This post came about from my thoughts on the graph in Runeslinger’s Spectrum of Play  article, as well as his Right Way to Game posts. The first has been reblogged here on The Black Campbell, but you can pop over to his Casting Shadows page to read more. His YouTube channel is probably even more useful.

There’s a lot of thought and opinion spilled into the series of tubes on how to play role playing games. The main point of contention is between those who like a game with a defined plot versus the “sandbox”, or a style of play in which the environment and the players’ actions (hopefully) give rise to some kind of adventure.

…we each will have our favorite ways to go about [gaming], and among the voices talking about them there may be some strident calls for one way over an other…The next step was to address the nature of the play environment itself with a look at the concepts of the sandbox and the defined narrative

The quote is from Anthony Boyd (or Runeslinger), over at Casting Shadows. He has cobbled together a rather elegant continuum of play styles that address this argument. He separates the issue into matters of player agency — how much effect the player has on the narrative and outcome of a game; and defined story spectrum. I found the chart instructive in that if well describes how the the power  relationships of a role playing game between players and a game master/storyteller/etc.. or between players, is dependent on how well defined the story is. 


I found this chart particularly pertinent after my recent post on a comparison test of the Firefly (Cortex) and Serenity (Cortex Plus) rules from Margaret Weis Production. In that test, we found that aspects of the system designed to spread narrative control, while fun, seemed to hamper the coherency of the story. 

He points out that …we like what we like, and given choice, we tend to pick our favorite options over the rest… Some new game may draw us in with its setting, but push us in a new or formerly avoided direction with its mechanics…” This was certainly part of the issue the gaming group had with Firefly — we’ve run Cortex for quite some time and have found it (mostly) to be an excellent set of rules for creating nuanced characters and handling most scenarios for an adventure. When it falls down, though, it tends to do it hard. One of those genres it did not handle well was superheroes. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying may have been a busy system with a lot of moving parts, but it emulated the flavor of comic books near perfectly. Firefly we all wanted to like…but we like what we like, and in this case, for not over the top science fiction, we like Cortex (the Battlestar Galactica or Cortex 1.1 version.)

But why was that the case? Partly it was a preference in most of the group for stories that have some kind of defined plotline to an episode and the campaign overall, while still allowing for character action to sharply change the outcome of the same. Firefly — like Fate and many of the new wannabe-artsy “indie” games — does that, but the ability of the players to set complications and assets added new visions of the plot that aren’t necessarily well-meshed with what has been ongoing.

To use a cinema or television analogy, you have too many writers in the writers’ room and not a strong enough head writer or executive producer to contain their disparate visions of the story or universe. All those shows that “jumped the shark” by wandering off course badly; nearly ever movie you’ve seen where you leave saying “it was so close to good!” is the result of multiple writing teams working to please a different audience in the production or direction staff of the show or movie. (Case in point: Spaight’s excellent draft for what would be Prometheus versus the disaster of Lindelof’s final script, coupled with Scott’s last minute changes.) Too many cooks, as the expression goes, spoils the soup.

In the chart above are two bands of specific points along a spectrum of implementation options ranging from ‘none’ to ‘total.’ I believe if you let your eyes roam across these bands, it should be pretty easy to spot roughly where your basic preferences lie. With a little effort, it should also be possible to spot where specific games require you to be to run them as intended. This might be useful in assessing if a game will be suitable for your group, or if an idea you have for a game will flow like you want within its confines, but I feel it has better uses yet. From my  perspective, it might offer a hint as to why a given campaign or group is or isn’t working for you, but will really shine when used to help add a new kind of scene, scenario, or mood to your toolbox of techniques.

This point is particularly well thought out. A quick look at the chart puts my gaming style at 3-4 on the player agency and the narrative of the chart. This suggests that the indie, GM-less systems aren’t going to be my cup of tea. The main reason: I really cut my teeth as a GM on espionage games where the villains had a specific plan, the players would investigate to uncover and stop it, and to emulate the spy movies we were aping, I had to design (and still do from time to time) my adventure around specific action set pieces, exposition scenes, and a denouement that was usually quasi-planned out. Player actions might cut some of these scenes, force me to add others, or change the ending, but there was an outline of “things that should happen…”

Think of it as similar to building rooms in a dungeon. The players can choose where to go, in what order and manner, but the very definition of the space and the hazards is essentially a plot based on action set pieces. So despite the appearance of a sandbox-like environment, dungeon crawling is in many ways the most restrctive – story-wise — an RPG can get. Players can have almost total agency in what they do, but ultimately the act of wandering the space of the adventure constructs action.

The sandbox gaming style is much more collaborative and reduces the role of the gamemaster or storyteller to an equal, or “but is more equal than others” position wherein they act as referee at most. This certainly has its place, but I have yet to see this style of play hold together a long-term campaign outside of LARP circles, where the gaming environment and the larger number of people require a more cooperative approach to character interaction.

The idea that your play style might dictate the sort of game you will like should seem self-evident, but is it when you are looking over the games in your LGS (or more likely perusing DriveThru these days…)? Firefly is a setting all of our gaming group enjoy, but the mechanics forced us further right on the player agency spectrum that most of us were comfortable with. I found it didn’t so much effect my style of gamemastering, but the complications mechanic forced me into narrative corners I had to duck and weave to get out of.

I’ve played in campaigns — a Shadowrun game leaps to mind from the ‘90s — where it was mostly sandbox. We were nearly all the way right on the narrative — there was a proposal put before the group we could take or leave (but wanting to do more than hang out at the bar and trade quips, we took the job) and we had to plan and execute the job with no GM input. The GM style was so hands off that the guy disappeared for about an hour and we found him working under his old project Porsche 911… Not the sort of engagement that brings folks together. The players were fully in control of the narrative for the session, and what happened is one or two of the people at the table naturally took on the “leader” role from the GM so that when he came back to the table and tried to referee the big action scene, he discovered we had managed to plan it out well enough to overcome the opposition with ease, and he obviously started moving the goal posts. It was frustrating for everyone — too many cooks in the kitchen. A modern GM might have allowed the success to happen and tried to set something up to go wrong later, or with a system like Fate tossed a complication in that would bite the players later.

In the end, is there a right way to game? No…but there is a right way for you and/or your group to game. It’s worth venturing out of your confort zone from time to time to see if you like something that isn’t quite what you are used to. I’ve been on a mission to try and like Fate, of late — both Atomic Robo and Mindjammer use it, and I like the settings…but the mechanics just don’t jive with how I or my group tend to play.

And that’s alright.