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Author Topic: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group  (Read 792 times)

Theory of Games

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Recently I started questioning my GM style and thanks to the sages here, have shifted my approach to running games. Instead of laying down railroad tracks my next adventure will be a collection of scenes with tons of player choice baked in.

Now:

1. How do you handle players who suffer "analysis paralysis" when faced with choices?

2. How do you handle when the party decides to set-up a tavern when the BBEG is preparing to burn the town?

3. Should I be giving each character multiple choices per scene OR present the choices to the party as a whole?

4. In your adventure premise do you tell the players secret events going on or do you keep it to yourself?

5. Of what value are "conflicted factions" (NPC groups at odds with each other) in your setting?

6. Say you have a Murderhobo® and a Diplomancer™ in the party. Do you allow them to dominate combat/social scenes in order to move forward or is that bad for the group?

Give me notes, folks and thanks in advance.

Pat

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2021, 10:20:29 am »
If the players are used to being passive receivers of media, they won't immediately become proactive and drive the plot. So start with a map. That's probably the single most important reason for the success of OD&D -- the core concept of the megadungeon provides a straightforward goal/premise for the players to latch onto, but then gives them almost infinite versatility in how they approach it. If they don't think about it, they might go in the main entrance and fight anything that moves. But they can choose the corridor to the left, or the corridor to the right, and flee when they start feeling overwhelmed. Over time, they'll realize they can negotiate, circle around, find alternative entrances and exits, what monsters to avoid and which might be particularly lucrative, follow up on rumors, choose whether to cautiously explore or fearlessly charge ahead, and so on. It teaches them, in small easy to grasp steps, how to make choices for themselves. It's also easy for DMs to run, because they don't have to develop a fully realized world, only a floorplan with some monsters. The wilderness hex crawl is the comparable aboveground version.

Having a dynamic world where things change over time is great, but avoid world-ending or town-ending plots. They don't work well with sandboxes. Design things so if the PCs don't follow your leads, the world goes on. It may change or morph, and they may miss an opportunity to shape the direction of the world or the local politics, but the standard cinematic villain who's going to destroy the city by morning unless the PCs intervene has only become a trope because poor writers use a lazy method to raise the tension.

Focus on the party. It's great to provide hooks that might interest specific characters, but the party is the most important unit.

It helps immersion to present things from the player's perspective. If the players don't pick up on all your secret schemes, don't infodump.

Factions are essential. The goal of a sandbox is setting up a situation, not setting up a plot. You need factions with diverse goals to make that happen.

Conflicts between player styles are social issues. Address them at the social level. The solution depends on what your players want.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2021, 10:36:08 am by Pat »

moonsweeper

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2021, 10:36:01 am »
1.  Wandering monster checks.  ;)

2.  Apparently, they will lose a chunk of invested money when their inn gets burnt down...

3.  Most should be to the party as a whole, but you also want some individual ones.  This means everyone will have to participate.

4.  Generally, you don't want the players themselves to know.  It makes adjusting on the fly easier. Have the PCs find out about some 'secrets' through NPCs in game, that way the players know there are things moving behind the scenes and they need to be proactive.  (This will help significantly with #1 & #2 above, if it occurs early in the campaign)

5.  They are great because it gives players more options for overcoming objectives, especially with lateral thinking.  It also gives you more leeway with behind the scenes adjustments.  (Rival organizations work well for getting players and their PCs secret information a la #4)

6.  Murderhobo:
       A) Make sure that combat is the acceptable solution in some instances.
       B) Make sure the PC suffers the real consequences of the actions when it is NOT appropriate.

      Diplomancer:
       A) Make sure noncombat solutions are on the table.
       B) Make sure the player understands that diplomacy does not function like a Geas/Charm
            Person/Dominate spell.  A +50 to diplomacy just means that the NPC will take what the PC
            says in the most favorable light for the PC. *



*  I like playing diplomancer/fast-talkers and I get really pissed when players think it is some sort of fucking 'Win' button.  It takes time (although a quick check may buy PCs a little time if combat is imminent) and the King ain't giving the PC his crown.  He will assume that the PC is applying for a position like court jester (best light) as opposed to thinking the PC is asking to be dealt with appropriately for trash-talking the Crown. (worst light)
« Last Edit: January 09, 2021, 10:38:25 am by moonsweeper »
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Chris24601

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2021, 12:39:51 pm »
My replies in Bold

Recently I started questioning my GM style and thanks to the sages here, have shifted my approach to running games. Instead of laying down railroad tracks my next adventure will be a collection of scenes with tons of player choice baked in.

Now:

1. How do you handle players who suffer "analysis paralysis" when faced with choices?

First and foremost, by not hitting them with too many options at once. Three is kinda the magic number here. If they trawling for rumors, give them 2-3 notable results.

i.e. “amidst the usual stories of the reeve’s not-so-secret affair, what the butcher is really putting into his sausage and the latest unusual goods the traveling merchant brought with him on this trip, three things stand out... Rumor 1, Rumor 2, and Rumor 3.”

Three prospects to pursue... or just ignore entirely... but not an infinite number.

Similarly, if you’re just dropping the starting PCs in a village, give it three paths out; one heads to the market town, one to the ruined castle from back when the territory was a borderland that’s rumored to be haunted and a third path off into dark woods where an oracle who grants wishes to those who pass her tests is said to reside.

Three opportunities; a trip to the “big city”, exploring a ruin or passing tests to maybe receive a wish or some other blessing. Sure they COULD just wander off along an untrod path, but those three should give them enough options to feel like they’ve got choices while still staying on a path you’ve created.


2. How do you handle when the party decides to set-up a tavern when the BBEG is preparing to burn the town?

First, clearly foreshadow the BBEG’s plans so the PCs know what they’re not doing anything about. Let them describe how their tavern will be set up and just give it them. Then fast-forward to the BBEG attacking the town and the PCs either having to defend their tavern or flee to avoid the force.

3. Should I be giving each character multiple choices per scene OR present the choices to the party as a whole?

it doesn’t have to be in every scene. Sometimes there’s a linear progression once a choice is made. The PCs choose the haunted castle, the only real choice the party needs after the first encounter is whether they wish to continue or retreat. Maybe the next chamber in gives them a choice of left or right passages. The right passage has a monster and a door on the opposite side so the choices are fight the monster, bargain with the monster, turn back to the left passage and turn back and go home.

That’s all the more choices you’ll really need.


4. In your adventure premise do you tell the players secret events going on or do you keep it to yourself?

Depends on the event. The big question to ask is, do you want the PCs to be able to intercede before the secret event is completed? If yes, then you need to drop clues. If not then just share the end result when it affects them.

Worth remembering... Anything involving more than a very small group is going to have someone say something to someone they shouldn’t and a rumor will spread. An army on the move? One hunter in the woods nearby who goes unseen and that news is rapidly spending across the countryside.


5. Of what value are "conflicted factions" (NPC groups at odds with each other) in your setting?

Depends on the setting. My ongoing Mage campaign lives off “conflicted factions” (almost all of whom are former PCs who’ve been retired) to the point that all I have to do as a GM is hear what the PCs are doing, figure out which factions that action will intersect with (oppose/support) and have the faction respond appropriately.

In my fantasy setting, it’s less important because the primary conflict is PCs versus the dangers within a Ruin.


6. Say you have a Murderhobo® and a Diplomancer™ in the party. Do you allow them to dominate combat/social scenes in order to move forward or is that bad for the group?

Ideally, everyone needs their opportunities to shine. More important than those titles though are the motivations behind them.

Is the murderhobo someone who’s playing the game to blow off steam? Are they trying to instigate events by killing people a reasonable person would find useful? Are they trying to prove they’ve built the most badass PC the rules will allow?

Blowing off steam in a game is healthy, so give them non-disruptive opportunities to do so is good for everyone. Throw in regular scenes where violence is the best option fairly regularly and make the motivations of those you don’t want them to kill plain. Have them run across bandits attacking a wagon on the road and, after killing the bandits, have the survivors in the wagon praise and thank them for their heroics. If you don’t want them attacking the guards at the gate, don’t go out of your way to present the encounter as a confrontation (ex. “the guards regard you with their typical gruffness and suspicious eyes, but wave you through the gates after a cursory inspection.”).

Instigators are killing because they can’t think of any better way to make things happen. The trick with them is to provide a few demonstrations where someone else causes more things to happen with a well-placed rumor than the death they caused. It won’t take long for them to start treating a well-placed murder as one tool of many rather than the go-to default.

Ones trying to challenge themselves can be shown alternative paths by not having opponents always fight to the death. Set up an encounter where the opposition runs as soon as each hits half hit points and the lot of them bug out once half their number have fled or been dropped.

Diplomancers are much the same, though their motivations will likely be different; trying to control the story or prove themselves better being very common. First, as a previous poster said, clarify that Diplomacy is not mind control. Second, play up the use of insight to determine motivations and cues within the encounter that can get the PC what they want if tugged on. Ex. A king worried about his southern border needs reassurances the border will hold before he’ll agree to send troops north. This gives the Diplimancer a way to beat the encounter (persuade them the king the southern border is secure), but doesn’t just hand it over as a free win because of a die roll.


Give me notes, folks and thanks in advance.

Philotomy Jurament

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2021, 01:30:56 pm »
1. How do you handle players who suffer "analysis paralysis" when faced with choices?

In the heat of combat or under time pressure? The probably lose their choice/initiative/whatever and the enemies (or circumstances) push the action along. Outside of a pressured situation? I'd offer the player some gentle guidance and suggestions, at least until they become more confident in making their choices. That could be direct from me as the DM, or it could take the form of NPC interaction, or whatever. Even then I'd try to reinforce the idea that "it's ultimately up to you and your decisions -- there may not be a 'correct' answer -- it's not that kind of game."

Quote
2. How do you handle when the party decides to set-up a tavern when the BBEG is preparing to burn the town?

The PCs can do what they want, but their choices have consequences. In this particular situation, I'd at least try to foreshadow or give them some indication that the town is under threat, unless there was some in-game/campaign reason that information wouldn't be available.

Quote
3. Should I be giving each character multiple choices per scene OR present the choices to the party as a whole?

I'm not sure I fully understand the question. I guess I usually don't think of their choices as a menu of discrete items that are presented to them. It's more like they're constantly making choices -- and that can often include things that I never considered or expected them to do. To me, the player choices are just kind of "baked in": it's whatever they decide to do in a given situation, whether I planned for that or not.

Quote
4. In your adventure premise do you tell the players secret events going on or do you keep it to yourself?

I keep it to myself unless there's some reason the PCs might hear about it or uncover it, or if I want them to hear about it.

Quote
5. Of what value are "conflicted factions" (NPC groups at odds with each other) in your setting?

Very important, in my opinion. When you set up such conflicts between NPC groups, you're setting up potential adventures and plot hooks and "role playing" interactions that you haven't even imagined, yet. By putting that potential into the setting you give the PCs all sorts of "handles" that they can get hold of and interact with the setting. If you imagine your campaign like a garden that grows and blooms, this kind of thing is rich fertilizer. You don't know exactly what will grow and bloom from it, but you can be certain it will have a big influence in promoting growth and blooms.

Quote
6. Say you have a Murderhobo® and a Diplomancer™ in the party. Do you allow them to dominate combat/social scenes in order to move forward or is that bad for the group?

To some degree, this is inevitable. Certain players (and certain PCs) will be more suited or enthusiastic about certain things. However, I do try to draw out "wallflower" players in the group and keep everyone involved and interested.
That rug really tied the room together, man.

Winterblight

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2021, 01:44:05 pm »
Now:

1. How do you handle players who suffer "analysis paralysis" when faced with choices?

I try not to give the players too many choices to start with. I might have dozens of encounters and situations ready to go, but the players don’t need to know every option open to them all at once.

Another thing I try to do at the beginning of each session is a recap of what happened in the last session and provide/remind the players of some loose ends they might have forgotten they were chasing up.

I like to mine my character’s backgrounds for ideas I think might interest them, then use hooks that the players are more likely to follow.


2. How do you handle when the party decides to set-up a tavern when the BBEG is preparing to burn the town?

If the party want to build a tavern, that’s on them. If the town gets burnt down, it’s likely their tavern is burnt down with it. Burning of the town shouldn’t’ be a complete surprise, however, they should have had a chance to figure out that something like that might be coming. Then, they might not build a tavern, they might try and prevent the attack, or they may help defend the town if they have built a tavern. Also, the tavern can then become the focus of defending the town. Tavern owners also hear all the town rumours, which should lead to further adventure.

One scene I’ve presented to different groups of players that have decided to open a tavern is that of another adventuring party arriving to meet their employer who proceeds to pass a large bag of gold across the table having hired them for some exciting quest.


3. Should I be giving each character multiple choices per scene OR present the choices to the party as a whole?

Present them to the party as a whole, but as above, add some hooks that an individual character might be more likely to bite at. Once one characters show an interest, I find the others will quickly follow.

4. In your adventure premise do you tell the players secret events going on or do you keep it to yourself?

Rumours are how I would present secret info to my players. Some of it will be false, some will have a modicum of truth. Rarely will I just hand over information that is better found by adventuring. If the characters are hired to do something, they might learn a little secret stuff up front, such as “we want you to kill the count – he’s a vampire. Everyone else who knows is dead”
The employer turns up dead the next evening with two holes in his neck.


5. Of what value are "conflicted factions" (NPC groups at odds with each other) in your setting?

Factions have been pivotal in my last few games. Having the player characters make enemies, allies and contacts with different factions more or less ends up generating additional adventure without me even having to come up with it. I tend to use favours as a currency when dealing with factions. Agreeing to do favours and being owed favours can lead to all manner of interesting consequences.

6. Say you have a Murderhobo® and a Diplomancer™ in the party. Do you allow them to dominate combat/social scenes in order to move forward or is that bad for the group?

It depends on the style of game you are playing. In my games, there are consequences to murder hoboing. Again, I find that if one player is proactive, the others tend to follow suit. None of my players tend to hog the limelight. In both cases, if there is dominant player, the party can be split, allowing each character to do their own thing. For example at a ball, the Diplomancer might be seen to hog the limelight – just what the thief wanted as he goes off and snoops around. In a dungeon, the murderhobo might cause such a ruckus that the rest of the group can leave him to it as they do their own thing.

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #6 on: January 09, 2021, 04:34:34 pm »
1-3:  I try to present situations instead of choices, but situations that obviously have some choices built in.  It's not quite the same thing.  If the players aren't used to this, it's better to make the obvious built-in choices not be something "fight or talk".  That's supposed to be on them to decide, not led.  Now, of course if the players aren't used to that style, it doesn't hurt to remind them when the session starts that fighting everything is a bad idea, talking and running are valid options, etc. 

If the players have previously fought all the time, and now fighting all the time is a bad idea, you'd better back that up in the game, too.  If they fight everything, they should lose pretty darn quick. Some people can be told that and some need to learn it the hard way. 

Instead, to encourage decision making, set up situations where the party can fight here or over there (location decision) or there are two fights already happening in two different spots (help potential allies A or B), that kind of thing.  Don't make the situations exactly symmetric, either.  We fight here at the forward gate and get the full brunt of the assault but have the advantage of defending the wall with allies or we fight there at the approach to the keep and probably can't be overrun but will be constricted.  You can do the same thing with talking and running, too.

4. I don't even tell players undiscovered secrets after the session/adventure/campaign is over.  I might reuse them some day.  I'll take a few gaming secrets to my grave.  Some bits of the campaign left undiscovered gives it a better punch.  Give the players generous and plentiful opportunities to discover things in game via talking to NPCs, finding documents, deciphering hints, etc.  If you really want them to at least start on a secret, break it down into parts and make the first part almost impossible to miss.  At least one player will likely misunderstand what the fragment means, but that can be fun too.

5. Of course.  Factions are the key to avoiding railroading while still providing a challenge.  Don't give yourself unlimited funds and minions in an organization, but you can be flexible within a broad categorization.  (Continent-spanning orgs probably have more options than an org confined to a single city, that sort of thing.)

6. I expect the players to work those kind of issues out within the limits we collectively agreed to when the campaign started.  I also expect there to be a little built-in friction between their characters, as it makes it far easier to run a faction game when each PC has a slightly different take on the factions. We talk about it before the game starts.  About half the games I run, I give bonus experience to players who go out of their way to involve other PCs in a scene.  The rest of the group being sidelined while a player indulges some pet idea is not good.  The group being involved is so important that it shouldn't be left to the GM to make it happen.

Theory of Games

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #7 on: January 09, 2021, 07:26:38 pm »
.... but avoid world-ending or town-ending plots. They don't work well with sandboxes.
Whys nots?

*  I like playing diplomancer/fast-talkers and I get really pissed when players think it is some sort of fucking 'Win' button.  It takes time (although a quick check may buy PCs a little time if combat is imminent) and the King ain't giving the PC his crown.  He will assume that the PC is applying for a position like court jester (best light) as opposed to thinking the PC is asking to be dealt with appropriately for trash-talking the Crown. (worst light)
Yeah I like my own Dips. Persuasion and Deception can be sharper than swords and arrows. I was worried about one player grabbing the spotlight and running off but, seems my concern is unfounded. Thanks.

SNIPPED
Delicious advice. Every bit. Thanx!

.... However, I do try to draw out "wallflower" players in the group and keep everyone involved and interested.
Great advice overall but, that last bit is a strong focus: getting the "passive gamer" to act is a challenge.

.... Rumours are how I would present secret info to my players. Some of it will be false, some will have a modicum of truth ....
I've had groups get irritated with 'Red Herrings' that lead nowhere. And it almost always leads to my needing to intro an NPC to clean things up. How do you handle players sitting down pissed about a bad clue you presented?

... About half the games I run, I give bonus experience to players who go out of their way to involve other PCs in a scene.  The rest of the group being sidelined while a player indulges some pet idea is not good.  The group being involved is so important that it shouldn't be left to the GM to make it happen.
This.Is.Crazy.

Stolen. Thanx!

Eirikrautha

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #8 on: January 09, 2021, 07:42:04 pm »
I've had groups get irritated with 'Red Herrings' that lead nowhere. And it almost always leads to my needing to intro an NPC to clean things up. How do you handle players sitting down pissed about a bad clue you presented?
Just because it doesn't lead to what the players expect doesn't mean it has to lead nowhere.  If the rumor suggests that you can find out about X by going somewhere, and it turns out that instead you find out about Y, now the players have more choices.  Do they continue on with X, switch to Y, etc.?  And you can introduce effects based on which they choose...

Theory of Games

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #9 on: January 09, 2021, 08:00:34 pm »
I've had groups get irritated with 'Red Herrings' that lead nowhere. And it almost always leads to my needing to intro an NPC to clean things up. How do you handle players sitting down pissed about a bad clue you presented?
Just because it doesn't lead to what the players expect doesn't mean it has to lead nowhere.  If the rumor suggests that you can find out about X by going somewhere, and it turns out that instead you find out about Y, now the players have more choices.  Do they continue on with X, switch to Y, etc.?  And you can introduce effects based on which they choose...
I was thinking "Red Herring" as "dead end". Your interpretation is something different. Like a clue that drives the party in a different direction. I do that a lot. But, what if the clue leads nowhere? Better to avoid that or no?

Eirikrautha

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #10 on: January 09, 2021, 08:08:58 pm »
I've had groups get irritated with 'Red Herrings' that lead nowhere. And it almost always leads to my needing to intro an NPC to clean things up. How do you handle players sitting down pissed about a bad clue you presented?
Just because it doesn't lead to what the players expect doesn't mean it has to lead nowhere.  If the rumor suggests that you can find out about X by going somewhere, and it turns out that instead you find out about Y, now the players have more choices.  Do they continue on with X, switch to Y, etc.?  And you can introduce effects based on which they choose...
I was thinking "Red Herring" as "dead end". Your interpretation is something different. Like a clue that drives the party in a different direction. I do that a lot. But, what if the clue leads nowhere? Better to avoid that or no?
Well, once again, it depends on your definition of "nowhere."  If they get an interesting encounter, a valuable but unrelated clue, a magic item, or just a stub adventure that leads to nothing else after that location, it can still be worth it.  If the party travels for a week and arrives at an empty lot... yeah, I'd avoid that...

Theory of Games

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #11 on: January 09, 2021, 08:27:59 pm »
I've had groups get irritated with 'Red Herrings' that lead nowhere. And it almost always leads to my needing to intro an NPC to clean things up. How do you handle players sitting down pissed about a bad clue you presented?
Just because it doesn't lead to what the players expect doesn't mean it has to lead nowhere.  If the rumor suggests that you can find out about X by going somewhere, and it turns out that instead you find out about Y, now the players have more choices.  Do they continue on with X, switch to Y, etc.?  And you can introduce effects based on which they choose...
I was thinking "Red Herring" as "dead end". Your interpretation is something different. Like a clue that drives the party in a different direction. I do that a lot. But, what if the clue leads nowhere? Better to avoid that or no?
Well, once again, it depends on your definition of "nowhere."  If they get an interesting encounter, a valuable but unrelated clue, a magic item, or just a stub adventure that leads to nothing else after that location, it can still be worth it.  If the party travels for a week and arrives at an empty lot... yeah, I'd avoid that...
So no Red Herrings. Got it.

Pat

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #12 on: January 09, 2021, 08:54:14 pm »
.... but avoid world-ending or town-ending plots. They don't work well with sandboxes.
Whys nots?
Because sandboxes are designed around player choice. You create some options, and the players may choose any of them, or even none of them, and strike off in an entirely new direction. If some of those options lead to the end of the campaign if the players don't bite, that's terrible design. Like I said, the prevalence of world-ending plots in cinema and other forms of media, and even in railroady RPGs, is lazy writing. Keep the stakes smaller. A kidnapped friend can be as compelling as a gate that unleashes Hell. In general, the threats should be proportional to the power and influence of the PCs. If they're small fry, then stick to personal and local stakes. If they're national players, then national threats can be appropriate. But don't hang everything on the players following up on one hook.

That doesn't mean your campaign should be static, but it shouldn't be the villain of the week that drives the change. Thing longitudinally, and have the world evolve organically. The players may or may intervene, and may or may not be able to do anything. There can be background players and grand threats building over time, but they should have a life of their own and not just be the latest scenario.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2021, 08:56:04 pm by Pat »

Philotomy Jurament

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #13 on: January 09, 2021, 09:32:56 pm »
One time things in the campaign were working out such that there was obviously going to be a war. The PCs were a very mercenary kind of group, with no oaths sworn to any temporal lords or kings or anything like that. However, to my surprise they were completely uninterested in the coming war. In fact, they dusted off the "Isle of Dread" treasure map they'd found previously, bought a ship, and left the area entirely. That was fun, too, but it definitely left me with quite a bit of wasted prep. :lol:

I guess that's another thing to mention: don't fall in love with your prep. The player choices can take the game in directions you didn't anticipate or prepare.
That rug really tied the room together, man.

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Dr. Sandbox or: how I learned to stop worrying and trust my group
« Reply #14 on: January 09, 2021, 10:05:54 pm »
So no Red Herrings. Got it.

You can have Red Herrings.  Just don't manufacture any of them yourself.  If you create plenty of situations that reek of ambiguity and options, the players will make intuitive leaps.  Some of those leaps will be incorrect.  A few of those they will chase in the belief that they are real.  Let them.  They've pulled that red herring out of the drink all by themselves. :)

Note however that there is a difference between wasting real time on a red herring versus wasting characters' time in the game.  If they chase a red herring hard, you don't necessarily need to spend a major portion of the session resolving it (unless in the pursuit of it they find something else of interest or danger, of course).