Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Narrativist Sandbox?

Thought experiment: Imagine a sandbox type game with some serious narrativist elements thrown in. What would such a game look like? Would it work? Is Castle Greyhawk still Castle Greyhawk when utterly personal and non-tactical decisions repeatedly come into play?

I've been thinking about this lately because my group has been dabbling in two sorts of games - a savage worlds fantasy sandbox campaign in the old school vein (GM'd by co-blogger Pat), and a more narrativist streak of games like Burning Wheel and a more recently started Spirit of the Century game in Fading Suns space that I've been running. It's also worth mentioning that I've shown up at a couple of Chgowiz's old school fantasy games.

Upon the deepest of reflections, it turns out that I like elements from these various games, and I have problems with these types of games as well. I find "old school" games a little restrictive because the pc's are fairly powerless and every little thing takes so much effort. And while I love true sandboxes as the basic framework for games, I find that these games lack real connections between the characters and the world. Which makes all decisions a player based thing rather than a character based thing.

I find many narrativist games too foofy, for lack of a better word. In my current Spirit of the Century game, the world is so wide open that I'm forced to be a little too heavy handed (for my taste) with plot hooks. But I love how games like Spirit of the Century and Burning Wheel have mechanical repercussions for personal characteristics. For example, in SoTC, a character can have the aspect "disdainful to non-nobles." Pulling this aspect into a roll can give a character a mechanical bonus to do things where this applies (which could be a range of situations). The environment or reaction of the NPCs change accordingly, and voila - a plot starts to appear that's grounded in character sheets.

So, the question is now: Could a fantasy megadungeon fruitfully work with a system like Spirit of the Century? Would the balance of the old school and new school be just right? Or are we really talking about oil and water?


PatrickWR said...

Megadungeon-based fantasy games are essentially resource management exercises, and narrativist games don't really model that very well. So I think you might be getting into oil/water territory. I suspect it might be too easy for characters to blitz through a megadungeon if they're loaded up with aspects and traits like "Excellent mapmaker," "Sees in the dark" and "Infallible swordsman."

Plus you'd need be fairly heavy-handed with the plot hooks to make the character actually *care* about the megadungeon experience. In old-school play, the enjoyment comes from conquering an environment that's out to kill you. In narrativist play, I would imagine the enjoyment would come from situations like parlaying a truce between the hobgoblins and the sentient mushroom warriors, or setting up a profitable gem mining operation with the dwarves of the deep halls, etc., rather than just killing stuff, evading traps and surviving to explore another day.

Chgowiz said...

If I get what you are saying, I think those "connections" in old-school games rely more on the GM making rulings on probabilities and outcomes and weaving them into the story, rather than it being a mechanical thing.

Take your example. If you had established through play that you were disdainful of non-nobles, then it would reflect in your actions and my reactions. I would know in the back of my head that you have probably made a reputation for yourself as a "hoity-toity" kinda guy, and it would be harder/more expensive to get hirelings, for instance.

That happens in my Dark Ages, although it might be hard for the players to pick out and I've been giving that some thought - that I've not emphasized the impact you guys make. Admittedly, as first level characters, you won't make that much of a difference, but the players are starting to make a difference and that is starting to be seen.

So while mechanics might not make that coupling, that's because it relied on imperfect GMs to do that.

To answer your last question, I can't - I'm not familiar with those systems.

Supah said...

@ Patrick: I agree that megadungeons are traditionally resource management exercises. But I guess I think they're more than that: they're also sandboxes with a lot of GM thought put into them in advance. Let's say we emphasize the latter rather than the former. Also, remember that Spirit of the Century does have a resource management mechanic that's pretty robust - you're not counting torches, but you are counting fate points to power your killer aspects like "mapmaker" and "swordsman."

@Chgowiz: I think you're completely getting what I'm saying, and I agree that a big difference is how much authority the GM has to manipulate the plot vs. basing the game in mechanics.

But there's another important difference too that I don't think you mention: Games that have robust mechanical elements focusing on certain types of play tend to emphasize that play when actually played. Eg games that have mechanical elements focusing on character naturally emphasize character-based play more so than other games.

This doesn't mean that character-based play can't or doesn't occur in games without such mechanics, because it surely does. I wasn't at the Savage Worlds session that you attended, but I think characters (as opposed to players) drive that game to a pretty significant extent even with fairly traditional mechanics. Still, I also think that games like Spirit of the Century ultimately privilege this type of play more.

Maybe, in the end, I just like mechanics. I have fun with them. I don't want them to be complex, but I want them to directly support the type of play that I'm interested in.

Chgowiz said...

@Supah - perhaps, I tend to be rather simple and naive about my play in terms of the mechanics. I play as I enjoy and certainly a game can hit me over the head to the point where I don't like it - at the same time, a game like Savage Worlds gives me both options, as long as the GM is savvy enough to not totally rely on just mechanical resolutions and will allow for player/character resolutions through role playing.

I also have to admit that now I'm thoroughly lost to the point :)

I think that there doesn't have to be mechanics to support characters having an effect on the world through who they are and/or what they do. A game that emphasizes those types of relationships is certainly going to do a lot to support that - at the same time, a good group of players will end up making the game their own - through houserules or inventive play.

stirgessuck said...

I think it could definitely work. The default play mode for Sorcerer, the 800-lb gorilla of narrativist games, is wide-open sandbox.

jamused said...

To me Sandbox games are typified by being driven by the players, whether they're making in-character or out-of-character decisions about what course to pursue or where to go in the setting. So there's no particular reason you couldn't have a Sandbox game where there were mechanics that took into account "disdainful of non-nobles"; the disconnect would be the sorts of games where there were mechanics that cause plot-oriented results (Betray an ally; Captured and put on trial) instead of playing things out and letting the players/characters decide.

PatrickWR said...

@Supah: Great point on the use of Fate Points as a resource mechanic in Spirit of the Century. I had definitely overlooked that. Makes me want to try the very thing you describe: a narrativist megadungeon!

PatrickWR said...

Piggybacking on Jamused's comment, I'd submit that our Fading Suns/Spirit of the Century mashup game definitely qualifies as a full-on galaxy-sized sandbox, in the same vein as Traveller, but with more of an overt plot that's still driven by the players.

Rob Conley said...

My Majestic Wilderlands campaign is roleplaying heavy. PCs and NPCs have motivations and act on them. If the PCs don't do any the world goes on without them. If they do they have an impact. Whether the consequences are for woe or weal depends on their actions.

Some groups just are happy with smash and grab. Some found a niche within the Wilderlands and won fame and glory. Other hung from a gibbet in the village square.

Other groups delved deep into the politics and history of my version of the Wilderlands. Some became movers and shakers while others dying from an assassin's blade.

The common element to all of this is the player coming up with a background for his character. On the flip side I follow through in exploiting the character's background for adventure. What grand plots exist happens in the events that occur around the party. Some ignore them while other exploit them.

The problem I have with narrative games is that good roleplaying should be rewarded with more roleplaying. Mechanical benefits are pale shadows compared to the freeform rewards that a GM can create out of his campaign.

What form the "physics" of the gameworld is beside the point and entirely up to the personal preferences of the GM and the Group. Some like lite rules other crunchier systems. A specific set of rules can impart a specific flavor to the campaign like D&D 4th High Fantasy 24/7 or Harnmaster gritty bloody battles.

The danger of trying use mechanics to reward roleplaying or the consequences of roleplaying. Is that players will invariably try to game the system at the expense of the very thing it trying to foster, roleplaying.

I favor mini-games to handle specific areas of the campaign. Trading, mass combat, realm management come to mind.

RolePlayGateway said...

Simple: freeform text-based roleplaying game.

It's exactly what you've described, a collaborative fiction.

Zak S said...

I feel like you could achieve something like that by having the PCs play their regular D&D characters and ALSO play high-level "mission altering" PCs--arch-Lich, powerful cleric, king, etc.

Then all you;d have to do as DM would be take control fo the "scene shifting"

"meta-episodes" 1 & 2 of this podcast discuss a few other ways to do it:


Chris said...

I'm getting back to gming and would like to see more how to organize and develop these sandboxes. So far i have been great at one shooters but i suffer from longterm endurance.

I think I'm also doing too much emphasis on plots rather than the setting.

I've been a gamer since the late 70s but have had a break from it and now want to improve my gming.

I have pathfinder i have gurps 3rd n 4th edition. And other games as well.

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