Preparing for chaos

12 January, 2008 at 1:19 pm (rpg theory) (, , )

What follows is three broad ways of preparing for play. They are basically refined and slightly more narrow versions of a post I made before this blog at Theory decides. The versions written here have slightly different naming schema and extensively use Montola’s theory.

Disclaimer: I find scripted play generally distasteful, pointless or alien. That might influence something.

Sandbox play

When game master and the group builds a setting and the players characters (with varying amounts of input from players and GM on the different aspects) and then the characters are placed in the setting, do stuff, and the setting responds, game is sandbox play. A setting generated by improvisation in play based on “what would really be there” can also be sandbox play.

In terms of the model discussed, a sandbox has accidental attractors in that a given group of characters might or might not care about them. Maybe the want to slay the slumbering dragon, maybe awaken it, maybe take its stuff, maybe they ignore it completely. There are things happening in the setting, but they go on independently of the player characters, who are free to go and do as they will.

Sandbox play is hit-and-miss: If the characters don’t have agendas of their own or happen to bump into something that engages the players, the gaming will be dull. There usually is a slow start where players get used to their characters and the setting and have little time to start doing something interesting. On the other hand, given characters with strong principles and goals, sandbox play can create wonderful organic stories and experiences. If characters are of the sort who always get offended by something or always are scheming to the over the world, at least something will happen.

There is a strong starting cost, or need to be good at impro, to run a sandbox game well.

Scripted play

There are strong attractors the player characters are expected to follow. The expection may be tacit (that is what roleplaying is) or explicit. It may be part of the game rules (Rune). There usually is a setting where things that don’t directly touch the player characters happens, but they are on the background. Often there is a particular story that is being told. It may have been designed by all participants (the crazy Swedes are up to no good with that kind of stuff, I’m certain) or by the GM in solitude. There certainly are other methods.

Strong attractors are the key here. If all the player characters are united in purpose (save the world), share similar values (alignment and interpretation of it) and have well-defined solution to most problems (fighting), the game should go along just fine. GM knows what kind of hooks and rewards to use, players know what they are supposed to do. GM can plan excellent events while the players have fun dealing with those.

The great strength of scripted play is that preparation is both useful and efficient. What is prepared is often also used. If not, it can be recycled to some later situation. The great flaw is the tendency to stick with what one has prepared. Some games make this near mandatory. The myth of impro being somehow difficult (more difficult than using prepared material, at least) is a result of relying on preparation. Railroading happens when GM creates more and more attractors that actually lead to the same place when players diverge.

Scripted game (as in a series of sessions) is built so that attractors draw the PCs together. Avoiding bifurcation points is important. An alternative is to place them so that one has time to prepare, whichever attractor is followed after the brief chaos.

Volatile play

Players create characters. Game master builds or tweaks everything else so that characters are engaged, but the direction they move to is unknown. Essentially, volatile play means that GM constructs bifurcation points the players will bump into. The Forge people call a specific sort of bifurcation point a bang. More generally, there are two sorts (not dichotomous) of volatile situations that can be prepared: Those which rely on player making a decision and those which rely on dice making a decision. Generally speaking, the first are more enjoyable, at least in my opinion. Combinations, such as the player deciding which dice get to make the decision, are possibly. See for example many combat systems.

There is room for using attractors, too. They should be used to keep the player characters interacting and the game as a whole coherent. Otherwise all the characters might end up doing their own thing separate from the other PCs, which is generally not as fun as players interacting. It is also more work for the game master.

Good rules are things that don’t require much preparation, or at least much preparation for specific occasions. Improvisation is practically necessary technique, so rules that make it possible or easier are always nice. Rules which make resolution unexpected but not overtly random are another good tool: Stuff like action points that give a significant bonus to rolls, for example, allow success at unexpected situations that the player finds important.

Problems include the aforementioned bubble play, where PCs don’t significantly interact, and inconsistencies. When much detail is generated on fly to drive PCs towards a given bifurcation point, there is significant risk of an inconsistency or three appearing. Usually they don’t matter because they are not noticed. Sometimes things do go messy.

And the lesson is…

Play the way you do, but know that there are alternatives which can look totally alien. Experimentation is a good thing; some techniques transfer well between gaming styles.



  1. Phased Weasel said,

    Do you have an RSS feed? I like to have my content “pushed” to me so I don’t have to keep checking for updates.

  2. Tommi said,

    Yes. All WordPress blogs have, to my knowledge. Either use the handy button available in most browsers (at least Firefox and IE) or ctrl-f for RSS and click the relevant link. It should be visible now.

  3. Phased Weasel said,

    Man, I must be blind, because I looked all up and down your main site for that button, and I completely missed the “RSS Feed” link on the main page. I’m off to go miss more obvious things now ….

  4. Game classification « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] In which I shall list some games I have GM’d or am willing to GM. For meanings of volatile/scripted/sandbox play, see this post. […]

  5. d7 said,

    Hi Tommi, thanks for the comments.

    I’m finding that improv is both my favoured way to create fiction, and the most effective given the constraints on my time right now.

    The trouble I keep running into is incoherence in play styles. It’s easy to get players excited about using a system that encourages them to contribution more to the improvised world—since it offers them control—but in practice they often revert to a more traditional model of GM/player control of the world. These players seem to want their belief in a persistent environment to be grounded out in a set of concrete notes in my setting or adventure notes. I’m not sure how to negotiate that, since selling them on the ideas in a more shared-control system doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

    I think part of it might be just unfamiliarity with non-trad play and ideas. My mindset for gaming is steeped in a context informed by post-Forge indie theory that my players don’t share. How to showcase some of these ideas while they’re actively resisting/devaluing the mechanics that implement such ideas is a trick I’ve yet to figure out.

  6. Tommi said,

    Hello seven-sided die.

    First, a point: You can’t change the way people play without their co-operation. (Or it will at least be very, very hard.) There is a Forge thread called something like “You can’t sneak up on a mode” about this stuff, if you want to read more. It is old.

    Then, an option: Consider telling the players that you can’t prepare the world before play in sufficient detail, and hence you will use these rules to determine details. Tell them that if they suddenly start looking for something to use as a weapon, you probably don’t know if such is near, so they can just tell what they are looking for and you will tell what they must roll (or just say yes).

    Any skill like search or scavenging or survival can be used like this. Circles in Burning Wheel are my prime inspiration. Streetwise can be used in similar ways and most games have some skill to that effect.

  7. d7 said,

    I’ve read quite a bit about the Burning Wheel but I haven’t yet gotten my hands on it. I think it has the potential to be a good default system for my group, though I’m going to wait until after the current campaign to introduce it. I do really like the ways in which players can flag their plot interests and outright create setting details. I think it would support my style of GMing (and fit how little prep time I have available) while still giving the players enough crunch to enjoy.

    In the current campaign I’m using 1st edition AD&D with a modified XP system that involves player-chosen quest/story goals. The closest thing it has to a search or streetwise skill is simple ability checks, which might work. Mostly I think I need to demonstrate given them time to discover the ways that the XP mechanics add to play rather than just being distractions from the immersion.

    Thanks for the article pointer. I’m not sure if this thread is the one you meant, but it was a useful read nonetheless.

  8. Tommi said,

    This thread:

    Burning Wheel is a strange game, filled with good ideas, but also very heavy on rules. I urge reading some reviews before buying it.

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