Saturday, January 14, 2017

Of Bathtubs and Sandboxes

I’ve been trying (with limited success) to start some discussion on the structure of Crisis Point this year.  We’ve got as far as deciding that we will play a bath-tubbed version of the nationwide battle for control of Andreivia in 1918. 

Bath-tubbing, for the uninitiated, is the idea of representing a larger military formation (e.g. a battalion) with a smaller one (say a platoon).  So you might fight a company-sized attack on platoon strength German defensive position and have it represent the whole breakout from Omaha beach in your campaign structure.

In our case I’m envisaging four or five tables representing the whole of Andreivia from the Turkish border in the south to the Georgian in the north. Platoon-sized units on the table (we’re using the Arc of Fire skirmish rules) will represent larger units in “real” life.  They might perhaps be battalions or even brigades but the deliberate vagueness of Andreivia’s geography means we don’t have to think too clearly about that.  In fact I’m even prepared for the scale to be flexible – sometimes a platoon will be just a platoon and sometimes it’ll be standing in for a brigade and I don’t intend to get at all stressed about the difference.

The question then arises, do we have a fixed scenario (or scenarios) to be played over those tables or do we do something else? 

My mate Graham, a whizz at dice-and-paper RPGs, has been known to use the term “sandbox”.  A bit of Googling led me to this fine exposition of the idea by someone called Mxyzplk :

As with anything, usage varies, but usually when people say "sandbox" today they mean a campaign that does not have a specific prescribed storyline, but one where the GM sets up a world (or at least a small section of one) and the PCs are free to wander where they will and find adventure where they will. It's about freedom of player choice.

Pure sandbox play is purely simulation driven. A super hardcore sandboxer places a dungeon (or whatever) in the game world and that's where it is, for the PCs to come across or not (and for NPCs to come across before them or not). If a thief is sneaking into a mansion, in a sandbox game he is able to avoid guards and traps, and not have predetermined plot points presented to him regardless of his actions.

And further…

Sandbox is a different approach from story-driven - a "story of what happened" may emerge from a sandbox session but a preconception of story, or what "the GM wants to happen," is never applied to the game. Adventure paths, being a series of adventures, can try to be sandboxy but generally try to provide enough story to get PCs from one chapter to another, but event timelines and things like that can serve that purpose without being railroads (though people often complain and call things like that railroading, just because they feel pressured to do something).

Railroading, the antonym of sandbox, is simply extreme constraint of choice. Some perceived constraint of choice is always there in any simulated world in that there are always choices that are impossible to physically perform or clearly undesirable, but where you cross the line to railroad is when these things are obviously being imposed by the GM/metagame (usually in the name of "The Story" or "The Plot").

You can be apparently providing a sandbox but using the game world to provide so many restrictions that you are effectively railroaded into a single course of action. A dungeon full of one-way doors that inhibits all teleportation and divination, for example.

Most games are somewhere on the continuum between pure sandbox and railroad, or even move between the two based on need and GM inclination. Many campaigns switch back and forth between railroad and sandbox. Railroading to move the story on when the players lose momentum and sandbox otherwise it a frequent GM tactic that lets the players be free when they want to be but gives them structure when they're feeling lost.

Sandbox gaming can be desirable because it produces a sense of game world reality that enables the player to focus less on the metagame and immerse in their character and the game world. It can be problematic because players can feel like they are spinning their wheels and wasting limited leisure time without more guidance, and because sometimes a preplanned story cam have more "big, interesting" things happen in it plot-wise than a sandbox.

I tend towards sandboxy play, but in my most recent campaign I had players get frustrated and ask for more direct guidance from me on "what they should do" - I am normally reluctant to do that but did so to make them happier. Often players want the illusion of sandbox and unlimited choice, but with the GM pulling strings behind the scenes to keep them headed towards interesting things.

picture: Pinterest
I like this. Much of my personal transition from role-player to wargamer was because I increasingly enjoyed the way narrative, Mxyzplk’s “story of what happened”, emerges from the competitive interaction between the players in a wargame rather than being more-or-less determined by a GM in an rpg.

So what does the idea of a sandbox approach mean for Crisis Point 2017? Perhaps the Crisis Point players could just be given their forces and left to get on with it?  Or does that way chaos lie?

Obviously at Crisis Point we’re wargamers not RPGers and we’re used to coming at military situations with perhaps a set of orders (or victory conditions standing in for them) but otherwise free to fight the battle as we wish.  And I think it’s fair to assume that even the most hardcore of sandbox rpg campaigns would begin with the group of players having some overall motivation and reason for remaining together. 

Should I give each player/force a set of objectives to provide story seeds?  Or is that just me not fully embracing the sandbox approach?


Tales from Shed HQ said...

Similar to what I was thinking. I like the idea of players coming across mysteries or tasks rather than be given them. Maybe we could add a major objective for all players but with them having no actual idea what it is until they start playing and exploring the world around them. It is only then that they discover clues and hints to what the objective of the game is. Not all minor mysteries would be relevant but they may be and the players would not know which is and which isn't until a few have been completed or discovered and then they can start piecing the clues together. If we have enough players we could have teams of two as this would mean more coverage.

Just my thoughts.


Richard P

Andy Canham said...

Some good ideas here. I like the idea of factions (teams) being given political type goals and it being up to the local force commanders how they are interpreted. So for example, allied intervention forces could be 1) defend/destroy war materiel supply dumps in a couple of pre designated coastal towns, secure at least one coastal town to allow evacuation of allied forces, 2) disarm Central Powers forces in the area, 3) support local White forces, 4) avoid direct conflict with Red forces if possible. Red players could be something like 1) secure the capital and key administrative areas from White forces, 2) neutralise White forces and capture/kill White leaders, 3) seize any war materiel encountered, 4) avoid direct conflict with Allied or Central Power forces, unless there is a good chance of success. Interesting encounters/objectives/assets could be scattered about to make for interesting situations.

So for example, if the allied player knew there was a supply dump guarded by a Turkish force about to be overrun by a Red force, it might make for some interesting situations given the overall briefing.

Cheers, Andy

Tales from Shed HQ said...

Great ideas Andy C could have great fun with these

Counterpane said...

Gret feedback, guys. Thanks!

What do you think about casting wide a net to get wargamers to each contribute a one sentence plot seed for the game?

Andy Canham said...

Interesting idea. Are you thinking of a big picture seed like "Central Powers forces are required to evacuate Andreivia as soon as possible, returning home avoiding bloodshed if at all possible", or something like "Dr X has set up an experimental facility producing violet death rays in the southern hills"?

Cheers, Andy

Counterpane said...


I was originally thinking the latter (more local stuff) but big picture things could work as well.

I should point out, though, that the Central Powers are still at war with the Triple Entente powers other than Russia. With British forces in Tcherbevan, a Turkish drive through the Caucasus (it actually happened in 1918) is more likely and a German intervention can't be ruled out.