Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Anything Goes!

Me: . . . [I]f you sat down to play a game of, say, swashbuckling adventure, why did you create a character who desires neither swashbuckling nor adventure?

TheBigDice: What if I want to play a Jesuit priest? Someone completely genre-appropriate. But that doesn't own a sword, has never had any training in swinging from chandeliers and has no intentions of ever personally killing a man. Of course, he's got political acumen, contacts and social skills. He's a completely functional character for the setting. He just needs a reason to adventure, a push out of the door.

Me: Then he's
not genre-appropriate as a swashbuckling adventurer. He's suitable as a period-appropriate npc, not a player character.

TheBigDice: See, now we're getting somewhere. What you're actually saying is, in a swashbuckling adventure, everyone must play a swashbuckling adventurer, or the campaign isn't about what you as the GM wants it to be about. So we're not actually in a true sandbox here. It's probably got aspects in common with a sandbox, but given that you're saying no to a primarily social character in favour of action oriented ones, I wouldn't say that the "open world" ethos is really on the table. If you're unwilling to accommodate a character that talks his way out of situations rather than fights his way out of them, and aren't prepared to give what [Mike 'Old Geezer' Mornard] described as an unwilling adventurer the push the character needs, then are you really giving your players the freedom that a sandbox seems to demand?
There are things I don't write about because I know that can't do them justice.

I like forum discussions because they give me a chance to discuss games and gaming styles that I don't really understand, that are too far removed from my interests or experience for me to say anything I consider meaningful about them. While blogging as a medium works well for developing an idea, forums are a great place for asking questions.

I mention this because while I believe TheBigDice is sincere in his responses, I think the fact that he doesn't like sandbox game-worlds colors his interpretation of how they work in play, and in this instance I think it leads him to a pretty significant misapprehension.

Put simply, a sandbox game-world isn't the same thing as a kitchen-sink setting.

When I pitch my campaign, I believe I'm very clear about what it is and what it isn't: "Le Ballet de l'Acier – The Dance of Steel – is a swashbuckling adventure campaign set in 17th century France for the Flashing Blades roleplaying game. This is the age of D'Artagnan and Diego Alatriste, Gil de Berault and Percy Blakeney, Cyrano de Bergerac and the marquis de Bardelys, Lady Clarick de Winter and Madeleine de Maupin, an age of honor and intrigue, where a stout heart, a strong wrist, and cold steel could bring fortune or death."

In fact, I outlined the campaign premise before I settled on using Flashing Blades; one of the reasons I chose FB is that the chargen rules produce swashbuckling characters. It is a core conceit of the game. Sure, you can play a Jesuit priest if you like, but it's a game designed for you to play Aramis, not Fray Felipe, and that's one of the reasons I picked that particular game over the many other choices available to me.

The campaign I choose to run - the campaign I offer to interested players - is one of swashbuckling adventurers. It's a campaign which celebrates the genre; it doesn't attempt to deconstruct it. Within that core conceit, there is wide latitude. You can play a priest like Aramis, as noted above, or a courtier and saloniste in the mode of Francisco de Quevedo, or a doctor and surgeon in the style of Captain Blood or Doctor Livesey. You can play a character who is witty and attempts to use persuasion and guile to achieve his ends.

But if your first inclination on being invited to play in a game about swashbucklers is to make a character who is not a swashbuckler, then really, how engaged are you with the campaign?

A sandbox game-world isn't a featureless plain of sand. It has boundaries. It has conceits. And one of the referee's jobs is to sell those to his players, and one of the players' jobs is to accept them. There may be negotiation by all parties around those boundaries and conceits. Showing up with a character who ignores those conceits, however, and expecting the referee to acquiesce 'because SANDBOX!' reflects a fundamental lack of understanding about the way a sandbox game-world is prepared and run.

And if, as a general rule, you don't like something, you're probably not the best person to talk about how it's supposed to work.

27 comments:

  1. I've been invited to play "anything goes" campaigns, only to make a character I wanted to play and find out afterwards that the GM had a specific campaign idea in mind and that my character is unsuitable to play. I consider this the GMs fault for not making his expectations known.

    On the other hand, I've run games where I spelled out what kind of game it was, only to have players make wildly inappropriate characters and then get all in their feelings when I tell them that the character isn't really going to work out in the game.

    With all the recent discussions about player agency, I find it kind of apalling that some players have this idea that "player agency" and "sandbox" mean that the players can do whatever they want and the DM just sort of has to grin and bear it. I think players have responsibility to create characters that fit the campaign. The DM arguably does the most work of anyone at the table, and sometimes I read posts or forums that seem to imply that what he wants should come absolutely last in terms of priority, if what he wants is ever acknowledged at all.

    If I'm running a game of Deadlands, and you don't like horror or westerns or steampunk, please just sit my game out. Find another game about something you want to play, or wait until I run my next game.

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    1. I've found there are two different 'styles' of gaming group: the long-term gaming group who form the core of every campaign they play together, and the 'purpose-built' group who come together specifically to play in that particular campaign.

      In my experience, the dynamics of the first group require more negotiation between the referee and the players than the second group. With the second group, all of the players buy in right from the start, whereas the first group requires more salesmanship and compromise.

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  2. I'm fairly certain that at some point in the initial conversation it would have been perfectly appropriate to run him through with a couple of feet of cold steel.

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    1. LOL!

      TBD's not a bad guy at all, but sandboxes are not his thing, and so there're some assumptions he makes which are pretty far off the mark.

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  3. Talk about selective interpretations and misunderstandings. You could have a game entirely about swashbucklers, and you could have a game that allows for a Franciscan Monk, a Jesuit Priest, a Parisian Harlot and a cabin boy and both campaigns could be 100% sandbox. Th eponymous definition of sandbox....at least, in the CRPG world....is the GTA series, where you are specifically limited to one "class," that of the car thief (or some similar criminal) and no one disputes that that game defined sandbox for its genre. Sandbox isn't defined by what you play, its defined by what you can do.

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  4. My sympathies to you, sir. For my last campaign (3.x) I provided my players a hand out referencing specific sections of the Player's Handbook which were being modified. I dwelt in detail on the limited role of demi-humans in the classical fantasy setting, specifying how they lived in remote areas, far from the initial campaign local. However, as I didn't specifically ban them, six out of the initial seven characters were demi-humans. And these are people I've gamed with for over a decade. Lesson learned for me was - be blunt about my expectations and provide time to correct mis-apprehensions at the start of the initial session.

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    1. Setting expectations is such an important part of the 'social contract' at the table.

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  5. I've had to wrestle with the "push out the door" symptom myself in many games over many years. I think the most irksome is in D&D, when players who don't know me very well expect me to give them an excuse to be an adventurer.

    This gets down to the core assumptions games must make about their characters. For example: Every player will get along REASONABLY well and won't attack each other at the nearest opportunity. Something people who have played with me get to learn is the flat look I give when they ask me if they know something outside of their character's home knowledge. "Do I know where this town is?" is a common question, even when they are far from anything in their character's limited experience. The flat look is accompanied by "I don't know, do you?"

    This hands-off DIY style of GMing is part of the stuff that's gone out of vogue. If a player doesn't want to spend the effort coming up with a reasonable excuse as to why a Jesuit priest would be on the road and willing to kill (of which I can think of about a thousand right off the top of my head: he is a papal secret agent, he is a Jesuit spy, his monastic house was burned down by a man against whom he wants revenge, he saw a vision of Saint Ignatius telling him to go forth and seek fortune, etc.) then they certainly don't deserve to play the character.

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    1. With respect to the character TBD described, here's a question: what happens the first time he fails a skill check to talk someone out of running him through? Game over, at least for that character.

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    2. Such is the pain resultant in purposefully making something that doesn't fit—it'd be like declining to take weapon proficiencies in D&D. I would allow someone to do (I'm a farmer!) but then they would have the consequences to live with, which would be terrifying.

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    3. With respect to the character TBD described, here's a question: what happens the first time he fails a skill check to talk someone out of running him through? Game over, at least for that character.

      To be fair, the same could well be true of a more combat-focused character the first time they have a run of bad luck in a fight.

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    4. At least the martially-trained character has a fighting chance. A witty swashbuckler has both at his or her disposal.

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  6. Sandbox is a style of play, not a style of character creation. Characters that don't fit in the gameworld break it... which is no fun for the GM OR the other players.

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  7. I've had the experience many times of explaining the setting and its conceits and then having players
    present PC concepts wildly at odds with same. And then they get upset when I veto their character and ask for something in line with the campaign. Never undestood why someone applies to play a game he doesn't actually want to play. or why he would
    think I will alter everything to suit his fancy.

    Players who bring Punisher clones to Silver Age
    superhero games just can't be helped, it seems.



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    1. There's a balance to be struck between offering a game-world which permits a wide variety of character types and setting those sandbox boundaries.

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  8. I really would want to play that Jesuite priest, but you better believe I would supply him with a good and proper push out of the door myself. And because he has to face the realities of the game, he'd sooner or later (sooner, probably) acquire a sword and learn how to use it, with all the consequences that brings. It'd make for some great character development.
    If the GM still said no to the character idea, I'd think of something else. Neither of us is going to have fun if I insist on playing a character that doesn't fit at all into the setting.

    And I rather think that this just gave me my next 7th Sea character, I'm going to need one in a year or two and it's always good to have a spare.

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    1. When I was looking at different games for the campaign I wanted to run, this was definitely something I thought about, and this played into choosing FB over 7th Sea and Swashbuckler.

      There's nothing wrong with TBD's character, if the campaign is one which is meant to support it. Mine isn't.

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  9. What, you mean I can't bring my 32nd level grenade-launching mutant cyborg lich were-owlbear into your Flashing Blades campaign? What kind of "sandbox" are you running here anyway?

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    1. The funny thing is, I wouldn't have a problem with the grenade launcher.

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  10. A very thought-provoking post - I ended up writing a ton about it myself.

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    1. I enjoyed that, and thanks for the link back.

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  11. I do have a small amount of sympathy for TBD here, in that it while I think the whole "sandbox" angle is a massive red herring, it's often very easy to misunderstand the sort of game you're supposed to be getting into unless the GM gives some quite specific, quite dry details (like "I will expect you all to be specifically trained in fighting"). Short evocative descriptions can be a little misleading.

    For example, your pitch for Dance of Blades includes the line: "This is the age of D'Artagnan and Diego Alatriste, Gil de Berault and Percy Blakeney, Cyrano de Bergerac and the marquis de Bardelys, Lady Clarick de Winter and Madeleine de Maupin, an age of honor and intrigue, where a stout heart, a strong wrist, and cold steel could bring fortune or death". But if I'm reading you right at least some of those characters would actually *not* be suitable PCs (most notably Milady de Winter, who isn't really a swashbuckling adventurer at all).

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    1. Have you seen the Paul W.S. Anderson version of TTM? Milady is every bit as much a swashbuckler as 'the boys.'

      Remember, every player character in Flashing Blades is martially-trained. There is no ambiguity about who the adventurers are, and what they are meant to be capable of performing.

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