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In sandbox, blunt instruments can be subtle

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
In one of the sandbox topics, Tigerbunny said this of a one of his GM's trying to run sandbox:

The guy in question is (a) scarily brilliant, (b) an engineer (with all the stereotypical blindness to human frailty), (c) someone who really, really enjoys complex competitive games involving hidden information.

He was giving us what he would have enjoyed. A lot of us have that flaw as GMs.
I realized that I was once in danger of being that kind of GM. I managed to avoid it only because I knew my players were pretty clever. So if they were having trouble following what was going on, it wasn't merely a problem with them. But it took me a long time to figure out the real issue. For awhile, I thought it was because my complex, hidden information games were too complex, too hidden--too obscure and subtle. But I doggedly refused to believe that, and eventually came up with the real answer:

"Subtle" is accomplished by different means in sandbox play (and perhaps wider roleplaying), than in books, films, etc. Moreover, things that are blunt instruments in other media can be perfectly subtle in roleplaying. It's like loud voices and overdone makeup on the stage. And over-the-top drama--aka melodrama--can be one of these subtle things.

Feel free to add your own ideas of normally blunt things that can be subtle. I'll follow up with how I use melodrama in a subtle manner in my campaigns.
 

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
Using melodrama as a subtle instrument (excuse the length of the topic while I set up the problem):

In a book or film, if you want a character to come across as subtle, they say subtle things. The words are ambiguous, but not obviously so. The tone is just so. The words play off of what was said before, and probably what comes after. In real life, you might do this sometimes yourself, especially when tact is definitely called for. I've found, however, that I'm not very good at playing that in an NPC. Or perhaps the roleplaying medium itself (immediate, acting, improvisational, etc.) makes it inherently difficult. It's very easy, in fact, to stray from "subtle" into "obscure" and from there into "incomprehensible".

Worse, even if you are consistent, your audience is not hearing consistently. And if you are trying to be subtle, the little errors that creep in have that multiplicative effect that strings of little errors often have--only now, it's a real problem. So you end up with scenes like this:

GM (as old gossip woman) converses with PCs. GM thinks that he has established that Frederik is a cad that deserves a sound whipping, Jose is a possible crime boss who merits some attention, and Marie is a fair maiden oppresed by both.

GM: So what do you do?
Player 1: Let's track down Marie.
GM: OK.
Player 2: Yeah, she is up to no good, it's plain.
GM: Say what?
Players: We get her locked up in the dungeon using these writs, she'll talk eventually.
GM: :confused::eek::(:mad:

The problem is the GM doesn't want the old gossip to be the one and only hook that gets the players started down the obvious routes. This is sandbox play, and even if it weren't, we want to be more subtle than that. So the GM wants the old gossip to be subtle, and that is almost impossible.

What I found works better is to always use many different NPCs, play them as melodramatic as they possible merit, and have each one be about as subtle as a sledge hammer to the head. However, no two NPCs have exactly the same story, and some of them contradict each other. Sometimes, the contradictions are subtle. Sometimes, the NPCs are met many sessions apart, and this adds some interesting texture that can be subtle. Mix in some other sources of information (notes, diaries, PCs eavesdrop, circumstantial clues, etc.), and the results can be quite subtle.

You can even get to the point where you have not done a single subtle portrayal yet, and half the party is convinced that Marie deserves their help as a simply innocent bystander and the other half suspects she is up to her eyeballs in some nefarious intrigue--whether as a willing accomplice, dupe, blackmailed, or intimidated victim, they aren't sure.

This tends to avoid the problems that Tigerbunny mentioned, while still allowing for a very complex, subtle game. :)
 
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Tigerbunny

Registered User
Validated User
Yeah, that's definitely the way to go - subtlety is way, way overrated in gaming, in my experience.

Of course, the other method sometimes leads to analysis paralysis. I have had players really, really unhappy because "we can't tell who the good guys are" when I give them the whole competing interests each with their own really blatant agenda thing. They spent a lot of time and energy just trying to sift out The Truth from all the competing stories - when in my mind they were all True, just slanted different ways.

Frankly, the best results I've gotten running and playing sandboxes has been to dispense almost entirely with in-fiction communication of decision-making information. I will outright tell the players "okay, if you hook up with this guy, you'll be doing THIS, and if you go over here, you'll get into THIS kind of trouble" pretty frequently. In-fiction signposting has some nice dividends in long-form, slow burn play, but these days we'd rather get to the good stuff (defined however) a little quicker (at the expense of subtlety).
 

Crazy Jerome

Retired User
Yep, definitely more of a long-term campaign technique. Once the players are onboard, the answers to "analysis paralysis" are:

1. Try something; stir things up; see what happens; revisit the analysis, or
2. We are missing some key piece of information. Find it.

#1 is sort of useful in a shorter game, IF all the players are very alert and up for that sort of thing, but usually both means imply some leisure to work things out.
 

Old Geezer

Active member
Banned
Of course, the other method sometimes leads to analysis paralysis. I have had players really, really unhappy because "we can't tell who the good guys are" when I give them the whole competing interests each with their own really blatant agenda thing. They spent a lot of time and energy just trying to sift out The Truth from all the competing stories - when in my mind they were all True, just slanted different ways.
Tell them this before the game starts. Straight out. Say, "There can be competing factions without one being good and the other or others necissarily being evil".

Now, they may hate the idea, at which point negotiations continue.

The key to success lies in careful management of expectations, and the sooner you start, the better.
 

Tigerbunny

Registered User
Validated User
Definitely. Believe me, if I have any wisdom about running or playing good games, it's been won through bitter failure. It is entirely too easy to assume that OF COURSE everybody is on the same page - especially when you've internalized all of your expectations very, very thoroughly over many years of play with the same people.

Leaving my safe little womb of HS/college gaming was the beginning of a painful learning process.
 

PaladinCA

The ONLY way to be sure.
Validated User
Leaving my safe little womb of HS/college gaming was the beginning of a painful learning process.
The role playing school of hard knocks. :D

I think the most important aspect about learning is to be willing to do so.

I'm always trying to improve how I do things as a GM. Others I have known have been less willing to adjust or make improvements.

The realization of that state of constant learning and improvement is one of the most important things that one can learn about being a GM.
 

Tigerbunny

Registered User
Validated User
Yep. I wonder how many people go through this trajectory or some variant on it in their gaming career?

1. New gamer! Everything is shiny! You get a group of your friends, you play, and because it's new and shiny, it seems amazingly good. Your friends all tell you what a great and creative person you are!

2. Maturing gamer. I'm bored. The shiny is no longer so shiny. I try all kinds of weird new games, or homebrew the living blankety-blank out of something. I mix it up a bit, playing with different groups. But it's just not working. I know it can't be me: I'm a Good Gamer. It must be all those Bad Gamers and Broken Games.

3. Casual or Non-Gamer. Jobs, kids, family, and moving to new places in life take their toll. You set aside gaming for a while, or maybe it becomes that thing you do on Guys' Night - beer'n'pretzels silliness. Nobody cares if the game is fun in itself - you're there to see the old faces and screw around.

4. Born-Again Gamer. Hey, what happened??? You mean the stuff I learned a decade ago isn't applicable any more? Sheesh!!! Kids these days! Don't know how to have fun! And these newfangled games??? That's not an RPG!!!

5. Renewed Gamer. Okay, I'm only an egg. Let's just try and have fun, and see if it works!

I think I pretty much did. Although my "Born Again" phase was more of an Indie Snob phase... "You silly gamers, playing your old-fashioned games... with the peerless knowledge of my maturity, I can see that those are merely children's toys!"
 

Beginning of the End

New member
Banned
Feel free to add your own ideas of normally blunt things that can be subtle. I'll follow up with how I use melodrama in a subtle manner in my campaigns.
This might be a bit of an inversion on the topic, but I've found that designing red herrings into mysteries is a complete waste of time.

Justin Alexander talks about this in The Three Clue Rule better than I could, but the short version is: If you give the players absolutely nothing but straight-forward clues they will, nonetheless, come up with nineteen completely erroneous "solutions" before the night is done.
 

Pteryx

Simulator & Spellcaster
Validated User
Crazy Jerome said:
Yep, definitely more of a long-term campaign technique. Once the players are onboard, the answers to "analysis paralysis" are:

1. Try something; stir things up; see what happens; revisit the analysis, or
2. We are missing some key piece of information. Find it.
Emphasis added.

Count me in on agreeing that players must be on board for anything sandboxy. Sandboxes only work if the players accept that the world does not revolve around their expectations of what will happen, and are willing to be wrong. Players must also be willing to look at NPCs as people with lives rather than props who exist for their benefit who have nothing better to do than serve that benefit; otherwise, you get players who decide that every NPC who happens to be busy is "up to no good!" -- Pteryx
 
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