emergent plot – stirring up the sandbox

Aye, I know. I dropped the “P” four letter word in the post title of a supposedly OSR blog. The OSR police will come here with their 1d100 hirelings wielding glaive-guisarmes and hook-fauchards and lay siege to my parents’ place (I’m visiting) until I repent or burn my copies of Ravenloft and Tales of the Lance (those fools don’t know the dungeon/basement has a hidden exit).

Anyway: as previously mentioned IMVHO one of the most important hats DMs have to wear is the MC one: ensuring that everything’s running smoothly and that everybody’s having a good time. Not winning, but enjoying. Most importantly, keep the game going and provide players with stuff to interact with, while feeling more and more a part of the game world and able to intervene on it. Deconstructing the game to its bones you just need to provide players with 1-3 “encounters/events/interactions” for every gaming hour.

One of the most productive ways to do this, for me, is to come up with overly ambitious NPCs and villains, and to make sure their brilliant secret plans to fame/sex/their parents’ approval/gratification/power/gold/munchies are coherent with the setting: this way, for scarcity of resources, as there’s only so much land/gold/etc available, conflict will arise, and the NPCs will be at each other’s throat in no time. Note that NPCs might not even know that they have conflicting plans, or who is opposed to them and in which way, or even that there are opponents… I’ll call these kind of NPCs “big players” (call them factions if you want, but they’re not factions di per se).

Best bit, they’ll be hiring PCs to do the hard/nasty work: this way PCs will possibly ingratiate their patron, get money and experience, push forward the patron’s plans and set back his opponents. Doing this they’ll get a bit of reputation (good or bad) as the words of their deeds spread, eventually being known to other big players in the campaign, which will try to interact with them in various ways: murder, bribes, blackmail, appeasing and so on. This should “automagically” create something that looks like a plot, making it emerge straight from the interactions between campaign elements. The situation should be unstable so that players tipping in a direction or the other can cause things to happen differently.

It might be that PCs will understand what’s going on and decide (probably later in the campaign) NOT to be hired, but to play their own part in the big game, becoming “big players” themselves in what’s “traditionally” D&D endgame (or Ars Magica first “summer” and then “autumn” Covenant seasons).

The most typical way to propel the plans are either “trigger driven” or “time driven”:

  • Trigger driven: things happen when player’s actions (or inaction) trigger them; for example, the Tyrant of Syrak decides to send his war navy to blockade Marchil when the PCs arrive to Syrak, just in time to see the galleons leaving the harbour in full sail, or even better to join them as privateers.
  • Time driven: NPCs do things all the time, interacting with the PCs just by in-game means; for example, the first of March the Emperor sets his armies off to new campaigns, armies that will take a proper number of days of overland travel to reach their destinations, a proper number of days to lay siege to cities and so on. As the time goes by, other “big players” will react accordingly as either their minions will report to them or simply rumors spread.

Note that in both cases I deliberately made the action noticeable to the players, either through rumors or direct interaction: making developments noticeable to players is very important, and justifies spending money for spies and the like. Some kind of rumor mill is needed, possibly with the players spending resources toward having better information sources. Of course some information will be worth a lot.

A simple example follows:

Up and Down the East Coast

  • On the East Coast there are two Kingdoms (North and South), separated by tribes of marauding orcs.
  • Kingdom South has lots of alpacas and needs iron for its heavy cavalry. King South is an epicurean slob, but cares much about his people, who loves him back (mainly because of light taxation and reasonable justice system and code of laws).
  • Kingdom North has iron and needs nice and warm textiles because winters there are horrible. King North is very greedy and (as you’ll read) has a nice business going on.
  • Kingdom N and S are very good commercial partners and enjoy a long military alliance against the orcs. There is a sound that would enable them to trade by sea avoiding to sail around the big Isle of Nasty Waters, but it is home to a strangely active dragon (currently trying to assemble a big hoard to attract a mate). No one goes in the Dragon Sound… almost no one.
  • Oversea trading is done via the Trading League, a trust of ship-owners owning galleons seaworthy enough to double the Isle of Nasty Waters. They have bought out, brought in or sunk all other trading companies in the two kingdoms, and talked the kings into taxing imports not coming from the the kingdoms, resorting to pretty much anything to keep on being the real “king of the hill”.
  • Marks on the borders of the two kingdoms would like to be independent, squish the orcs, grab & settle on their lands and join in a league, thus securing an inland trade route. If they could get rid of the dragon they could also secure the Dragon Sound, the Isle of Bad Waters and make the Trading League’s operations less viable unless they get a nice share.
  • Independent pirates try to capture ships for ransom around the Isle of Bad Waters, sometimes fleeing in the sound, where they pay the dragon for protection. They could team up and settle in the sound, as the kingdoms’ war navies are not that big.
  • In the North big landowners are a bit grumpy because of the trading guild, as local winterflax (a kind of flax that lives north) is not commercially viable anymore. Their distance from their Capital makes them not really politically powerful or active. The King doesn’t care as he owns the iron mines, financing fortresses and mercenaries with money gotten from the mines and its thieves guild.
  • Said mercenaries can kick orc asses before breakfast, no sweat, but want to be paid. Or else.
  • The Archery Commanders in the South see the whole heavy cavalry thing as an overly expensive exercise that not only takes away a lot of their prestige, but makes the South Kingdom reliant on foreigners to equip their army, and would like for this shenanigans started by young hipsters to stop and return to the old traditional mounted archer. The “new” heavy cavalry Commanders are a smart bunch of young and brave officers that study military theory, fight very effectively (think winged hussars) and are a bit annoyed at their gramps using strategies and tactics from a few centuries ago.
  • Two thieves guilds (one per city) buy stuff from the pirates and, at times, sinks or capture foreign ships or buy their mutiny; this is done mainly to fix prices (at times both guilds and the trade league act in concert) and both have vast hoards of iron and wool hidden in both cities and their surroundings: the relative scarcity is at the moment created by the Trading League and the Guilds. The North Guild secretly pays his king a quarter of its gains every season, also secretly recruiting spellcasters to curse the local nobles and their lands so that winterflax doesn’t grow well, while the South Guild is tolerated by his king and nobles as they source them with the good stuff anytime they want. Or else.
  • When the players will realize the stupid amount of gold and iron the dragon is sleeping on, they’ll start drooling over themselves.
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5 thoughts on “emergent plot – stirring up the sandbox

  1. There is a difference between plot and story. A plot is a plan that will be altered by what the players do. A story is something a gamemaster tries to jam his player in while they ride the rails.

    You are doing OK with your plot, don’t change a thing until the players starts to unravel it. ;)

    • OMG ROBERT CONLEY! :D

      I can understand your point but, for my concern, plot and story are an explanation of the events (plot) and a specific telling of a part of those events (story), regardless of their “resilience to players’ activities”: I used “plan” to indicate the result of “npc plotting”. Yeah, I’m so not a native English speaker. :)

      The important thing is that, in the example, the events play out in a way that is emergent and player-driven: their actions are a factor in determining the outcome of the campaign events. The polar opposite is not the railroad, but campaign where events will happen regardless of the players’ actions. The real point of a sandbox is, for me, not “go anywhere”, but “actions and inaction have consequences”.

      Anyway, the is just a small example I put together for this post; my players are reading and I can’t really use my real campaign details :)
      What is happening in the campaign is less complex (as in less convoluted interactions), but harder to handle (as players are very combat focused and apparently aren’t entertained much by scheming or trying to understand what happens when rumours of their deeds spread).

    • Funny, I would make the opposite definition of Rob’s. That a plot is something someone comes up with beforehand, and a story is something someone tells after.

      I think what Paolo is saying is that the “plots” by this definition should be the NPC’s, not the GM’s.

  2. I very much agree on the distinction between plot (of which there are many in a world of any verisimilitude) and story (which ideally would be only of the players’ choices). I also very much agree that a key to sandbox verisimilitude is that choices have consequences.

    But to me, _emergent_ plots are ones that arise from play. As I understand the term, your post is about npcs with agendas which are set plots, not emergent. Sorry to interrupt a cogent post on world building with opinionated semantics (but what are blogs for?)

    I would call it emergent plot if the players uncover evidence about the agendas of the npcs and then take on a cause on player chosen impetus.

    My own take on this in two posts from last March:
    http://redbeardsravings.blogspot.com/2010/03/story-and-drama-in-sandbox.html
    http://redbeardsravings.blogspot.com/2010/03/sandbox-in-action.html

    • My point was really to have NPCs with agendas that adapt to what happens in the game world and to make sure that PCs action can affect the game world with their action in a meaningful way.

      “Emergent” is used in the post as in “having qualities that can’t be simply reduced to its constituent parts” or, simply, “complex/having complex internal interaction”. As in “how come after the Dragon of the Sound was killed the Trading League split up and a number of north kingdom nobles plotted to kill the king, while in the south a civil war started?”

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