Monday, May 6, 2013


I don't know how many are familiar with this picture.  Certainly, reading the blog, you know the part of the image in the bottom right.  The painting's name is The Adoration of the Magi ... and you can find more material written on it than that which briefly occurs on the wikipedia page.  I want to say that I love Botticelli - because he's a marvelous artist, yes, but also because of his appearance in this picture.  The Virgin and Child are clearly the center of interest, and most of the people in the picture are enamoured with the site.  There are three people looking elsewhere - at you - and the expression on Botticelli's self-portrait is priceless.  It says to me, "Are you buying this shit?"

And that is me where most of D&D is concerned.  All weekend long I had an argument with ravencrowking on the last post, who feels I've got my head up my ass (my words, he's much more polite than that).  At the same time, Yagami has been fighting the same fight on this thread here, though I suppose from the other side, defending his world and the post I wrote last Wednesday.  I think overall he's doing a better job of it.

Here's what I've learned:  1) people think dungeons are necessary to the game; 2) people feel they have "to play a more active role than just being the manager of a sandbox" (as stated by a fellow with the unfortunate name of 'snot-elemental' ... obviously he's proud of his creativity); and 3) people don't have a fucking clue what a 'sandbox' is.

The argument has been drifting around long enough that there's now plenty of effort to argue that neither the railroaded nor the sandbox game actually exist - a good example of that kind of thinking to be found here (sorry JD).  And that's only natural.  The lines blur, people redefine the terms to fit their conceptions of either narrative or sandbox, until the definitions grow bloated and ill-defined, and then anyone can call their campaign anything they want, throwing all the terms around at random to describe this or that momentary event.

We've seen this done culturally a thousand times.  Redefinitions of republicanism, democracy, libertarianism and so on abound.  Whenever someone wants to create a new controversy, it always begins with a hugely vague re-definition:  the rape debate was a sensational example of that, where rape was alternately defined as anytime a man had sex with a woman, or anytime a woman didn't definitively use the word "yes," or even any time that a man thought about a woman.  Other favorites for ridiculously redefined concepts include science, religion, literature, 'small-business' and so on and so forth.

When you feel pressured by a word that describes you in  away you do not like, redefine that word.  Don't change your behavior.  Redefine the word.  And watching that happen over and over, we're all standing there at some point watching a mass crowd fawn over the new concept, thinking, "wow, are they really buying this shit?"

And the shit I'm not buying at the moment is that the sandbox is the narrative is the sandbox is the narrative.  I am not buying the argument that at this moment in the campaign, I'm playing in a sandbox, and at this moment in the campaign, I'm being railroaded.  And neither exist.

It's all terribly convenient naval-gazing.

The whole issue comes down to a question of causality, "the relation between an event and a second event, where the second event is understood to be the consequence of the first."

Where the cause begins with the player making a statement, "I wish to do this," then it is a sandbox.  It is a sandbox even if there's a cave and a dungeon below that cave, that at every point the party agrees to keep going further.  It is still a sandbox if the party goes into the cave and the door of the cave snaps shut, locking the party inside.  That's not railroading, because the party made the decision to enter the cave.  And if the dungeon has walls and and rooms and a final big bad that has to be gotten over before the exit can be found again, that's still a sandbox, because the cause of being in the cave is still the player.

But if the DM continues to make it impossible for the players to leave the cave for session after session; if the DM uses that justification to rule the players, then the DM is a fucktard.  Intrinsic in the sandbox is a stipulation that the players should be allowed further opportunities to consent.  That if the door snaps shut, and they fight their way for three hours, then the trap should end in a reasonable amount of time, preferably that game night, so that the players can decide again, to leave the cave or dungeon, or to go deeper.  Over and over they should be allowed to either pull away, or venture forward.

The game ceases to be a sandbox when the DM denies this.  And the game never was a sandbox when, from out of the blue, the DM deliberately places the party in a position where they must do something because the DM has "prepared" an adventure, or has "created a story" where something must be obtained, returned, fixed, enhanced, stopped or otherwise altered in order to satisfy the requirements of the DM's story.

If the DM has conceived of a series of events - any series of events - which have not been directly brought into play by virtue of the players initiating action, then that game is NOT a sandbox, it is a railroad.  If the DM has been anything except the "manager of the sandbox" ... if the DM has determined that a given set of events ought to occur because that DM wishes to be creative, or wishes to act as a "player" of the game, because that DM wants to insert his or her own ideas, then that game is NOT a sandbox.

It does not matter how good these ideas are, or how original, or what the DM's motivations are; it does not matter if those motivations are for the good of the game, or the party, or for the purpose of presenting something really interesting - it is still NOT a sandbox.  It is NOT a sandbox because the DM is creating events, and not responding to player actions.

The DM's role is to interpret the player's decisions, to place the logical obstacles between the player and the player's goals, and to describe the world and the inhabitants of that world to the player.  Any other action is a deliberate misuse of the DM's power, to selfishly direct other persons, friends and families, to enact out the DM's fantasies in a situation where the DM has all the power and the players have none.

It must be understood that the DM at no time, in the game, can "lose."  No die roll, no game structure, no counterbalance exists to the DM's authority or the DM's will - so the DM must manage his or her own power by denying it 100% in every possible instance.  Anything else is an abuse of that power.

The referee does not stand in the huddle and make plays.  The referee does not bet on the game.  The referee cannot, must not, ever, have any stake in the play or deliberation of the game, not even to the point where the referee might want it to be a really good game.  Referees are expected, universally, to have neither an emotional nor an intellectual stake in any game which they ejudicate, because it is universally understood that that would ruin the game.

A DM who creates his or her own story; or who takes either intellectual or emotional action to ensure for the sake of that story, or the presentation of that story, or the presentation of any series of events, an action which is not a reaction directly resulting from the player's action, is a BAD DM.  He or she has been corrupted by the power of their position and that should be made clear to them.

This is not negotiable.


JD said...

It's all good, I'm game. There is no final definition of the term "sanbox" or a satisfying explanation, etymological or otherwise. Just lots and lots of theories (like your attempt to explain it with LEGO). It is an open discourse and writing about it is a way of keeping it that way. If I'm a bad example of doing so, I'm more than happy to argue my position or admit I was wrong. Eventually, for me at least, this is about understanding the game and talking about it. As it is, I have more questions than answers.

And I have to agree with you, but I believe what you describe as a "sandbox" to be the way the game is intended to be played (just by using the rules as written). And what you describe as "railroading" is a good example for bad DMing.

Montagne Quentin said...

I would like you to expand on something for me, if you would, regarding this sentence: "But if the DM continues to make it impossible for the players to leave the cave for session after session [...]"
Let us imagine a isolated place, where the players enter with their own agency, and where they find themselves stranded, say, by a magical obstacle heavily resistant to damage or tempering. Let us say furthermore, that after several session, the player haven't found a way to break free. Do you perceive any pertinent distinction between the GM making them stay, or the GM making the place, and the people who made the place, who are making them stay ?
Because what is allowing players further opportunities to consent if not an action that does not directly result from player's actions ? what if the person who created the isolated place in question designed it specifically, and by calling upon considerable resources, as a trap for adventurers ? (let's say for example that the person is a mage who finds that adventurer make especially fine undead cratures, adventurers whose dead bodies he intends to collect over a period of several decades, after they have perished of starvation in his trap, where he would have been stupid to include anything that might help them get out, such as an exit with a riddle.)

What I'm getting at here, is that since the consequences of any actions cannot be reliably predicted over any long term, and since what even constitutes an action (a discrete event, set in space and time, with a beginning and an end)is essentially a necessary but inaccurate abstraction, making the demands of a proper sandbox the fact the player's agency alone drives events, and that the GM doesn't invest himself in the unfolding of events might be unrealistic.
I would argue, in fact, that a GM who has no stake in the unfolding of the events of the game contributes to the idea that the setting is an emanation of the player's characters presence, which in turn encourages them to think that since events occur in reaction to their existence, and only because of that, then there must be specific, expected ways to do certain things (like getting out of the dungeon), there must be things that they are supposed to do. And that defeats the appealing and -so far- unique characteristic of role-playing games, the perception and exertion of one's will.

Now, some of the things you have written on this blog leave me uncertain as to whether I get what you mean (the post on players crossing a bridge where archers wait in ambush, for example), but I was interested in reading how you might respond to these points (points that lead to no end of arguments with a player of mine, incidentally.) (That assumes of course, that you do find my comment of some note).

Alexis Smolensk said...


That magical obstacle MUST be something that exists for a logical reason - not merely as an invention of the DM. I don't mean that its existence must be telegraphed to the party, but some quality or nature of your world MUST define that particular obstacle in a rational and meaningful manner ... and in turn, must have a rational and meaningful means of either avoiding, deactivating or overcoming it. The "obstacle" the DM places in front of the party must, for the sake of the game, be one that CAN be defeated. As the DM, you create this obstacle - you need to be able to justify your referee-status in relationship to this obstacle (not "I liked the idea of it" or some other such self-perpetrating nonsense).

Let us say the way to break free exists and the players simply haven't thought of it. Tough luck for the players. You must judge as DM, however, that this means of breaking free can be fairly determined - and therein lies much of the difficulty in deciding what is, and what is not, a fair obstacle. My opinion is that the more bizarre the obstacle, the more 'imaginative,' the less likely it is that the party will be able to conceive of overcoming it, because the more likely it is the DM has concocted it from an imagination to which the players do not have access.

I admittedly fall into this trap myself; I think everyone does. The secret is to admit your error as a DM in making an unreasonable obstacle and move on.

Let's look at what you say about the GM making the place, and the people who made the place making the party stay.

I draw no distinction. The GM made the people who made the place. Its the same thing. You, the GM, are responsible for making people who make places which exist as obstacles which can be overcome. You must restrain your imagination in the invention of things that are gameworthy - you, as DM, must resist from incorporating anything from your imagination just because you like it. That is bad game design.

This definitely applies to the invention of a mage who makes 'especially fine undead.' Sounds like you have lost any idea of what ought to be there that would be important to the players in exchange for preening your terrific - but self-satisfying - imagination.

May I also add that I hate riddles. Parties, in my experience, also hate them. They are another example of a DM preening on the DM's cleverness, for they so very rarely make good gaming.

(to be continued)

Dave said...

I do my best to end each session of play with the party back in a safe area... whether it is at an inn in town, or just a secure camping location. The Game-clock runs at a one-for-one pace with the real world between sessions, unless there's something specific requiring it to be otherwise, such as having ended a session just prior to an encounter that will take us past our scheduled close. During this time, the characters heal, the seasons change, goods and services might become more or less available, and NPCs may initiate plans of their own. This is because my worlds are alive to me.

I'm not sure from your entry what you'd call this style, but to me it is sandbox; events may occur, but they're not based on any overarching story arc I'm pushing, they are either time-based, (winter arrives, food is scarcer, prices go up) or NPC-based (Weaponsmith Jim has seen the characters go into the hills north of town three times and come back with bags of loot each time... knowing they're in town, he arms himself and heads out to get a piece of the action himself!) The latter is certainly a reaction to Player Agency, but it isn't necessarily driven by it; my "better" NPCs have their own goals they work toward.

Alexis Smolensk said...


In general, I don't think you're really getting what is meant by player's actions driving the game; nor do I think you understand your conjectural relationship to running a game, nor how your role is facilitator, not cool-shit-inventor. I think you fail to recognize that you have the power to responsibility to ensure that what you propose in your second paragraph doesn't happen.

Third paragraph:

A road with archers on it is no different than a dungeon hall with orcs.

The players have chosen to go down that road. They have chosen to fight. They can always run away, or seek cover, or get creative in the face of the enemy.

What I don't do is have the archers automatically hit, or have the survival/death of the archers "mean something." The reaction is merely that the players have decided to travel along a road, where the DIE ROLL has indicated these two archers exist. Not me, but the die. As I said in the post's comments which you are referencing.

Montagne Quentin said...

Alexis, regarding you second response

(I am mindful quotes upon quote is a rather unwieldy way to converse, but I wish to address what you said.)

What I mean is that being a cool-shit inventor, or rather a meaningful-shit inventor makes me a facilitator. And that things are meaningful in the game not because I have the ability to make them so, but because I have the ability (most of the time at least, I have days just like anybody else) to make exist in way that is not necessarily dependant on the players, which they can then find meaning full. And by finding I do not mean merely "appreciating as", but "discovering as".

I believe we are in agreement regarding what you just wrote on the archers. And I assure you I don't have archers hit automatically. Nor do I have their death/survival mean something. Their death/survival already does "mean something" in the sense that it (and everything else that happens anywhere, ever) will have consequences, about which the players may care, or not, which they may regret, or not.

I simply think that I can, as human being, measure the thread of causes and consequences only to a certain point, and only with a limited degree of accuracy.If, as you say, the GM is responsible for creating things that are "game worthy", how can ensure that the continued repercussions of these things are also "game worthy", except, at some inevitable point, by making disappear or by making them different than what their nature demands, and by doing so one does not only restrains one's imagination, but also the relation that players have with the game, since they will know that things will exist only so far as they concern them. (I placed "your" game worthy between quotes, because I believe that in a game where you can attempt anything, anything is game worthy.) For example: I drawn no meaningful distinction between creating an obstacle and creating the people that created the obstacle (that was inn fact, my point). But neither do you in the case of archers firing at players over a chasm: you did create the rules for the roll that indicated the presence of these archers. Which, as I believe I read somewhere else on your blog, is not so much meant as way to absolve yourself of responsibility, but as a way to simulate the randomness of existence, and as a way to demonstrate your lack of malice to suspicious players.

I think what you mean to say is that for a game to be worthy of the appellation "sandbox" (indeed, to be worthy at all), whatever events occur must not result from your agency, but the way things happen, all things cannot result from anything other than your agency, of which the player should be aware. If that is the case, I agree with you.

Keith S said...

A DM who creates his or her own story; or who takes either intellectual or emotional action to ensure for the sake of that story, or the presentation of that story, or the presentation of any series of events, and action which is not a reaction directly resulting from the player's action, is a BAD DM.

When I am running a game, I am presenting a world for the players to explore and interact with. Part of that presentation involves creating the illusion of depth. As in the real world, where countless events are occurring that are outside my awareness at the moment, yet may or may not at some point come to my attention, so I endeavor to make it seem in the game world.

My players choose where to go, who to negotiate with, who to fight, and what to do. The story is their story. That story is the focus of our play.

As you read a book, or gaze at a work of art, or watch a movie, you understand there are other stories than your own out there. I may read a book, and research further the ideas therein, perhaps taking up a new hobby as a result of what I've read. I'm interacting with someone else's story. I can read an editorial and independently decide for myself how to feel about the topic. I have not lost any agency in this exchange.

The same goes for the game world. Perhaps some players are looking away from the table saying, "Are you buying this shit?" But, in my experience, they're more likely asking me questions to better inform the choices they're making for their characters.

Stories are happening all around us, every minute. Everyone has one to tell. Human interaction is built upon that simple fact. When we trade stories, and build new ones together, we call it "playing" D&D.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"cool-shit inventor" = inventor of cool shit. Sorry for the error in connotation.

I don't agree that innovation = facilitation. Those words are very often - as any engineer can tell you - irreconcilable.

At no time and in no way did I suggest the DM, nor the DM's world, is 'dependent' upon the player. Dependency is a wholly different concept than reaction. Those two terms are not interchangeable.

I believe in this case you are using "consequence" in its meaning associated with operant conditioning, and not "consequentialism," which would be an unfortunate moral attitude to the game. Please do not use the word "consequence" to describe your position, as it can be easily misunderstood.

I feel that if you are trying to 'measure' the threads and consequences to any point, you are at fault. You should not attempt to predict, or guess, at the long term behavior or even the long term results of player action. K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid. Just deal with the immediate. Manage the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves. Manage what is along this road now, and DON'T DECIDE in advance what is at the end of the series of roads the party will eventually travel.

The further in the future you predict, the more you will be inclined to bend the party's behavior towards that prediction, because you are human and you won't be able to help yourself. Therefore, conceptions of reaction far in the future should be held by you in the vaguest possible terms, while you keep your eye on the immediate present.

Don't predict. Make judgements that can reasonably be expected to apply only in the most immediate sense possible.

Ensuring something is gameworthy is easier when you are less concerned with how "cool" a thing is and more concerned with how that thing will manifest from the player's perspective. To be a good DM, you must have empathy. To argue that the DM can do 'anything' is to be anti-empathic. It is self-minded. If you want to do 'anything,' write a book or take part in some other activity where you do not have power over other people.

Finally - to the party, only that which does concern them DOES matter. Anything that does not in someway concern the party exists only for your benefit. Things that exist only for your benefit are not part of the game, they are part of your self-aggrandizement.

Alexis Smolensk said...


So long as the stories that deepen your world do not predicate upon the player's actions except as reactions - so long as the stories do not dictate to the players what they must do, but only apply to what they might do, given the opportunity to act themselves, then you are not denying the player's agency. You're still in a sandbox.

If your deepened world causes a war to break out next to the players, threatening them, possibly killing them, it is no different from the two archers, the orcs in the dungeon hall, or any other reasonably random occurrence that might come about in the world. You're still in a sandbox.

If, however, your deepened world offers only one out for the characters from these other stories; if there are powerful characters who impose force on the players to make them do this or that; if you as the DM design your world so that the players must do A or B because you refuse to give them any other option, then that is not a sandbox.

I think you understand those distinctions.

It isn't a sandbox dungeon if the player's can't look at it and say, "Let's not."

And I think you understand that too.

You'd be stunned at the number who don't.

Alexis Smolensk said...

As an aside, separate from any response because its only just occurred to me.

There is another, very common way to railroad a party.

Parties and DMs are friends. If your friend worked very hard to make a railroaded campaign, recognize how you'd be bound by that friendship not only to run in that dungeon, but to praise it as you did so.

That is so often forgotten.

YagamiFire said...

As to the last post...that way lies the myth of "buy in" I am starting to hate so very much.

Alexis Smolensk said...

But that is logical - in this culture, "consensuality" justifies every wrongdoing.

Montagne Quentin said...


I do not agree that innovation equals facilitation either. What I said was that in the context of a game, presenting things that stand on their own to my players makes me a facilitator to their implication.

I will take care to use the word consequence in a more appropriate manner, thank you.

But as for, measuring the threads of causes and effects, who doesn't ? And as for doing it on the long term, well people other than the players do make plans that can reach far into the future. And, depending on the success of said plan - which cannot be itself determined by die rolls- it might influence the party's behaviour in that they can react to it. But I am perfectly content to let PCs remain unaware and far way from things that I had the NPCs predict. I am only as precise in my predictions as I estimate my NPCs will be, and since my players know it they too can predict NPC's béhaviors, based on what they know -or think they know- about them.

Making judgements that can only reasonably be expected to apply only in the most immediate sense cripple the world, and the verisimilitude of this world by denying denizens of the world agendas of their own.

And I am never concerned about how things might be game worthy while I play. That is the point of game rules.

As for saying that only what concerns the party (in that they are concerned about it, yes ?) does matter, it has unfortunate implications: it would mean that the world does not exist beyond their perception. You once described the misadventures of a PC who travelled across a mountain range with an 18 in Constitution and little in the way of clothes and supplies. Plainly, he was unaware - and thus unconcerned- that exposure could be a problem, and there were, well consequences for it, wasn't there ? (By which I do not mean that you punished him of course.) Thus, things that do not concern the party, at least at a given moment, might concern them at some other time. It is not so much a concern for my vanity (although I certainly have one) as concern for story-telling, which in this case is the sum of the player's experiences.

PS: I posted another message earlier, but I do not see it. I hope it isn't lost, but if it isn't, do you think you might have missed it for approval ?

Also, if I call you Alexis, it would prefer you call by my first name as well.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Since "Montagne" comes before "Quentin" in your nick, I thought I was calling you by your first name. I certainly meant no disrespect.


My concern is not of that which the PCs are aware, but of which you're aware. You seem to be getting further and further out there, justifying your actions, concerned mostly with yourself and what you're seeing, what you're measuring, etc. "Let" the players be unaware? "Never concerned" about game-worthy play? Those are worrying, self-involved statements.

The whole paragraph about what concerns the party is completely lost on me. "Concern. transitive verb. To relate to; to have an influence on." I do not mean the word in the sense of something the party is "concerned" about. The party may not be concerned about the weather, but the weather nevertheless concerns the party. You seem to be lost on this distinction.

I have no deleted any comments.

This latest comment seems to be reiterating your previously made points, Quentin. I went through that with the last post and someone else, and would like to avoid going through all that again.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Not. Not deleted any comments.

JDJarvis said...

I myself feel most sandboxes simply are not because there is little point in the players building anything in a domain populated by places the players will never visit again and NPCs they have no reason at all to interact with once the macguffin is fetched or the local menace defeated. The vaccuum created by the defeat of a menace is seldom explored, access to a formerly restricted resource has no impact.
Dungeons should have more existence than that exprssed by a couple sessions combat, ppuzzle solving, and looting. Maybe not all of them but memorable places that are explored should continue to benefit those who explored them.
Ex: In defeating the Goblins of the Red Tower many months ago the party discovers a bandits have kidnapped a noble and are holding him in saod tower, have the bandits found the secret passage, have they befreinded the hermit the players did? The dungeon should be presistent and exploration signifigant and rewarding to the brave and cunning not just a set of random obstacles and treasures.
Kill all the goblins in Moria and you have a lot of happy dwarves on your hands.

Eric said...

It isn't a sandbox dungeon if the player's can't look at it and say, "Let's not."

This is one of the merits of the one-page dungeons, to my mind; it's (socially) easier to say "let's not" to a single sheet of paper than to a DM's elaborate creation, or even a purchased module that the DM had to pay for and read.