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.