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.


  1. 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.

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

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

  4. 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.

  5. From the age of 16 myself I've wanted to create a game where, as you say, I get myself "out of the loop." My first attempts were awful, genuinely just railroads that I pretended where a sandbox because there was a world map.

    I developed as a GM and in the last few years felt I'd cracked it. I had my worlds and within them situations would happen and my players could approach them in a non-linear fashion or ignore them if they wanted to deal with the consquences. I'd made the sandbox I always wanted. My players were free and liberated to just be in the world. Indeed listening to Colville helped in this respect.

    Then I found your blog.

    You've made me realise that I haven't been creating sandbox worlds at all. I've been creating railroads with a lot of different paths. My players even have the luxury of building some of those paths themselves but they're still following the damn road.

    So I'm back to the drawing board. It's disheartening but I also in a weird sense relish the challenge. So thankyou for that for what its worth.

  6. Panayiotis,

    I'm familiar with Colville's approach, so I understand what you mean. This video may interest you as a metaphor. In the 1990s, Disney conceived of a park concept that would enable Disneyland park-goers to "see the sights" of California without ever leaving the park. It would include the Yosemite Valley, Hollywood and other parts of the state, to encourage people to stay at Disneyland and NOT visit California.

    The idea itself is ... unfortunate. But it describes the difference between Colville's approach and my own. Colville wants to build a theme park with separate rides that will provide excitement and thrills.

    And I want to build California.

    Colville's approach is doable. My approach is ... transcendent.

    Your thank-you, Panayiotis, is worth a very great deal to me. I thank you for telling me your story.

  7. I appreciate the swift response Alexis, that can be rare in the blogosphere. I've just picked up a paper copy of your book 'How to Run' and I can only hope it will help in where I'm going now. ( I need something I can hold in my hands for it to really work.)

    I've honestly mentioned your approach to the game and especially the sandbox to my group and other nerdy friends and they've balked. Such realism isn't needed they say. You don't need an economic system to really be a DM. Who cares about the price of sheep? What about the story? Who cares about trudging through Siberia meeting nothing for days on end?

    I think they'd be happy if I continued running games exactly how I'm running them now. I could be complacent with that I suppose. I'm a 'good GM'. Certainly it would be an easier way out not to challenge myself further.

    I don't want to though. You've sparked in me the possibility of the game I've always actually wanted to run. Truth be told the game I've actually wanted to play. I've always I think wanted to be a DM because I want to play in the games I run but I've never found such a game in reality. I guess. I'm . Ugh. Transcending as you put it.

    So I realise I'm entering this endeavour alone.For my own purposes. Not to fulfill a need for any of the groups I run who seem perfectly content. I've looked through your blogs and you seem to have at least a small group of like minded players but I imagine you've encountered such resistance to your world and how you've run it before.

    That's a good analogy. I spent the happiest few months of my life travelling through America and Canada, visiting, California, New Hampshire, Manchester New England, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Portland Oregon. I had no rhyme, no reason, no plan. I just went where I wanted to go. Earned money how I could. That feeling of total freedom I think is worth creating in a game because it's not a luxury most people ever have and provides so much more to the spirit than had I just flew to Disneyland for a week.

    Thanks again.

  8. I find that for some players, it isn't important that I discuss my view of the setting with them. The setting is, after all, a construct out of which I run my game; the players are right when they say they don't need to know everything that is going on. My party in Norway has no idea what is going on in the next valley over, any more than I know what's going on in the next city. So I quietly hide those details from my players and move forward.

    Take the example about the price of sheep. No, of course that price doesn't need to matter. I don't know the price of a sheep right now in the real world and it doesn't get in my way, because I'm not a sheep farmer. All the players really need to have is a list of items to buy on an equipment list and a price next to those items. They don't actually need to know how I generate that price.

    But as the players move from market to market, and those prices change, that's out of their control. If they're in a part of my world that's thousands of miles from the heavy industry of the mid-17th century, so that familiar Western European armor is excessively costly, of course they'll complain that they can't buy all they want. But no one else has metal either. There are no swords. There is no heavy metal armor. This is India. Get past it.

    I don't have to explain to the party WHY. I know why. If they ask, I can tell them. What I've learned is that WHEN they ask, that's how they get invested. "Where can we go to get cheap armor." Over there, I say. You get it over there.

    They may be your own purposes now, Panayiotis ... but I think you'll find that if you give it some time, your players will begin to see that your purposes have value. They just have a learning process to get through.


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