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Game Masters: Shooting Your Own Campaign in the Foot

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This is one of those situations where I think it's very easy for people to talk past one another. Last time I ran a Vampire game we established what city it was located in, what factions the PCs belonged to, and the tenants each PC was expected to live by lest they be penalized. San Francisco, the entire Bay Area actually, was the sandbox I poured all my creative energy into. I created multiple NPCs, political factions, religious groups, humans, etc., etc. to build a rich campaign setting but the PCs were free to do whatever they wished. They could work to overthrow the Prince, switch factions, make friends, make enemies, and do whatever their little black hearts desired. They had free reign in the sandbox.

But if they decided things were too tough and abandoned San Francisco in favor of Seattle they would have effectively left the sandbox. I would be totally unprepared for such a thing to happen because I haven't outlined what's going on in Seattle. That's what going out the sandbox means to me.
I'm wondering if part of the confusion here is that you're using 'sandbox' to mean an open setting with more or less hard walls, where the term is more commonly used in gaming-speak to mean (or strongly imply) an open setting without any walls; where the players can if they like adopt an attitude of "where the map is blank, we'll go" and it's then up to the DM to deal with it.

In other words, in a true sandbox their dropping San Francisco for Seattle would be nothing more than another hittable curveball tossed your way.
 

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I'm wondering if part of the confusion here is that you're using 'sandbox' to mean an open setting with more or less hard walls, where the term is more commonly used in gaming-speak to mean (or strongly imply) an open setting without any walls; where the players can if they like adopt an attitude of "where the map is blank, we'll go" and it's then up to the DM to deal with it.

In other words, in a true sandbox their dropping San Francisco for Seattle would be nothing more than another hittable curveball tossed your way.

Reminds me of the last campaign I ran. We ran a session zero and decided on a campaign theme, location and the PCs the players were going to play. I had a general story outline in my head of how the campaign might go but nothing set in stone. I whipped up a quick first session adventure, introduced a MacGuffin, and just let the players have at it. After that I stopped writing adventures and just created brief outlines most of which were based more on the results of their actions rather than anything I had planned. Unfortunately the game broke up because of players work schedules, but it was really funny as the campaign ended up miles away figuratively and literally where we started. They got obsessed with infiltrating this warehouse that was initially nothing more than warehouse. As the game went on though I added it as a point of interest to be explored if they wanted to. I just set the stage and then let them do whatever they wanted and just reacted. One day a few weeks before the game broke up me and one of the players were talking about the game and he was asking me a bunch of questions about things that had happened, if they were supposed to do this, what would've happened if they had done this instead of that, etc and I said honestly I dont know we're all just making it up as we go along.
 


TreChriron

Explorer
I've been doing this for a bit, let me recollect;

1) I once had an enormous army of orcs with awesome flying barges setup to "encourage the PCs to go another way". Yes I was young. This was one of my first campaigns. The PCs kept marching forward. I captured them, and tortured them, and then they were demoralized and didn't engage my "escape the orc encampment" scenario. This is where I learned that a) players don't like characters to be tortured (duh) and b) you need SOME sand in your box so you can adjust to the players... Had I just not worried about the direction they were going and adapted I could have avoided my stupid-escalation.

2) Once, in a Vampire game, I tried to ambush the arrogant Tremere wandering around the ferry alone. The lone Gangrel struck but the Tremere won initiative and promptly used telekinesis to lift the G up, hang him upside down, and decapitate him. It was very anti-climatic. After that I just assumed his reputation got around and he could walk where ever he wanted. Alone even. That escalated the "power level" of the city way faster than I wanted.

3) I used the "damsel in distress to place an evil spy" stick way too many times. It got to the point where the PCs were murdering anyone too insistent.

4) I've had several games where I thought I was being all brilliant and the PCs solved the mystery in the first act and I had to scramble to adjust. I'm really starting to wonder how brilliant I really am... (as an aside, I'm currently running The Stygian Darkness AP for The Void RPG and the Plot Point thing they use is brilliant. I'm feeling pretty cheeky for the first time in a bit...).
 

Sounds actually pretty cool. I mean, THAT'S what freeform sandbox RP is all about, right?

I've never had anything like that happen as GM, but I'm exclusively playing premade published campaigns.
 

MGibster

Legend
Right, but this is a prep issue, and only exists where the GM is protecting their prep. Not a bad thing, mind, but it's not a feature or requirement of the game, but instead a requirement the GM has created. If protecting this prep is also what causes a GM to shoot their campaign in the foot, it's a GM caused issue.

Actually, it's a feature of the game. When you start a Vampire chronicle, you get all the players together and as a group you decide what kind of campaign is being run, the location, etc., etc., and the players build characters accordingly.

My point is that calling this issue of prep something like the "walls of the sandbox" is foisting off the responsibility.

I'm not sure what responsibility you think is being foisted off nor to whom.

My example of this is that I establish themes for a game that I'm running, and I want the game to focus on those themes. I get buy-in from my players on these themes, and leave room to explore other things they might bring with them, but abandoning those themes is not what I'd like in that campaign (perhaps another). I wouldn't call these the walls of the sandbox, though, because it removes my agency in establishing and enforcing them.

This is how I run my games as well and I would call them walls though I don't feel as though I've lost agency as a DM by doing so. You say potato and I say potato I guess.
 

MGibster

Legend
In other words, in a true sandbox their dropping San Francisco for Seattle would be nothing more than another hittable curveball tossed your way.

Grand Theft Auto III is considered a sandbox game in that the player can pretty much do whatever they want. They can't leave Liberty City but it's still a sandbox game. So I'm using sandbox in the same way video game developers have been using it for a number of years.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Actually, it's a feature of the game. When you start a Vampire chronicle, you get all the players together and as a group you decide what kind of campaign is being run, the location, etc., etc., and the players build characters accordingly.



I'm not sure what responsibility you think is being foisted off nor to whom.
To be direct, what you say in the first bit is the foisting. The heavy prep is something the GM does -- it's not a feature of the game. The GM chooses to limit things. This is fine, I've freely stated I limit my D&D games with themes, so it's pretty clear I don't think this is a bad thing. But, when it causes a problem, it's better to recognize that this is a decision of the GM, not a function of the game. It's not a "wall" of the sandbox, it's a choice the GM has made. By claiming that this is a feature of games, like a sandbox wall, the effect is to move the responsibility from the GM to a feature of the game. But, it's not actually a feature -- it's always a choice by the GM (at least in D&D games).


This is how I run my games as well and I would call them walls though I don't feel as though I've lost agency as a DM by doing so. You say potato and I say potato I guess.
As you noted above, this might be talking past each other. So long as "wall" is being used as a descriptive term of your choice as a GM and not as a presumed feature of the game, there's little daylight between us. I prefer to keep things more clear and state that it's my choice as a GM and not a wall, because that implies it's a feature of the game instead of my choice as GM. To me, claiming things are unavoidable features of the game when they're actually my choice is me disclaiming my agency -- I've made this choice, the consequences are mine, I own them.

To point back to the topic in the OP, your story is interesting. I think it's weird how we sometimes introduce options to destroy our own plans, as you did with the contract offer to the PC, but you let it play out. You followed what you thought should happen from that and it resulted in your prep eating itself. That's cool. I think it's important to point out that this was your choice entirely and not a necessity. It's only if you've decided your prep is immutable (a valid approach, btw, not knocking it) that this occurs. It's a choice of the GM. Still, this strikes me as a fun game, where you allow your players leeway to play and follow the consequences.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Grand Theft Auto III is considered a sandbox game in that the player can pretty much do whatever they want. They can't leave Liberty City but it's still a sandbox game. So I'm using sandbox in the same way video game developers have been using it for a number of years.
This is an excellent illumination of the limits of heavy prep! The designers of a video game must release a fully prepped world -- they cannot present new content based on the player's actions. Here, though, it's still very clear that the "walls" are the choices of the designers. Why can't you leave Liberty City? The designers made that choice. That they made it because there's only a finite amount that they can prep to the quality they desired within their budget isn't the point -- the issue is that this "wall" is a choice made by the designer of the game -- the GM. The results of this choice, say a player very frustrated they cannot go to a different city and not playing the game, are due to a choice the GM made. The responsibility for those choices is the GM's, not a feature of the game.

D&D doesn't have this issue unless the GM chooses it. So, if you're using "wall" as a euphamism for "choice the GM made", then great, we're copacetic. If you're instead saying that "walls" exist as limits on the GM's ability to present a game, then we're in disagreement. The GM chooses what limits to apply, even to themselves, and the responsibility lies with the GM alone.

Now, if a GM presents limits to the players and they agree to them, but then later try to buck the agreed limits, either the GM can modify the limits or the player is in the wrong according to the table agreement on what to play. To go to the video game metaphor, the GM can issue DLC or the player can deal with it.
 

I can't think of ever having this sort of thing happen. I've had more than one TPK, but I've never used a setting where the PCs could end the campaign through their actions. They have been barred, banned, and hunted in various portions of a given campaign world, but that's just how things play out. Power and nature abhor a vacuum, and things will adjust no matter what happens.
 

nevin

Adventurer
I let my oldest son play the monsters at a crucial point in our game. At the beginning of the gametThe pc’;s cornered the. Villain a two headed troll and rolled initiative. The entire table froze when my son went first. “I throw the horse at him”. Next combat round he picked up the horse and proceeded to beat the players with the horse as a club. They had him cornered and I thought death was certain. BUT he jumped off of the very high mountaintop , reminding me that trolls regenerate and being afraid of falling would be stupid. The Party never did get that troll He’s now a Mythic monster roaming those mountains. I had to pull an entire night’s adventure out of thin air. Completely screwed theat entire arc of the story up for the players. But it did shake me out of my “you are attacked by a troll” fog. It took a 7 year old to remind me that imagination is as important playing the npc’’s and monsters as it is when designing the adventures.
 

p_johnston

Explorer
So my group had what we refer to as "the iron flask incident."

So when I first started Gming one of my players asked me for a cursed magic sword at first level. I though this was a great idea and decided to give one to each character. The problem was that as a new GM I was very bad at balancing encounters, escpecially for level one characters. Fast forward a couple of party wipes (entirely my fault) and I'm starting to run out of ideas for magic items. So I give one of my players (we call him Lucky) a degraded iron flask that radiates powerful energy from the being within. Every single player at the table tells him "do not open the flask. DO NOT!" At the end of the session Lucky takes me aside and says "I want to go about 30 minutes into the woods and open the iron flask."

It is worth knowing that I did not know what was in the iron flask. I figured I'd have at least a few sessions before curiosity overcame common sense to figure it out. So after his announcment I just stare at him for about 10 seconds and describe how a Balor comes out of the flask and starts to monologue about "it is wonderful to finally be free so that I can wreak havoc on the world again MWAHAHAHAH!!" The session ended two hours late with two people retiring their characters, a third person wanted by every person in the country, and the capitol city in flaming ruins.

It worked out though. I ended up turning that Balor into a trapped demon prince and one of the main reaccuring villians of the campaign.
 

My worst is easy to remember, because not only did it destroy my campaign, but several friendships as well. TL;DR I introduced an NPC so divisive that it broke the players apart.

I ran a Legends of the Five Rings campaign that was my first attempt to go of canon, and I told my players this. The gist of the campaign is that the party is carrying/guarding a powerful katana that is magically bound to its bearer. The sword contains an oni (demon spirit) that's prophesied to be released and lay waste to the land. A different prophesy (unknown to the party) states that a kami (divine spirit) is bound to the crosspiece, and a powerful shugenja (mage-priests) from each element would work with the Final Swordbearer to awaken it, cleansing the sword and empowering the Final Swordbearer to be able to destroy the oni forever.

The problem occurred when I introduced the first elemental shugenja, an Air shugenja as cold as the mountain air. She was intended to give off a bad vibe to the party (she was evil, but not EVIL), but she was to be considered a necessary evil. She's the one who brought the prophesy about the oni, implying that she's going to help bring it about (since it was necessary to have the second prophesy occur). Everyone, especially the swordbearer of the time, was very worried about her, preparing for how to deal with her the next time she appeared.

She appeared again several months later, this time saving the party's life, and before the party could act, she summoned a magical bubble around her and the swordbearer. Within, silenced and hidden from the rest of the party, she explained the second prophesy and insisted that this information was not for outsiders (the party). She then vanished, ending the magical bubble. The party asked what had occurred (as we were away from the table), and he said that they were wrong about her, and that she believed in her. The party demanded more information, and the player refused to answer. Convinced he was enchanted, the subdued him, which ended the session. I thought that this was going to be a fun next session.

At the session, the players interrogated the swordbearer, who refused to answer any questions, claiming they had to trust him. Lacking information, and already terrified of the sword and shugenja, the party decided they couldn't allow them to meet again. The entire session afterwards was them planning on how to keep them apart, even considering a way to kill him without allowing a new bearer to be chosen. Since no action was being done, I just sat and listened, figuring out how to counteract their plans. The swordbearer was getting really upset, especially at two other players that were his really good friends, as they had the most radical and extreme ideas. No one was listening to each other, and the session ended badly.

The following week at our other game (we alternated between L5R and D&D), things were tense. I didn't understand, and talked with the DM afterwards. He was one of the three close friends, and all three had been fighting over the phone during the week. Apparently the swordbearer player wouldn't explain anything even out of character, falling back into the "it's not for mortals to know." I was shocked, totally expecting the player to give away the information under such real world duress. The start of the following session I ended the campaign. No one was having fun, and it was having real world consequences. I explained my goal, and everything that was going on. Everyone was furious at me, which I was fine with (better me than each other). I took a break from GMing for a while, but those three were never close again.

In hindsight, I should have introduced one of the other shugenja to give some context. Even if I hadn't, the session they planned I should have put a stop to it, explaining what was going on. The campaign might have been ruined, but at least I might have saved those friendships.
 


nevin

Adventurer
well gee a REAL GM would have made sure I couldn't touch the stove. OR at least spring for specific pizzas for each of us. I take a meat lovers with steak, green peppers, and chicken. (evil grin)
I disagree. Consequences set boundaries and generally right off the chaotic stupid players. If one of my players wants to stick his hand in Dragonfire his problem not mine.
 

TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
3) I used the "damsel in distress to place an evil spy" stick way too many times. It got to the point where the PCs were murdering anyone too insistent.
Ouch.

I put a sleepy six year old girl in a nightdress wandering one of the lower levels of a dungeon infested with demons. The PC's never trusted her. The demon shapechanged into a magic sword down the hall? They grabbed that immediately.

But the kid? They ran. :devilish:
 

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