Friday, April 29, 2011

How to manage a sandbox campaign: The pre-game

Last post I mention three broad areas on managing sandbox campaigns. The pre-game, the bag of stuff, and world in motion.

The pre-game is crucial to a successful sandbox campaign. Nothing kill a sandbox campaign quicker than the lack of meaningful choices. It doesn't matter if you have two dozen want ads on the campaign's tavern board if the player doesn't have any way to judge which one is best for their character. They might as well roll a dice to see what ad to pick.

The purpose of the pre-game is to give the character a context in which to make their initial choices.

Using my Blackmarsh setting as an example; the players makes up a human fighter.

Blackmarsh Human Origin
  1. former Bright Empire (d6 1-2 Castle Blackmarsh, 3-6 other settlement)
  2. Ostrobard
  3. Vasan Viking
  4. Grand Kingdom
  5. Rangers of Blackmarsh
  6. Other (d6; 1 raised by another race, 2 from the Ochre Empire, 3-6 from another culture)
Each of the above choices present different possibilities for the character. Who do they know for contacts, what they are concerned about, and what complications they have to deal with.

For example a 3 is rolled for Vasan Viking. During the pre-game it is decided that the character's father was an baron of Vasa who banked a sum of gold with a banker in Castle Blackmarsh. After the conquest of Vasa, the merchant conveniently "lost" the record when the character's father attempted to collect it. The baron's copy was lost in the conquest. The player decides to have the character vow to recoverthe lost fortune.

Along with this referee notes that the copy is currently held at Norbury castle along with a bunch of other scrolls, records, and books from Vasa. Notes the details of the banker, his allies, and his enemies along with some adventure hooks relating to all this.

With items like this resulting from the pre-game the player has the context to make his initial choices in a sandbox campaign centered in Blackmarsh.

Here are some techniques to use as a starting point for your own pre-game.

You need to be knowledgeable about your setting. Note this is NOT mean you need something like Tekemul, Harn, or my Majestic Wilderlands. You can use this with little more than a mountain with a dungeon and a village at it base.

How? Because D&D itself has a context, the vaguely feudal medieval, swords & sorcery themes that inspired the original the rule book. Reflect on what elements you want to incorporate into your campaign and make some notes. You don't really need any specific details as to names, or geography. Only the understanding that there is a probably some kingdoms with a king, dukes, and baron. That there is a forest of elves, a mountain of dwarves, and a quaint land full of hobbits err halflings. Just make the player aware that some specifics will be filled in later.

But in the end you have a bunch of characters whose players all know why they are heading to this particular village next to this particular mountain. And the character will have goals independent of just cracking open the dungeon door and looting what inside.

The format of the pre-game.

Alex expressed some concern in a comment to the previous post.
...and the one time a GM asked me for a one on one session that basically sent me into a two week mental freeze.
I can see that happening but the pre-game does not need to be a one on one roleplaying session.

The majority of my pre-games are simply me talking to the players before the game. Basically it is a interview. I ask what they want to play, the player throw out some things, I throw out some choices, the player think the choices suck, I throw out some more, the player likes being an Agent of the Black Lotus, we talk about that, the player finds it limiting but likes the stuff about the Brotherhood of the Lion (a thieves guild), and so rolls up a thief. And then we talk further about the character background. However informal or formal you make the pre-game, the end result is a background for the character.

The pre-game works best when you have no more than two pages of detail. One page for personal background, and one page of general information. This post has a background from one of the campaigns I ran in the 90s. The second half, which I no longer have, was four paragraphs and gave general details on City-State, the Black Lotus, and the Order of Thoth.

You could do a one on one roleplaying session, but some will find it too elaborate or time consuming. While others will just sit the table as a group before the first game and talk about the campaign and why are there. The important part is that it is done before the start of play, and it conveys both campaign and personal character info. Doing this give the context in which the players can being interacting with your setting.

I use the interview technique because the Majestic Wilderlands has a lot of details. I found it to be the most effective and fun way of getting what the player needs to know about the setting.

For the novice to the Majestic Wilderlands, I don't get into the details of the setting right away. I simply asked that based on their knowledge of fantasy and D&D what would they like to play. After that I start giving some choices and details from the setting.

Using Blackmarsh as an example, the player say I want to be a human thief. I say "You can be from the Company of Honorable Men, a thieves guild in Castle Blackmarsh which is . Or be a ranger specializing in spy type work that requires thief skills. Or you can be a treasure seeker looking for vis and artifact from the Grand Kingdom. An Ostrobard or Vasan that from improvised background and living hand to mouth.

We go back and forth asking each other questions and giving answers. Finally the players decides on what they want to be.

Then the next step to personalize the character by talking about the character's background. Is he from a rich or poor family, who were his allies, friends, and enemies. The most valuable treasure is my campaigns is not the +1 sword you gain from killing the minotaur but the allies and friends you gain along the way. Using this technique allows the player to take advantage of this from the start of the campaign.

Last are interesting complications for the character. The two of you should consider what has driven the character to be an adventurers. You want to skew the complications to something that works well for adventuring.

Last you need to realize that as the referee you have formidable powers to manipulate this process. Now you don't going to get a player to play something he doesn't like but you can tweaks things so it fits better for the type of campaign you are planning to run. But more importantly, you manipulate the pre-game to provide natural reasons for the party to stick together.

I found that done right, players with characters that would otherwise beat the crap out of each other work together because they have some mutual or reinforcing goals. This is much more powerful technique for keeping a party together than a referee fiat.

By this point, I written quite a bit on the pre-game and some of you are probably thinking that is pretty elaborate for the game you like to run. In reality all this doesn't take much time and I will bet that 90% of you are doing some sort of pre-game right now. My "interview" doesn't look much different than chatting with the players about the campaign before it starts. The difference is that I am trying to do prep in a more consistent way.

Even you use none of my techniques, the most valuable thing you can do to improve your campaign is analyze what you do to prepare players. Especially if you are unhappy with how thing turned out in a previous campaign. By breaking it down, you will find the area that you need to improve but also find that you been doing a lot of things that are good.


FrDave said...

One pre-game technique that I find very useful (especially when using the 3d6-in-order method where a player doesn't get to choose to be a thief, for example) is to require ever body at the table to come up with reasons why their characters know each other, why they want to adventure together and why they happen to be in the place the campaign starts. This ends up being kind of a group interview where the group will end up asking me questions about what is possible. This forces players to place their characters in a context (including each other), sets up relationships and motivations right off the bat.

When a character dies or someone new comes to the table and has to introduce a new character, I still ask the same questions — how does your character know everybody else and why does your character want to adventure with them?

Anonymous said...

the sandbox posts floating around lately are interesting. I am a sandbox kinda guy myself, so this is interesting to me. I can see where it doesn't appeal to everyone, but I like them better than adventures or worlds where everything is predefined and possibly railroaded.

I was reading your post and saw this:
"and a quaint land full of hobbits err halflings. "
and busted out laughing ;)

Simon Forster said...

The pre-game side of a campaign can be, I find, one of the hardest parts; especially working out how the PCs know everyone. I usually write the first adventure and use that to get them to meet, and then the players just meta-game to make sure they all stick together.

I like the idea of making backgrounds more meaningful, though. It's something I'm thinking of using for my next campaign.

Thanks for the recent posts, especially the Lulu vs RPGNow ones; very useful and interesting.

tim h said...

Know I'm late to the discussion, but:

I'm wondering if you ever looked at the World Burning rules for Burning Wheel. It formalizes the creation of the game world, not through rules but by describing the process.
One of the major differences is that it puts the discussion with the players before actual world creation. The players and GM together decide what they want to play and then rough out a world to fit it. It can be used within the continuous campaign world model to, with the players describing what they want to do and where they want to work in the world...