Tobold's Blog
Saturday, December 02, 2017
Sand in my story

I don't believe in black and white. 99.9% of everything is a shade of grey, and absolutes are at best naive simplifications and at worst dangerous traps. That is not a very trendy opinion. To my great despair the internet has not led to people to discuss their differences, but has isolated them into echo chambers where black and white are the only colors available. Whether it is politics, culture, or gaming, nobody wants to discuss the pros and cons of any issue any more, they just want shared outrage at whatever they believe is wrong. This is why blogging is in decline and tweeting is on top, Twitter just does outrage so much better.

In spite of these modern trends, I'm still trying to discuss issues, especially in gaming, by looking at them from both sides. And today I would like to talk about sandboxes and linear stories in Dungeons & Dragons, especially in the official Wizards of the Coast published adventures. Now none of them are perfect sandboxes or completely linear, as neither of the extreme cases works very well in pen & paper roleplaying. But if we compare the shades of grey of today with the shades of grey from the past, the current selection of adventures since the release of 5th edition is way more on the sandbox side as adventure modules from previous editions were.

The sandbox style has certain advantages. I believe that the best 4th edition adventure that Wizards of the Coast released for Dungeons & Dragons is Madness at Gardmore Abbey, which is more sandbox than the other 4E adventures. And so I am currently playing a 5E adaptation. However from the adventure books that WotC released in 5th edition my favorites are the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the Starter Set and Curse of Strahd, and both of these are more linear story than the others. My experience with the more sandbox adventures isn't so good: As a player I watched a less experienced dungeon master flounder with Out of the Abyss; I spent hours to prepare Storm King's Thunder, only to finally give up because the adventure was just too bad; and the Princes of the Apocalypse took me many hours of rewriting and changing into something a bit more linear in order to make it playable.

Much of the problem is one of presentation. A computer has no problems running a sandbox game, because he has perfect memory. In a game of D&D the information has to go from the adventure book into the head of the dungeon master first, before it can then be told at the table to the players. Humans don't have perfect memory, and our brains can more easily remember stories than lists of unconnected facts. Human DMs are simply better at stories than they are at sandboxes. Madness at Gardmore Abbey works because it is basically a collection of stories which can be tackled in any order you like. That freedom makes it feel like a sandbox to the players, but the story content is easy to remember for the DM. When I prepare a session for Princes of the Apocalypse, for example my players currently breaking into Rivergard Keep, the presentation of the place by location number and the bits and pieces of story being distributed all over the location descriptions makes finding the stories much harder. I need to read every location back to front, locate the story bits, then read them again to puzzle them together, and finally find where the book simply doesn't provide much explanation or story and invent some of my own.

I do like the fact that a place like Rivergard Keep has many different options for the players to tackle it. I've looked at YouTube videos of people playing that part of the adventure for inspiration, and various groups have done everything from negotiation, to charming the door guard, to infiltration by water, to frontal assault for this "dungeon". But a better presentation of the power dynamics in that place and their likely response to attacks sure would have helped: In those YouTube videos I also saw DMs overdoing the response, ending with a near total party kill, and some improbable Deus-ex-machina intervention which saved the party but severely mauled the overall story and credibility.

Talking of credibility, I found that many WotC adventures of the sandbox style have a serious problem with experience points and levels. Fundamentally WotC is cheating: If you add up the experience points in Princes of the Apocalypse (the only one for which I have actually done the exercise, but I'm sure the problem is the same for the others) and apply WotC's own level by experience points table, you fall far short of the levels required in the adventure. WotC sells you an adventure that says "level 1 - 15" on the back, but doesn't actually have enough content in it to actually get a group from level 1 to 15 if you play by their own rules. The "fix" is a so-called milestones system in which the group gains a level at the end of a dungeon in order to have enough levels to tackle the next dungeon. However such a milestones system only works really well with a linear story and order of dungeons; it falls flat in a sandbox adventure where people can do the dungeons out of order, or do them only partially at one visit to come back another time. In my own campaign I had to double the regular monster xp and hand out bonus xp for certain story achievements in order to make the level system work. If I hadn't done that, the latter dungeons of the adventure would have become quite impossible to beat.

Overall I believe that the focus on sandbox elements in WotC published adventures is more one of ideology or marketing than one of good game design. The result is that for many of these books as a DM you can't just take the book and start playing. Even as an experienced dungeon master you need quite a lot of hours of preparation time to first understand all the elements in the book in spite of their chaotic presentation, and then to modify them in order to make them actually work. There is a huge gap in the offer between the very well done Starter Set adventure that can be played by a first time DM with no problem and the following books that can drive even an experienced DM to despair. For an edition which is designed to bring a lot new players and dungeon masters into the game, there really is something missing here.


It is interesting that D&D at least tries to do this, whereas while a computer could do a balance much better, no major MMORPG that I can think of even tries. They are all very "black and white" in this respect, either being a wide open sandbox where everything looks the same and has little to no content, or very closed questing zones where nothing exists that isn't part of a dedicated questing area. The former obviously has a problem with content and giving the player something enjoyable to actually play, and the latter doesn't really feel like a "world."
I love the fact that computers relegate things to black and white. And in doing so they can represent a sandbox free from the influences of outside concepts that would serve to introduce human fallacy into the equation. WoW has never told me that I am playing it wrong. In digital terms, everything is either a 0 or a 1. There is no in-between or 3rd state to muddy the waters. Black and white is what makes computers work the way they do. So until we enter the era of quantum computing, we're stuck with its limitations.

When I played D&D, it was because I loved the way our DM would introduce unknowns into the game. The rules established the black and white nature of the sandbox, but the DM controlled how much, and to what extent, the gray affected our adventures. Gameplay revolved around a piece of graph paper, a table, some character sheets and a few dice. Everything else happened inside your head. Imagination...beautiful imagination...full of every shade of gray or hue of color one could care to imagine.
I had to double the regular monster xp and hand out bonus xp for certain story achievements in order to make the level system work. If I hadn't done that, the latter dungeons of the adventure would have become quite impossible to beat

Couldn't that be solved by level scaling? But I guess it's a lot of work to change a dungeon from lv12 to lv6 in a prepared adventure.
4th edition had great online tools for level scaling, where you could load a monster and quickly add or remove levels and get new stats. That worked because in 4E the type of a monster wasn't strictly related to his level, you could have higher level orcs if you wanted. 5th edition doesn't have that, because in 5E monsters usually only exist at one single level. A fire elemental only comes as challenge rating 5, and while you can adjust the number of monsters, it is harder to adjust the stats.

I guess the idea is that once the players fought a monster once, they know how hard it is, and the DM isn't supposed to mess with them and present the same monster stronger or weaker at another point in time. That also gives players a better feeling of power progression: The first dungeon my group played had a single bugbear as boss mob. The dungeon they are in now has a room with 3 bugbears just serving as common soldiers.
woW doesn't (or didn't) have scaling, but you can soon travel very freely around a large area, even if some zones are too tough.

And there certainly used to be the option to explore and just kill stuff, or even find hidden out-of-the-way quests. Other than options to build your own stuff, or procedurally generated non-quest dungeons scattered around, how would you make it more of a sandbox?
Good points and totally agreed.

The best 5E module came out earlier this year (Tales of the Yawning Portal) which I loved, chiefly because it's actually seven older adventures revamped into a collection that you can use as you wish. I'm hoping that this format worked well enough we'll see more of it. It's not the "revamped older modules,"'s the fact that even as an experienced GM I can barely stomach trying to navigate a premade module that's more than 50-60 pages in length. Shorter modules like this are what I have time to prep for, and are easier to customize for my own home game.

I've pretty much done nothing with all the other super-adventures they've published. The time it takes to prep one of those is a waste when I can spend a tenth of that time devising my own content for a more satisfying and focused experience.
One comment on level scaling vs. milestone in the published modules. I don't like the milestone format, but I haven't delved deeply enough to see if the modules also award story XP or they? My experience in the past had been that when I, as GM, needed PCs to get to a certain level by a certain point, and the obvious earned XP through combat and such was not enough to get there, then story XP was the easy cheat to insure everyone got to the level I needed them at.
I think the problem is not with nonlinear adventures themselves, but with the presentation and usability.

1. Information bits in sandbox adventures can actually be easier to use than in linear adventures. Here's the approach I use.
You have list of potential information sources and list of information bits.

Say, on the list of information sources you have:
- a dead body in Room 3 (which may or may not have a letter)
- a Magic Mirror in Room 18 (which may or may not show some other location).
- a trapped kobold in Room 22 (who may or may not talk if questioned).

On the list of information bits you want your players to receive:
- Count Broddingblack is evil
- Count Broodingblack is a vampire
- Good Priests of Holy Benevolord had magical Sword of McGuffiness once, but lost it
- Sword of McGuffiness once was used to kill otherwise invulnerable vampire count
Of course, the full story should be first presented to GM so he would know what is really going on (but most adventure stories do not require more than a paragraph of text and a flowchart anyway).

When you give PCs information bit, strike it through. When they leave a location with information source (or it becomes unavailable in some other way), strike it through. This allows you to keep information bits in check and come up with organic ways to relate required information. This system would actually be easier to use than linear adventure (if party misses something on linear path, they wouldn't get a chance to get it). Alas, I don't remember official adventures using similar tricks.

2. Leveling up is a weird problem to tackle.
I see two reasons to level the party up:
- reward players for doing cool stuff and acknowledge their progress
- give them new toys when they become bored with old ones.
I think killing monsters would only have tangential influence on those two points. Even if killing monsters is cool, using completely arbitrary numbers set in Monster Manual, that have nothing in common with real level of challenge that PCs overcame, feels wrong.
Here is a system that works for me far better than default XP.
- Make a track (of 7 boxes, or 3, or 12).
- Cross one when players accomplish something.
- Cross more when they accomplish something really cool.
- When the track is filled - level up time!
This works with sandbox adventure pretty well.

3. Scaling monsters up to the level in 5e is a real pain.
It looks like some monsters are assigned to groups with implied progression (ghosts-wights-spectres), but it isn't apparent, and there are no ways for easy switching something to something similar. It would be very cool if encounters used something like 2x[Demon Melee] 3x[Demon Support] 1x[Demon Leader], and had creature lists for each type at various levels.
Another solution would be scaling system, that would modify monster's stats to scale them up or down. The problem here is that at higher level, not only player's stats grow, but also their abilities that impact situation in general (invisibility, levitation, various force walls and fields etc), so statistical scaling wouldn't be enough - scope of mosnter's abilities should be scaled too.

These problems could be solved with adventure presentation, I suppose.
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