Regular readers of the Big Bad Blog might recall that I am in the midst of creating an old school sandbox game. The central concept of the game is simple: flexibility.
The game recognizes that the people I play with have busy lives. The days of playing in weekly games is far behind us — there are fencing tournaments, partners, work trips, babies at home, late nights at work, blogging to do and vacations to consider.
And that’s just me.
I look at the free time available to me now, and that available to my friends, and wonder how it was that I once played in three regular (and frequent) games, all populated with people who played both regularly and frequently.
Still, my friends are itching to play, so I am slowly writing.
The initial game concepts were built around player flexibility.
Most games have implied player controls. Once the party leaves on an adventure, things are pretty much set until that adventure ends. The players cannot leave the game session early, nor can they arrive late for the next game session (assuming that the adventure is lasting into the next session) without disrupting game play. They certainly cannot come to the next game session and say “I’m tired of playing a Fighter. I’ll be a Bard today.”
This game is attempting to eliminate these presumptive controls, and so needed an adaptive mechanism that allows the players the ability to turn up late or leave early. To change characters from session to session, if they so desire. They need to be able to experience whatever facet of the game most engrosses them.
And in game? The desire is to reflect that player freedom with character freedom. Again, most games have implied character controls — adventures, railroads, plot arcs, and the like. The GM creates a small slice of the world, knowing that the characters cannot escape it.
Unlike player controls, the means by which to escape character controls is well known: the sandbox. A world full of danger and adventure around every corner. A world in which the characters — the player thrust into the game — determine their own road.
Unfortunately, I am finding that these concepts — or, at least, my implementation of these concepts — butt heads.
To allow player flexibility, I created the Guild of the Tarot — a mysterious and powerful adventuring guild — that grants the flexibility to the larger party (including all the characters every player will eventually play) in return for the PCs’ services as an adventuring party in perpetuity (more or less). This flies directly in opposition to the sandbox, as it implies a DM-driven series of adventures.
Thoughts I have that water down this unfortunate character control unfortunately also water down the freedoms that the concept introduces for the players. The more the game is a sandbox, the more the players need to be forced to keep playing the same character, arrive on time and attend every session. The more thoroughly the player freedom mechanism is implemented, the more the sandbox shrinks, and I am forced to give the game direction and story that I do not intend to put there.
Every time I think I’m OK with the latter, I turn back to writing the game and find that I am wrong. But the game is predicated on the loosing of player controls.
A dilemma. And larger than I thought it might be.
I need the mechanism. I’m not a wave-your-hand GM; a reason for weird-ass shit like PCs disappearing and reappearing must exist (even if the players are unaware of it).
This has given me some ideas regarding how the character controls might be loosened, by giving the PCs larger-sized quests, though I am not sure how to fit those concepts into my current framework.
Alternatively, the guild could want something else and allow the players more freedom. But then important questions such as what does it want? rear their heads. Those need answers, and those answers would most certainly shape the game in some manner.
And, of course, I’m open to bright ideas, should they exist.
Image: Steve Zieser.