Friday 28 October 2011

S is for Sandbox Part III: Initial Set Up For Sandbox Games (1)

Let us imagine that you’ve decided you want to run a sandbox-style game, and you have chosen an appropriate system.  Now, you have pads of graph paper and hex paper printed off, and you are beginning to imagine what you want your sandbox to be like.  What now?

For me, the first step toward setting up anything is to brainstorm ideas.  I’ll get some scrap paper, and just write down whatever ideas I come up with.  What kind of cultures do I want in the campaign milieu?  What kind of creatures?  People?  Situations?  Even single encounters, if they occur to me, get written down.  From these notes, I am attempting to create four things:

1.  An initial base of operations,

2.  An interesting outdoors area to explore,

3.  An overview of the region that the initial sandbox area is part of, and

4.  At least three major and six minor adventure sites.

We’ll be looking at each of these in order, but it is important to remember that they are interlinked.  One of the reasons that I brainstorm first is so that, for example, I have a strong idea of what my adventure area and wilderness will consist of, and can include clues to, say, the Tower of Amoreth the Arcane in the background of the initial starting area and the wilderness.  In addition, adventure sites can interlink, offering (a) pointers for the players, to help them determine where else they can explore, and (b) “Aha!” moments when things learned in two or more locations suddenly point to a larger whole.

Point (a) is important because it helps the players to make choices.  If you go back to the “Choices, Context, and Consequences” blog posts, you will recall that the Game Master needs to supply information (context) for player choices. 

In the initial area, ferreting out these connections shouldn’t be too difficult.  In expansion areas, where the players are presumably growing accustomed to seeking out and putting together scraps of information, the clues can become harder to discover/piece together.  The goal is to make information available, and to have enough information available that the players will gain access to a reasonable amount of it.  OTOH, the information should be difficult enough to gain/use that doing so gives the players a feeling of accomplishment.  Lots of information, hidden with varying degrees of difficulty, is the best way to accomplish this.

(In early TSR modules, treasure was used the same way.  Lots of treasure, hidden with varying degrees of difficulty, ensured that the players would both find treasure, and feel a sense of accomplishment based on the most difficult-to-locate treasures they uncovered.  If the GM didn’t tell the players what they missed, that sense of accomplishment – as well as the sense of the module taking place in a mysterious area – could endure.  It is only when the GM felt the need to tell the players what they missed, or the players to read the module later, that this set-up became damaged.  You can easily prevent this problem in work you write yourself!)

((Failure to understand this set-up is one of the reasons that certain analyses of early TSR modules, and especially comparisons between early TSR modules and WotC 3e and 4e modules, fall far short of the mark.))

The foregoing also explains point (b) rather well.  “Aha!” moments are (among other things) a reward for good play.  In an initial area, “good play” should have a fairly low bar, so as to encourage play, exploration, and decision-making. 

This is not to say that a cakewalk is desired, because a cakewalk offers no sense of accomplishment.  Rather, again, a sliding bar is desired, where any effort includes rewards at its fringes according to the effort put in.  Everyone gets rewarded; better play is rewarded more.

Likewise, if your overview includes the idea “Ancient Aztec civilization was once in area now being raided by Vikings” as a “hook”, it is critically important that your initial area includes elements both of the current Viking raiders and of the ancient Aztecs who were once there.  The overview exists to guide your initial work, allowing you to foreshadow a larger world.

Note that, if your campaign milieu is going to include a megadungeon, I recommend that this lies outside the initial set-up area.  Characters and players should have a chance to get their feet wet in the milieu before entering such an area.

If you think of The Hobbit, Hobbiton, the trolls, and Rivendell all may be considered as part of the initial set-up area, before entering the much more complex goblin mines and Mirkwood.  Likewise, much occurs in The Lord of the Rings before the Fellowship encounters Moria. 

If you intend on including a megadungeon, though, you can certainly include links, hints, and rumours in the initial area.  This is actually a good idea.  In fact, hints of any expansion areas you are already envisioning should be included in the initial area. You want the players to consider a larger world almost from the beginning.

Next:  Initial Base of Operations.

Thursday 27 October 2011

S is for Sandbox, Part II: Why System Matters (3)

Last time, we continued our look at why system matters, and I left you (still) partway through a list of features that a good sandbox game should have.  We also reiterated the important point that those who say “System doesn’t matter” either have ulterior motives, or have not examined the relationship between system and play experience very closely at all.

We continue with:

6.  Speedy World Creation:  If it is important for the poor, overworked Game Master to be able to create NPCs quickly, the same holds true for vast swathes of world creation.  The more exacting the rules are, the more the Game Master must look up and record in order to create the setting, and the more time it will take.   D&D 3e was the epitome of this, with its statistics for walls, floors, etc.  A game suitable for sandboxing should not require the Game Master to look up information just to put a flight of stairs on a map. 

To put it more directly, if two hours of prep time is all you have, and you can only create a few encounters in that two hours, then you (as a Game Master) are going to be heavily invested in ensuring that the players use those encounters and none other.  OTOH, if you can create several dozen encounters in the same time – far more than the players are likely to need in any given session – you are far more likely to allow them to make choices that determine which encounters get used.

7.  Encourages GM Fiat:  This is related to the speedy creation of characters and setting, as well as speeding play.  It is often better for the game to make a decision and move on.  You can look up the “official ruling” later, if it is important to anyone at the table, but that shouldn’t be the priority during play.

Encouraging GM fiat also allows for customization of NPCs, monsters, and game effects without requiring the GM to do homework.  How much easier to write, “Is blind, but can fight as though sighted” as part of an NPC write-up, than to try to discover the sequence of feats and skills that allows the character to be created “legally”!  How much easier to just an ogre’s stats the way you think they should be to fit a particular concept than to have to look for a particular template (and do the work of applying some of them)!

But encouraging GM fiat isn’t all about speed of play, or even cutting down on the GM’s homework.  The very idea of a sandbox includes within it that the world is worth exploring – it is not simply a generic expression of the rules, but rather a combination of the ruleset and the vision of the Game Master.  Playing in that sandbox allows for real exploration in part because the GM’s vision is as important as the game rules themselves.

This is not to say that the players are unimportant – by exercising choice within the whole, they create the actual focus of play as an amalgam of all participants plus ruleset.  And encouraging GM fiat means that the GM can hold the rules as secondary to the imaginations of all participants.  A cool, and appropriate, character concept need never be set aside because the rules do not account for it.  Likewise, an inappropriate, but “legal”, character concept need never be allowed to drag the game down for all other participants.

Finally, if the Game Master must adhere slavishly to the rules, either there will always be a chance to fall down stairs, break bones, etc. – or such things simply will not, and cannot, happen.

Finally, a good game for a sandbox

8.  Encourages Long-Term Thinking as well as Short-Term Thinking:  If your game is going to last beyond a single session, or a single “adventure path”, the players must be encouraged to consider their characters’ long-term goals.

To be clear, I do not mean “long-term build” here.  I don’t mean how the character will look at various character class levels.  I mean, how the character wants to shape the world around him.

The ability to shape the world around you is a major feature of sandbox gaming.  The game milieu begins life as the domain of the Game Master, but it does not stay so.  It changes in response to PC actions, and wise players can and will learn to make those actions count.  Characters clear wilderness, found towns, create castles, and become lords of the land.  They determine policy, sway kingdoms, and lead men.  In short, they wrest some level of control over the milieu from the Game Master, and make parts of the milieu their own.

And, if the Game Master is actually running a sandbox, this is encouraged.  This is the big reward of the game.  Beyond levels, beyond character power, beyond gold and jewels, is the opportunity to make your choices matter in persistent and important ways.  You may be frustrated trying to do the same in the real world.  You will be frustrated trying to do the same in a railroad.  Your efforts may be resisted and thwarted from time to time in a sandbox, but they should also be rewarded.

After all, that’s one of the biggest draws of the game….and one thing that computer games cannot come close to matching.


The minute you accept that system matters, it then follows that you should have a system that helps meet your goals…or at least avoid systems that work against you!

For my money, the absolute best system for sandbox games available today is Stars Without Numbers, which contains such a plethora of well-made tools targeted at making and running a sandbox that it is simply without peer at the moment.  For science-fiction gaming, the classic Traveller game would be well worth considering as well. 

The original Gamma World game works very well in a sandbox format, as does Mutant Future.

Any early Dungeons & Dragons is good, up to (but not including) the introduction of the Player’s Option books.  WotC-D&D is right out, but the “retro-clones” are right in.  OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, and Labyrinth Lord (among others) are extremely sandbox-friendly.

Not only is WotC-D&D right out, but it is hard to see how either 3e or 4e meet any of the criteria for a good sandboxing game.  At each turn, it seems as though the designers made choices specifically opposed to that playstyle, either through ignorance of the ramifications of their decisions, of because of a different conception of what “fun” or “the story of D&D” is. 

Although the language of 3e (for instance) was inclusive of sandboxing (or “status quo” gaming), the ruleset is not.  Interestingly enough, an examination of WotC modules for 3e and 4e show extremely linear adventures…and I would argue that this is an artefact of the rules as much as of the designers’ conscious decisions.  Perhaps 5e will be better…..?

In any event, I would be interested in hearing the recommendations of others re: good systems for sandbox games.

Monday 24 October 2011

Between Sandbox Blogs....Some Artwork

Here is some artwork that I did for RCFG.  It isn't in colour (yet), but I thought some might find it interesting.

The first up is one of the Eldritch Horrors.  Sort of humanoid bat, with hand-like feet.
This fellow needs no explanation!  The flumph is one of the most iconic, well-known, and beloved monsters in FRPGing.  Needless to say, this is based off the OGC version in Tome of Horrors

This lively fellow is a feral adult tentacled brain.  Not as smart as the standard adult tentacled brain, but absolutely necessary for their life cycle.  Feral adults paralyse humanoid creatures and implant tentacled brain eggs in their heads.  Tentacled brains that do not go feral eventually have smaller tentacles but more potent eyestalks, from which their psionic powers emanate.
When the eggs sprout, the creature is at first a "zombie" controlled by the tentacled brain.  Sooner or later, though, a beak and tentacles force their way from the creature's mouth, and one or more eyestalks protrude from the body's empty eye sockets.  Because these adults are psionic, and band together for mutual aid and protection, juvenile tentacled brains are very much feared by adventurers.  The psionic blast of the juvenile tentacled brain is especially rise to their better known nickname:  Brain Lashers!

Good gaming all!

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.

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)

Wednesday 5 October 2011

S is for Sandbox Part I: What is a Sandbox?

I know that I said it earlier, but for those who missed it, these blog posts represent my opinions.  I am not going to write “in my humble opinion” after everything I write, or even the web-slang “IMHO”.  If you read something that you find offensive, apparently being promoted as fact, just assume the imaginary IMHO.  It will make both of our lives that much easier.

This exploration of sandbox-style gaming will begin to pull together some of the disparate threads of the other “alphabet series” blog posts in the Nest.  This is simply because the sandbox philosophy underlies many of the other posts in that series. 

So, what is a sandbox?  What exactly is meant by that term?   Why is it relevant today?

“Sandbox” is used in many ways, by many gamers, and the basic idea has been muddied by a generation of “Adventure Path/Railroad” players and GMs seeking to promote their particular modus operandi by obscuring the meaning and benefits of the sandbox.  Sometimes this has been done innocently; sometimes not. 

There are bloggers/posters I could point to who seem to make a career out of their attempts to rewrite the text and experiences of those who were involved with earlier gaming.  Some, of course, will fall prey to their bull----; especially among those whose experiences encompass only “modern” games and/or gaming.  Wiser, and more experienced, heads will not be fooled.

In the context used here, a sandbox is a gaming environment in which the direction of play is driven by the choices of the players, rather than by a series of encounters/game actions that must occur to meet with the Game Master’s chosen “plot”.   A sandbox is an attempt at a “breathing world” that the players experience, and that allows them to follow their own interests within its context.

A sandbox is not featureless – it is not an endless ocean without a star to steer by.  As described in earlier blog posts, choice requires both context and consequence to be meaningful.  A setting without context is not a sandbox.

A sandbox is always in motion.  This is a necessary part of both context, and of creating a “breathing world”.  A sandbox contains within it the plots and schemes not only of the player characters, but also of NPCs – both humans and otherwise.  Some of these schemes the PCs will seek to thwart; others they will seek to aid.  Still others they will never become aware of.  In some cases, some PCs may be on either side of a scheme, as fits their own interests.  It contains also natural events – diseases, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tides, etc. – that simply occur when and where they do, regardless of where the PCs are or what they are doing.  The GM does not decide what the PCs are “supposed to do” within the context they are presented with.  That is not his job.

A sandbox reacts to the PCs, to the NPCs, and to the events occurring within its “breathing world”.  Actions have consequences.  The way the world changes is part of the context for future choices, and is a clue as to the behind-the-scenes actions of NPCs and others.  

A sandbox is not without thematic elements.  It is not without motion.  It is not without plot, except in one special sense:  It is without the GM deciding what the PCs should do (i.e., determining the “plot” of the PC’s “story”).  It need not be infinite in scope; it need not allow any possible action (just as the real world doesn’t allow people to fly like Superman or time travel like the Doctor).  Within its bounds, and within its contextual space, though, it must allow the players to decide the course of their own character’s destinies.  It must give them the tools to do so.

Because it bears repeating, the only thing that a sandbox lacks is the GM making decisions for the Player Characters, either overtly or covertly.  And, that is a damn good thing to lack.

In short, it is the opposite of an Adventure Path.  And it is in opposition to a railroad.  A sandbox seeks not to limit choice to a narrow parameter, but to enable choice making that is rich in both context and consequence.  It does not tell a single story, known in rough outline even before the events take place, but provides an environment in which many stories take place.  And those stories are “what happened” rather than “what was destined to happen”.  The stories take place after play

There are people out there who possess amazing abilities as storytellers, who can hold a group so rapt that they are completely unaware of how narrow the range of their choices really is.  There are storytellers good enough that, although their audience is aware, they are engaged enough in the story that they do not care. 

Likewise, there are players who just want to engage in a table top skirmish game.  There are players who don’t want to make decisions, who just want to go along with the flow.  There are definitely people who want others to make choices for them, and who would prefer to engage in something far less than a “breathing world”.  Essentially, they want the limited palette of a computer game at the table, and often because they have never experienced anything more.

Yet, for those of us who actually enjoy role-playing games – even if we also enjoy interactive storytelling games, skirmish games, and/or computer games – the sandbox is the only format that even comes close to providing satisfaction. 

There is nothing wrong with wanting to tell a story or play a skirmish game.  They are just not the same thing as a role-playing game is.  Pretending otherwise started as a means to sell so-called “computer role-playing games” and continued so that publishers could more easily sell other entertainments akin to role-playing games.  "Of course it's a role-playing game!  It says so on the cover!"

It should be a no-brainer that, to the degree the Game Master restricts players from making choices for their characters from the standpoint (context) of their roles, he also restricts role-playing.  To fully experience a role-playing game, a sandbox is a requirement.  Anything less is…..less.  In many cases, very much less.

The sandbox remains relevant, because it is the singular important thing that table top gaming does better than its competitors.  Want to hear a compelling story?  The control an author or director has over characters/cast means that many novels and films will be better than your amateur storyteller.  If you want to experience the same, you will expect a “computer role-playing game” to limit your choices, and the railroading elements are therefore less likely to get in the way.   Want to be involved in a skirmish?  The computer does it better, crunching all the numbers for you.  Even hanging out with your friends can be more fun with a barbeque or at a pub.  And, if learning the game rules is work, running a game is exponentially more so.

If gaming has become less relevant than it was in its Gygaxian heyday, this is the reason why.   RPGs can offer many things in addition to the sandbox.  When they fail to offer the sandbox as the most basic mode of play, not only do they limit the “role-playing” allowed within the context of the “game”, but they also tend to limit the “game” allowed in context with the “role-playing”.  And they come into direct competitions with entertainments that do the same, but do it better.

(How constraining play in a non-sandbox mode limits the actual “game” is discussed in the “C is for…” posts in this series.)

NEXT:  Part II:  Why System Matters

Monday 3 October 2011

S is for Skill Use

Since it seems to be a "hot topic" due to musings on the WotC site, I thought I would share some bits from the "Skill Use" section I've written for RCFG.  Later on, I intend on writing a series of "S is for Sandbox" blog posts, but for right now.....S is for Skill Use.

(Most of this will be OGC under the OGL in the upcoming RCFG ruleset.  If you want to use some part of this -- which is not already OGC due to appearing elsewhere -- in your own project, send me an email at ravencrowking at hotmail dot com.)

Without further ado:

Trying Again

Unless a consequence of failure prevents an additional attempt, it is usually possible for a character to try a skill check up to three times before success becomes impossible.

A skill check that has become impossible due to three failures can be attempted again when the character gains another rank in the relevant skill.

In some cases, the Game Master may allow additional checks, but will apply a —2 penalty to all subsequent checks for each failed skill check that has gone before.

The Game Master may allow a new check after significant time has passed, allowing the character a chance to reflect on the causes of failure, even if the character has not gained a level or increased his or her modifier. 

The Game Master determines what qualifies as “significant time”.

DESIGNER NOTE:  Three Strikes

There is a reason that characters usually only gain three chances to succeed  at a particular task — it prevents the game from becoming stale.

In some SRD-derived games, a character can keep making checks until she succeeds.  This means that, unless there is some penalty for failure, when the GM sets the DC, he automatically knows the end result.  Skills become a binary on/off switch, where either an eventual roll of “20” will succeed, or it will not.

This is the same reason that RCFG uses a variable for the Take 20 mechanic….to prevent setting the DC from dictating the outcome.

Three chances still allows characters to take a wild stab at  a task, try harder by using the Take 10 mechanic, and then make their best attempt with the Take 20 mechanic, if circumstances allow.

Taking 20

When a character has plenty of time and is faced with no threats or distractions, and there is no penalty for failure, the character can Take 20.  In general, this means that the character is well rested, at his or her peak, and can control most variables.

It is actually possible to do better under these circumstances than when performing under time limits or stress.  Instead of rolling 1d20 for the skill check, roll 1d6 and add the results to 18; use the resultant number (from 19 to 24) as your roll.

Taking 20 does not mean that the character is simply trying until he or she gets it right, nor does it assume that the character fails many times before succeeding.  Instead, the character is making his or her best stab at a single attempt, considering as many variables as possible before proceeding.  This means that the skill attempt takes at least two minutes, and may take considerably longer (at the Game Master’s discretion).

Threshold Checks

It is also possible for the Game Master to set a threshold at which a skill check automatically succeeds.  If a character’s skill check modifier meets the threshold, the character automatically succeeds.  If it does not, either the character automatically fails, or a regular skill check is called for (see below). 

Threshold checks may be active or passive.

An active threshold check (ATC) occurs when the Game Master determines that a player character’s action triggers the skill check.  For example, the Game Master may determine that a particular wall can be climbed by anyone whose Climb skill check modifier is +7 or greater.  This would be noted as “Climb ATC +7”.

Usually, if a character fails to meet an active threshold, he or she may attempt a standard skill check.

passive threshold check (PTC) occurs when the Game Master determines that a player character need take no special action to trigger the check.  For example, the Game Master may determine that an ostler will feel loyalty to any character whose Diplomacy is +5 or higher.  This would be noted as “Diplomacy PTC +5”. 

Likewise, the Game Master may decide that a particular piece of information was available to anyone with a Knowledge (History) +4 or higher.  This would be a passive threshold check if the player did not need to ask to get the information.

In the event that a character fails to meet the threshold, the Game Master can either determine that the check itself is failed, or that a normal skill check might allow for success.  If the threshold check was a passive threshold check, any normal skill check allowed must be triggered actively by the player character in question.

The DC of the normal skill check need not relate directly to the DC of the threshold check.  This allows the Game Master to set up situations where a certain degree of competence guarantees success, but even a little less competence makes a large difference in the odds of completing a task.

For example, imagine a lock that a professional thief might easily pick, but even a slightly less competent thief might find troublesome.  The Game Master can choose to make this an active threshold check, with a threshold of +6 (the normal professional standard), that requires a DC 20 Theft check from those who fail to meet the threshold. 

This would be noted “Theft ATC +6/DC 20”.

DESIGNER NOTE:  Skill Options

Players and Game Masters have a lot of options for using skills in RCFG.  Don’t worry about which option is “right” for any particular game event.  The “right” option is the one that works….and keeps the game moving.

If one skill use option is being used, and the result of a check makes another option make more sense, the Game Master can switch to the other option.

In all cases, the Game Master has the final say as to which options are applied.

Complex Skill Tests

In some cases, resolving a problem may require a series of skill checks, using different skills, in a more complex way.  This is known as a complex skill test

A complex skill test can be devised by the Game Master as part of an encounter, or running through (and affecting!) a series of encounters.  Players can also trigger complex skill tests by switching gears during a complex skill check or a degree of success check.

In general, a complex skill test runs similar to a complex skill check or a degree of success check.  The Game Master either sets a number of checks to be completed and a DC for each (as per a complex skill check) or a Target Number that must be achieved (as per degree of success).

In the case of a complex skill test, though, the characters are not limited to any particular skill.  Rather, they choose what skill should apply narratively, and the Game Master ascribes a bonus or penalty to the check based upon the narrative explanation supplied. 

The Game Master may also apply some specific effects for failure or success based upon the skill used.  If the Game Master is designing a complex skill test as part of an adventure, he or she should also consider what skills are likely to be applied, and determine what the effects and modifiers are appropriate.

The structure of a complex skill test should never trump events within the game narrative.  If the players manage to resolve a problem with some brilliant ploy outside the structure of the complex skill test, the Game Master is encouraged to allow that resolution to stand.

Example 1:  A group of PCs is being chased through a crowded marketplace.  The Game Master is resolving the action using the multiple opposed DS mechanics using the level as modifier rule, when suddenly one of the players decides to pull down some stacked crates into their pursuers’ path. 

This changes the nature of the action from a straight chase to a more complex test.  The Game Master determines that pulling down the crates will use the level as modifier rule (character level + Strength modifier in this case), and the pursuers must make an Acrobatics check to get past the barrier (DC set by the check of the character pulling down the crates).
The character pulling down the crates makes no gains toward meeting the Target Number, but the Game Master determines that any pursuers who fail, the check loses 5 points toward reaching the Target Number each round until the check is passed.

Example 2:  While designing a dungeon adventure, the Game Master creates a room that is sealed by a sliding wall, trapping any characters who enter it.  Within, a whirling series of blades extend from the walls and floor, while the room slowly floods with water.  The characters have to find a way to cross the room to the far door and throw the lever there to reset the trap and escape.

The Game Master determines that crossing the trapped room, requires 5 checks to succeed.  Each check represents 10 feet of movement.  Two checks can be made in a single round, but the second check takes a –4 penalty.  Instead of determining a number of failed checks that causes the entire complex skill test to fail, the Game Master decides to simply apply the effects of failure:

  • Any check, such as Acrobatics, used to dodge the blades causes the character 2d6 damage if failed.  DC 12.
  • Bludgeoning weapons can attack the blades effectively (AC 15, DR 5, 20 hp); long weapons can be used to jam the blades (AC 25; weapon must be left in place).  Each blade destroyed or jammed adds a +2 to future checks.  Failure by 5 or more exposes the attacker to another blade, which strikes at a +6 bonus to hit for 2d6 damage.
  • Each round, 1 foot of water enters the room.  Each foot of water increases the DC of any physical check (except Swim checks) by +2.  Every 2 feet of water, however, decreases the damage done by the blades by 2 points. 
  • When there are 3 feet of water in the room, characters can attempt Swim checks to get past the blades.  Swim DCs start at 15, but every additional foot of water grants a +1 bonus to the check. 
  • Drowning is a real possibility.  The room is completely filled with water after 10 rounds.

Example 3:  The characters are trying to find a black market in a medium-sized city.  The Game Master has no specific ideas as to what is required, but has an idea of roughly how difficult it should be.  So the Game Master decides to set a complex skill test, where 5 successes are required before 3 failures, with a base DC of 25.  The DC is high because the Game Master determines that a black market that was easy to find would soon be located by the local government and shut down.

The Game Master also decides that, if the players are asking around, if they get three (or more) successes and two failures, they will be approached by thugs, who seek to get them to stop looking.  Obviously, these thugs also offer an opportunity to bypass the complex skill test before the final failure can occur.

The Game Master asks the players to narrate what they are attempting, and what skills they are using.  The characters gain bonuses or penalties to their checks based upon how relevant the Game Master believes their narrated attempts would be to actually accomplishing the task.