Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Setting Organic Boundaries

The players are exploring a new wilderness (perhaps not unlike this one or this one), and they discover a ruined temple. They remember that that crazy old trader back in the Imperial Town said a Black Dragon nested somewhere in here. They beat a hasty retreat; they know that they'll need backup or better specialized weaponry before going toe-to-toe for the dragon's horde. They sneak off to find easier pickings elsewhere.

Only a few miles away, on the remnants of a long-forgotten trade road, they are accosted by a band of hobgoblin bandits. It's a tough fight, but they manage to eke it out. Under some less-than-friendly persuasion, the one hobgoblin they capture tells them that there is an entire horde of hobgoblins in the foothills to the nearby north.

Moving on, they come to a small village on the edge of the river. After engaging in some bartering, they learn that the swamplands to the south are relatively safe, with a very few lizardmen and the sunken remains of an old shrine. One villager tells a crazy story about this abandoned dwarven mine down the river--abandoned except for an Ogre warlord and his followers, that is. But supposedly, there's still some mithril left--how much, no one can say. It is said the warlord controls at least one of the passes through the nearby foothills, though--and can be bargained with.

In the preceding example, level-appropriate challenges do not instantly appear. There are threats in the various hexes of the above adventure map that are fixed. It is up to the players, through exploration, trial and error, negotiation, information gathering, and interrogation, to gain an impression of the threats and features of their adventuring area. Challenges in an area do not scale because of their level; the world does not change itself because of the level of the players.

This can be included as an element of "sandbox" play, but I also see it as setting "organic" boundaries. There is no artificial challenge level adjustment--it is up to the player's characters to decide when and where there challenges occur. They decide the path of least (or greatest) resistance through the world, as well as when and where to gamble when the reward might be worth it. This approach puts info gathering and character interaction with the world at a premium. At worst, if the characters are reckless, heedless, or supremely unlucky, it can result in more Total Party Kills. At best, it makes the game less predictable, increases the feeling of exploration and danger, and gives the players a sense that the world will not bend to their whims or forgive their weakness.

I doubt I'm doing anything more here than codifying for my own thought process a practice that gamers have been using for a long time, but I do believe I prefer it to the "challenges remain or adjust appropriate to level approach".

Anyone use this style of encounter planning? Anyone shy away from it or dislike it? Thoughts?

29 comments:

The Recursion King said...

I like it, its really how a campaign ought to be, imho.

Chgowiz said...

This is exactly how I saw West Marches, and how I've tried to set up my Dark Ages campaign. There are dragons (or troll-magi) in the backyard. I've just got to learn how to set up the warnings better. :D

Rick Krebs said...

Excellent approach. Seems to fit the often quoted "give the players enough rope...". And, you provided just enough info to be a warning and/or a tease.

Will said...

Definitely seems like a useful approach to me - it keeps open possibilities for the future without requiring too much from the DM and allowing the PCs to guide themselves a bit. I'm launching a new campaign tonight and will be using this method to sketch things out a bit.

Olman Feelyus said...

On the escapism level, what you've set up gives me such a good sense of being in another world. I simply enjoyed reading the first few paragraphs, not even realising you were putting forth a philosophy of gaming. It is, also a philosophy I agree with. Well done.

Zachary The First said...

Wow, thank you! That's one of the nicer compliments I've received from here. :)

Glad you enjoyed it!

Tacoma said...

It's beautiful. I will use this. Excellent idea to support the use of hex-based wilderness maps.

I'll avoid "stocking" every hex though, for the same reasons you want empty dungeon rooms.

Helmsman said...

See me and my group we take what you describe as business as usual, but we've also taken a different approach. If we came upon a dungeon we'd take a grave robber approach, taking etchings of any mystical symbols and even going so far as to remove marble or precious substances off the walls. Then we'd go back to someone who's rich and show them what we found, say it might be dangerous and get funding in exchange for a share in the endeavor. Hopefully our rich guy won't get pissed at us for defiling his sacred temple but then again... that could be fun too.

HinterWelt said...

This is the basis of my game design. It is all about "The threat is there, it is your decision to face it or not". I mean, if you have a rusty sword, a porter with one arm and mage that has a light spell and you decide the ancient Wyrm is easy pickings I will mention that your character know they have no chance in a head on attack but for all I know, you might have a super great play. To me, allowing this sort of action is primary to creating the feeling of a game world instead of a board game. If you provide challenge after challenge that the players know they will win, you inevitably end up creating a sense of "I can't lose". This defeats the purpose, IMO, of RPGs. Perhaps ironically, I feel Challenge Ratings take away the challenge in an RPG.

Also, a side point, I have always found challenge ratings problematic in that they tend to slot monsters. That is, I can take a group of kobolds and wipe the floor with high level characters. Why? Because they are intelligent creatures, social ones and tool users. That is incredibly more deadly than a lone predator animal.

Jonathan said...

maybe echoing what's already been said... but this is how I run things too. I basically map out a low resolution map that includes ranges of using a 3E mechanic) Encounter Levels for different areas.

i.e.

Hobbitsville (EL1 - 4), where the players start out sits on a river that splits the valley into The Forest of Somethingeruther (EL1 - 4) and the much more sinaster Woodpecker Peckerland (EL4 - 9). Within the woods are some ruins (EL5-6) and an old abandoned fort home to a vanguard of ghosts (EL15). Beyond the Woodpecker Woods, there lie some mountains (EL5 - 10), and beyong that a vast and dangerous plateau (EL12+). Meh... that's basically the idea.

randome encounter tables are made up for each area; which I refer back to either to roll or fudge a result that suites the game.

Chgowiz said...

"Woodpecker Peckerland". Best.Woods.Name.Evar.

Jonathan said...

Yep! and.. so long as you have a good helm and a sturdy set of um ... um... underpants, you should be safe from the vile Woodpecka Monster!

Randall said...

This is pretty much how I've always ran campaigns. There are all sorts of adventure possibilities out there. It's up to the players to interact with the world to gather information about them and decide what they want to do.

If they are first level and decide to go to the red dragon lair, then they are going to find a red dragon and if they stupidly attack it, probably get killed. The dragon's age, hit points, and abilities do not adjust for their low level. Conversely, if they are sixth level and come across a kobold patrol, then they have some 1/2 hit die creatures to interact with. If they want to fight them, they will be pushovers and have little treasure.

Rob Conley said...

I done it for years. The main trick is to remember that you are the only conduit of information about the setting.

Playing Live-Action Roleplaying for a number of years drove into me the importance of nonverbal clues and ambiance. A dangerous forest full of Orcs is going to have an impact on the surrounding communities. Showing up in what people do and talk about.

It still possible for a careless party to blunder into things. But unless the danger is trying to be hidden they should be clued in when they pass through the surrounding regions.

Kiashu said...

This is indeed the correct and proper way to GM.

Zachary The First said...

Huh. Looks like Blogger is eating some comments. Apologies to anyone affected.

Norman Harman said...

A year or so ago when I started DMing again I had great failure doing this style. I provided numerous clues & hints. Some were red herrings, some foreshadowed future possibilities, a few led to one of three adventures. The players were overwhelmed. They didn't know what to do. Thought they had to follow all them as any clue obviously had to tie into the one storypath I was leading them on.

It was very discouraging.

Maybe my DMing just sucked but I feel that it had more to do with differing expectations. Storypath vs Sandboxish mini-plot arcs.

Quim said...

Norman, I experienced the same disappointment with my playing group. We were playing Rifts with many possible plots, foreshadows and hints of other possible adventures (that's what I call Game dRIFTing style), but they sticked to the first plot the discarding all the others just because they perceived them as sideway-plots.

Alex Schroeder said...

This is how I like to run my sandbox games (I also run adventure paths).

In addition to what was said above, I use random encounters to inform the party. Dragons fly overhead. Owlbear feathers are found. I try hard to provide advance warning when faced with overpowering odds. I try to ambush my players if they ignore warnings or think it's going to be a cakewalk. Thus, I still try to adapt the danger of what they encounter.

To the last two posters: What I learnt while running Vault of Larin Karr is that my players don't like to keep track of more than seven leads. That's why I've made it a rule that the number of open plots, events, red herrings and what not should exceed seven.

Gleichman said...

My comment got eaten. Sniff.

Oh well, no big deal. I was just remarking that while it wasn't intended - this to me is a defining characteristic of what Old School means to me far more than what the rules are or aren't.

Zachary The First said...

@Gleichman: Sorry about your comment! A couple of mine were eaten, as well. :(

Not intended as a strictly old-school definition, but I'm terrified to hold up anything as old school--it's too nebulous for anything to be absolute. I will agree that it seems to be lacking as a default or encouraged style in newer RPGs--which is not the same as not

Going through Rules Cyclopedia D&D, Palladium Fantasy, then Rolemaster, that was just our assumed "shape of the world".

Roger said...

It needs to be said: this is just how World of Warcraft does it. Which is a compliment.

Jonathan said...

I just had to... couldn't help meself...

http://www.thecoremechanic.com/2009/06/face-of-new-school.html

Anonymous said...

This is how our GM is running his game. We have choices to make...we see the five goblins running away from us, they run into a bigger group. Five orges, and thirty more goblins hmmm...what to do? Fight, run, or negotiate. It does make it more exciting...gives us more choice of waht to do. Our game is not driven by the story but by us the players. No railroading in this game...the possiblity of TPK's are there and if we are stupid enough to let it happen then its our fault (not the GM or the stroy). I like it myself!!

Zachary The First said...

@Jonathan: You're a bad man. :)

Anonymous said...

This is how I have always run games, honestly I never knew of another way. I got into 2nd edition, then started making my own game and never got into 3rd (I had an amazing group who was willing to put up with weekly rules changes and overhauls for a few years until it settled).

This I always just built a world and the players were set free to cause havok or forge kingdoms or churches or merchant empires or what have you. And if they tried to rob the dragon at first level, or waste their time picking on goblin squatters at 10th, that was up to them.

Oz said...

This is how I set up my world. I prefer the organic approach and my players realize that just because they are fifth level it doesn't mean the rest of the world is stocked with level appropriate encounters.

Wickedmurph said...

Hmm, I'm still convinced that people who say that they don't like challenge ratings or monster levels are misunderstanding what they actually are.

Challenge ratings or monster levels are a rule-of-thumb reference to tell you how tough the monster is. That's it. How you use this reference is totally up to you. Some DM's tend to present mostly monsters in the level range of the PC's, but this is not, and has never been, a requirement.

However, all DMs, in all campaigns, have to present a range of monster and encounter difficulties. In a sandbox it's more tied to geography, but you have to, or players cannot gain experience.

Also, I'd be interested to know if sandbox GMs will create locations (evil temple for example, or lizardman lair) of generally similar-level creatures. Maybe in large complexed there are areas of higher and lower difficulty encounters, but there is still the need to put in a variety of monster difficulties.

I'm not sure how having a reference tool for this is a problem...

Rob Iannacone said...

It isn't a problem in the hands of a DM who knows what they're about - it's a mildly useful tool. But people who learn to use the system without a teacher often learn their style from modules and straight from the rulebooks, as opposed from to an experienced DM. tend to stick to the CR system very rigidly.

Modules started out being designed for tournaments. You wanted all the participants to be doing the same things, so they are usually fixed, linear adventures. This means that most encounters need to be scaled because the PCs will not always be able to avoid them.

I was lucky. I learned to run games from a DM who had run games for 15 years. However, a lot of people I knew learned to write adventures by imitating modules. And to make matters worse a lot of advice in the rulebooks about scaling encounters was pretty vague. You should scale them, but you shouldn't scale them all the way, and you definitely shouldn't scale them too little.

So you ended up with a lot of people playing the way they saw in adventure modules. And as more and more people self-learned from the rulebooks, or are taught by people who did, those ideas spread until they become accepted as common wisdom.

That's what the problem was: Not the system's existence, but its presentation.