Dispatches from the Raven Crowking Vol. III: Building the Sandbox (DCC)
The third collection of essays on game design by Daniel J. Bishop, intended primarily, but by far not exclusively, for the DCC RPG, clocks in at 58 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 54 pages of content, though it should be noted that this book’s layout is intended for A5 (6” by 9”)-booklets and, as such, you can fit up to 4 of these pages on one sheet, provided your eyesight is good.
Please read the whole review, not just a paragraph or two. This is going somewhere.
All right, so…the topic is the sandbox and the author begins, wisely, I might add, given how opinionated we RPG-folks tend to be, with a subjectivity-clause: This pdf and its essays represent opinions and *one* way of dealing with the theme of the sandbox – this does not mean it’s the only way, but yeah. It also helps if you’ve read Dispatches Vol. I, wherein the importance of choices and consequences was discussed – why? because frankly, the sandbox *IS* the result of saying yes to choices and consequences. Before we dive in, let me add my own subjectivity disclaimer: While it is in the nature of a review, that it is an subjective opinion, this one is more subjective than most and my criticism herein is offered in the spirit of discourse, not with the claim of owning a monolithic truth.
A sandbox is an attempt to create a breathing world, one that is not beholden to a given plot of a sequence of adventures; a simulation, if you will – you generate the playing field and contemplate how xyz reacts to various impulses and then throw your PCs in. It is how I’ve ran pretty much all of my campaigns. This obviously does mean that there is more preparation, or at least, consideration, involved in making a sandbox: After all, you have to create (or improvise) more than just the sequence of places the PCs stumble through on their railroad…but this endeavor is very much rewarding, s it can generate truly magical moments.
This does NOT mean that the sandbox has no plot, mind you – quite the contrary: At any given time, only your mind and capability to juggle them is what counts. If the PCs don’t want to get involved in that brewing war between kingdom A and B, it’ll still happen – just without them. In short: The sandbox does not revolve around the PCs, but rather turns on its own. This also means that a proper sandbox takes off the stupid CR-restrictions (if employed as restrictions, not as guidelines) popularized in many games in favor of, tie in Vol I, choice and consequence- if your PCs are dumb enough to challenge the old wyrm at level two, they deserve being killed. Similarly, just because they have level 5 does not mean that they should waltz, staves blazing, into your game’s equivalent of Mordor.
We’re coming full-circle here – the determinant of any sandbox game is not ONE plot, but the player’s DECISION to follow one of the multitude of plotlines that happen at any given time. So far, the reasoning of the pdf is, as far as these aspects are concerned, flawless. It’s a democracy of choice within the realm where the GM is the absolute ruler.
At the same time, the subjectivity clause is well-deserved, for ultimately, these well-construed and -reasoned points do unfortunately intersect with what I’d consider a classic case of preaching to the choir and the advent of opinionated gaming where you tell groups they or their system are doing it wrong. You see, I do agree that the lack of choice inherent in linear storytelling formats like APs *can* be stifling. I do not agree with the notion, however, that whether or not they are wholly rests on the shoulders of a great GM-narrator. Similarly, “skirmishing games”, as an aside towards rules-heavy games, are not by definition opposed to the very notion of a sandbox. To deconstruct a couple of theses herein: The pdf claims that a system matters for sandboxing. This is, indeed, true to a certain extent – the less preparation a given combat encounter or social scenario requires, the easier it gets. However, this does not mean that it’s hard or impossible to do so. It may require marginally more work, but ultimately boils down to a GM’s willingness and creative muscles. Similarly, there are ample COLOSSAL sandboxes out there for rules-heavy games – one look at Frog God Games’ library would for example yield several monstrously large sandboxes that represent massive rebuttals.
That being said, if you define sandbox as a whole world as opposed to an adventuring region, no matter how large it is, then a sandbox cannot be contained in any published module due to the constraints of any given product – this fallacy is rebutted later, thankfully. Under such a perspective, it is up to the GM (or judge, or referee, or…) to take a world and litter it with adventure – but when such a definition is used, the whole argument of pre-packaged modules not working, no matter their structure, has rendered itself ad absurdum.
Nevertheless, there is a truth here, no matter the barbs towards certain systems – namely that, by virtue of the limitations of space and popularized formats of pre-existing modules, many publishers and authors have started designing in a very video-game-y manner. Scene A -> Combat -> Talk -> Transition -> Scene B. That is the railroad. That is a lack of player-choice, and very often one that sports a distinct lack of interaction options. It is pretty much what disillusioned me regarding many video games and made me go pen and paper in the first place. However, it is not a design aesthetic that is INHERENT to any system – it is, instead, a design CONVENTION that many authors elect to follow. No matter how complex a game’s rules are, you *can* always make a sandbox. The ability to do so does not rely on the system. Note that the pdf does not claim it does, but heavily implies as such.
Point 2 is that sequential, prepackaged campaigns are similarly not necessarily anathema to a sandbox – there are examples of very free-form ones out there; but beyond that, the validity of the point the author makes here is subverted by one guiding principle of his own philosophy – player choice. See, if the players encounter, for example, module #1 of an AP, elect to start playing it…and then abandon its plot halfway through to do something else, then that is their CHOICE. If they are intrigued enough to follow the plot to module #3 and then abandon it, then that’s their choice as well – it’s not a question of the structure of a system or its conventions for module design, it’s an issue reliant on the GM saying yes to their freedom of choice and preparing accordingly. Now the slightly schizophrenic aspect here is that, in the partially well-justified criticism of sequential adventure formulae, the book later (down in the DCC-section) concedes exactly this point – that published modules, with all their limitations, do not necessarily destroy a sandbox – basically, the tune changes completely and becomes inclusive. Now, I get it. The issue the author fields it that railroady campaigns are the problem – when the campaign is all the world. Railroady single modules are okay, though. Here’s the thing, though – no one forces a group to stick to one campaign and a campaign consists of…modules. Again, it boils down to convention of how a GM looks at the material available, not the formula of presentation – whether that’s a hex-crawl or an AP.
Let me, at this point, quote one of the most beautiful sentences of genuine wisdom this offers, one that may well be worth getting this: “Present me with a word. If I want to change it, I will.”
This sentence is absolutely amazing. It is poignant and glorious and something every GM ever should always bear in mind. In the face of such wisdom and beauty, it is my contention that the arguments fielded in the beginning are slightly lost in the opinionated way they’re presented here, when looking at it neutrally may have not yielded the same cheers from fans of the respective rules-lite systems, but would have yielded the more stringent impact. Chances are, that the GMs who were bound to benefit the most from this gem and the enlightened stance taken later in the pdf may have put the file away at this point, with the proselytizing in favor of certain systems detracting from the appeal of those most in need of the guidance herein.
The task here is not to praise system a) for qualities, which are entirely subjective, not to bash system b), whose merits and flaws are similarly subjective and a matter of taste. The point is that the CONVENTIONS of how modules are presented and a lack of consciousness for their limitations and downsides, for their meta-structure, are what governs an inability to properly sandbox more than a rules system ever could.
I’ve already talked about the sequential AP-formula; so, while I do adore sandbox gaming, let’s take a look at the downsides here, which the pdf could imho do a slightly better job advising GMs: The biggest one, obviously, is choice paralysis. This may not necessarily be a thing in your game; veterans generally tend to be able to handle it rather well and find things to do. However, in the long run, just exploration and stumbling into the week’s latest dungeon/monster/weird settlement can be just as frustrating as a restrictive railroad. Granted, the task of plotting meta-narratives is up to the GM…but then, how to seed them and maintain them? I’m trying hard to be the advocatus diaboli here, mind you.
Another point made to emphasize how some systems are less capable of depicting a sandbox would deal with character progression – broad, rather than narrow, are the terms employed here. Broad implies that more options are gained, whereas narrow implies that the respective options are improved. Similarly, these denote the type of challenge a given group can tackle over a series of levels -can a challenge be relevant for multiple levels or does it require redesign, etc.?. 4th edition, for example, would be a very narrow system. If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you’ll know that I loathe the system. I really dislike it, but ultimately, you can sandbox in it. It takes serious effort, but it is possible. Ultimately, it depends on the GM being capable of and willing to modify stats, encounters, etc. It’s infinitely simpler for retro-clones like S&W, LotFP or DCC – sure. And yes, I absolutely agree that system does matter in this discipline. But what matters most, ultimately, is a GM’s prowess.
*takes a deep breath* All right, that is not to say that there are no theses with which I 100% agree: One, simulationalist approaches work best in sandboxes. It can be extremely thrilling to see PCs risk starvation while exploring a wasteland; in the right hands, such a set-up doesn’t require a single combat to be a nail-biting experience. Speedy character creation and world creation are two aspects that most certainly work easier for rules-lite games – not going to argue there, just note that capable players and GMs can whip out new characters even in incredibly rules-heavy systems rather quickly. Or purchase them. Such systems do tend to have a plethora of NPC-books, pregens, etc.
Encouraging GM fiat can be an empowering aspect and one that current generations of GMs often forget – particularly in rules-heavy environments. As opposed to a proper game-designer trying to use the system, a GM can, regardless of system, be the final arbiter…and should be just that. It is one of the most troubling developments in rules-heavy systems to see this aggravating player-entitlement that complains about an enemy not being “CR-appropriate”. It’s a world – or rather, simulation thereof. If you’re demonstrating for whatever cause and come to blows with a soldier and get your behind handed to you, you can’t complain about it being not fair regarding power-levels. At the same time, GM fiat can be very frustrating – it puts a lot of strain on a GM, as corner cases need to be remembered, sample rulings kept in mind. Sure, you can discard those…but that takes away from the all-important immersion, the sense of a concise and organic world. So, like everything, there are two sides to contemplate here.
Once again, that is not the consequence of a system, but the consequence of the design-conventions in place for that system – and the GM-conventions in place for the system. CoC-Keepers will run games differently than DCC judges, Pathfinder GMs or OSR referees. Okay, so, I’ve rambled on long enough about my take on the respective theses in the set-up chapters, but the book has more to offer than that. We begin with considerations pertaining initial bases of operations and a MORE THAN APT revision of Ray Winninger’s rules of dungeoncraft – these two guidelines make significantly more sense and do not feature the implied justification of doing only the basics – kudos for a thoroughly well-reasoned expansion. Similarly, the pdf provides handy guidelines on grouping NPCs, how to know where to get more involved etc. – basically, it is a nice way of establishing priorities. Similarly, establishing the basics of making an interesting outdoors area are covered in succinct and crisp detail and similarly, guidelines for lair placement, into how much detail you should go – and ample inspirational reading, from RPGs to beyond, provide an excellent way of generating the mindset for a GM.
Now, this is billed as a DCC-supplement, so judges are in luck, for, from the general, we move to the particular, at least system-wise – we begin with a consideration of what a good funnel should achieve as a kickstart of a sandboxy environment; similarly, from classic Hommlet to White Plume Mountain, via basics of the gaming classics, we receive some excellent models which are used to illustrate the craftsmanship aspects of sandboxing. While I know that both are classics, I did wish the book to a slightly broader approach here and included more current examples – once again, since those most in need of this book probably haven’t heard about those two classics. Oh, and you may stone me and pull out the pitchforks, but I consider both to be somewhat overhyped.
Huh, no giant d20 squashed me. Guess I have to try harder at RPG-heresy. Kidding aside, the pdf does lead by example – a minor sample adventuring site and a 2-page full-color hex-crawl map with basic notes for the respective hexes help getting the feel of how to run such a game and are, as we’ve come to expect from the author, well-written. A ten-entry (one is roll twice, one is no special ability) d30-table for judges to add special abilities to centaurs and the sample centaur character Asbolus as well as an aspect of Chiron complete this section and provide a nice base-line to illustrate how you can get serious mileage out of a given work/creature.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a 1-column standard and the pdf features some really neat full-color artwork. The pdf also sports nice full-color cartography as well as bookmarks for your convenience.
Daniel J. Bishop’s third collection of Dispatches from the Raven Crowking would have, to be honest, landed in my recycling bin if I wasn’t a reviewer. After a couple of pages, I just shook my head at several of the argumentative fallacies committed and put the pdf away. Let it be known that it has haunted me for a couple of days, as I began formulating why some of the initial claims felt so wrong to me. I returned, as you can see, I due time – and I am glad I did. From the bottom of my heart.
Now, as you may notice, I very much disagree with several core tenets of the train of thought constructed by the author. Significantly. It is my firm conviction that, in spite of the subjectivity clause, the needlessly judgmental way in which some systems and presentation modes are depicted, hampers the point the pdf tries to make – with the audience that most needs it. The pdf, in short, could have taken a more diversified stance here and been, ultimately, more respectable in its argumentation here. Then again, it does have the material – the synthesis of thesis and antithesis comes late. Similarly, the pdf does not necessarily paint a diversified picture of the issues that a group can face while sandboxing, focusing on GM preparation and how to handle this aspect – but less about how to handle players dealing (or not dealing) with a sandbox. There is only so far reactions and the like will get you and while the pdf does cover these aspects, I believe they are very much born of experience here and could have used a more novice-friendly depiction.
Oh boy. I’m realizing right now that this all sounds very negative. And it shouldn’t be. Whether by happy accident or just by impulse, my annoyance in the face of some statements herein made me reevaluate basic structures of the presentation of gaming materials and systems in general and has left me enriched for it. While, as my review above should make more than clear, I do disagree on several finer points and agree with others, much like any good discussion with a dissenting point of view that is presented in a strong and concise manner, this book has left me richer and, hopefully, more enlightened than I was before; not by assimilation of another opinion, but by contemplating my own.
This is, ultimately, all you can ask of from a series of essays on game-design and structures.
Oh, and the book also is a pretty neat guideline to sandbox gaming. Yeah, there was that aspect as well while I was getting lost in the argument.
So, worth getting? My answer would be a resounding “yes.” Final verdict: 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this neat tome here on OBS!
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