Thursday 6 October 2011

S is for Sandbox, Part II: Why System Matters (1)

Let’s be clear:  Whatever kind of game you like is okay.  If you want a game that focuses on tactical skirmishes, that’s cool.  If you want a game that focuses on telling a mostly pre-written narrative, that’s also cool.  But neither one of those things are what I mean when I talk about role-playing games.

There is a movement today to claim that system doesn’t matter; all that matters are the people around the table.  Well, if you want to claim that the people around the table matter, the answer ought to be that you are making a self-evident claim.  If you are claiming that this means that the system doesn’t matter, that is fallacious reasoning.  If you are making that claim while spending hundreds of dollars on a particular system, and claiming that said system is an “evolution” in design, well, then you are a hypocrite.  You are either lying to yourself, or to your audience, or both.

Again, wiser and more experienced players will not be fooled.

So, let us assume that you, Gentle Reader, are both interested in sandbox play, and are wise and/or experienced enough to know that system matters.  What sort of systems make for satisfying sandbox play, and what sort of systems should be avoided?  Perhaps more importantly, why?

1.  Fast Play:  To be suitable for sandbox play, a game must be able to resolve encounters relatively quickly.  Imagine, if you will, an average play session of four hours.  If it takes eight hours to resolve an encounter, play is uninteresting.  If it takes a mere four hours to resolve the same encounter, then the value of that play session is determined solely by how important/good that encounter is.

So far, so good.  It is easy to see the problem with such an extreme example.

But let us say that the average encounter instead takes about an hour to resolve.  What are the ramifications of this?

The value of the play session rests heavily on each encounter.  Any substandard, or unimportant, encounter will drag down the entire play session.  This encourages the Game Master to only include “important” encounters – effectively choosing which encounters will be played out.  Likewise, players will be discouraged from decision-making, lest they choose a blind alley and “waste” the play session.  As they look more and more to the GM for direction, the game moves farther and farther from a sandbox.

Moreover, the desire to retain only “important” encounters encourages the Game Master to leave “flavour” encounters by the wayside.  Slowly, but surely, the world breathes a little less as the GM rushes past the scenery.   The world stops reacting to the players’ choices as wandering and random encounters – once the spice of play – are relegated to the trash bin.  Why not adventure for only 15 minutes each day, if the world responds the same way as if you pressed onward?  The world becomes flat, boring, and stale.  And, frankly, the computer does this better.

Conversely, if you begin with the concept that 3-4 good encounters make for a good play session, and you are playing with a system that allows 10 or more encounters in that 4-hour span, suddenly the world has room to breathe again.  It is no longer obvious what the “important” encounters are.  If the players decide to explore a tangent, the session is not ruined….instead, the GM is encouraged to provide tangents to pique player interest.

2.  Relatively Shallow Power Curve:  We are all familiar with games where the desire to add skills and feats, and to avoid so-called “dead levels”, beefs PCs up so much between one level and the next that what was once a challenge quickly becomes stale, and where an encounter can easily overwhelm a group whose average level is only a little below that which the encounter was designed for.  This has some serious deleterious effects on sandbox play.

Games where you are expected to level up with relative frequency compound this problem considerably.

If you have a hard time understanding the problems this poses, take a close look at any of the modules WotC produced for 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons.  What you will see is an extremely linear encounter order – even compared to many TSR 1st Edition tournament modules.  This is because it is extremely important for the PCs to have levelled up appropriately between various sets of encounters.  The encounters must take place in a relatively linear order to make the adventure work.  That this heavily erodes the choices available to the players is, apparently, not an important design consideration.

Along with this is the idea that a “return to” is not in the works.  You can go back to an area if it has been completely repopulated with level-appropriate opponents; otherwise, the place is no longer of interest, and the design work is lost. 

It is impossible to overstate the degree to which this damages the sense of a real, breathing world.  It also curtails player choices – there is no point in going back to the Caves of Doom, even if you failed to explore them fully.  In a very real way, that decision is taken from you by the ruleset.  In the few published 3.x adventures where you are expected to return to an area you’ve already been to, the GM must give very specific clues that there is even a point.

Consider also the poor, harried Game Master, who is trying to create a sandbox world that will be of interest to her players.  In order to create this as a sandbox, she must design a few areas in which low-level play may occur.  But, in a steep-power-curve game, whatever is not immediately chosen by the players is wasted design work.  In a shallow-power-curve game, though, it remains viable for play.

If there were no other reasons to avoid WotC-D&D (and its direct derivatives) for sandbox play, these first two failures would be more than enough!

3. Simulationist:  It is difficult to make a world live and breath if the ruleset you are using forces the players to separate their game-rules decisions from the decisions that their characters are making within the game’s fictional setting.  It is ultimately desirable that a player, with no knowledge of the game’s rules, can make decisions from his or her character’s viewpoint, and have those decisions be viable.


Well, the most obvious answer is that this difference is why Holmes Basic is a role-playing game, and why HeroClix and Monopoly are not.  The less the player is making decisions from the basis of the character role, the less the game is actually a role-playing game.

A more complicated answer would examine the relationship between simulationism and player decision making.  The more a player can use his actual experience to make decisions within the campaign milieu, the more “real” the world seems, and consequently the more involved the player becomes in that decision making.  As creating a “breathing world” to whatever degree is possible is one goal of sandbox play, and as encouraging player decision making is another, it should be clear that simulationism feeds into both goals.

It should be clear that the terms “realism” and “simulation”, within the context of a role-playing game, refer to simulating the “reality” of the genre of that game.  No one expects that people are actually going to fly like Superman, or that anyone will ever be as hyper-competent as Batman, but within the context of a supers-style game, this is part of the “realism” being simulated.

Next:  Why System Matters (2)

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