Plots in a Sandbox
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  1. #1
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    Plots in a Sandbox

    ...and by "Plots" I mean goals that the NPCs have.

    I have some questions about this.

    1. Is it bad to have too many plots?

    2. How many plots should you have going on?

    3. Does the scale/scope of those plots make a difference?

    4. Should those plots sit in stasis until the PCs come along?

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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    ...and by "Plots" I mean goals that the NPCs have.

    I have some questions about this.
    All my answers go with the disclaimer of "in my opinion...your personal experiences can and will vary..."

    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    1. Is it bad to have too many plots?
    Depends. Do you mean "have too many plots planned in your head" or do you mean "have too many plots thrown at the PCs"
    (the first one is just referring to plans, the other is referring to actual implementation of any/all planned plots in to the game).

    If you have too many thrown at the PCs, you'll possibly overwhelm them.
    If you mean plots that you have planned, then, no, never too many. Because you never know (in a sandbox style) where the PCs will end up or what will interest them, so you need ideas in the back of your mind in case you're thrown for a creative curve-ball. And any ideas not used can be used for another campaign in some form or another...

    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    2. How many plots should you have going on?
    I generally find that players hit a mental limit after some point - they'll either not have interest or not have attention span to follow too many plots (part of this is that we play somewhat infrequently, so take that comment with that fact in mind). But I tend to find 1-2 "active" plots that the PCs (and players) are most interested in, with 2-3 "background plots" planted as seeds so that they can be ready to come in to focus when the PCs have resolved one current active plot and ready for another one.

    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    3. Does the scale/scope of those plots make a difference?
    Yes... smaller scale things are less consuming. Large scale plots end up with all sorts of smaller steps. you'll reach a point where the players/PCs will ignore other things in order to advance one plot over the other (in terms of time priority) - once you hit that saturation point, no matter how many 'cool plots you have' it'll be wasted since the players/pcs won't have the time to think them through.

    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    4. Should those plots sit in stasis until the PCs come along?
    personally -- i never put a plot in stasis until the pcs get involved; the world is evolving.
    the one caveat here is "is there even anything interesting if the plot does evolve" ? (ie someone becomes a more powerful threat than if they stopped it at its conception, or will there be a new ruler, etc) If the answer is no (i.e one gang leader vs another, and neither is any worse than the other), then i'd probably not even introduce the plot in the first place since its evolution has little to actually add to the dynamic setting and so the players action or inaction has no real effect.

    (i'm tired, so apologies if the above is a little incoherent)
    Last edited by fba827; Friday, 25th December, 2009 at 05:36 AM. Reason: spelling

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    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    All my answers go with the disclaimer of "in my opinion...your personal experiences can and will vary..."



    Depends. Do you mean "have too many plots planned in your head" or do you mean "have too many plots thrown at the PCs"
    (the first one is just referring to plans, the other is referring to actual implementation of any/all planned plots in to the game).

    If you have too many thrown at the PCs, you'll possibly overwhelm them.
    If you mean plots that you have planned, then, no, never too many. Because you never know (in a sandbox style) where the PCs will end up or what will interest them, so you need ideas in the back of your mind in case you're thrown for a creative curve-ball. And any ideas not used can be used for another campaign in some form or another...



    I generally find that players hit a mental limit after some point - they'll either not have interest or not have attention span to follow too many plots (part of this is that we play somewhat infrequently, so take that comment with that fact in mind). But I tend to find 1-2 "active" plots that the PCs (and players) are most interested in, with 2-3 "background plots" planted as seeds so that they can be ready to come in to focus when the PCs have resolved one current active plot and ready for another one.



    Yes... smaller scale things are less consuming. Large scale plots end up with all sorts of smaller steps. you'll reach a point where the players/PCs will ignore other things in order to advance one plot over the other (in terms of time priority) - once you hit that saturation point, no matter how many 'cool plots you have' it'll be wasted since the players/pcs won't have the time to think them through.



    personally -- i never put a plot in stasis until the pcs get involved; the world is evolving.
    the one caveat here is "is there even anything interesting if the plot does evolve" ? (ie someone becomes a more powerful threat than if they stopped it at its conception, or will there be a new ruler, etc) If the answer is no (i.e one gang leader vs another, and neither is any worse than the other), then i'd probably not even introduce the plot in the first place since its evolution has little to actually add to the dynamic setting and so the players action or inaction has no real effect.

    (i'm tired, so apologies if the above is a little incoherent)
    I run this type of campaign and I approve this message.

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    EW, can you go into more detail? You were one of the guys I was hoping to hear from.


    One of the things I mean by "too many plots" is something like, "These guys are going to END THE WORLD! and so are THESE GUYS! OMG!"

    I don't mind having players make hard choices (that's kind of the point), but I'm not sure how far I should take it.

    (I don't actually use "end the world" plots, but you get my point. Things that are really hard to avoid, and would change the campaign - question 3.)

    edit: Oh yeah, fba, thanks again for the reply, but I think you may be talking over my head. All that makes sense to me but I want to know the principles upon which you make those decisions! This sandbox stuff is kinda new to me.
    Last edited by LostSoul; Friday, 25th December, 2009 at 06:31 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    1. Is it bad to have too many plots?

    2. How many plots should you have going on?

    3. Does the scale/scope of those plots make a difference?

    4. Should those plots sit in stasis until the PCs come along?
    Of course there is no one answer to all of this.

    IMC, I like to set things up and plot what is going to happen in the game assuming the PCs do not show up or do not do anything about it. While the world will safely go by, things will get worse, especially for groups that the PCs are loyal to, or have an interest in.

    I think it is a problem to have too many plots, as that means tehre are too many groups, and that can make things too complicated. Now, I do not like overly political games, so if you do, you might wnat more groups. I generally like 4-5 groups, each of which is both allied to an opposed to others, as it can give the PCs weak points to exploit.

    As I said before, I don't like world-destroying plots, but then again, I like low-level games. Things get worse, but the world goes on. Things can be reversed even after the villians have "won"

    As for stasis, no, the plots should move on, but maybe not to fast, and the PCs should have several chances to stop of become aware of the plots, so they have lots of chances to stop things.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    ...and by "Plots" I mean goals that the NPCs have.

    I have some questions about this.

    1. Is it bad to have too many plots?

    2. How many plots should you have going on?

    3. Does the scale/scope of those plots make a difference?

    4. Should those plots sit in stasis until the PCs come along?
    1. You cannot have too many plots in a sandbox. Every schemer has at least one. I feel that the more threads you dangle in front of the pcs, the better.

    2. Tons.

    3. What do you mean by "make a difference"? I think it's best to have npcs' plots on a similar scale to the npc, e.g. the king's plots involve things on the scale of his (and neighboring) kingdoms, while the head of a city's thieves' guild should have plots involving the city, nearby trade routes, etc.

    4. Not at all- the whole idea of a sandbox is that the world is independent from the pcs and evolves regardless of what they are doing- which is not to say that the pcs shouldn't have an influence on the world! They should see the results of their actions or inaction vis-a-vis the various plots that they follow up on, as well as the ones that they ignore.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    ...and by "Plots" I mean goals that the NPCs have.

    I have some questions about this.

    1. Is it bad to have too many plots?

    2. How many plots should you have going on?

    3. Does the scale/scope of those plots make a difference?

    4. Should those plots sit in stasis until the PCs come along?
    I run a "semi-sandbox" campaign, in which I dangle leads, the PCs pick the one(s) that interest them, and the campaign focuses there for a while. Then more leads come up, and more choices are made. Once in a while an "old lead" is re-dangled...

    Having too many plots leads ME to get confused, if nothing else. I'm capable of forgetting what I was dangling, too. I usually try to present the PCs with 2-3 active and juicy alternatives at each point where they are wondering what to do. In other words, I opened my current campaign with the PCs wanting to join the Delver's Guild, but too broke to do so. They read a message board and found three leads; they could hunt rat tails in the sewers, follow up on a note asking for help locating a missing girl, or investigate the supposed sighting of a ghost at the Inn. They chose the missing girl. Rats in the sewers remains a viable adventure choice right up until now (and they actually almost did go there, once), but the ghost has dropped off their radar. I may bring it back later...

    I rarely have plots that advance MUCH while the PCs are distracted. This isn't because I think it's a bad idea, but I have only so much time to devote to the game. The rats in the sewers may get a bit more powerful as time goes by; maybe a sorcerer will join them and learn how to make dire rats, or the were-rats will start kidnapping people. But that's as far as I'll take that thread.

    On the other hand, the PCs may run into a bunch of other adventurers boasting about how they "solved" the ghost mystery, and got some cool treasure. Or not. Maybe in a few months when they return to the Inn, they'll hear about how the Innkeeper died of a heart attack upstairs last week; and everyone is blaming the ghost. Then the new owner arrives, and he's a louse. Was that heart attack really the ghost? Who knows? Until/unless the PCs investigate, there may be no answer.

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    I plan to a different approach that is close to the above.

    I am going to set up a list of plots that are based on two things. What level of power are the there. (i.e. city v.s. region) and What type of opposition they might have. (A powerful & lawful kingdom will have different plots then a chaotic region of barons will have.

    These only be brought up if the PC's are near the plot areas. I will make roles to see if an how far the plots advance if the PC might be affected but are not active in the plots.
    Last edited by Garmorn; Friday, 25th December, 2009 at 03:53 PM. Reason: clearup some bad typing

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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    EW, can you go into more detail? You were one of the guys I was hoping to hear from.


    One of the things I mean by "too many plots" is something like, "These guys are going to END THE WORLD! and so are THESE GUYS! OMG!"

    I don't mind having players make hard choices (that's kind of the point), but I'm not sure how far I should take it.

    (I don't actually use "end the world" plots, but you get my point. Things that are really hard to avoid, and would change the campaign - question 3.)

    edit: Oh yeah, fba, thanks again for the reply, but I think you may be talking over my head. All that makes sense to me but I want to know the principles upon which you make those decisions! This sandbox stuff is kinda new to me.
    Multiple plots existing gets a little bit tiring when they are all " ZOMG NPC X is going to take over the world" type affairs.

    Instead, I like to sprinkle some variety into the mix. Not every little scheme being planned and executed needs to be a bad thing for the campaign from the players perspective.

    For example, lets say you start the campaign in a valley with 3 small towns, and a couple of different dungeon type locations. These are separated by well travelled roads and some untamed woodlands. The first thing I would do is decide who or what is in charge of the different towns and what thier relationship is with the others. The dungeons might be controlled by an organized force or perhaps not. Think about any visitors to the region that might have big plans of thier own. One of the dungeons is controlled by an orc tribe and the other is a hiddeen long forgotten burial crypt. There may be a necromancer in one of the towns who has come looking for the crypt. Perhaps one of the town leaders knows about the crypt and settled here mainly to make sure it stayed hidden. An NPC in another town wants to get a logging operation going in the forest but his men won't go in because its supposed to be haunted.

    So far we have three plots in play:


    1) A necromancer wants access to a hidden crypt.
    2) A town mayor wants to keep said crypt from being discovered.
    3) A well to do merchant wants to operate a logging camp.

    The first two plots are not only connected, they are diametrically opposed. The third plot might have nothing to do with the other ones or it may be connected. Perhaps a logging operation in that area would result
    in the discovery of the crypt? Maybe the town mayor is running Scooby-doo operations to keep the locals out of the wood? What if the necromancer suspects this?

    Even 3 simple plots can be connected in a number of ways. These are not even fully developed yet because we haven't established motivations for them yet.

    The necromancer could be a decent fellow with a terrible secret. There could be a war coming and the spirits in the crypt could be good souls who are needed in the upcoming struggle. If the town mayor has no idea of this then he is simply doing what he thinks is right by protecting the sanctity of the dead.

    What about the orc tribe? What are thier plans? Why does this merchant want to set up operations in that particular area?

    Setting up situations for conflict, determining motivations for the powers involved and letting the players decide how they will get involved in things is the meat and potatoes of this kind of campaign.

    The scope of the plans and the stakes generally get larger as the campaign progresses. Making sure that the decisions made earlier in the campaign affect larger conflicts later on really help the players stay connected to campaign events. Once they know that thier actions will matter and stay relevant beyond a session or two they might start thinking more about thier options before deciding rashly on courses of action ( or not ).

    Ok then enough rambling.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    1. Is it bad to have too many plots?
    It is bad, if you can't remember them.

    2. How many plots should you have going on?
    As many as you desire, but as few as you can handle when running a game session.

    3. Does the scale/scope of those plots make a difference?
    Not really, not if they are actually just goals and plans made by NPCs. They aren't going to follow a predefined narrative arc, but they will enliven the world. Just make what you can handle.

    4. Should those plots sit in stasis until the PCs come along?
    IMO, yes, but not stasis per se (and not necessarily "along". Though this goes hand in hand with a particular kind of DMing: the world not affected by the PCs does not need to be accounted for after a session.

    In this method, a module should be in a state of equilibrium. This is not stasis, but an ongoing repetition of activity that won't lead to the alteration of the module. However, the module's timeline of events by the NPCs begins when the PCs enter it. But any changes the PCs cause that ripple into the module's area will affect the initial configuration. For example, if the PCs accidentally allow crops in a city to be burned, there will be a food shortage for all who depend on them. If the module is in that city, this will affect the food supplies for the NPCs in the module. The degree of relevance to the plot varies. Changes may affect the NPCs' plans and alter the initial timeline of events. But this is relatively easy to account for. It's just like incorporating a module to one's home system, but the changes tend to be far fewer.

    I wouldn't worry about having too many plots for the players to handle. That's a sign of a good sandbox game, no? One where they can take or leave anything as they wish. Did they ditch Bone Hill after after only killing a few bandits? Okay, then use your RPG rules to run the module forward with those changes taken into account. The timeline of events at the location can be reentered at any time. Given enough time a point of equilibrium will be reached and that scenario will remain for the PCs to encounter, if they ever come back.

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