On the Turning Point

How to keep a campaign moving?

There are these points in video games that simulate role-playing games where play often stops.

The game starts, and it is often linear for a bit, you are underpowered and have few options on where to go. You progress until you find an area where you can become more powerful, and then you acquire the means to travel to many different places, and then. . . .

Why? Why does it stop at this point?

Because once your linear goals are achieved, once you have the freedom to choose one task of many to prepare and address, that accomplishing of that task becomes work! Once the characters reach the 'domain state' and they are attempting their goals, those goals (calculate gold, find resources, wait months) feel like work, are accomplished at the table in a manner similar to the way work is accomplished, and gosh, aren't very exciting!

And don't we all have something better to do with our time?

I've seen it happen again and again at the table. When the characters finally get some footing, gain some levels, reach the point where their options are no longer constrained by 'what they must deal with' but instead they can address options that they choose, talk rolls around to another campaign. "We're going to put this aside for a while; We'll come back to it later."

And we all know how often that happens.

So what is the solution?

I think it's pretty simple. Allow the player to direct play, but do not let play become directed by the players. 

Criticisms of sandboxes are many, but a primary one is that stasisticity. (I'll make up any damn word I want, thank you very much.) How to avoid? Constantly be looking at the choices of the players in that sandbox, and constructing activities (with clearly delineated steps) that occur from those choices. Then create dynamic sessions that don't involve the players picking from a bunch of choices that just feel like work.

This means that within these dynamic encounters you have things that further player goals organically. This means that the accomplishment of these objectives should be as smooth and automated as possible except for the relevant exciting quest-focused game-play.

Here is an example in my current game:
I have a player who is a dragon wizard. He wants to learn dragon magic. He is fifth level. He can no longer advance along this path of dragon magic until he learns the language of dragons.

 I could have presented this fact to the player and then waited for him to come up with a way to try and find out how to learn this language. I could have even presented options, such as 'go ask a sage' or 'ask around in the bigger city' and let him try to  solve the problem himself.
This is what I did.
He had recently used his powers to kill an ogre. He then woke up with the ogre haunting him, preventing him from getting any sleep. He then consulted a local priest and then the group specialist on the dead (a henchmen who's class is Deathmaster) to discover that he would have to either bind the spirit to a nearby creature or find a much more powerful sage to banish the spirit.
Conveniently, since they had a deathmaster, a powerful ring of undead utility and a dumb flying lizard in a cage. 
The player was presented with two options immediate options to meet his goals. Sever and bind the spirit in the dragon creating a true dragon familiar, that could teach him draconic at the cost of a character level (required to gain the powers of a familiar), or pay gold to a powerful spellcaster to banish the spirit and go on the adventure to find someone to teach him draconic. Of course, he could have investigated in his own way how to learn draconic himself!
His choice, most assuredly did not feel like work.


  1. Why should gaining a language feel like work?

    The players get to a location, rest down, the PC trades in a point of something for Draconic. Or the next time you level there is going to be a bit of downtime.

    Games that have you celebrating one birthday in five levels can be just as big of a problem as the sandbox. If you let the players slow down, enjoy their spoils in the background, have a bit of fun, learn new things? They can develop additional contacts that don't make them lose a level to learn a single language.



  2. Because there is no one alive who speaks it, and the very thought that what he is studying exists is treated just as myth and legend.

    It might feel like work, if, I as the DM said: "You can no longer advance along this path until you learn this language." And then left him to figure out how to learn a language no one else alive knows how to speak.

    It feels slightly less like work, but does feel quite railroady, if I go "The only way you can learn the language is by doing this quest, here!"

    The best solution is what I outlined above - giving him options in a dramatic situation that results in a unique organic power boost (for the level wasn't lost - it's what he took to gain the powers of the familiar). He could have taken a different route, or struck out on his own.

    More clear why it might?

    This isn't about a specific language - this is about why games fall apart when they reach a phase in which actions are player directed, and how to address that.

  3. I don't think there is a right or wrong way to do this. It depends too much on individual players and their level of engagement. I have some players who like to come up with their own solutions, and some who like to pick from a menu. For example, the PCs in my current game recently slept in the Death Frost Doom crypts and each picked up an insanity. All the insanities are permanent, and some are quite penalizing (like the cleric that got a -4 to wisdom). But I said that any player could overcome their insanity by coming up with something suitably creative. This worked well for me.

    The danger with "presenting two options" is that it can be false freedom. A choice of two railroads, if you will. I think that can (though not necessarily does) avoid some of the unique potential of a sandbox game. Now, if a player really can't think of something, I'll suggest some options, but it's usually more fun when they come up with things.

    In my experience, the style of the first few adventures will do a lot to set the expectations for the rest of the campaign, so I think it is dangerous (and unfortunately common) to start a sandbox campaign with a linear adventure and expect it to open up later. I made this mistake myself with my recent game. I forgive myself somewhat because I was jumping into the referee's role after 10+ years of RPG hiatus, and was also new to the system I was running. But it is not going to be easier for players to be proactive after they have gotten used to being led around in a campaign, it is going to be harder. Start out the way you want to proceed, that is my advice.

    The original game did this very well (unsurprisingly). The first few levels (basic set) was a dungeon. Obvious objective, but still total freedom within that environment. Once players have gotten used to needing to make choices about what to go after, how much they want to risk in a particular delve, etc, then the game opens up into the hexcrawl sandbox wilderness (expert set). The dungeon intro part is more limited (and thus more tractable for players), but it is not actually more linear and thus does not accustom players to rely on the plot for their decisions.


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