Sunday, September 13, 2009

4e Sandboxing

I've been reading a fair bit about the railroad-sandbox dichotomy lately. Like most things on the internet, both sides of the argument are exaggerating to make their point. There is no reason that a sandbox can't have a plot, and no reason that a railroad can't have organically-growing spits and turnings.

I've also been reading a lot about the whole balanced encounter "problem". Of course, there is no problem, just exaggeration in order to argue against or denigrate other people. It's purely ridiculous for any DM to assert that they don't balance things somewhat. They don't ring the town with dragons, and they provide a mix of creature levels throughout the game environment. So they balance things, if not on an encounter-by-encounter basis.

Personally, I like the idea of being able to "balance" encounters, because it helps me fulfil my basic goal as a DM, which is to ensure that everyone has a good time. This is a role-playing GAME after all. I play sports for competition, I rescue people from car accidents to fulfil my community duties, and I play games for fun.

Having the ability to balance encounters doesn't mean that each encounter will be "balanced" - that's another exaggeration, spread by people who want to argue that their style is better. What it means is that I get some surety about the actual difficulty level of the encounter. Fine-edged control, rather than the semi-blunt spray and pray methods of many previous RPG's that I have played.

I, rather than luck, decide how tough I want a given encounter to be. This also lets me put in the appropriate "watch the fuck out" warnings in place. Again, something that sandbox purists may say isn't something they do, but which I consider essential for ensuring that I'm not that asshole DM that nobody will play with.

This section of the blog is going to be largely a design journal for my ongoing on-line campaign. We're running the game using Maptools and Skype, with Doodle for scheduling and MSN for private messaging. I'll be talking about encounter design, sandboxing, developing plot lines and working with online tools.

If anyone would like to read session summaries and more information about the actual campaign, go to

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Gaming Style

I've been seeing this set of gaming style parameters around teh intertubes, so I thought it would be an interesting exercise. I can tell you for sure that my thoughts on this have clarified considerably since the advent of 4e, for better or for worse.

Comprehensive Rules (1) vs. Minimalist Rules (10):
I guess I'm more of a Comprehensive Rules guy, but with the caveat that the rules must not drastically impede play. As far as I'm concerned, there is a critical mass for rules - too many, and the game sucks - too few, and it's just constant arguing and house-rules. I like the line that 4e draws. Rules are for combat, where they matter. Everything else can be role-played, and should be, in fact. So put me in at about a 3 - comprehensive rules, but not for everything.

High Power Fantasy (1) vs. Low Power Fantasy (10):
This is a hard one for me. I love low-power, gritty fantasy books, like the Black Company. But I like to play stories about capital - h Heroes. Heroes games definitely call for high-power settings. Ultimately, I like the players to think of themselves as Heroes, and to create situations that really call for Heroes, so I guess I'm about a 4. High-power, with low-power inclinations.

Narrative Mechanics (1) vs. Simulation Mechanics (10): I don't think this is a valuable distinction. If I had to decide, I'd say that I like creating realistic stories - but that simulation does not appeal to me at all. A solid 3, maybe.

Strategic Chargen (1) vs. Simple Chargen (10): Simple Chargen is for people who don't like to think too much, and doesn't aid role-playing in any way. Cookie-cutter characters... yaay! I like to have a lot of options, and to have as many of those options as possible be viable, valuable and useful. Of course, in many systems, lots of the mechanics and options are blind alleys - they appear interesting, but aren't really worthwhile when you are actually playing (I'm looking at you, craft). So I'd say I'm a 3 - I like it strategic, but it has to be worthwhile choices.

Tactical Encounter (1) vs. Strategic Adventure (10): This is another worthless distinction. An encounter can be tactical within the sandbox structure. Tactical to me means "interesting features or structure", and I try to ensure there are a lot of those - but I never build with the exact party in mind - better to build something interesting and see how the party deals with it. Strategic, I guess, means a lot of boring shittly little encounters that use up healing potions. Did enough of those playing Final Fantasy. I'll put myself down as a 3.

Combat Balance (1) vs. Adventure Balance (10): Because you can't have balanced combat mechanics unless you unbalance the rest of the game right? Balderdash. I can balance my adventures just fine and still have mechanically balanced combat thanks. I'll take stupid distinction for 5, Alex.

Balanced Encounters (1) vs. Balanced Adventures (10): Holy god, these categories annoy me. The DM decides what populates the world. All encounters come from him. If he decides there is a lv 20 dragon in the woods when the party is lv 2, there is. We had a name for that GM. It was Asshole. Balanced encounters mean that you can control what you throw at the party with a reasonable degree of certainty. Balanced adventures means that you create an environment where the characters can (hopefully) choose things that will challenge then without massacring them. But then you get to laugh and say "You have chosen -- poorly" when they attack the really tough troll under the bridge. So once again, I'll take a 3. I balance encounters, but give them Adventure options that will make encounters easier or harder, based on their choices.

Wargame Combat (1) vs. Abstracted Combat (10): Wargame, put me down as a 2. I started with abstract combat, got into arguments, got confused, got a blackboard and never, ever went back.

GM as Player (1) vs. GM as Referee (10): I like to PLAY role-playing games. Impartial referee, I am not. My role is to have fun, and make sure everyone else has fun too - you do that by playing.

Fantastic Characters (1) vs. Common Characters (10): If I wanted to play a choleric beggar scrounging for pennies in the slums of a city, I would say that I like common characters. But I already said I like Heroes, soooo, 2.

Established Setting (1) vs. DIY Setting (10): I used to love me some Forgotten Realms. Bought all the splats, read all the books. Darkwalker-cover Grey Box, too, not your fancy 3e realms. But I'm totally a DIY-guy now. I like to create, write and draw maps - so it's the perfect outlet.

Resource Optimization (1) vs. Creative Problem Solving (10): I think the challenge of the game should come from overcoming obstacles with skill, flair and a dash of magic. Not counting tent pegs or rationing your dried fruit. Holy Shit, do people actually do that for fun? Who, accountants? Logistics officers? I'll take a solid 8 on this - I do still like to make sure that you actually brought a tent.

Sooo, that's me - pretty low numbers across the board. Of course, I think that a lot of these categories are not valuable distinctions - you can run a game perfectly well without worrying about them, and many people do.