Friday, January 13, 2017

Running a Sandbox Campaign: Player Expectation

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts about Prepping a Sandbox Campaign. I have also mentioned that I am currently running a 5e campaign ostensibly set in my Lost Colonies campaign world; however, due to the various choices by the players, the bulk of the campaign is actually taking place on a brand new map that I have never run before. The experience has reminded me of some of the fundamental assumptions that I make when running a sandbox campaign and I thought I’d write some of these down and share them.

Player Expectation

As you may have noted in my series on Prepping a Sandbox Campaign, I don’t do a whole lot of detail. Most of the things I prepare are broad brush strokes so that I have enough information that I can wing it if necessary, but not so much that I have wasted a whole bunch of time on something my players have no interest in. This gives me a lot of freedom to shape the campaign to fit my players.

This reality and point of view became very important when I started my most recent campaign. My players are all young and have little or no experience with pencil & paper RPGs. If I imposed a bunch of my own expectations for how this campaign was going to be, I wasn’t likely to succeed in showing my players just how cool RPGs can be.

Therefore, I carefully listened to them when we created characters. I made sure I had an idea of what each person expected their characters to able to do. Some of these are far-off goals for when their characters are much higher level. As a consequence, I knew that some of these expectations were not going to be fulfilled in the short-term; however, I could tease them so that they knew that what they wanted was possible in the long run. Listening to my players and their expectations don’t stop at character creation, though.

One of the adventure locations that I had in place for my new campaign was Akhmed’s old house. For those who don’t know, Akhmed was a long-time PC in my last Lost Colonies campaign who played a central role in developing several key characteristics of the world: Bane Weapons, Lithic Elves and the fact that dwarves are neither male nor female.

At one point during the campaign, Akhmed had hired some Bronze Dwarves to build him an underground home in Headwaters. It was my standard practice to have long-term projects like this take one or more sessions. When a players asked, I would have them roll a d6. On a ‘1’ the project was finished. Each time a player rolled (each session that went by) I would subtract one or more from the roll (depending on the scale of the project). Akhmed had been rolling for several weeks on his project, but never seeing the end. When it was time for the project to be finished, I had him roll and it came out a ‘6.’ On a whim, I informed him that the dwarves had found something that scared them and they boarded up the house and refused to work anymore. It was an adventure seed, because it gave me the ability to place a rip it time and space in his almost completed home that could potentially be something the party explored. For a variety of reasons, that seed never played out in my last campaign. In this campaign, however, it has been the center of my player’s attention.

When I first conceived of the idea of a portal, I had in mind the Portals of Torsh by Rudy Kraft and published by Judges Guild. I had taken part of the provided map, and hashed out some of the broader ideas in much the same way I did in my series on Prepping a Sandbox Campaign. It didn’t go much farther than that, even when my players started poking around (literally).

When my players discovered the portal, I described that it looked like the Aurora Borealis. I also described that it changed color, doing so to let my players know that times was passing as they argued with each other about what to do next. The color change, however, caught their imaginations. They started poking the phenomena. So, I went with it and had the thing change color any time it was poked.

As the campaign progressed, the players started hypothesizing that each color represented a different destination. Since I wasn’t married to the idea that the portal led only to one place, I decided to go with it and began making up different end-points for each color. The players then decided to see if they could get more colors by poking more at the thing. I indulged the idea, and began rolling dice to see if they would get any other result. The dice said yes, and the number of colors and destinations went from one to three to five. Subsequently, this portal to many places has become a key factor in aiding the party on the quest they have all decided to undertake. In other words, I allowed their expectations for my campaign world to shape the world and the campaign itself.

One could quibble with how I allowed player expectation to enter into the game, but I believe it is important for two reasons:

  1. It subtly invests the players in the campaign world and can give a sense of accomplishment even in the face of failure. Even if the party is driven away by a superior force of monsters, the object/place is out of reach, there is no treasure or a character dies, the players can still walk away knowing that their hypothesis was at least partially correct. Such success invites the players to make further guesses at how the world works and what is in it. When such guesses start to be at least partially correct more often than not, it encourages further exploration and further guesses. The players begin to talk about the game outside the game and the campaign begins to have a life of its own.
  2. It provides a certain amount of surprise for me. One of the things I love most about a sandbox style of campaign is that it provides me with the unexpected. I never know which direction my players are going to go or what puzzle they become determined to solve or how they are going to go about doing just about anything. If I also allow player expectations to color how I respond to such choices, it forces me to be surprised by my own world. For example, I never expected the portal to go anywhere but to a lost temple on another world. I never expected it to be a key locale in a strategy to imprison an ancient dragon. Such are the wonders of allowing player expectation to color a campaign.

I would argue that the sandbox campaign is uniquely able to accomplish fulfilling player expectation because by its very nature it must be flexible and flexibility is key in allowing player expectation to shape a campaign.

1 comment:

  1. It's a bit of balancing act to include players' expectations but not too many of them (then wouldn't be enough surprises). But your arguments about being a bit flexible for investment of players in the campaign world are very good.