Setting the Tone

Players, how would you feel if the GM opened a campaign with this speech?  You would be excited about being handed this level of control?  Would you be anxious?

The goal of that kind of speech is to empower player agency – to tell you that despite years of conditioning to the contrary, the players are gathered around the table in order to make the game happen.  The players are not there to be pawns that the GM manipulates into telling his or her preconceived story.  The game is yours to tell, so be active in the world.  Make the GM react to you.

I wonder how many players want this kind of game.  After all, with this player agency comes a shifting of responsibility.  Now it’s up to the player to do things – to do interesting things.  The game is going to be far more difficult this way.  It’s harder to play the game than it is to spectate.  Maybe this connects in with the difficulty mode of the game.  I can imagine that not everyone wants to be taking on that responsibility, and probably not all the time.

Keep in mind though that you’re not alone – you’ve got a group of players around the table.  It is your responsibility to help them to achieve their goals at the table, whether that’s to spectate, entertain, explore, role play, or move the pieces around in a tactical war game.  As a team, you don’t always have to be the one pushing the agenda, but if you’re not, don’t sit idly by.  Just like any other team activity, by paying attention to the details you can work to make your teammates better!

I think an essay belongs at the beginning of the Lost Worlds guidebook that explicitly gives the players this kind of agency in the game.  I want players to be inspired by the endless possibilities, and I want the people playing Lost Worlds to realize that as the players, they are the centerpieces of the game.  The GM is there to facilitate and officiate, to make it hard enough on the players for the game to be interesting,.

So, I may work on a similar speech to Alexis’ for the opening of Lost Worlds.  I’d like to invite any of the you reading this to suggest would you would like to hear from the GM when setting the tone for a new campaign.

10 thoughts on “Setting the Tone

  1. Andy

    Anytime I read about sandboxes it sounds great in theory. Wow, I can do anything and participate in any story?! I don’t think a full sandbox works well in

    1. Andy

      Errr iPhone post failure.

      I don’t think a full sandbox works well in practice.

      biggest issue is that it conflicts with the idea that the gm only has a certain amount of time to prepare. I’d much rather be “railroaded” along an adventure with world defining consequences and well developed npcs than spend an afternoon aimlessly wandering through the swamps. Or wandering around a town interviewing people the dm has had no time to prepare. In my mind this creates interactions with flat npcs with undefined motivation. I just don’t think it’s realistic for the dm to be able to adjust to “anything” the players want to do.

      It’s basically the difference in playing a game like elder scrolls vs playing dragon age. Dragon age railroads the pcs but I still think its the better game. Elder scrolls has unlimited npcs but they are all kind of the same. You can go anywhere in elder scrolls but eventually it is boring to explore yet another crypt for treasure with no other objective.

      I do think a balance between sandbox and railroading is nice. But if I have to choose one or the other, give me railroading.

      1. JackOfHearts Post author

        The real difficulty with this is names/voices/motivations of every person you might meet in town – so some of this would require me to improve as a GM, and be a bit more spot-ready with some pre-gen NPCs, and some on-the-fly creation of people. Of course it’s difficult if you walk into a crowded place and want to know what each person looks like, instead of maybe looking for “a target with a fat coinpouch” or something more generic. It’s like walking into a library and asking me “what books do I see on the shelves.” Then you pick a book and want to know what the chapters are, or what’s written there. At some point, I can only generate content on a high level, and the players need to work with me on that. I suppose I could turn the question around and ask “what are you looking for?” – or maybe I have more randomization tools at my disposal during the game.

        Even so, I should be able to generate some NPCs pretty quick if needed, and if we were playing more of a sandbox game, I’d focus my prep time on more tools that would allow me to generate content on the fly.

        That being said, I’d probably have some NPCs also causing some events that the party could choose to interact with, or that the NPCs could choose to impose on the party. The real question is, how much “story” can the players tolerate being made on the fly, as that robs them of a little bit of “exploring the game” legitimacy, since a portion of it is being made up on the spot to meet their needs. On the other hand, you don’t want to sit there and listen to cut-scenes strung together.

  2. wylliamjudd

    Absolutely! The most fun I’ve had playing role playing games are when everyone brings the most to the table. The players creates some amount of back story for their characters, and work with the Storyteller to reveal this back story to the players over time. The players create unique goals and ambitions for their characters that motivate their actions and inform their decisions. At the same time the storyteller creates an interesting setting, full of interesting characters with secrets of their own. The storyteller crafts a story structure for the players to play through, in which the players investigate strange goings on, uncover secrets, revealing plot twists, and posing ethical dilemmas. The players and the storyteller work in concert to flesh out the inner world of the characters. The players bring these motives and ambitions back around to the choices the Storyteller presents them with. Inevitably the choices are not binary, the players may surprise the Storyteller, and create a whole new story arc that none of the people participating saw coming. What a thrilling thing when this happens!

    Less fun, is a game in which the players sit down waiting to be entertained by the Dungeon Master.

    If you imagine that a sandbox RPG to be a game in which the DM is passive, then sure, that doesn’t sound fun. But it’s difficult to imagine a DM who puts in less than the players.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      It’s really a matter of player expectation. If the “story-teller” is making everything up (lets say, no prep and no random content generation) – then the game is kind of crap… it’s just GM fiat. If it’s all fiat ahead of time, at least the players feel like there is legitimate exploration involved. If it’s fiat during the game, it starts to lose the game-quality that we like and starts becoming a shared story-telling game. I bought one of those games once (“Once upon a Time”) and I’ll let you guess how many times our group has played it…

      So, the game needs to have some specific boundaries, or it’s too fluid and stops feeling like a game. At least some randomly generated content is needed, or at least content generated from outside the play group, or else there’s no way for the GM to be surprised, and the world around the players can never exceed or build creatively on the GM’s mind.

      Again, it’s a bit of a balancing act.

      1. wylliamjudd

        Honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I had to look up fiat on “It starts to lose the game-quality that we like and starts becoming a shared story-telling game.” I have no idea what you mean by that. I’ve never played “Once upon a Time” – isn’t a roleplaying game a shared story telling game by nature? The players are meant to tell the part of the story that comes from their characters’ agency, while the DM takes care of the rest of the story. I don’t think that an unprepared DM is what The Tao of D&D had in mind when writing that introduction.

        “This is for those DMs who are unhappy because they have to create hooks to get people interested, or paint road signs, or club their parties over the head to get them going.”

        I think that the trick to imagining characters on the fly is to know your setting. If you’ve already imagined your setting in great detail, you’ll have some characters you’ll want to introduce to your party all over your world – and many of them, the party will never meet. You might need to write down several names in advance, but the characters themselves should spring forth from the setting. Would would a street vendor be like in this world and what would they sell? Who would you find in a tavern, or a dark alley? These are questions you probably already know the answers to if you’ve imagined a rich setting before the players begin. Another trick is to give vague answers to vague questions. What does every single person in this marketplace look like? You know the answer to that! They are a wide variety, wearing many bright colors (because that’s how you’ve imagined this part of your world), and laughing loudly… or everyone is dirty and hasn’t showered in months; a gloom hangs over the market square, and even the vendors hawking their wares earnestly seem downtrodden. Like I said, you’ve already come up with the answer to this vague question, and you probably (you should) already have some specific characters made up in your setting, that you can introduce whenever you need to. “One man catches your attention…”

        I think that a DM who wants to run a 100% sandbox campaign needs to be especially prepared with their setting, and also skilled at generating combat encounters. My favorite role playing does have a central story, but there needs to be enough agency given to the players to discover that story within the context of their characters inner goals and strife. The DM should not be the only person sitting at the table telling a story. The players don’t need any control over the setting to take part in that.

        Just like I’ve never played “Once upon a Time” I’ve also never had the experience of a DM who wasn’t bursting with ideas, holding them back and just waiting for a player to explore something so he or she could share one.

  3. JackOfHearts Post author

    To some extent, a role-playing game is a shared story, but it’s not very fun if everyone at the table knows you only won because the GM LET you win. The players want to earn it with some objective rules. There’s a real difference between a GM saying “good idea, you win” and the GM using a rule system to determine that victory or defeat. If the GM is making everything up on the spot, then anything the players do, succeed at, find, loose, etc is, in the end, the whim of the GM.

    Don’t get me wrong, to some extent this is always the case. But if the challenges are set and balanced in advance, and the GM is honest about the design and sticks by it, then achieving victory over that challenge is going to feel a bit more “real,” at least to me. There’s a fine distinction that I’m having trouble articulating. I’ll think on this and try to write about it in the near future.

    1. wylliamjudd

      I feel like we’re talking about two completely different topics. Like you’re having a conversation about car engines, and I’m having one about restoration drama.

      I thought we were talking about player agency. I thought we were talking about a sandbox RPG, that gives players the freedom to explore and choose their own path through the game.

      Maybe it would help if you explain what you see as the alternative to this.

  4. Pingback: Player Agency | Lost Worlds

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