Monday 17 October 2011

S is for Sandbox, Part II: Why System Matters (2)

Last time, we began to look at why system matters, and I left you partway through a list of features that a good sandbox game should have.  I tried to make clear, in as succinct a way as possible, why these features were important to a sandbox milieu. 

It was also pointed out that, although many people will claim that system does not matter – or that it matters little – these tend to be the same people who are shelling out hundreds of dollars to get the new, shiny system while they are saying it.  “System doesn’t matter” is generally used as a defence against valid criticism of that same new shiny system.

In this instalment, we’ll look at more features that a good sandbox game should have.   Finishing “Why System Matters” will take this post and another (which will also include recommendations of some games that are good for sandboxing).  Then we can begin with setting up and running a sandbox.

Without further ado, then, we continue with….

4.  Broad (Rather than Narrow)Balance:   Game balance can be roughly described as following either a broad-based or a narrow-based approach.  Broad-based balance looks at balancing play over the entire play experience, whereas narrow balance attempts to balance play at each point along the play experience.  All role-playing games fall somewhere along this spectrum.  AD&D 1e is very broad-based in its balance, for example, while D&D 4e is extremely narrow.

This issue of balance type is related to both the power curve and the pace at which play occurs (no. 1 and 2 from the previous blog in this series).  

It is related to power curve in that, the wider the group of characters that can be balanced, the broader the balance base.  In order for a 1st level character to adventure in a meaningful way with a 3rd level character, the power growth between the characters must be limited.  A shallow power curve helps to maintain broad balance.

To understand how the pace of play affects broad vs. narrow balance, it helps to examine 3rd Edition D&D.  In 3rd Edition, the combination of class, skills, and feats allows an extremely wide variety of character types to be created.  One can easily create a scholar, a mighty warrior, a character with a smattering of skills but no true expertise, or anything else one can think of.  This is even more true when one considers the inclusion of various splatbooks and third party offerings.  It is even reasonable to posit that one could create in 3e a group of characters who are relatively similar in power and abilities to the iconic 1e party of fighter, magic-user, thief, and cleric.

Now, that 1eparty works well because (1) the focus of play is often on exploration of a fictional space, rather than simply on combat, and (2) when encounters take place, although one or another character may particularly shine, they are resolved quickly, and other players have the chance to take the spotlight.

In 3e, combat drags.  One direct result of this is that combat takes up a disproportionate amount of actual game time.  A character who shines in combat, in short, shines more brightly than the guy who makes a roll to find a trap, and then another roll to remove it.  And this moves balance from a broad base – where different approaches are equally valid and important – to a narrow base, where combat is supremely important.  The direction that WotC took to “fix” D&D in 4e demonstrates this amply – combat takes longer, balance is centred around combat balance, things like traps or skill use are treated essentially like combat, and creature abilities are designed to prevent anyone from being out-shone during the long grindfest that typifies 4e combats.

If that is what one wants in a game, that’s fine.  It is not good for sandbox campaigns, though…and, frankly, video games do it far better.

5.  Speedy Character Creation:  If the Game Master is going to allow players to make choices, and then actually follow through on the consequences of those choices, characters will die.  Or they will be doing something else when a group wants to plunder some ancient ruin.  If broad-balanced games are balanced around total play time (as I contend they are), then speedy character creation is as important as quickly resolved encounters.

Another aspect to speedy character creation is that the game is not played in the building of characters, but at the table.  Characters become largely differentiated – and defined – by what they do, what they learn, what the gain, rather than being assembled like a deck for Magic the Gathering.

This relates to choices, context, and consequence, because characters are built during play as a consequence of the choices they make.  Games with “Wealth by Level” guidelines, that mandate or assume that characters will grow more powerful in lockstep, or that have treasure parcels teleport around after the PCs until they are found, simply don’t make for good sandboxing.

Finally, imagine and pity the poor Game Master.  If the player must make but a single character, the Game Master must make dozens, hundreds, or thousands.  Games with long character generation pull Game Masters in the direction of the railroad/Adventure Path simply to avoid having to make as many NPCs.  Which brings us to….

Next:  Why System Matters (3), leading off with Speedy World Creation.

1 comment:

  1. Speedy character generation is one of my current game evaluation metrics. Nothing discourages new players like a ton of rules and the need to balance a slew of choices. I have this issue all of the time with 4E: popular classes like the rogue are overwhelmed with options and thinking through them all is painful.

    What ever happened to rolling a character up at the table?