Playing Nicely In The Sandbox

Whether we’re talking about real-world politics or playing in an ongoing fantasy roleplaying campaign that uses an established shared setting (like the Realms or Golarion or Krynn), there are ways of “playing nice,” and there’s also behaviour that’s not considered nice. Breaking the rules, some call it.

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Running around smashing things is generally considered not nice, though it does tend to be what adventurers (your typical party of Player Characters in most games) do. But here and now, as my pen swirls and flourishes, I’m thinking more of the referees of said games, and their überplots and Big Events that hopefully happen in the background and spur player adventures—rather than happening directly above the heads of Player Characters, and letting things, ahem, fall where they may.

When working in the Realms, Jeff Grubb had a firm house rule of “Don’t Blow Up The Moon,” and most shared settings, from Hollywood to your own gaming table, have a formal or informal-but-understood rule of “Don’t Break Or Steal The Toys, And Put Them Back Where You Found Them.”

Or to put this more concretely, if Kronth The Second, Lion of Ulmaria, is King of Ulmaria when you start game play or storytelling, he’d better be King when you finish, unless you have permission from whoever’s running the IP to the contrary.

If you are the DM of your own campaign, or a writer penning your own fantasy epic, of course you have your own permission. But the thinking behind this rule should still bear on the situation: humankind thrives because of change, but individual humans hate change unless they hate their status quo more than the uncertainty change brings. And despite what you might hear to the contrary, most gamers are human, and so, hate change. They’ve gone to all the trouble to learn and understand about this or that imaginary setting and its weird rules of magic and religion and monsters with odd perilous powers, and they hate having nasty DM surprises sprung on them, that leave them feeling they don’t understand the setting all around them. Do you remember your first day at school, or in a new country, or at a new job, lost and wandering, with any great fondness?

Or to put this is everyday terms, dethrone Kronth only for a good storytelling reason, not merely to stir the pot or because you’re bored and want a big headline.

The downfall of a god or an empire or a Great Old One is certainly news, and is probably very exciting for those at Ground Zero while it’s happening (though I suspect most of them would use more colourful words than “very exciting”), but if it happens onstage becomes a hard act to follow, and if it happens onstage more than once has the nasty tendency to kick off an arms race that rushes hard and fast into hollow anticlimax and cheapening everything and the jumping of too-handy sharks.

What engenders awe today will all too easily become ho-hum humdrum tomorrow. Which is why precedents matter and are perilous. I recall grown-up scientists and sf writers weeping openly when a rocket with people aboard first successfully launched, soaring from Earth up into the heavens, because it was such a long-pursued dream for them. Children today are used to launches and intergalactic empires and space battles; for many of them, that particular awe is long gone.

But there is always a first time, for every one of us. Those first times are precious; don’t waste them. The first time that gamers around a table really know fear…or awe, or burst into applause together over some achievement that is shared but entirely imaginary.

And more than that: the first time they feel like they belong. That they are part of a fellowship, a band of brothers (sisters, sharers of the Secret Faith, or fellow tentacled things) that stand for a common cause and have endured hardships together and learned to rely on each other. That they have done something that matters. A feeling we tend to have all too rarely in the real world, and all too fleetingly—and worse, that fades into a sour regard of what we did now being ignored, or swept aside, or cheapened by something else that happened subsequently.

It’s all too easy, when telling tales, to go straight to the top. We look over the shoulder of the king, or the princess, or the villain who’s about to murder both of them. Royalty is where power resides in our typical imagined quasi-medieval kingdom. We want to be there, where things happen that matter. And Hollywood and our television screens have taught us that will be there, that we will see for ourselves those key moments when important things happen, or are said, or are revealed.

So we expect to be on the spot when we’re reading fiction, or sitting at a gaming table. We feel cheated when a DM has things happen offstage, or last night when we were busy doing something else exciting. If we, the Company of the Bright Bold Blades, are sent by the dying King Ravilonadar to wrest the fabled glowing, floating magical gem known as the Heart of the Dragon from the Dread Dungeon of the Wyrm Undying because its touch will restore him to health, and we battle the dragon from beyond the grave and a lot of other nasty critters to bring the Heart forth and rush it to the king, we’re going to feel profoundly cheated if the DM smilingly informs us old Ravilonadar coughed and died as we were riding up to the Castle. Things aren’t supposed to happen that way!

Now, if the DM informs us the evil Vizier saw us from the battlements and rushed to stab the king with a poisoned dagger before we could get there, that’s different. We can turn our “We wuz robbed!” into fury and get after the Vizier with a vengeance.

And if we have a really good DM, we’ll be standing in the chaos of a kingdom that has boiled up into the open dagger-wielding strife of many competing factions all wanting their own stooge on the throne, and the Vizier trying to frame us for Ravilonadar’s murder, and foul magic is at work down in the dungeons beneath us as cultists summon and release eldritch, squamous tentacled horrors to feed on the courtiers and terrorize the populace, and a rival kingdom is about to invade, and we are indeed right there, on the spot, as things happen that matter.

But you wouldn’t want all of this to happen every Thursday, would you?
 
Ed Greenwood

Comments

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
This article really resonates with me. The right group of players enjoy a big vibrant world where important things are happening but most players hate it. If it doesn't affect or involve the players, or if they can't effect it, it turns to noise or distraction.

The Adventures in Middle Earth (new and old versions) games have a lot of events that occur outside of players control. The idea is you can only fix one thing among many and that the world is a big and darkening place. After awhile we got inured to it as players and start shrugging off what we can't influence... just like in real life.

YMMV of course. My dream group of players (past and present) would revel in this for years, but they're spread across the planet now.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
"At the end of the episode, everything is right back to normal".

If the metaplot or continuity is frozen, then the setting may become boring. One of the flaws of Dragonlance as TTRPG is the main timeline only can be altered by the heroes of the lance, and the PCs only could change some little details.

My solution? Time Spheres, practically the D&D version of Marvel What if? or DC elseworlds. Uchronies or parallele earths where some facts may different, or totally different. Even I have suggested some times in previous posts about a new transitional setting based in the 2nd Ed. AD&D sourcebook the Chronomancer (and now I start to hum/sing to myself the soundtrack of Doctor Who).

And there is a serious reasons the continity to be changed by the DM, and it is to can cause surprise for all players who have read all the fandom wiki and they know the lore/background too well.
 

Marandahir

Explorer
"At the end of the episode, everything is right back to normal".

If the metaplot or continuity is frozen, then the setting may become boring. One of the flaws of Dragonlance as TTRPG is the main timeline only can be altered by the heroes of the lance, and the PCs only could change some little details.

My solution? Time Spheres, practically the D&D version of Marvel What if? or DC elseworlds. Uchronies or parallele earths where some facts may different, or totally different. Even I have suggested some times in previous posts about a new transitional setting based in the 2nd Ed. AD&D sourcebook the Chronomancer (and now I start to hum/sing to myself the soundtrack of Doctor Who).

And there is a serious reasons the continity to be changed by the DM, and it is to can cause surprise for all players who have read all the fandom wiki and they know the lore/background too well.
Alternative: some campaigns, like Dark Sun and Eberron, and yes, even Forgotten Realms, have had different play periods. Your game and my game don't advance the world's plot, they advance their own fork of that world from the starting point. Make the world your own. Build in advice for players of different time periods, but otherwise, just use the world the way you want it.

If you're Roleplaying you don't need to update your game when a Spellplague hits or when a city-state and it's Sorcerer-King are overthrown. You can, but you don't need to.

Unless you're playing formalized Adventure League play of course. There's upsides and downsides to the AL.

I always appreciate these sorts of discussions and articles straight from the world creator's mouths (or pens). Mad respect for Ed Greenwood, Keith Baker, Tim Brown & Troy Denning, etc. It's so nice to be able to play in your sandboxes. Thanks, Ed. :)
 

Ringtail

World Traveller
I love the bit about player's hating change. It is why Campaign Settings with a meta-plot are so often poorly received by players. I think its a great reason why 4e Forgotten Realms was so contentious. Sure as a DM you could ignore the Spellplague but I think as much as gamers hate change they also have an obsession with "canon" or the "official version."

I think its a big reason why I like Eberron so much. (Not implying I don't love the Forgotten Realms Ed they will always be special to me.) Despite being released for three editions, the start year of Eberron is always the same and there are no changes to the steady state world. I can run three campaigns, blow-up the world six times over and then go back to the beginning. Like an alternate reality or whatever.

It took me awhile to get to that point with the Forgotten Realms. To flagrantly ignore the "canon" and make it my own. These days any FR campaigns I run start in the year 1350 DR, which I believe is 2 years prior to the 1st FR Box Set. But this allows me to pick and choose the things I like from any edition of the Realms and not worry about continuity. I make my own continuity.
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
(snip) It took me awhile to get to that point with the Forgotten Realms. To flagrantly ignore the "canon" and make it my own. These days any FR campaigns I run start in the year 1350 DR, which I believe is 2 years prior to the 1st FR Box Set. But this allows me to pick and choose the things I like from any edition of the Realms and not worry about continuity. I make my own continuity.
That's one of the reasons I really like the 4E version of the Realms.

Plus, if the majority hate it, it must have some redeeming features. (Other than the map. That was garbage.)
 

Ringtail

World Traveller
That's one of the reasons I really like the 4E version of the Realms.

Plus, if the majority hate it, it must have some redeeming features. (Other than the map. That was garbage.)
I believe that was the intention in changing things up for 4e. By that time there was already a large glut of material and many people found it intimidating to get into the setting. The idea was with the reset you could ignore the history and start fresh. I don't really think it worked though as it just seemed to alienate the old hands. I also think the 4e Campaign Guide just wasn't detailed enough to be useful. The Neverwinter campaign Guide is a much better product.

Frankly, kneejerk reactions aside the Realms was mostly the same. These days I'm more frustrated by the ret-con as it seems lazy to me and leaves gaping historical plotholes.
 

the Jester

Legend
I love the bit about player's hating change. It is why Campaign Settings with a meta-plot are so often poorly received by players.
As a DM, I love change over time. The issue with metaplot is that the changes in the official stuff keep happening and altering the world in ways that don't match up with how the world has changed in my campaign.

By the time the Greyhawk Wars boxed set came out, my Greyhawk campaign was already some years past the boxed set, and none of those events had happened; in fact, the events of my campaign made the GW material absolutely incompatible.

It's not a hate of change so much as metaplot being a heavy-handed imposition from above. My campaign is mine. It doesn't run on the same track that the official timeline is on. And the more significant the metaplot, the more difficult it becomes to ignore its influence on future products about that world.

Imagine if you ran a 1e Forgotten Realms game and had no interest whatsoever in the events of the Avatar series. You just want to keep running FR stuff with Myrkhul and Bhaal and Bane as living deities. You don't want to see the deaths of those other gods who were wiped away. And now, due to the strong influence of the Avatar stuff, every Realms product printed in the future is almost useless to you.
 

Longspeak

Explorer
This is what happened to me trying to run World of Darkness games.

"So... uhh... guys.... we've been playing for years and your magi have really influenced the world. The technocracy has been compromised, the nephandi kept at bay, and if ever there was an age where the ascension of mankind was at hand, it's now..."

"....except now something called the Avatar Storm has ripped the world apart, killed all of your allies, destroyed the traditions, and left mankind limping and more shortsighted than when you star--- wait, why are you all quitting and leaving??????"

Now, I didn't do that... but that's how it would have played out if I'd kept using the White Wolf material.
 

Variss

Explorer
I don't think I have ever read a gaming article that I have so thoroughly disagreed with more.

Don't get me wrong, from the point of view of the originator of an IP sold to the public, I understand that motivation. But from a local table perspective it is almost entirely unrewarding, bordering on disenfranchising. The local game is absolutely paramount. Your table full of players are the only real sentient beings that need to be a point of concern. If your story doesn't engage them with the lasting consequences, good and bad, of their actions, then they are no more than set dressing for someone else's play. To give more consideration for a hollow, and often stereotypical NPC over the interests of your living, breathing players, is tone deaf.

Yes, that means you as a DM may have to write around the next book release where yet another shallow NPC changes the course of reality by fiat. But if it means John, and his years long plan to convert Thessia to the worship of Krogan Thresher Maws, comes to fruition, so be it.
 
The local game is absolutely paramount. Your table full of players are the only real sentient beings that need to be a point of concern. If your story doesn't engage them with the lasting consequences, good and bad, of their actions, then they are no more than set dressing for someone else's play.
This. I read the article thinking who am I to disagree with such a prominent figure in the roleplaying community, but I totally disagree with some of the arguments. I think story and character are paramount, not some dedication to a setting. If I want to blow up the Realms at the start or middle of a campaign and see how the characters contend and everyone is on board, then that’s what I’m going to do. Our game is all that matters and if we’re enjoying it, I don’t care about canon or how a setting is “supposed” to be played. I feel the majority of players just want a good story where their characters take center stage and haven’t read 50 novels and 20 supplements telling them what the “real” Realms is all about.

I also disagree that players and audiences don’t like change. Some of the most popular shows these days are serials where things develop from episode to episode. See Breaking Bad and Westworld. I do the same things in campaigns. Shake ups are necessary to avoid sterility.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I am a bit amused by this. You see, I was in a Forgotten Realms campaign back in AD&D 2nd days and we got ... unhappily adjusted ... on multiple occasions because the FR was still getting fleshed out with new publications and the DM was a stickler for the official continuity. We could change it in play, but unless it was changed in play, official continuity was true.

We had one character who had her background tied to a historic event (in the Moonsheas?) that got an updated date on when it happened and she aged from late 20s to early 50s. We were eventually able to get her some potions of longevity to "cure" this.

We had an Ogre Nation plopped down in the middle of previously under-described areas that through off a lot of what the parties had been doing.

Myth Drannor, our favorite high level adventuring spot, metamorphosed more than once, including IIRC suddenly having been cleared and repopulated by elves years before.

I understand the DM didn't need to incorporate these updates, but he did.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I don't think I have ever read a gaming article that I have so thoroughly disagreed with more.

Don't get me wrong, from the point of view of the originator of an IP sold to the public, I understand that motivation. But from a local table perspective it is almost entirely unrewarding, bordering on disenfranchising. The local game is absolutely paramount. Your table full of players are the only real sentient beings that need to be a point of concern. If your story doesn't engage them with the lasting consequences, good and bad, of their actions, then they are no more than set dressing for someone else's play. To give more consideration for a hollow, and often stereotypical NPC over the interests of your living, breathing players, is tone deaf.
You're getting a very different read from this article than I am.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
As far as I'm concerned, my table, my world. If my PCs decide Elminster Must Die, or they're going to conquer an empire and turn the Sea of Fallen Stars into their personal lake, well, that's what goes down, and that's now "canon" at my table.

(Of course, I don't run Realms. I run Midgard - and as Wolfgang Baur writes at the beginning of the Worldbook, "we hope you make this world your own". And that's how I'm gonna do it.)
 

bulletmeat

Explorer
Page 6 of the Player's Handbook has the sentence, "Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and its setting, even if the setting is a published world." So I think we are ok there.

This article seems little more like don't break the kingdom or save the world every adventure otherwise it becomes old news. A better version of the above scenario may be King Ravilonadar's knights went out for the Hearth of the Dragon to save him but he was killed before they returned. As the knights & remaining noble family tries to fight off the others vying for the throne the PCs must a)find the culprit and b)fight the monsterous bosses, legions, and deities that follow him/her/they. That can be a full campaign right there.
 

Monayuris

Explorer
Meh, if you can't deal with your players upending your campaign, why are you running it in the first place?

The players come first. They are more important than your cannon or your precious NPCs.

If your players can't or are discouraged from completely destroying your campaign then you are failing as a DM.
 

Coroc

Hero
I am a bit amused by this. You see, I was in a Forgotten Realms campaign back in AD&D 2nd days and we got ... unhappily adjusted ... on multiple occasions because the FR was still getting fleshed out with new publications and the DM was a stickler for the official continuity. We could change it in play, but unless it was changed in play, official continuity was true.

We had one character who had her background tied to a historic event (in the Moonsheas?) that got an updated date on when it happened and she aged from late 20s to early 50s. We were eventually able to get her some potions of longevity to "cure" this.

We had an Ogre Nation plopped down in the middle of previously under-described areas that through off a lot of what the parties had been doing.

Myth Drannor, our favorite high level adventuring spot, metamorphosed more than once, including IIRC suddenly having been cleared and repopulated by elves years before.

I understand the DM didn't need to incorporate these updates, but he did.
Dam, that is very bad metagaming and a very bad DM. I would not have enjoyed this. Was he the only DM around or did he have other qualities?

What people do not get is that canon can only apply to the past, if you want your campaign to be based on official canon. Eberron canon is a very good solution, there you got your baseline, it never changes, everything before is cast.

You can do the same with all other campaigns, but, the starting point in real time of your campaign means that every canon book coming in later will only be used, if the players did not explore that area yet.
 

SharonParis

Villager
Despite the freedom of a dungeon sandbox, most D&D players craved story and deeper motivations. The D&D game changed to provide. When Tracy and Laura Hickman penned a series of classic modules including Ravenloft and the Desert of Desolation trilogy, they led the change. Their introduction to a self-published version of Pharoah gives D&D adventures four, new requirements:


  1. A player objective more worthwhile than pillaging and killing.
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself.
  3. Dungeons with some sort of architectural sense.
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions of playing time.

When characters explore Castle Ravenloft, they quest for more than loot. They aim to free the land from the menace of Lord Strahd. Adopting the goal of a story takes a measure of freedom from players. Now the their options narrow to the choices that lead to the magic items that will help defeat Strahd. Few players mind. They see clear options that take them closer to achieving their characters’ aims. As the adventure progresses, the players’ paths narrow to a railroad that leads to a final confrontation.


Of course, at any time, the characters could leave the railroad and open a tavern in Barovia, but that never happens. Partly because D&D players like doing D&D things such as smiting evil and winning treasure. Partly because players follow D&D’s social contract by honoring the DM’s preparation. Mostly because players enjoy stories in D&D and they willingly abandon the freedom of a sandbox to foster them.

Thanks & Regards
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Sorry Mr. Greenwood, but Elminster died years ago along with Drizzt in my campaign. In my alternate version of the Realms, the world is scared with the actions of player characters, in my opinion, if the PC's cannot effect change in their world, then we might as well stop playing and just wait for your next book to arrive at Barnes and Noble.
 

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