast, especially in established settings. One could have been in a Forgotten Realms games where the party traveled from Shadowdale to Waterdeep, it took six months to play through, was a blast, and was full of awesome places to visit, ruins to explore, vistas to behold, and levels to gain. Tell your daughter not to be afraid to crib stuff from gaming sourcebooks or literature in order to fill those empty hexes.

3) Right on about making the frame fit the picture.

Ragnorakk said...


Anonymous said...

I do not understand the criticism that your world is not fun because it is highly detailed. I would be so happy to find a nutjob in my town that has spent thirty years developing his D&D world. But because I will not, I will read this blog for as long as you choose to publish. You have shown me that the elegant, intelligent game I always hoped D&D could be actually exists. Thanks.

Alexis said...


Hah, I'm laughing. Funny how context makes the difference in the word being an insult and the word being praise.

Thanks mike.

Anonymous said...

Mike, the criticism that I've seen here has generally been a parting shot response in the comment section when Alexis has taken a commenter to task. The pattern usually proceeds thusly:

1) Alexis: Detailed, well-reasoned and often well-researched blog article often peppered with biting criticisms of some "other" way of playing.

2) Critic: Ill-formed response reacting to either content of article or more commonly the biting criticism. Often in a veiled or passive-aggressive manner.

3) Alexis: Verbal evisceration

4) Critic: "Well, your world sounds dull and I'd hate to play in it anyway, I much prefer (enter fantasy flavor of the week here)."

Alexis said...

Can't help it. Biting criticism brings the funny.

richard said...

You zigzag on the way to your conclusion here, and I'm afraid it's one of the zags I want to comment on (the conclusion I think is just fine):

I can think of few more exquisite tortures for an inexperienced DM than to run a game in the world authored by one of the players at the table. My hat's off to both you and your daughter if you guys manage to do this without it being painful.

I like whiteboard settings for starting games because both players and DMs are liable to be anxious about the undiscussed but present aspects of the world, if they know that world is supposed to have more reality and heft than what is made explicit. If you've had a campaign going for years then one of the joys of that is the feel of the grass and smell of the honeysuckle: the rich detail and being among it. If you guys manage to do that in a self-consciously historicist setting without getting derailed by debates about the Great Heresy or the characteristic fauna of the Caucasus then I'm even more impressed.

...and whiteboards are attractive exactly because of how they simplify travel. That's one of the main, but mostly undiscussed, attractions of sea travel IR(early modern)L.

Alexis said...


Contrary to the internet, most of the educated world - the world that have read books and such - pretty much accept that the Great Heresy and characteristic fauna are long-settled matters. The general response to such nonsense is usually "READ A BOOK!" and then ejection when that fails to register.

My daughter and I experience a level of mutual respect that I think would baffle many parents. She knows many things I don't know, she has many talents I don't have, I have no interest in running her life and she has no need to assert her independence over me. She already has it. When she runs, I serve as a secretary, answering questions about things like the local fauna ... and since she knows I've read the book. she doesn't find it at all odd to simply take my word. It is called trust.

In turn, I don't quibble with her rulings - mostly because, unlike a lot of nerds who play this game, I don't have a huge insecurity that requires I assert myself over everyone in the room. I love my daughter and it is more important to me that she feels confident in the decision she's made than in winning some meaningless piece of ground for the sake of my character. I want her to feel unfettered, focused and able.

Your hat may be off, richard, but it's called 'teaching.' This may be a mystery to you, but many parents are quite capable of putting aside their pettiness and concentrating on what's actually important. If your mind was open, I could sit even you down and teach you how to run in the framework of my world with pretty much the same respect. The question is, if I am the teacher, are you able to be the student?

My daughter is. She respects me and trusts me because she has learned that I don't have ulterior motives. I am always right there on the page. If more people could put aside their anxiousness, as you call it, and recognize that the world is a great place for discovery - when you have checked your prejudices at the door - we could really get this hobby off the launching pad.

Anything would be better than reinventing the same crappy wheel over and over.

richard said...

As a historian I'm pretty careful about calling any aspect of the past that we glimpse dimly through archival sources "settled," but OK. I was thinking more that any plot built on a historical basis that also has to respect the (necessarily only partly revealed) history of an ongoing campaign involves a whole lot of heavy lifting on the part of the writer before they even get to the bit where the players can interact. The potential for unwittingly stepping on some secret held by the other DM or for making some invalid assumption about the world that only gets revealed during play... as you say, it requires trust.

Alexis said...


As a trained, professional historian, who has been paid for articles written about history (let's just get our dicks out and have this pissing contest full on), I can tell you that there is a place for that kind of "pretty careful" tenure-seeking historicism, and it isn't D&D. I think it makes it much easier to accept that Oliver Cromwell (who is alive and active in my world) really was an enormous asshole.

We're not vying for a seat at the local university, are we?

Now can we please drop this? The need for you to throw out a snarky reply "in a veiled or passive-aggressive manner" exactly in the manner that James described exactly two comments before your first one really is great humour, but I went through this three weeks ago and I don't need it again.

Your comments indicate that you are making unwarranted assumptions. Please ask questions instead. I have never, ever, developed a D&D campaign plot "built on a historical basis" that ever respected anything. Did you think Harold Bloom visits my world the third Saturday of every month for the D&D historical accuracy lecture he delivers at Yale?

richard said...

Wow, my response was rambling, sorry about that.

In short, although I understand that you're trying to communicate here, your way of communicating is insulting and aggressive: I don't want to carry on talking to you.
...your world sounds interesting, though.

Alexis said...

I've never been precisely clear why passive-aggressive isn't considered to be insulting.

Thank you Richard. Have a nice day.

Anonymous said...

If you're ever in need of content for a post, I would like to hear about how Oliver Cromwell(or any historical figure) runs in your game. May I suggest making a lich of Tycho Brahe? His fake nose could be his phylactery! Alright, I'm getting punchy, time for bed.