Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Abandoned

Forgive me for quoting George Lucas (who was himself paraphrasing someone else, I believe), but it seemed on point for this post -- "A movie is never finished, only abandoned."

That's my experience with sandbox campaigns too. Whether this is a problem or not depends on one's point of view. For me, it's neither good nor bad, but abandonment does, in my experience anyway, seem to be the end state of every sandbox campaign in which I've ever participated. Because there's no relentless drive toward a foreordained "climax," sandboxes just chug along happily until they run out of steam. Depending on the players and referee involved, this can take years or it can happen in mere weeks -- I've seen both happen.

Speaking as the current referee of a sandbox campaign, I'll admit that this can sometimes be a drawback. There are rarely any convenient "breakpoints" in a sandbox campaign. That makes it hard for me to put the the campaign "on hiatus," something I've contemplated from time to time. Now, that's not necessarily a terrible thing; the lack of breakpoints certainly ensured that the campaign survived my own occasional bouts of Gamer ADD. However, like most people, I appreciate closure when I can get it and just moving on from a campaign while still in media res never feels right.

Conversely, I have never successfully returned to a campaign that had an overarching story and that had ended upon the conclusion of that story. I've frequently wanted to do so, but, every time I've tried, it always felt a bit like I was gilding the lily. That is, if, at the end of the campaign, the characters defeated their long-time nemesis and saved the world, what more is left for them to do? Indeed, almost anything the characters might do threatened to cheapen their previous accomplishments by one-upping them, as seems to be the rule in such sequels (because, let's face it, why bother with a sequel if it isn't going to be more impressive than what came before?).

In the same vein, I have successfully restarted sandbox campaigns after they'd been abandoned. In fact, I've done it several times. The main difficulties are two: disinterest and forgetfulness. Once you stop playing a campaign, you can "lose the taste for it," if you know what I mean. A big part of what makes a campaign successful is regular play, which reinforces interest in continuing to play. Few things are more detrimental to a sandbox campaign than the lack of regular play, for without it, the campaign lacks cohesion and direction. Too great a gap between sessions also feeds forgetfulness, another bane of sandboxes. If either the referee or the players can't really recall what was going on in the campaign or why, attempting to return to it can be painful, like reading an Isaac Asimov sequel written decades after the original tale.

As I get older, I find I much prefer regular sandbox play to adventure paths and story-driven campaigns, but I also realize that my preference means that I am locking myself into playing a single game in a single setting for an extended period of time. I certainly don't mind that, but I have mused before that the relative lack of popularity for sandbox-style gaming is likely related to most gamers' desire to play lots of different RPGs rather than focusing on a single one for an extended period of time. When I was younger, we dealt with this issue by running several campaigns at once, but we had near-infinite free time in those days and it will be many, many years before I am similarly blessed again (if ever).

23 comments:

  1. There seems to be a natural ebb and flow to the focus and excitement within a sandbox campaign. Especially when running a megadungeon adventure sessions need to be be broken up with some city and wilderness travel even if it is just for a session or two. But when the 'adventures' just meander on and on, it doesn't take much to spark a little curiosity, excitement and thrills.

    And to comment on Lucas' quote, though that may be true for any piece of art the real key is as you grow as an artist you no longer feel the need to revisit those older works and 'rework' them. One should be forging ahead on new paths with new works or you're just sort of stagnant, stunted and stuck in the past. At a certain point you just gotta walk away and say "It's done, I've said all that I can say."

    My two coppers!

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  2. Two words: Obsidian Portal. This thing has literally saved my abandoned sandbox game simply because we took notes and posted a journal of the game which we could easily refer back to, allowing us to pick up right where we left off without the worry of forgetting things that happened previously. I know Obsidian Portal isn't some gaming secret, and everyone knows about it, but it sure helped me with the exact problem you refer to in this entry.

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  3. When I first started playing OD&D, back in the distant mists of time, the model was that most players in the group designed dungeons in their spare time.

    Any particular session would start with the selection of whose dungeon would be delved that evening and everyone else would break out the character sheets. I think (but am not 100% sure... I was 5 in '76) that at the end of session the surviving characters were automatically considered to escape back the way they had come.

    Some dungeons were more popular than others, but it was interesting to get the different "feels" that came from everyone's different process. My mother's dungeons, for example, had lots of obscure fairy-tale references and strange items; Uncle John had more puns and riddles; someone else just tried to kill everyone... the players always started at an inn/campsite near the dungeon, then went in, and the dungeon mostly stayed in the condition it was the last time it was attacked.

    This was a nice arrangement because everyone played both sides of the game (well, almost everyone... only the grown-ups had dungeons at that point) and consensus sound choose what sort of adventure people were in the mood for by whose dungeon was attacked.

    I suspect many people originally played this way, and the "fixed DM" came later as one member repeatedly volunteered or was consistently chosen.

    Sorry about the rambling, but it seemed relevant for a change. For a real diatribe, ask me about magic items some day... :)

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  4. For my WFRP game, I created a newsletter, "The Olde World Tymes*", to make sure we had a record of what had happened during sessions, since we sometimes couldn't keep our bi-weekly schedule. Even though the campaign was highly "directed" (I was running "The Enemy Within" fairly straight.), it was a big help to keep track of events and people met. When there was a long layoff, we could refer to back issues for a refresher.

    *(sic)

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  5. I wonder if one reason for sandbox campaigns was the fact there were few choices in RPGs. As more games were developed, more choices left less time for long-running campaigns (except in the case of dedicated players & DMs).

    I've been blessed to have been able to return to my main campaign world for two long running story archs. I would love to see lightning strike a third time, but as you've noted free time just isn't what it used to be.

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  6. Conversely, I have never successfully returned to a campaign that had an overarching story and that had ended upon the conclusion of that story.

    I have seen this done several times. Usually, the DM inserts a span of time between the next campaign and the last. The previous campaigns serve as the history for the world. (Which, IMHO, gives the settings a more interesting feel than history that was merely written.) Each campaign is simply enjoyed in its own right rather than them coloring each other.

    And the really interesting thing is when the previous campaign failed, and you see the results of that in the world that the next campaign takes place in.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the campaigns not being too closely tied. They are different stories set in the same setting rather than sequels. Each “age” has its own threat, and the ties between them may be many, but may also be few.

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  7. @robert fisher:

    This is exactly the tack I tend to take when I do new campaigns with the same system and players. Run with the same setting, enriched by the events of the past campaign (and changed by them too, of course), but not necessarily the same characters (usually not).

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  8. One interesting thing I've found about running sandbox games is that they usually overcome my GADD. No matter how much I think about games set in the historical Mediterranean or in the Hollow Earth, I always come around and realize "ok yeah... but I have to run a game today..." and go back to my Dark Country sandbox. I'm not always enthused about it, but it gets done.

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  9. I've always believed part of a good game ( be it a one-shot session or a lengthy campaign) always ends on a conclusion with the possibly of continuing on in a future date in some form or another. On a side note, the worse thing I think you can do is just leaving it at a cliff hanger or half-way point. Honestly, if your going to do that you have to ask yourself why are you even bothering to play these sort of games in the first point.

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  10. I think it's possible to put any campaign on hiatus, as long as everybody commits to getting back to it when it's time.

    My game is sort of "sandbox-lite" or..., well, I'm not sure what the term is. It started out 10 years ago as a story-driven game that I had in mind, but I gave up on the "big save the world theme" partway through and now just take my cues from the players and what they're interested in doing. We've put it on hiatus for as long as 18 months at one point, and then picked back up right where we left off, which was in the middle of a megadungeon (Monte's Banewarrens).

    As for the Gamer ADD aspect, if you can dispense with the idea of needing to be in a lot of campaigns, but instead just go ahead with the idea of playing, then you'll be fine. Our group does what we call "one-shots", but are really more like "three-or-four shots". While my current 3.x/Pathfinder/Trailblazer game is our "main" game, we have also successfully played 1E AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, a weird 3.x/SavageWorlds/4E Hybrid we called "Cal & D", and a straight-up 3.5 game in between, by keeping it to just single adventures. This allows us to play different systems, in different worlds/settings, with different characters and referees, but without getting caught up on needing to invest too much time into too much setting detail or campaign arcs or whatever.

    Anyway, that's just my suggestion.

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  11. It was Leonardo da Vinci that said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

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  12. Lucas' quote oughta read, "A movie is never finished nor abandoned." ;)

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  13. I've long lamented the age/time/money relationship, but it's so consistently true you could graph it. When we're younger and just figuring this stuff out we tend to have tons of time but not tons of money so we make due with what we have - one tattered rulebook, one published adventure maybe, and a bunch of homebrew stuff. As we get older I find that we tend to have more money but less time, so that we start to accumulate more and more cool gaming stuff but have less and less time to actually use it. It's a shame, but the only solution I see is to find more time to play and use that stuff!

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  14. I've never suffered from Gamer ADD so much as lack of time. I've played in a ton of games that went nowhere (due to bad GMing or bad PCing) as well, some of which I was guilty of, some of which I wasn't.

    My style of sandbox is really different from yours, because for me, in the sandbox the sand is the actions of the players and their consequences on their world, strictly through play. I engage in heavy world-building before I game, and when I think of sandbox, I think of the boundaries (the limits of what I'm detailing), the tools and toys (like shovels, molds, etc., which for me are both the rules-set and the setting detail itself), and the sand (the events, which the PCs can shape).

    This post made me blog of my own short-lived Hyborian campaign--which I can pick up at any time and run with anyone once I've a few PCs. I've a whole city massively fleshed out, but I can do just about anything with it because it's like this giant imaginary Swiss-Army Knife of adventure.

    I look at the Forgotten Realms the same way. Any Realms campaign I run usually takes place in the same Realms I've run before, and even incorporates characters I and my friends have played.

    In contrast, I've no interest in playing Dragonlance. The Weis-Hickman storyline has too large a shadow over the setting, and there's simply no room for other heroes, adventures, or challenges--just like James said about these games with an overarching storyline.

    As DM, I like to run story-arcs as opposed to grandiose overarching quests. These story-arcs can grow as the characters level up, but I always try to keep them from being earth-shattering end-of-the-world stuff until endgame rolls around (and even then, I'd more-often-than-not turn it into a Planescape game half the time instead).

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  15. what a beautiful quote! the more OSR trugs along the more I get this very Benjamin-like feeling about it.

    on the other hand is not the sandbox a little bit like beowulf. long ago i found this very interesting article on salon.com about the failure to create a coherent narrative out of the beowulf (one that won't be boring for modern audience).

    link:http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/kamiya/2007/11/20/beowulf

    but isn't a good sandbox just like that ancient poem? pc's strive, try, pillage, loot, kill monsters and all other things and then rule their kingdoms and eventually meet their destiny (doom). there is no narrative save their fates that they are at same time building and trying to escape.

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  16. I *wish* Lucas had abandoned Star Wars after the first two..

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  17. Multiple groups operating in the same sandbox does help a lot. Adds the interesting player vs player aspects to the campaign.

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  18. My group found that the D&D sandbox style of play ran out of steam for us around 10 years ago. Since then we have only done adventure path campaigns. I think knowing where you are in the story arc helps keep the players excited and interested. Boredom rarely has a chance to set in because you always want to know whats going to happen next. For the DM running the AP it's fun to have the locations and encounters stated out for you already yet still have the freedom to move things around or add things as you see fit or to accommodate the player decisions. Having a clear end that everyone is working toward keeps the game fresh and moving. If, as a player, you don't happen to be interested in the current adventure (or even AP) it's not a problem because you know it has a finite lifespan. As opposed to the sandbox where you could end up traipsing through the "Dungeon of Desolation" for years because your DM (and the sole author) thinks its really cool. Further complicating things, since your DM most likely has some kind of emotional investment in the creation of the campaign (whether he wants to admit it or not) you may not want to tell him you are not enjoying his campaign and instead just stop playing. With an AP it seems to be easier to offer critiques and roll with the punches of what you think is a sub-par adventure since no one at the table has an emotional investment in the creation of it.

    Dave Cesarano:
    "As DM, I like to run story-arcs as opposed to grandiose overarching quests. These story-arcs can grow as the characters level up, but I always try to keep them from being earth-shattering end-of-the-world stuff until endgame rolls around"

    That's pretty much what I think of as an AP. Nice description.

    BTW, what is "gamer ADD"? How is that different than just getting tired of playing a boring game? I can only play checkers so many times before I get bored and don't want to play anymore. I don't think that's "GADD" its just wanting to do something else. It's ok for players and DMs to just be bored or uninterested in the current game without having to diagnose it as a disorder. Saying "Gamer ADD caused this campaign to end." sounds like its something you can't control when in reality I think deciding to end a campaign (or put it on "hiatus") is very much a deliberate decision because it just stopped being fun or availability became a problem. In fact boredom and lack of player availability are the ONLY ways to end a sandbox campaign which I think is a major flaw in the concept.

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  19. cibet said: That's pretty much what I think of as an AP. Nice description.

    Problem with adventure paths (at least the published ones) are they're too long and too railroady. I love Justin Alexander's advice on his blog, "Don't prep plots, prep situations." He says it better than I can.

    Gamer ADD can set in without boredom. It can be a sudden impulse or desire to play something different that is simply stronger than what you're currently running. It usually is about system/rules-set more than just how the campaign is going. If you're playing a great OD&D game, but just really, really want to explore something totally different at the same time, like Vampire: the Requiem, well, that usually causes some degree of gamer ADD.

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  20. Because there's no relentless drive toward a foreordained "climax," sandboxes just chug along happily until they run out of steam.

    Maybe I'm reading too much into this phrase, but you seem to be implying that there's a dichotomy between sandboxes that have no "story" elements whatsoever, and railroads where the GM basically just reads the campaign to the players and all they do is roll the dice and supply the dialogue.

    I think that the vast majority of gamers would say that disagrees with their experience; you can still have a satisfying climax even to a player-driven game (a sandbox, if you will, although I like that term less and less as it becomes more emotionally charged and less descriptive over time).

    Maybe I'm making too big a deal over your use of the word "foreordained." Climaxes certainly need not be forordained, and trying to use a few elements learned from literary or cinematic sources, like pacing, climaxes and so on does not make a game into a railroad.

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  21. cibet: “As opposed to the sandbox where you could end up traipsing through the ‘Dungeon of Desolation’ for years because your DM (and the sole author) thinks its really cool.

    Er...isn’t that the opposite of a sandbox? In a sandbox, if the players don’t like where they are, they have their PCs go someplace else. If the DM prevents that, that is exactly the kind of thing people are complaining about when they use the term “railroad”.

    And I don’t think I’ve never known a DM who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be a player. If the players don’t like the campaign, one of them ought to step up and try to do it better.

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  22. @robert fisher:

    I thought exactly the same thing.

    cibet: "For the DM running the AP it's fun to have the locations and encounters stated out for you already yet still have the freedom to move things around or add things as you see fit or to accommodate the player decisions. Having a clear end that everyone is working toward keeps the game fresh and moving."

    I think any situation in which you find yourself having to stake out territory for "freedom to move things around" or "accommodat[ing] player decisions" is a situation I don't want to be in. Freedom to rearrange and centrality of player decision-making should be the touchstones of sandbox-style roleplaying, not afterthoughts. For me, they should be touchstones for ANY roleplaying, but then again I come down firmly in the sandbox camp and really don't enjoy adventure paths (as wonderfully fun as sections of the SlaversI AD&D series of modules were).

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  23. Robert Fisher: "Usually, the DM inserts a span of time between the next campaign and the last. The previous campaigns serve as the history for the world. (Which, IMHO, gives the settings a more interesting feel than history that was merely written.) Each campaign is simply enjoyed in its own right rather than them coloring each other."

    Not much to add to this except that my different campaigns tend to be separated by space as much as time, often with new characters or a different character mix. Different regions in the world and different characters allow for different play styles, to keep things interesting. This also lets me mix and match homebrew with interesting published adventures. Then later I may revisit a previous area with a new campaign which has been affected by previous events.

    Mine is a low and dusky (rather than dark) fantasy campaign, so there is rarely a need for an overarching 'save the world' plot. However sometimes an intriguing lead develops from play which I feel compelled to explore with a new campaign..

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