Sunday, June 5, 2011

Collaborative World Building - Part Four

As I mentioned at the end of part three, this section will cover what the GM does with all the information created at the world building session.

Solidify the World

The time for fluidity has ended. It's time to take this big ol' bowl of gamin' soup and toss it in the freezer. 

"But what about the organic growth of story from the Astral Plane of Imagination?" 

You're right; there has to be some room for growth and for the unexpected, but there also have to be some hard facts that you and the players can use as a jumping off point. So, let's gather up our notes from the world building session and begin laying out the basic structure of the game world.

Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and Organization

First thing we need to do is create a master list of the the important NPCs and organizations of the world. This is pretty straight forward. You should include a little description of who they are, what they do for a living, where they live, special skills, any connections they have to the characters, important system info, and any story lines they belong to. When it comes to stats for NPCs you should only note skills and abilities where they are exceptional or deficient and assume they are averagely skilled in all other aspects.

Locations and Maps

Just like we did with NPCs, you should write up a list of important locales, noting all the pertinent information about the location, special qualities, and plot hooks.

You should also draw up a map. It doesn't have to be complicated, just a way for you to determine where things are located in relation to one another. Nothing confuses players more than when they stumble on a keep to the north while heading south. 

What's next?

Now that we have our calcified ball of potential adventure energy, let's add some life.

Laying down the hooks

Even if you've never been fishing, you probably still understand the concept of a baited hook. For those of you who don't: you encase a barbed hook with an enticing morsel and then dangle it in the water till some unsuspecting fish comes along and gets a new lip ring, and you get a tasty dinner. 

Laying down hooks in your game world is done in a similar fashion, although your goal is to bring the characters into the story, not to sautée them in a fine garlic butter sauce.

The Bait

Let's analyze the components of a good hook in the context of the fishing metaphor. Let's start with the bait. What makes for good player bait? If only we had some insight into what would entice the players to chomp down on the story with wanton and reckless disregard for their well being. 

"Holy crap! I have this list of all of the players' goals, ambitions, and wishes. Will that work?" 
It just might.

The Hook

Now, bait is only half the equation, you have to pair it with the proper hook. 
"What do you mean by hook? We don't physically stab the players with a bent piece of metal, do we?"

 Sadly no, a story hook is an encounter that sets the character on the journey of the story. It can be as simple as the player catching a horse thief with an odd tattoo, the mayor paying the character to find out where his daughter goes on a Saturday night, or having the character return home to find his wife and kids decorating the walls with their internal organs. The important thing is that the hook peaks the interest of the player enough to follow it to adventure.

So, where do we find our hooks?

Well, since you would prefer the players to take on a story you have prepared you should by looking at the bubble chart you created for your story. Find where your story connects with the character and use those NPCs or organizations to bring the character in. 

You can also create hooks to attach to NPCs or organizations that are connected to the story, but not the PCs directly, you never know when a player will decide to head to the local merchants guild, or the fighter might seek out someone who may know a thing or two about wizardry.

A thing to remember is that you should try to have a different hook for each player character, as several characters on the same hook can result in sidekickery, and no one wants to be Bucky. 

Everyone should be the star of their story, which is extremely difficult to do if you only have one show, so your goal is to make multiple shows that all happen to be following the same plot. This is not as difficult as it may sound, really all it means is you need to give each character a personal reason to take on the adventure, and you do this by making the story a direct conduit to the individual character's goal, ambition, or wish.  

A great side effect of having the characters coming upon the story from different angles is that they will all arrive with different pieces of information about what is going on. This can be an amazing boon to the GM as he can have the players exchange notes and clues in character, which helps to develop in-game relationships, and can lead to some nice RP moments. 

So now that we have our bait and hooks, all that's left to do is cast them into the water and wait for the players to bite.

"Wait, what do you mean wait?" 

Well, you don't have to wait, you can just club your players over the head with your hook in the opening scene and be done with it, but this is the quickest way to build a railroad. 

As I said before, Sandbox gaming is about collaboration between the players and the GM. You want your players to give their characters a life within the world, and choose the path they wish to pursue, not the path you tell them to follow. Just like the pigeons in the park, if you begin by spoon-feeding the players your hooks, they will come to expect this every time, and soon you will be leading them by the nose down the adventure path, and then you're back to running modules.

Now, that being said, there is no limit to the amount of hooks you can have in the water at one time.  The key is to dangle as many hooks as you can to snare the characters. So the more potential "ins" you can find for each character, the better. 

You don't want to force the plot on the players, but that doesn't mean you can't surround them with it. The illusion of choice is just as powerful as actual choice in many instances, and if the players consistently refuse to bite, you may need to go back to the tackle box.

One last thing to keep in mind is that if the players devise and pursue their own hooks (i.e. "I want to build a castle and stock it with monsters, "or "Let's go check out the enchanted forest, it seems cool.") then you have hit a gold mine. Pro-active players are what every Sandbox GM wants. You should never discourage a player from pursuing his character's agenda in order to follow your story line. Remember the player characters are the heroes and they determine the direction of the story.

Building a Timeline

Week One
A big part of sandbox gaming is allowing the players to choose their own paths to adventure, but before you start crumpling up your story outline, understand that you also have a choice in how the world develops. Your NPCs don't sit inactive waiting for the players to show up on the scene. In fact, while your players are off pursuing their agenda, the plots that you devised should still be happening in the background. This is where a timeline comes into play.
Week Five
Basically, a timeline is a chain of events that would occur if the players did nothing to stop them. 

To create a timeline, determine what the end result of your NPCs plot would be and then work backwards creating the steps, or milestones to reach this goal. 

Now, make a note of how long it will take in game time to reach each of these milestones and what effect it will have on the game world. Each milestone should have a noticeable effect on the world, which will allow the players to see what is going on and give them an opportunity to join in the plot. Now they don't have to jump in, but that will only further the NPCs agenda which may result in bigger problems down the line.

Week Ten
This also helps solve another problem that occurs in Sandbox gaming, inactive players. 

As I said earlier, the best case scenario is the players take a proactive role in guiding the story, the other side of that coin is that the players just sit there like deer in headlights. This is usually happens with players new to this style of gaming as they are waiting for you to give them the kick out the door. This is where the time line comes in handy as it allows you to walk a plot hook right up to them without forcing them to follow it. It's hard to do nothing when a horde of blood thirsty demons are running rampant through the town square.

Week Twelve
Go, Play, Have Fun!

Now you should be armed with everything you need to run a successful sandbox game, the only thing left to do is start playing, and of course check back here for more tips, tricks, and mindless rambling to further improve your gaming experience.

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