Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The adventure path is gaming entertainment

I recently joined a D&D gaming group. In one of my message exchanges with the DM, I asked him if this was to be an adventure path or sandbox campaign. He explained that it would be a mixture of both. Curiously, he also explained that he was sometimes frustrated with his players because they seemed reluctant to interact with the world around them. And when NPCs react to their actions in a negative manner, they seem "shocked."

After writing a lengthy response to this recent message, I realized that it was too long. So I decided that a long-overdue blog post would be in order.

My new DM explained that his campaign is a mixture of both adventure path and sandbox. In my humble opinion, I would argue that it can't be a mixture of both. It must be one or the other. Either you have a story you wish the players to follow or you don't. If you have a story, it is not a sandbox campaign.

As for his occasional frustrations with his players, the problem (again, in my humble opinion) he is having is that he is giving the players the freedom of a sandbox campaign when he is actually running an adventure path. They are expecting the DM to provide the next "cut scene" (to use video game parlance) that presents to the players the next stage of their quest. They are depending on the DM to entertain them, to tell the story. They want the DM to have the king summon them to the throne room and present the quest. They want the DM to roll out the red carpet before them and present the goal of the next quest on a silver platter.

Dungeons & Dragons was not originally designed to play adventure paths. This mode of game play has evolved into being over the years because of our natural inclination to appreciate a good storyline. In my continually humble opinion, playing RPGs in this manner should not technically be called a "game." A better term would be "gaming entertainment." It is a perfectly valid form of game play. It is not "false" or somehow wrong.

Pro wrestling is not a sport but rightfully termed "sports entertainment." That is because there is a written storyline and the wrestling matches are generally choreographed. The opponents train and rehearse together beforehand. Back in the old days, pro wrestling was real. And wrestlers really did get hurt. Promoters realized that if their star wrestlers were getting hurt, they were not in the ring and therefore not attracting large crowds. So they decided to fix the matches. And, ultimately, they scripted them with the goal of entertaining the crowd and thereby making lots of money. This formula has worked for that industry for decades.

My new DM is definitely running an adventure path campaign. He has a story. He naturally wants to see it completed. He went to the trouble of planning it. He spent the time writing it. Perhaps he spent money on a module that he wishes to have the players see to completion. He might even envision how the big showdown with the bad guy is going to play out. He and his players have made an investment in this business of playing Dungeons & Dragons and they expect to see a return. The point is that they won't see the end of the DM's story if the PCs die. So the DM will be tempted to look the other way if there is a bad die roll. He will be tempted to create a deus ex machina in order to avoid the much-maligned Total Party Kill. That is the line that is crossed and that is where D&D ceases to be a game and becomes gaming entertainment.

In an earlier post, I extolled the virtues of sandbox campaigns and I declared that I would only play that type of campaign from now on. Well, I'm eating my own words! In the area of the country where I live, gaming groups are few and far between. After unsuccessfully attempting to restart my local MeetUp.com D&D group, I've been putting out feelers to join an existing group. This new DM seems like a nice guy and he's planning to run a campaign set in Greyhawk. If it is to be an adventure path, that is fine. I'll help the party see it to completion. But hopefully along the way my rogue will rise in power and take over the local underworld!


Neon Elf said...

Your absolute dislike of adventure mode is surprising to me, as are your assumptions regarding it. I run an adventure style game (according to your terms) but the PCs are free to follow any path, and my dislike of players dieing has nothing to do with my story, I don't think anyone enjoys their character dieing.

Of course I've given them goals to achieve but you act like this is a bad thing. They're at point A and I give them a point B to get to. HOW they get there is up to them. If you want a boring night with everyone staring around and not knowing what to do, then try and run a sandbox game.

You need players who are committed to the sandbox to really have that work well, and even then it can be... well uninteresting.

Without goals in a game the players can flounder and flop like fish out of water. Worse without common goals the party can fragment, and you might as well be running separate games for each person.

M.gunnerQuist said...

@ neon elf

lol :)

I don't dislike adventure paths. I just have difficulty calling it a game. "Gaming entertainment" is the best term I can come up with at the moment. And it's just as valid as most other forms of entertainment.

Sandbox campaigns are not devoid of goals. They have always had goals. They're called "dungeons." Some campaigns are centered around just one dungeon. For example, the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk.

It is only as interesting as you make it. I just don't think the burden of entertainment should be entirely up to the DM.

Bhoritz said...

I don't agree that you can't mix both styles. You can let your players running loose in a large sandbox until they arrive at a place or encounter some NPC that triggers a story arc. Reverting to the sandbox at the story arc's end.

M.gunnerQuist said...

You can't add vodka to ginger ale, grenadine and orange juice and still call it a Shirley Temple.

Was that a stupid analogy? Maybe.

jamused said...

I certainly think you can mix'n'match Sandbox and Adventure Path; the question is what happens when the adventurers stray from the path? To stay true to the Sandbox, that has to be a valid choice, not a game-breaking event.

It's certainly easier to run Sandboxes for characters that have strong (and mutually compatible) goals like climbing to the top of the local thieves guild, settling a new region, or even just amassing as much loot as possible, but I can imagine it done for completely reactive adventurers. E.g. to borrow a trope from another genre, if the party sets up shop as Consulting Adventurers, with an office in town and taking "cases" for clients that seek them out, it can be basically a Sandbox campaign even if each case follows and Adventure Path...as long as the players remain free to turn down cases ("We don't do divorce work, even for dragons") and follow their own personal preferences in handling the case and the outcome ("Sorry, sweetheart, but Gorm the Barbarian doesn't play the sap for any princess. Take her away.")

szilard said...

Of course you can mix the two.

Take a sandbox game. Have events going on in the background. Add plot hooks that give the PCs a wide variety of opportunities to interact with those events. Have a variety of stories that could be told, and let the PCs - by their choices - decide which one to follow.

szilard said...

It is notoriously difficult to define what a game is. Given a continuum between games and 'gaming entertainment' (which is a sketchy concept), I suspect that many people would put all RPGs into the latter category. Any line you draw between the two is going to be somewhat arbitrary.

M.gunnerQuist said...

Take a sandbox game. Have events going on in the background. Add plot hooks that give the PCs a wide variety of opportunities to interact with those events. Have a variety of stories that could be told, and let the PCs - by their choices - decide which one to follow.

Then it becomes a variety of adventure paths and no longer a sandbox campaign. You can't have both. Sure, you can let your players have some freedom for a little while. But sooner or later it comes back to shuffling them along an adventure path.

I imagine that I will be arguing this point for a very long time in a great many future posts.

szilard said...

If you define adventure path as anything non-sandbox, you might be right.

That's not a useful definition, though.

Also, are you claiming that sandbox games don't have plot hooks? There aren't events going on in the world independent of the PCs? I think a lot of people would disagree with you.

M.gunnerQuist said...

If you define adventure path as anything non-sandbox, you might be right.

That's not a useful definition, though.

Sounds like a good subject for a new blog post.

Also, are you claiming that sandbox games don't have plot hooks? There aren't events going on in the world independent of the PCs? I think a lot of people would disagree with you.

Yes. Sandbox campaigns don't have plot hooks. That is because story arcs are not exploited.

I think you are expressing a popular misconception about sandbox campaigns. They are not static. It's evolving and ever-changing based on the actions of the players. Events happen based on the spur-of-the-moment decisions of the DM. The DM does not prepare story arc triggers ahead of time. That's what I appreciate about DMing a sandbox campaign. There is almost no preparation apart from writing dungeons and other general location stats.

If, for example, the PCs anger some noble they encounter in the tavern, then the DM can improvise and react to what the players do. If that noble appears to be a re-occuring character, the DM could opt to generate stats later. (It's worth noting that 4e dispenses with NPC stats altogether.) The DM is free to flesh out details and statistics of the entire town. But the difference between sandbox and adventure paths is that there is no pre-determined storyline attached to each character.

For a demonstration of the stark contrast between adventure path and sandbox adventures, read WotC's Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk and Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. They are theoretically the same dungeon location. But the way those locations are handled are almost diametrically opposite. WotC's adventure path has clearly defined events that are triggered and has an ending that is immutable. But EGG's Castle Zagyg has absolutely no such constraints. Any "story" that develops out of crawling through the dungeons of Castle Zagyg and it's local campaign setting between it and the town of Yggsburgh is entirely up to the players. The DM merely reacts to their actions, improvising new developments that might be amusing.

Restless said...

There may not be plot hooks, but there are certainly adventure hooks. Overheard conversation at the tavern, events happening when the players are around, posters for bounties per goblin head in the foothills or the return of a precious religious relic... those are all perfectly valid hooks for a sandbox game. Hooks are important, because it helps combat the "boring night with everyone staring around and not knowing what to do," as neon elf would put it. You just have to make it a natural part of the game world.

There is no particular plot, no BBEG to defeat necessarily, and so forth. They're just helping someone in distress, taking a job or what have you. The power is in the story unfolding from that point. As the players perform their tasks they make natural enemies, they draw attention and then you get the player-driven plot going.

Also, I don't believe that the only things that happen in a campaign are things that the players initiate. NPCs and organizations have goals, too, and should pursue them even if the players are involved or not (or have even heard of the NPCs or organizations). In one small sandbox game I ran way back when I had about two dozen NPCs and groups I tracked with their actions and progress every couple game weeks to every game month. It really helped bring the world alive, because things changed, even when the players didn't play or went to focus on something else!

thanuir said...


Okay, here's a challenge: Try to build positive definitions for sandbox play and adventure path play such that they are mutually exclusive.

The key word here is positive. A positive definition is, for example, "adventure path play is play where there is a story that player characters follow", as it actually describes the play in question.

"Sandbox play is where there is no story to follow" is not a positive definition, because it just tells what the gameplay is not about, not what actually happens when people play.

I'll be honestly and pleasantly surprised if such definitions can be given so that they are not trivial. (Trivial definition would be like saying that the campaign I'm playing right now is sandbox and the game Joe over there is playing is adventure path play. Sure, it would fit the requirements above, but it would not actually mirror the concepts themselves very well.)