Adam Dray (adamdray) wrote,

D&D: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails

ThadeousC on Twitter posed the following problem:
I really didn’t think my thoughts would turn into such a big deal; when I shared them on twitter they sparked a discussion spanning a few hours time. The frustration with the 140 character limit had driven me to bring the conversation here to my site.

What was said? I initially posed a question: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?” and I followed up the question with my own reply: “In an attempt to run a more open game my players are allowed to go where they want. Which means they might end up over their heads.”
I'm joining the fray of his "blog carnival" with my two cents and my own rules. I can't understand theirs but you can read some responses to ThadeousC here and here.

The gist of the argument goes that players should be allowed to take their characters wherever in the game world they want, even if it means running into encounters that are grossly inappropriate (too difficult) for them. Some arguments given in favor of this are:
  • to create tension, "just by knowing that there are places too dangerous to explore" [ThadeousC]

  • to increase players' feelings of accomplishment, having defeated a monster that defeated them before

  • to create a world that doesn't feel like it's built to cater to the player characters

  • to create game play that feels more like fiction (the Tolkien analogy)

I think there are better ways to do all of these things.

If you want to create tension and make the world seem dangerous, tell the players how dangerous certain areas are. If they head off to Dragon Pass, just say, "Are you sure? It's full of 20th level dragons." If they go anyway, hey, it's their funerals. One of the articles argues that the DM should be giving clues to the players that they're about to enter a dangerous area. Why? Is the argument that these clues always exist? If not, isn't this just another kind of catering to the players (see below), especially combined with "if you run, you always escape successfully" DM fiat.

If you want to increase the players' feelings of accomplishment, just make encounters balanced but on the challenging side. They're not going to win every encounter. They will have to run every once in a while. Then they can go back and get revenge.

If you're afraid of making the world feel like it's built to cater the players, well... okay, I don't have a better solution for this. My feeling is "get over it." The fantasy world is made to cater to the players! But the concern is that it doesn't feel that way, which is some kind of illusionist trick, right? I sense this is some kind of "realism" argument couched in other terms. Can you have areas that PCs clearly are not ready for, and just tell players not to go there yet unless they're ready to face certain doom, and still maintain that realism? How much do you have to hide from the players to make it feel realistic?

Anyway, what is this idea that every encounter is built for the players to win? and not challenge them? I think it's a straw man. Every version of the rules I've ever read suggests that encounters should be a good mix of easy to very hard, and that if players are not smart, they could well find themselves in a lot of trouble. In many encounters, a few bad die rolls could easily spell death for our heroes, regardless of how the DM balanced things.

If you want to make game play feel more like the fiction, then you're going to have to make the escapes as exciting and as dramatically important as the fights. D&D has pretty crappy escape rules. Probably because escape isn't very interesting most of the time. In most versions of D&D, as far as I can remember, the success or failure of an escape is pretty much left to the DM to decide. So the DM is left with a few choices: a) make up escape rules, b) decide by fiat (with a chance that the PCs die) and risk angering players, c) decide the players always escape but make it seem more dangerous (basically illusionism) and hope they don't wise to the fact that you're not gonna let them die if they're willing to run away.

Let's face it, in old-school D&D, you weren't expected to escape. If you ran into a monster too powerful for your party, it was a total party kill and you rolled new characters. All this talk of realism and what-not never really mentions a TPK as an acceptable outcome. "Oh, you wandered into Dragon Pass. Two ancient red dragons swoop down and *rollrollroll* you all take 185 points of damage from the fire strafe. Too bad, so sad."

I would also argue that Tolkien's characters did not have to "level up" before they could face the obstacles that blocked them. They just needed to find another path, thus the obstacle was not too challenging for them. Still, it's folly to compare literature to gaming. Tolkien never had to risk his hobbits to a roll of the dice. He knew that they'd win in the end, because he held the pen. He also didn't have to share story creation with a bunch of other players or a DM.

One of the blog posts used video games as an example. Video games let players roam around and run into monsters they're definitely not ready to handle. At the same time, these designers also "zone" the world so that you mostly can deal with the stuff your character runs into. There are clear signs that you're entering a zone built for tougher characters. Video games also give you multiple lives, "save" points and restarts. Clearly, the analogy breaks down.

A lot may depend on the version of D&D you're playing, too. If you're playing an old-school version (say, AD&D 1E or before), it's probably appropriate to let the bodies pile up. Crunch all you want; the players will roll up more. If you're playing 2E, just stop. If you're playing 3E or Pathfinder, the game really isn't designed for easy balance of encounters, anyway. You might think an encounter is fair and the PCs wash over it without a sweat; or on the other side of things, an "easy" encounter might turn out to be seriously life-threatening for the PCs. D&D 4E is pretty well "balanced" compared to other editions, and the rules are definitely designed for tactical play. Is part of the challenge for players knowing when to run? Should this knowledge be based purely on in-character knowledge or can or should players bring meta knowledge to bear? "I read the MM and know this creature is 10th level! Let's get out of here!"
Tags: dnd, gaming
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