Before I get into this let’s be clear: I’m not trying to define “sandbox”. I’m trying to understand it. I might want to use the term to market a game and I don’t want to lead anyone astray. Unfortunately I’m discovering a lot of variation in acceptable definitions.
Over on reddit someone brought up an interesting point that seems to demand another axis on my graph for sandboxes. I don’t want another axis because 2D graphs are very tidy and easy to make but if there are three variables then so be it. Let’s hope we only need three so I don’t have to draw a hypercube.
So over there the point was made that one factor in a sandbox is a lack of player agency. Not character, mind you, but player. That is, the player’s impact on the world is constrained to the actions of their character: they have no narrative authority outside describing their actions. They don’t get to name cities, declare species friendly, or announce that they found a speargun in the tool shed. The commenter places “sandbox” in direct opposition to “story game” over this exact issue. Maybe I’ll try and find the boundaries of “story game” another time.
This further seems to imply ownership: in a sandbox game the ref owns the world and its evolution. The players try to make a mark on it using their characters but they don’t have any authority over it. And in a sense they don’t own their characters either — since they have no narrative authority, they can’t raise new background information in the middle of play.
This makes a sandbox (or let’s call this a hardcore sandbox) a very small place, to my mind.
No ref, no matter how dedicated, can create a world with the same detail as the real world.
Players will read and retain only a fraction of what the ref creates and offers them to absorb.
Consequently, players have a fraction of a fraction of the knowledge about the world of their characters that a real person would. Removing narrative authority therefore shrinks the world: we could have the illusion that the world as described by the ref is really detailed, more detailed than the bits they wrote down, but only if the players can say things (through the characters’ mouths) that are true about the world. And the characters must know vastly more about the world than the player. More even than the ref — they grew up there. They went to school there. They spent 20, 30, 50 years there experiencing it inside the fiction. Characters must have an enormous amount of world information.
But the player can’t. It has to be simulated or the world shrinks to the notes of the ref. It is exposed as tiny.
There are a couple of ways to let it grow though.
One is to have the players ask the ref questions about the world. “Do I know more about this from my upbringing in this region?” or even “Could it be the case that this is true?” And the ref can add more detail to their world based on responses. This preserves the ref’s ownership.
But that feels, to me anyway, positively draconian. It places us in a position of almost worshipping the ref’s vision of the world.
Now for a long time that is exactly how I played. The ref was God and the players were peons within it, begging for information scraps. I enjoyed that a lot. It was a little suspicious how much I enjoyed that. So my preference now is the alternative: players can freely declare facts that fall into the scope of their characters’ experience. There is a sense in which this implies more trust — not more trust around the table but more trust from the ref for the player input. Trust is always complicated and so is power and this solution upsets some fairly traditional ideas about how that should be distributed (hardcore sandbox: the players trust the ref; the ref need not (and maybe doesn’t) trust the players).
But I get it. I’m starting to get a feel for what the sandbox is. The ref is running a world simulation and the players are interacting with it only through the interface of their characters. There is a comforting way in which this reduces the social interaction of play–I mean, everyone is of course socializing but it is not part of play. Trust and power hierarchies are strictly enforced. The game (not the play — play is fluid, jovial, human, questions, answers, jokes, sidebars, arguments, secret caresses under the table) has a rigid structure, like a video game: the characters are the avatars and the ref is the computer software. Boundaries are not crossed. That’s both appealing and repellant for me. It has a powerful structure that does not invite a lot of argument, which is slick.
If you spell it out.
But if you spell it out you kind of want to kick against it, to refuse being dominated. You might find you want to at least be allowed to (if not actually) push the world around as a player. You might be inclined to believe that your creative input has as much or more value than the ref’s in some contexts. You might then be invited to run your own sandbox, I guess.
None of this is spelled out in the Soft Horizon games and it probably should be. I expect the players to volunteer fiction outside the scope of their characters. It is not a hardcore sandbox. It’s a softcore sandbox, I guess?
Around the time we were playing with Burning Wheel we also got into Universalis, a GM-less universal system for developing a story with interesting people using a simple currency to trade narrative control. It has a nice rhythm, and with a little attention can be diverted from the gonzo towards something more serious. We used this to develop a setting for Burning Wheel play and frankly the developed setting was more interesting than the game itself was.
If there is a spectrum of games on some linear scale of I-don’t-know-what, there is a scale where D&D is on one end and Universalis is the other. In that sense the game provided a kind of map — if there’s a known quantity over there and another known quantity waaaaaay over there, then that implies a space between. A huge space in between. So that was a map with a lot of blank space and such things invite exploration. I know that’s vague but that’s the way I felt: I was seeing a huge gulf of apparently unexplored space between this game and what I was used to.
And Universalis was another independent title, again whispering in my ear that I can make these things if I want.
spirit of the century
Well obviously, right? We played this and dug it because it was an engine. You fire it up, play by the rules, and get some pretty wonderful results. We rotated the GM role and got great results. This implied a framework for games that I knew I could work with.
I also really wanted to decompose it. It clearly had a lot of subsystems entangled in it that could be teased out, defined, made to do other things. It begged to be refactored.
It’s very broad, heroic stuff and so perversely it made me think about subverting that. And that’s when Spirit of the Far Future was born, which would soon be Diaspora. But this wasn’t a case where we looked at the game and thought, you know, this would be the perfect system for Traveller. Rather this was a case where we looked at the game and thought that rebuilding Traveller with it would be somewhere between perverse and pathological. It was a Bad Idea.
But that was a rationale, and all I needed, to start deconstructing the system in the ways I thought I saw were possible. And I was right. We didn’t go far enough, but we went in a direction that would certainly influence others.
We never played much SotC. A few sessions maybe, just enough to get a feel for the system so we could re-write it into a game we actually wanted to play. But it spawned Diaspora very directly and that game has seen a lot of play. Tons of play. Even when I started to grow tired of Fate, I still got a kick out of a Diaspora game.
And Fred and the gang were great to us. Encouraging, enlightening, supportive — just great. And so even if all the game influence was devalued, the influence that would stick would be the realization that the designers were just folks, and folks talk to folks. It humanized an “industry” for me (it’s not an industry).
And then we started playing Reign. This game is built on the “One Roll Engine” and it packs a wollop: one roll is decoded in rounds, dice moved around, subtracted, compared, to get initiative, attack, defense, hit, damage, and hit location all in one throw each.
That’s really cool. It spawned Hollowpoint (again because I thought there was a way to pervert it).
But the key influence in Reign was the organization rules: rules for treating an organization to which the characters belonged as a character itself. With its own actions in the session and crossed influence: changes in the character play changed the organization play. Changes in the organization play changed the character play. And this drives a game — an organization to which characters belong (essential) that has its own motivation (also essential) is a super powerful motor to keep a game running.
It binds characters together without meeting in an inn.
It supplies common motivations. Characters might have their own little personal things they want to do, but the organization’s needs are something all can agree on.
It supplies resources. There’s money, people have heard of you, there are friends and there are enemies. Things that were hard to introduce were now just handed to us.
And then there was the way Greg Stolze, the author, was handling expansion. He was experimenting with different models for getting paid and that made us think about those things as well. The business side was being revealed to be as broad and poorly understood as the games themselves. So many things were possible.
shock: social science fiction
And then things got serious. This was the first game I played that was clearly and concisely about something. The mechanism was deliberate, doing exactly what it was supposed to do. That was something I wanted to emulate: I want to be intentional. Shock is intentional.
Shock is also spare. It doesn’t do anything but its intention. And Joshua A. C. Newman thinks really hard about how to do what it needs to do: he wants to have play emulate a certain kind of science fiction and then drills into the heart of that fiction to figure out what makes it go. Then mechanizes it. It’s game design as engineering.
My games aren’t that intentional. I can only hope they at least get mistaken for it.
All the cool kids are doing a list of ten influential games. Let’s try this instead: I’ll talk about each of the games that influenced me. I dunno if we’ll get to ten. I may or may not do them all in one post. Let’s find out.
dungeons & dragons
Well, since this was the first role-playing game I played it would be pretty hard to say it wasn’t influential. But it was first only by accident — a game that happened to be around because someone got it for a gift and it had a compelling cover. So, influential because it was first. Influential because it hinted at other possibilities. But that’s about it — it only influences current design insofar as it influenced my influences. The whole model of roll to hit, roll for damage, the centricity of combat, the level and class architecture, and the presence of an advancement mechanism as a motivator are all things I’ve left behind. Even quasi-medieval fantasy is a lot more in my past than my present. It likely influences in ways I don’t recognize, but at the top level, the cognizant level, the level of my brain where I serialize ideas in language, it has no impact except sometimes as a list of things to avoid. It was first and that’s it.
Lists of monsters. Nope.
Lists of equipment. Nope.
Experience points? Nope.
Character classes? Levels? Maybe…nope.
Spell lists! Nope.
Alignment? Surely alignment! Nope.
Rolling for initiative at least?! Nope.
Stats and modifiers? Nuh uh.
Random encounters? Nope.
Races? Hmm, sort of. Sometimes. But warily.
The game is mostly a list of things I would gradually shed.
Now this game was influential. I’m very glad I discovered it so early because it immediately called into question all the things D&D was trying to entrench. No advancement (I know there are sort of advancement rules but seriously, not in the same ballpark at all). No magic. I was never a reader of fantasy anyway — I was a Clarke and Asimov nerd as a kid. We played OLD PEOPLE — sometimes as ancient as 40! Doddering! I found that weirdly exciting. I was going to play an adult and so presumably doing adult things.
That’s a big deal as an influence: doing grown up things in a world that feels real. Sometimes mundane things. Paying the bills. But adult. That’s a major sea change from D&D.
Replacing classes with life paths was also a big deal: it taught me early that not only were there a lot of ways to make a character but I only knew two and they were totally different! This implied that there were even more and even more divergent possibilities.
It also had complex construction rules for spacecraft and that suggested all kinds of things you could construct using this basic model: here’s some space, fill it with doo-dads that have different cost metrics (mass, credits, program space) and calculate stats from this list. Mind blown!
And then of course the rich random setting generation was obviously influential — we’d use it in our first game, Diaspora, and most afterwards.
It was still strangely combat centric and that combat was still roll-to-hit-then-roll-for-damage so I wasn’t yet exposed to alternatives there, but the rest of the game was so very different that it seemed like everything was questionable.
Traveller was revelatory.
There were lots of games played after Traveller but precious few I would consider influential. And then…
dungeons & dragons 3e
Yeah I don’t think there was anything really influential between Traveller in, what, 1979 or so and then this. Lots of games, but nothing I’d point to and say that shaped my tastes today and certainly not my design ideas.
But at some point in the late 80s I stopped playing role-playing games altogether and that lasted at least ten years. And then 3e came along.
When I saw it, it was the perfect time. I had some friends who were likely players. I was feeling a wave of nostalgia. I had a big table.
I prepped and ran long campaigns with new friends and old friends. I connected with my would-be co-authors. We had great times.
But as with D&D Basic, I don’t think it had an influence other than reinforcing the seminal: this was role-playing and I wanted to keep playing. And now maybe start writing. So an influence because it influenced me to get back into this stupid hobby.
The place where I bought my D&D stuff had some indie titles and one that I saw early on was this Burning Wheel thing. It hybridized fantasy with life path character generation. It had some compelling technology for rewarding certain kinds of behaviour. And it installed the idea that the traditional GM might be something you want some mechanical defense against — the idea that the role could be abused and that rules could help.
Sure, dice pools, and so on, yeah those were novel to me but not influential.
The influential thing here was first that this was put together by someone that wanted to, on personal budget. Printed in relatively small numbers. This represented something I could do. It wasn’t something that came from the glossy world of Publishing. It came from the world of gamers.
So the critical influence of Burning Wheel was the invitation to start designing my own games. The idea that my creativity might productively extend beyond just playing the game. And it made me think about the social roles of the people playing and about games as influencers of behaviour. Games as mind control, if you will.
When I was young — say between 15 and 21 — I pretty much exclusively ran sandbox games. Hex crawls, really. I’d make a map, usually a huge map, with some named locations on it and a lot of different terrain and then set off the adventure with some very basic kicker, like a rites-of-passage quest to get 12 Amusing Things. And then the game would essentially be driven by random encounters and me ad libbing Story off of randomly generated magic items and my colourful place names. This was very satisfying gaming.
I’ve run plenty of unsandboxy games too. What would a good word for that be anyway? Mission-driven gaming was my favourite — spies with an objective, that kind of thing. Episodic. Still plenty of ad lib since all I’d write down was the mission brief and then wing everything else. Sometimes the mission brief was crazy simple, a phone call perhaps, with someone hysterically wailing about carnage at the Michael Jackson concert.
Turns out it was werewolves.
So sandboxery isn’t ad lib. I can ad lib at least two ways.
So what is it? Am I sandboxerizing now with the Soft Horizon games? Let me tell you how they run and you can tell me.
A Soft Horizon game starts with characters, an organization they belong to and a kicker. The kicker is a problem the organization has that needs solving. It’s vague. Something like “a client got de-certified here; find out what’s up”. And then there’s a place that’s randomly created with just a couple of phrases. And then there’s the over-arching conflict of the plane. In The King Machine it’s the fact that the King is bad and the King’s bad actions are ruining a Good Thing here. There’s some advice about what that might entail. In Sand Dogs it’s the fact that there are tombs full of sleeping gods and improbable goods and people are literally dying to turn that into wealth.
And then as the players address their central conflict they screw up and the system generates new problems. As ref I pretty much just ad lib descriptive text around that problem and then go with the flow. All I have for plans is a sheet that has one or two ideas for “starting some shit” should things slow down.
So is that sandboxery? There’s no map (well there’s a relationship map). There are no encounter tables (though the game twists around a die roll that performs the same twist-the-plot function as an encounter table). It feels pretty sandboxish to me.
But then I’ve heard people say that sandboxing requires a lot of prep because you never know which way the players will go next. Well the system seems to do that for me just fine so is that not sandboxing? Do I need to prep a whole world? I never did that. Maybe I never sandboxed.
What the hell have I been playing all these years? Does it lack a category? Or are categories mostly bullshit? Or somewhere in between — maybe no category can really embrace anything but rather has some idealized play and then almost everything is clustered around the tails of that bell curve.
Could you maybe plot gaming on two axes, say Plot Planning and World Planning and find categories that way?
So where would we put an optimal sandbox game? From some of the things I’ve read we’re looking at:
Is that right? Doesn’t seem to cover all the talk about sandboxing but certainly some of it. Maybe the whole left hand side is sandboxish.
Where are your games on there? What would you call that? Are all hex crawls sandboxes? Certainly all sand boxes are not hex crawls.
Most importantly though, if I tell you my game is a sandbox and you buy it and then disagree, are you going to be upset?
Only got in an hour before a headache defeated me. Still, nice conclusion to build on next week!
Brad: So! Jesus and Hoberman are sitting on top of a pyramid poking a hovering metallic sphere while Duarte is walking the perimeter and spots incoming vehicles. Some cars and three buses. Looks like the work crew is returning. Anyone recollect any details they want to make sure we recall?
JB: Pretty sure we had decided it’s time to go.
Dune: There are advancing unknowns.
Brad: What do you do?
JB: “Let’s get the hell out of here!” I am scrambling down to get to our vehicle
Dune: I fire up our ride.
JB: Did we find some fuel?
Dune: “Where to?” (Like a taxi driver)
Brad: Yes, plenty of fuel and water
Jesus: “YOu sure we want to abandon this great loca—” (watches Hoberman skid down the pyramid). “Oh.” Jesus follows him down and looks for a grenade launcher, or SMG
JB: “Well we could lay an ambush but not from up there. They’ve probably already seen us.”
Toph: “Yeah, yeah”
Brad: You have whatever you took with you when you fled the other fight. Some small arms, nothing special (nothing Lootworthy). Feel free to describe your rapidly scavenged weapons.
Dune: Same ol’ handgun for Duarte.
Toph: Jesus runs out to the shed with the radio, and finds a spear-gun that the last radio operator had used when on leave and sport fishing. There were three javelins nearby, each with fishing line attached. Jesus leaves the photo of the Marlin being held by its tail, a trophy from a forgotten cruise years before.
Brad: haha; Okay that’s a surreal vignette on this desert world but we’ll run with it.
Dune: i love it
Brad: Let’s say, and it hints at the Soft Horizon, that you have no idea what that marlin thing is or why it was caught in a reservoir.
Dune: You can’t see the gorilla, but the hand holding the line is awful hairy?
Brad: Or for that matter what the hell a speargun is for. Someone at this camp was a planewalker!
Toph: heh, I just see a weapon
Dune: Anyways, if we want to set up an ambush, we should drive the car in an obvious direction and cut them off as they pass in pursuit.
Brad: The vehicles are getting closer. They don’t look like military vehicles. No mounted weapons and no armour.
Dune: cut them off with some off-vehicle ambushers.
Brad: Car’s not drivable as I recall — no tires.
Dune: oh we have no vehicle then? is our ride further away (i recall hopping off and walking to the pyramid)
Brad: You just have the motorcycle & sidecar
Dune: (but i also assumed we retrieved it when we set up camp for the evening) yeah that one… let’s roll!
Brad: Duarte runs for the motorcycle as Jesus emerges from the shed with the speargun, looking at it quizzically. But fondly.
Dune: I would like to observe for signs of allegiance.
Brad: You have maybe 5 minutes before the convoy arrives. Dune: markings you mean? On the motorcycle?
Dune: I mean the convoy… any way to determine who they’re with? where they’re from? We can already see it’s non-military. makes, symbolism, formation?
Brad: The buses bear not so much a military marking as a logo. Commercial maybe? You don’t recognize it.
Dune: I think we should spy on them. I can drive the car away, but I’d like to know what they’re up to. Either of you feel sneaky and lucky enough to not get caught?
Brad: 5 minutes: where do you want to be when they arrive?
Dune: (car meaning moto and sidecar)
Toph: I’ve got the radio. Jesus suggests hiding near the perimeter fence, on the inside.
Brad: Radio is heavy — think 1930s military. It would be a hard haul on a backpack but can be stored in the sidecar.
Toph: “If you guys set up a distraction, we can see how they react. Maybe chase you for a bit. It’ll be interesting to see what they choose to protect.”
Dune: We’ll take the radio in the sidecar and listen to the airwaves.
Toph: can I have a transistor or something from it
Dune: (or wait did you mean to take the radio with you?)
Toph: The can wrapped with wire?
JB: “That’s a cute stratagem.”
Brad: You can pull a vacuum tube from the radio, T
Dune: “No time to waste, revs…” (oops that “revs” wasn’t supposed to be in-quote)
Toph: The Jesus, vacuum tube in his satchel pocket, goes and buries/conceals himself near the perimeter, but with an eye on the door of the Radio room.
Brad: Okay I have Jesus concealed by the fence, Duarte on the bike, … Hoberman?
JB: Um I guess I’ll hide behind a bush. Or, yeah, in the car upon blocks
Brad: The vehicles arrive — a couple of beaten up Benz jeeps, a roadster, and three buses — trucks really — with huge grills.
JB: That is indeed a mighty grill
Brad: The trucks are covered flatbeds. The cars stop and a handful of people spill out in good desert garb, not military, but certainly expiditionary. They have handguns.
JB: Well that’s not ideal
Brad: One has some kind of huge smoothbore shotgun, probably single shot. Two of them pull the cover off the first flatbed revealing a dozen people in work clothes. And chains. What do you do?
Toph: (no one chased the dust trail? Jesus continues to watch)
JB: What kind of arms do I have? I don’t remember
Brad: Ah thanks for the cue! One of the men shouts and points at the dust trail.
Dune: I look over my shoulder. Any pursuers?
Brad: The woman with the shotgun raises a pair of dainty opera glasses to her eyes. Says something to the others.
Dune: (perhaps a spear handed to you by Jesus lol) (or more likely a shotgun)
Brad: They start putting the cover back on the truck. What do you do?
Toph: (there’s one flatbed or two with slaves?)
Dune: dozen(s?) oh mb i meant a dozen slaves in one at least
Brad: Two flatbeds, a dozen revealed in the first
Toph: Jesus continues to watch.
JB: HOw many are the slavers?
Brad: They cover up the flatbed again and the shotgunner yells some orders you can’t here. (5 JB)
JB: OK, I am trying to signal to . . . Jesus is here, right?
Brad: One of the others goes to the tool shed and swears loud enough to hear.
JB: CAn I like flash at him with a mirror?
Brad: Yes Jesus is here nearby — behind you. You’re in the broken car.
Dune: Jesus is there.
JB: BAsically signalling “let’s go” – I think we can take them.
Brad: One of the slavers takes a compass bearing pointing towards Duarte’s rooster tail of sand.
Toph: Jesus springs up and sprints towards the flatbed. The speargun is loaded, and he’s going to take a single shot at the woman with the opera glasses, and then he’s going to hop into the flatbed that is being covered up (the driver is no doubt helping with this, process, and will have left the cab door open). If the keys are there, he’ll drive away. With the slaves.
JB: Shit. OK, I’ll uh, work with that.
Brad: Sounds like VIOLENCE
JB: I’ll cover Jesus, then head towards his position .Yuuup
Brad: and your goal is to steal the truck?
JB: And I am awesome with this soup wound. Heck I’ll try to steal the other truck
Brad: Risk is spillover, Toph. Big bore on that shotgun. Anyone helping?
Toph: (what were you signalling? If only there was a way to send more than a basic “go” with a mirror flash)
Brad: Just the d10 then?
Toph: (dust trail to distract and deplete?)
Dune: i don’t know if my dust trail counts as help but it’s certainly providing a bit of distraction
JB: I’m helping with my own VIOLENCE
Dune: i think it makes sense to combine their efforts and consequences >shrug<
Brad: Hoberman shouts useful instructions for a d6. Maybe not that helpful.
JB: Uh I”m down on physical stuff still. What’s a d6 minus a step?
Brad: No I think they’re ignoring the dust trail as soon as the violence starts. JB: nothing
mechanical: roll VIOLENCE with help from KNOW->VIOLENCE to steal the truck
Toph rolls d10 and gets 6.
JB: Right then. Sorry
Brad: But you can have the d6 violence from knowledge
JB: Just running for that other truck I guess. Oh, right. OK
JB rolls 1d6 and gets 5.
Brad: Not that it matters.
JB: OMG not terrible
Toph: SO with spillover, I succeed and JB gets shot, right? 😀
mechanical: 6 means the spillover risk is realised. Ref must improvise the result!
Brad: Jesus leaps from cover and fires the speargun at Opera Glasses. It hits her center chest and she swivels trying to figure out what’s happening while pulling the trigger on her punt gun. It blows her driver in half and shears through the bonnet of one of the flatbeds. Steam erupts.
JB: Well that’s two down
Brad: Duarte you hear a huge firearm report from the camp. Still charging, Jesus makes it to the wheel of (which vehicle?) Hoberman makes for his own vehicle muttering something about going for a headshot to avoid accidental fire from the shotgun.
Dune: I do a cool 180 maneuver. (it’s not at all cool, actually lumbering and awkward) Heading back into action.
JB: The other truck with human chattel in it
Brad: You nearly spill the Ural — this is not a maneuverable bike with an empty sidecar — but get around and head back at top speed. JB you’re behind the wheel of one slaver transport. The other is disabled. Toph where are you?
JB: Any guns in there?
Toph: I was heading for the one that had been uncovered. It’s now disabled?
Brad: Yes you reach it and it’s screwed. One tire is out, the radiator is blown out, and it’s covered in blood.
Toph: In that case, I head for the roadster, f it’s empty.
JB: I’ll start up the truck and see if I can ram anything the bad guys are using
Brad: One of the remaining slavers runs for the shed. The other two are trying to figure out what the hell is happening, drawing their pistols.
JB: Also bellowing at them to surrender “STAND DOWN AND YOU WON’T BE HARMED” Not very believable I guess
Brad: The truck starts up smooth, JB. You immediately drive over one of the Benz jeeps, crumpling the rear half under the massive truck. There’s shouting from the flatbed behind you.
JB: Hee hee hee
Brad: Jesus reaches the roadster, a nice open topped vehicle made for straight well-paved roads.
JB: Once I think the bad guys’ escape is cut off I’ll see if I can’t free the people in the truck
Brad: Duarte arrives, taking a little jump over the dune by the gate.
JB: so cool
Brad: The remaining slavers are totally confused and upset. The two outside the shed drop their guns and put their hands on their heads like they are familiar with a stop by the Desert Police.
Toph: KEys in it? If not, hides behind it.
Brad: The last one is still holed up in the shed. What do you do?
Toph: I’ve got the vacuum tube, so the radio’s out.
Dune: I’ll drive up and collect the weapons from the surrenderers.
JB: OK, I”ll dismount the truck, keeping the keys (if it uses them).
Brad: JB, you said you were releasing the human cargo — you look in and realize they are probably safer from the sun under the cover than standing in the heat. But you find a key from one of the slavers to take off the long chain that loops through all their foot bindings. There is no sound from the shed.
JB: I ask them to stay here until we know it’s safe, but that they are free
Brad: Duarte has the two surrendered slavers face down in the sand, disarmed. “Been free before, mate.”
JB: “yeah, it’s no picnic”
Toph: Jesus notices the abcence of gunfire and pokes his head up. He walks towards the others.
Dune: “That was easy. Is that everyone?”
JB: “There’s one holed up in the shed, I think.” “Wow, Jesus, you made one hell of a mess. Impressive.” “What the hell is that gun anyway?” I assume the hurt people are dead people?
Dune: “Hey, You. In the shed. Come outta there!”
Brad: Opera Glasses is still and glassy eyed. The one hit by the punt gun is in two pieces.
Toph: DOn’t know, but the spears have strings attached. He points to the one he left trailing behind him, and currently tying opera gLasses to the dune buggy.
Brad: No sound from the shed.
Dune: I’ll approach the shed and take a spot with at least partial cover and a view of the door.
Toph: “Come on out, or we drive the truck over the shed.”
Brad: No sound from the shed.
Dune: I pick up one of the hostages from the ground. Go open the door and tell your friend to come out.One wrong move and we blast ya.
Toph: Once the slaves are off the flatbed, Jesus goes over and starts an engine.
Brad: The slaver, pants wet with fear, goes to the shed and opens the door. He turns back to you. “It’s empty.”
Dune: Gesture for them to go back to the ground and then I’ll head into the shed to investigate.
mechanical: hint at the soft horizon ref move
Brad: The shed is empty. And the picture of the marlin is missing.
At first I just liked the idea: the ref doesn’t roll any dice. I don’t know why, but knowing myself as I do I suspect it was just the novelty of it. I frequently ref games and I am always rolling. What if I didn’t? Was there a reason I had to roll?
My first experiment with player-side rollers was in an early test of some ideas for a second edition of Diaspora. I did it in the most obvious fashion: rather than have the ref roll for non-player characters, the ref would just set a difficulty value. It bombed. It was boring as hell. I shelved the idea.
Well one difference is deeply systemic: in Fate the game works by simulating everything with the same structure. Characters are roughly the same whether they are in the hands of a player or the ref (don’t get me started: yes the ref also plays, but let’s acknowledge that they play differently and that this age old set of terms remains sufficient, however imprecise) and so it makes sense that everyone engages these characters the same way, including the ref. PbtA games don’t do this–the system is asymmetric. Opposition does not have the same systemic model that characters do. So with Fate I was expecting to have some fun as ref in the same manner as the rest of the table because that’s a thing Fate does. When I switched to player-only rolling I lost that expected fun. And there wasn’t much left for me because the system doesn’t provide any (because it’s not designed for this, not because it’s bad).
When I got player-side rolling working I found that the ref experience is fundamentally different. Mostly I realized that because I was not playing any characters (in a dice-rolling context, I mean) there was no pressure to be adversarial: there was no contest for me to try to win, whereas when I am piloting non-player characters on a combat map I am certainly playing to win. I make good tactical choices intentionally. I am trying to kill the player characters but with opposition that I have carefully crafted to be unlikely to succeed. Once I framed that in my head that way I realized I didn’t want to do that any more. It’s not something I want happening in a game, generally, as a design goal and so as a side effect it’s not desirable.
But there’s still the problem of having something to do. Absent the adversarial play in Fate, I was bored. But not in the various PbtA games. Why? I wasn’t sure and, as is my wont, I didn’t think very hard about it. I went straight to my own design. This is a deep character flaw of mine: when I play a game I like I generally start my own project and reconstruct elements of that game without thinking too hard about them. Instead I concentrate on thinking about how my new game works. My Fate games are games that I invented after a read-though and play of Fate — an imperfect read through and play. They are emulations based on my memory of what Fate is supposed to be and not literal Fate games.
And so with this Apocalypse thing.
So in Soft Horizon games I built one dominating thing for the ref to do: manage risk. The creative input of the ref is not adversarial management of threats but is instead the creative interpretation of risk. We use Rob Donohue’s risk list (because it’s brilliant) and it turns out it’s filled with creative opportunity. So, for example, let’s say (and this is a real example) characters are trying to escape from a bad military defense: the enemy is overrunning the defenses and it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. Players grab a motorcycle with sidecar, pile in their wounded, and head for the hills. Or rather, for the nearest city. We determine this will be a CHASE roll with risk DELAY. If they fail, we will interpret DELAY as getting captured. If they succeed but realise the risk, we will interpret DELAY as getting lost. That’s the first part of my creative load and it’s plenty fun but not adversarial: I’m not manipulating their chance of success, just setting the consequences of failure.
They succeed with risk: lost. And so I narrate a scene with them getting lost and we come to another check: trying to find their way. And that moves us in another new direction, again with my creative energy going into developing the risks into a coherent narrative.
One of the richer risks in this system is REVELATION. This will reveal some information that makes things worse. This is your plot twist. But you can’t plan it, because it doesn’t even come up until there’s a roll on the table and it needs to be in the context of the scene we’re rolling for. So as the ref I need to ad lib that revelation — if I had any plans, it’s a spanner in my own works. It’s as much a revelation for me as for the players!
Another example perhaps: our escaping trio reach an old Tomb dig site that seems to be abandoned. They are suffering from sunstroke and one of them is injured. They are ostensibly slave-runners: they hunt down cities that keep slaves and disrupt the institutions that make that possible and free slaves. The nearest city, Morgenstern, is a place they often bring freed slaves to be safe. So in that context, they are making a MISCHIEF roll to break into a supply shed and I set the risk as REVELATION. My creative input: if this risk gets realised then in the shed will be evidence that Morganstern keeps slaves. I didn’t have that planned. In fact it wrecks everything. Awesome.
So that was the barrier and the solution: if as ref I am not participating in the adversarial simulation, what is there for me to do? How do I get to play? And the answer in the case of Soft Horizon is that I need to continuously create, to ad lib. And there is a mechanism that forces me to do that, that constrains what I will need to ad lib about, and that provides cues for how to proceed.
Well it turns out that’s something I like doing a lot.