Please forgive me for the over-generalizations I’m about to make.
Once upon a time the GM was all powerful and inaccessible to all but the most earnest and devout of supplicants. He reigned over his world with detachment and poise. His players enjoyed his forbearance in allowing them to adventure in his world. All was on his terms. Here is my land, he would say. Do what you want. Or try to.
There seemed little question of whether it mattered if players enjoyed the world. Of course they did. How could they not? And if somehow they did not—or if they thought their GM was unfair or a bit of a bore—what could they do? In every demesne of the world I am describing, there was one game, one group, and (usually) one GM. The GM was something of a prodigy. Very few had the Gift, and it almost never was something that could be learned.
I paint this picture because after my last session I have been thinking of the different ways in which the gamers might construct adventures and—by extension—campaigns. These considerations lead into social scripts of gaming.
As I have said before, I currently am a player in a 1e campaign. The campaign consists of a single large dungeon, perhaps infinitely deep, and a nearby village to which the PCs are expected to return at the close of every session.*
We players get the sense that our characters are allowed to do quite literally anything they want, even to the point of tedium. For example, one session we spent the entire time choosing to stay out of the dungeon, instead exploring the nearby mountainous countryside. We received absolutely nothing for our pains but some sightings of a wildcat and the discovery of an abandoned, weather-ruined cabin. This shows that our DM is perfectly content to allow us to waste time. With perfect equanimity he will referee us through a daylong mountain hike or a showdown with an evil sorcerer in the depths of the earth. After all, we face consequences for our choices. If our characters don’t secure gold coins, they don’t gain significant Experience. They also might find it difficult to maintain their living expenses for two weeks of time.
This brings me to a specification of one mode of sandbox play. In my DM’s campaign, time is “real.” The adventure session can comprise a day or more, but in the intervening period between sessions, an equivalent amount of game time transpires. This is why our DM evinces considerable difficulty if our characters don’t end a session in the “safe” territory of civilization. He wants game time to move on but for any real “action” to be on hold.
On alternating weeks I run my own game (Against the Darkmaster right now—I’m more polygamerous than my DM) in which my DM is one of my players. Right now, with VsD, my game is a sandbox, too… but with a few differences. I use the VsD house rules that PCs have Passions, which, in my game, translates into meaning that all PCs have individual quests. My game also doesn’t adhere to “real time.”
I have continued my exploration of Chivalry & Sorcery by looking at the C&S Red Book, a freely distributed re-articulation of the original edition. In that is described the C&S Grand Campaign. The relationship between real time and game time is different in that approach, based on what characters in the Middle Ages likely would be doing during the annual seasons. It also looks like, because of these considerations, that the game involves some modes such as kingdom building and warfare.
I’m already looking to my next game. I’m planning on running one system a year, starting in January, and I’m considering exploring Conan 2d20 next. Though capable of being used for any kind of play, that system favors (in my opinion, because of its source material) episodic play. In this mode the GM is encouraged to start adventures in media res, often right in the middle of combat. In this form, when game time commences, the characters already have chosen the intended adventure and are within it, though they now have to narrate to the end. The next adventure will begin similarly, in a different country, perhaps—even, possibly, as slightly different characters, because of downtime events that occurred in the intervening time period ranging from a few days to many years.
The last session of sandbox play in my own game felt lackluster. There are a number of possibilities for why this was, and they all probably conspire to generate the sense of mediocrity, but one I considered deeply was player agency.
Only one of my PCs had a really good reason for being at the adventure site. This is because my players are good gamers and follow social scripts. A few are as follows:
The PCs most of the time will work together in a group. True, they divide their power when they split the party, but another reason for this prohibition is that there is the potential for many being bored while others in the group go adventuring.
The PCs will take turns to meet their various objectives. One of my longest running campaigns used Pathfinder and its official setting of Golarion. For campaign “arcs” in that group, I had the custom of selecting one PC (sometimes out of eight!) to be the star or focus of the “season.”
The PCs will go on an adventure. Adherence to this script often threatens to transform the intended structure of the campaign. If the PCs seize too much on the first task presented to them, they might ignore entirely all of the other rumors or adventure seeds I have prepared. If they invariably follow the first carrot placed before them, they might suddenly find themselves on an “adventure path.”
The GM will be entertaining. I think even we Rolemaster gamers will agree that the rpg standard mode has evolved from its simulationist roots in wargaming to emulate cinematic narrative. Many gamers are not interested in the minutiae of “real life.” These days, if a session threatens to get bogged down with details, the GM is expected to “spice things up a bit” with improvisation.
I’m considering exploring, in a later article or two, a more specific and encompassing “taxonomy” of adventure and campaign types. But here I’m wondering how I might fix the mediocrity I experienced last session. Right now the party is returning to town. I think, for next time, I might not prepare an adventure, instead roll up adventure ideas and then simply ask the group what it wants to do. I will refer, then, to my adventure ideas as an improvised reaction to however PCs choose to drive the narrative. Hopefully this will make the action directly relevant to their characters’ stories, and they should self-select, through roleplay, just which tasks they are going to pursue and at what times. Of course, this also might lead to them splitting the party, if they don’t follow that particular social script.
*My DM was momentarily nonplussed when our PCs decided to claim “apartments” within the second level of the dungeon itself.