Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Thing With the Guy In the Place

Look, we all go way back and I owe you, from the thing with the guy in the place, and I'll never forget it. - Reuben, Ocean's Eleven
My approach to creating and running a sandbox means putting lots of balls in the air at once. I've used the traditional dungeon and megadungeon as analogs for the social relationships, factions, and intrigues which provide the focal point for action in my campaign, and like a vast labyrinth of corridors, rooms, tunnels, and caverns, the intricacy of those complex relationships et al. becomes apparent the more the adventurers explore. Keeping it all straight requires some real effort on my side of the screen.

So, what about the players?

In a dungeon crawl, the players and their characters are likely working from an actual map, created as they explore; it is more-or-less - hopefully more! - a representation of what the referee sees on his side of the screen. Virtually every map I recall was covered with annotations, descriptions of monsters and traps and treasure left behind, names of characters, records of battles lost and won. The map which we produced in play was our record not only of the physical space but of events and interactions as well. But our campaign doesn't generate a physical location map of the sort with which dungeon explorers are accustomed, so that's meant looking for other ways to keep them up to speed.

First, our adventure logs provide a record of the events of the game. The wiki format allows me to link to the pages of characters the adventurers meet and locations they visit, immediately cross-referencing 'the guy' and 'the place' with 'the thing.' We've referenced the logs a few times during play, when memories around the table proved hazy. The adventure logs are composed from the notes I keep as we play, and they are checked by the players to make sure I didn't miss anything important to them.

I also use ability checks - roll under Wit on 1D20, usually - as a means of a determining something a character might know about the setting, or to recall a detail that the player is struggling to remember. The characters in my campaign aren't explorers in a post-apocalyptic wasteland - much is known and knowable to their characters without the need for first-hand discovery, so giving the players a roll to determined if their character knows a fact, based on background, skills, or career, is a reasonable way to represent the depth and breadth of their of their characters' experience.

Finally, I tried to build a relationship map for all of the non-player characters of the game-world, but neither writing it out by hand nor using any of the different software programs at my disposal was feasible - there are simply too many relationships for me to manage graphically, and it's not really all that helpful compared to the other options that the wiki provides for managing the many connections between characters. A relationship map is, on the other hand, perfectly feasible to produce specifically for the player characters, to diagram the relationships which they've created in the course of their adventures. I'm using Dia to produce this relationship map. The first draft simply shows the people with whom they've interacted so far, but I'm working on a second draft which includes organisations and places as well, which is proving a bit more of a challenge to create visually than I'd hoped - when it's done, I hope to be able to present them with a 'map' of the 'social dungeon' they've been exploring.

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating.
    Am I correctly inferring that the players at least need to be engaged in actively remembering the places they've been and the people they've met?

    I reflect back on the maps I've drawn in play...almost none of them are annotated. Most of the players I know now don't bother to map. "Too tedious" or "lame" or "I play CRPGs because the map takes care of itself" are the all-too-frequent whines I encounter now. But even 20-odd years ago no one bothered to map much. It wasn't a skill cultivated in most of the games in which I played or ran in the mid-1990s.

    By extension, I found during my brief, abortive foray into running FB that none of my players, even the ones who were "actively engaged" were able to keep people or places organized. And there was definitely a sense around the table that a few players resented me complicating the fun with expecting them to remember stuff. Same issues have cropped up in other games that group has played, so I don't think it's a problem unique to me or FB.

    I need to experiment with being more engaged as a player, I think. Although I'll also note that most of the settings and adventures I've been on in 20-odd years of gaming have been so simplistic or dull that there was no benefit to paying attention. Le Ballet fascinates me because it seems the antithesis of so much of my immediate gaming experience.

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    1. "Am I correctly inferring that the players at least need to be engaged in actively remembering the places they've been and the people they've met?"

      It's certainly to their advantage to do so, and part of my goal is to make that easier for them through information management, like the adventure logs and the relationship map.

      The players are the masters of their characters' fate, so keeping track of the events of the game is kinda important for them, in order to make informed choices.

      "And there was definitely a sense around the table that a few players resented me complicating the fun with expecting them to remember stuff."

      Wow, that's just . . . so different from the way I play or run games.

      "[M]ost of the settings and adventures I've been on in 20-odd years of gaming have been so simplistic or dull that there was no benefit to paying attention. Le Ballet fascinates me because it seems the antithesis of so much of my immediate gaming experience."

      Thanks, Chris - I really appreciate that.

      There can be any number of reasons why players aren't engaged, but my gut feeling is that decades of roleplaying games and modules/adventures conditioned gamers to expect the referee to create a story and the players to play through it. This is one of the reasons I'm pretty outspoken and persistent in advocating for a looser, more sandbox style of play.

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  2. Would you care to share one of the relationship charts you created? I tried and spectacularly failed to created one for the Shadowrun campaign I'm playing in - way too many NPCs. But a chart for a single PC, that might work.

    Since I'm the designated record keeper for all of my RPG rounds, I've gotten pretty good at remembering stuff, but I'm always glad when the GM comes up with a method to jog a character's memory. My character hasn't access to my notes and may just forget things or misremember them, after all.

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    1. I'll post it as soon as I finish mucking about with it. It looked pretty good with just the npcs on it, then I decided to add places and organizations, and now it's something of a mess. I'll try to clean it up this weekend.

      I ran into the same problem with my list of npcs - way too many people, way too many connections. Keeping it to just the npcs the players know is manageable.

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  3. Interesting post, Mike.

    I've been experimenting with Visio (similar to Dia) for making relationship maps. I'm creating a massive relationship map for all of the NPCs in my campaign. It is definitely getting rather byzantine and messy, but I find it's still a useful adjunct to my fuller notes. For one thing, I have taken a cue from your Social Megadungeon posts and structured the Visio map into social "levels" (using different color-coded diagram containers -- royals at the top, aristocrats below them, outlaws at the bottom, etc.)

    I too would like to take a peek at one of your relationship charts.

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    1. I really tried to do all of the characters, player and non-, but I found that the wiki made it a bit superfluous for my needs - that'll be a future post, on information management.

      I'll post the map I'm constructing for the players soon - any chance we could get a peek at yours?

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