Four mirror scenarios and two groups

edited April 2017 in Play Advice
(Before you start to read, two things.
1. This is about one particular difference between Impro and Sandbox. Rails is another thing and will be or other threads. Fairness in challenges, likewise.

2. When you answer, if you can't make arrows, which I won't be able to myself when I'm writing on the phone later, use t, as in "HtD" for "H→D".

That's all. Thanks.)

Four mirror scenarios

In common for all four scenarios: the players find a mirror, they believe it's dangerous, they treat it with the utmost respect, they try to use it as a weapon against bullywugs by tricking them into doing to what the players believe is a dangerous thing; looking in the mirror.

"Harmless": the mirror is a scrying mirror that can spy into the lich's bathroom.

"Dangerous": the mirror teleports whoever looks at it into a trap -- a trap that can be defeated, but can be lethal -- and then crack.
H→D
The mirror was harmless, but after seeing the players try to use it as a weapon, the DM decides it's dangerous for the bulliwugs.
D→D
The mirror was dangerous all along and the DM describes it consistently.
H→H
The mirror was harmless all along and the DM describes it consistently.
D→H
The mirror was dangerous, but after seeing the players try to use it as a weapon, the DM decides it's harmless for the bulliwugs.
(In our game, D→D happened. I've checked the module.)

Two groups

The "Impro" group. Loves Johnstone and was down since day one in the seventies, think Walmsley is a Johnny-come-lately stating the obvious.

Their goal in playing is to create something that sounds cool to themselves, or, sometimes, to a podcast or video audience. A good, serious, dramatic, sad, or zany story is what they're after. This doesn't mean they don't want bleed, because they like that and they often achieve it. But, they want the things that happen to be relevant and, well, cool.

The "Sandbox" group. Plays as if the dungon was real and want to interact with the things down there and experience the consequences of what they do.

The two groups meet the mirror

In the "Impro" group H→D and D→H is dope AF. The facilitator has listened to their creative choices, and built the narrative on that. "Damn straight, the players came up with the idea to put the mirror on their cart to use as a weapon, that's something I can work with!" and H→D is an obvious reward of this with a cool consequence.

One thing that might go counter to the intuition of more "adventure"-style roleplayers is that D→H is also a way to validate the players narration. It's an ironic punchline and it's playing with status in the typical impro fashion. The heroes' "oh so clever" idea fizzled, and the mirror they had been so afraid uf turns out to just be a funny mirro into the lich's bathroom. The bulliwugs laugh at it for a while and then attack the heroes. Perfect twist in a classic skit.

The facilitator has been true to the impro ideal of holding her ideas lightly (quite possibly there never even was an H→D, just a [?]→D with maybe a very vague idea of a scrying mirror or a magical trap) and instead be open to the players narrative input and ready to change her narration accordingly. If the facilitator had instead clung tightly to her D→D or H→H, that would've been blocking the players, ignoring their input, and be contrarian. It's no deathly sin, perhaps, but it sort of invalidates the presence of the players as co-storytelling portrayers of the heroes lives and times.

In the "Sandbox" group, it's conversely D→D and H→H that's the right play. The players made their choices, they treated the mirror as dangerous, they took a risk to slowly slowly pick it up even though the place was littered with skellies (that probably got attracted to the party's loud thumping on the floor tiles to find pit traps) and by looking away when they carefully touch the glass surface even though they risk having their hands sucked into a dimension of gnashing teeth, and even though they're risking missing important info that might've been in that mirror or etched on the surface of that mirror by keeping the cloth on. Maybe they're missing a map? But they choose this risk. D→D and H→H are the plays that validate their choices by giving those choices consequences and weight.

That D→H is unfair against these players is perhaps not surprising. They've come up with something smart, but the DM takes it away because "it's OP" or because "it makes the scenario too easy" or any one of a thousand reasons that bad DMs ("bad" from the expectations of the "Sandbox" group) tell themselves to do things like that.

That H→D, too, is an invalidation of the players choices might not be obvious, but here's the reasoning. Even if H→D makes the fight against the bulliwugs 20% cooler and even if it rewards the party for a cool idea, it makes their behaviour when they first encountered the mirror a bit meaningless. They chose to treat the mirror as dangerous and they invested dearly in that. By doing that, they took the risk that it might've been unnecessary (or even counter-productive, if there was some info there in the mirror). The mirror scene had a tension because they risked failure. By removing that failure, the players behavior was invalidated.

Conclusion

The "Impro" group creates a story about an interesting dungeoneering expedition. The "Sandbox" group pretends that they are in the dungeon. By all means, try both styles, but don't mix them up. They need to be handled in different ways. And make sure people at the table are on board with what you're doing.

Comments

  • Just a quick note, in case it confuses people:

    D→HThe mirror was harmless, but after seeing the players try to use it as a weapon, the DM decides it's dangerous for the bulliwugs.
    This should, presumably, read something like the below:

    D→H is also a way to validate the players narration. It's an ironic punchline and it's playing with status in the typical impro fashion. The heroes' "oh so clever" idea fizzled, and the mirror they had been so afraid [o]f turns out to just be a funny mirro[r] into the lich's bathroom. The bulliwugs laugh at it for a while and then attack the heroes. Perfect twist in a classic skit.
  • Great stuff Sandra, I think this is all pretty solid.

    But there's one thing – you mentioned [?]tD or [?]tH in your section on impro. Is that also contrary to Sandbox play? Should a Sandbox GM go through everything in their Sandbox and label it (figuratively) either H or D? Obviously this is totally impractical, but in principle what is best practice?
  • I dig this breakdown, Sandra.

    Personally, I would turn all your absolute statements into "usually" or "probably" but I dunno if it's useful to run through all the exceptions I perceive here.

    I guess I could say that I agree with your representation of the relevant goals and concerns 100%, but I only agree with your prescriptions for addressing them 83.3%
  • Great stuff Sandra, I think this is all pretty solid.

    But there's one thing – you mentioned [?]tD or [?]tH in your section on impro. Is that also contrary to Sandbox play? Should a Sandbox GM go through everything in their Sandbox and label it (figuratively) either H or D? Obviously this is totally impractical, but in principle what is best practice?
    Seems to me like you want two things:

    1) A general heuristic for what *sorts* of things you'd really better not ever have a ? about. In most D&D-type stuff, magic items are definitely one of those things. Monsters, too--not that you always need to know the exact location of each group of monsters (see below!), but you probably need to have on hand going in a sense of the exact range of possible monsters that might be encountered in this area.

    2) Some sort of process for answering those questions that do inevitably arise during play. Random tables is a popular one.
  • Yep, there's no way to avoid having [?] in your game. It's all about understanding how and why that turns into D or H (or whatever else), and doing that in a disciplined way.

    Here's an example of a disciplined way, which may or may not apply to any particular type of Sandbox play:

    * Whenever something hasn't been prepped or thought about, assume an outcome which is (within the scope or reasonable outcomes) as beneficial to the players' interest as possible.

  • I've got this new theory brewing about trying to prep "salient" things. The effect of a magic mirror is salient (just writing down 'roll on the random magical effect table' is fine too), things like the color of the cloth and whether or not the mirror has a (non-valuable) frame isn't. In D&D, things can become salient at any time. The idea is to make your best effort. It's a "spirit vs letter" thing. If the players unravel the cloth, the DM must make a ruling then and there how much thread they get.

    An example I've used is if the players are in a meadow in front of a well they can climb down into, and they ask what flowers or vegetation is there. The DM, sorting this as 'fluff', just makes it up. If, later, pixies that are only interested in one kind of flower to cast spells or something enter the campaign, from that day on, the DM should use a table or other random method to determine what flowers are there.


    Here's an analogy. Ordinary playing cards. Now, the prep rule is that the DM is free to describe the pictures on the playing cards "the jack of clubs, dressed in a completely jawdropping purple suit, gazes at you with a pair of eyes more beautiful than handsome". The DM can't decide that it's a nine of clubs (in the gloracle idiom, that is -- obv other idioms have their own rules). If later, there is some rule about numbers of eyes on jacks, that's something the DM from then on can't make up on the spot anymore. Or the beautifulness, or the color purple.

    And by "rule", it could be mechanical ("poppy seeds restore 1HP each to the pixie") or a particular mission or similar ("bring me the head of a beautiful man and I'll grant you a plot of land!").

    Folks, I'm this extreme because I'm writing down a compass, an ideal. I've messed it up several times. I improvised a surveillance system and the players thought "Well, this clearly is the most valuable thing in the dungeon, let's take it" and I thought they were right. The value and specifics of those orbs I should've prepped -- always prep "toys" and monsters, that's a pretty good start. Another time, arguably a bigger mistake, I was just using the general idea that buildings and furniture in a particular area had a physics defying or out-of-place:ish appearance in some way. Usually light fell on it "wrongly". I went too far by having one of the buildings being covered in a time-stopping liquid that the players tried to extract. (Having that liquid in the game is fine, but introducing an element that salient through improvisation was a breach.)

    I don't lose sleep over it (only literally). I'm trying to get a feel for what's definitely going to be salient and what's probably not going to be. And be ready for that to change.
  • Another try:

    All DMs regardless of RISS corner need to improvise sometimes. The question is why they make the call or ruling that they do? That will affect the calls and rulings significantly. An Impro DM would, as late as possible, choose the mirror coutcome that best fosters creativity around the table and fosters the created narrative. A Sandbox SL would commit to a mirror effect as early as possible in order to foster the integrity of the game world and the consequences of the character's mimetic choices.

    For an RPG player/facilitator/DM that holds the view that nothing is real until it's stated at the table (the "no myth" theory of gaming, or "phenomenalist"), this might be a completely alien concept to them.

    I've seen DMs that, in this "phenomenalist"/"no myth" vein, don't commit to monster HP. They just put a big X or special symbol there. Then they let the monster die when it feels appropriate, they try to get the feel for what sounds like the killing blow from a player character. Of course, to me, that raises the question: Why does the player then even need to bother with numbers, additions and rolling? They could just narrate their attacks and the DM describe the outcome. You'd be playing Everway at that point. And that's a fine game, too.

    But for some games, it's important to commit to the monster's HP before the players engage with the monsters. They might want to flee them, talk to them, or try to attack them or trick them. Weirdly enough, it's important to commit the HP number even before any blows are exchanged. Because the encounter has already started as soon as one party sees the other; trying to talk, or be diplomatic, are actions too, actions that could've been spent whittling down that HP.

    And the monster's HP is important, but so are the monster's attacks. And the mirror's magical effect, or lack thereof(maybe it's a non-magical mirror but with a map painted inside (between the glass and the silver), or maybe it's just a mundane mirror), is its "stats". Therefore, it's important to commit to the mirror's effects before the players engage with the mirror.

    Again, you can be a fine DM for the Impro group using Impro methods. Just get your players on board and go have fun (or "go have serious dramatic moments", if that's more appropriate).

    But Sandra, what if the players are fighting normal spear-wielding skeletons, and halfway through the fight, the DM gets it into her head that one of the skeletons also have a wand of fireballs and blasts that at the party? That's fine, isn't it? And isn't that the same as deciding on the mirror's effect in the last possible moment?

    Yes, it's the same, but whether it's fine or not depends on your game's policy. Decide on a policy and let your players know. If you go: "I'm going to buff and nerf my monsters mid-combat, and I'm going to decide which floor tiles are trapped after seeing which you step on, and I'm going to decide which doors have the tiger and which doors have the lady after you choose which to open" and the players go "Cool!", then you're all set. You've found the group for you. Many groups thrive in that style. They're doing Johnstone-style impro with RPG tropes.

    And if they go "No. That's not how the game should work, that's not fair", well, then you haven't found the group for you yet, but you just found the group for me.


    Side note:
    I think I'd go as far as to say that to secretly use the "big X" HP method is probably a sign that you're doing something wrong regardless of play style. The damage/HP system is clearly not working for you and it's time to face that, and rip it out and resolve fights in some other manner. Whether you go to Everway to just describe the fights narratively, or to TSoY or DitV to resolve the fights on a more zoomed-out-level, or stick with the mechanical blow-by-blow method but replace HP with some sorta "wound system" like in Kult and Fudge.

    (I love the normal damage/HP system and it's not going anywhere soon, as far as I'm concerned. But I commit the monster's HP as early as possible.)
  • Here's an example of a disciplined way, which may or may not apply to any particular type of Sandbox play:

    * Whenever something hasn't been prepped or thought about, assume an outcome which is (within the scope or reasonable outcomes) as beneficial to the players' interest as possible.
    Yes, that is disciplined. Eero's flip is also disciplined. Or "always make a random table with at least six entries" is also disciplined. Or "always bring it up to discussion" is also disciplined. There are some ways. Me, I usually just accept the ethos breach and go "Oh, well; that's a lesson for me that I should start thinking about those things when prepping". This is how my Mechanic for finding someone came about. A situation came up in play where I as DM had no recourse except pulling things from my hat in an off-idiom way. So, I made a general mechanic for those situations.
  • So Dungeon World tells us to "draw maps, but leave blanks," right? It seems to me that one way of conceiving of this whole issue is being aware of what a "blank" really means: it's anything that can be filled in on the fly, *without* violating the integrity of the stuff that *is* already prepped.

    When I was running Edge of the Empire last spring, in the climactic session my PCs had to sneak into a Hutt's palace and free his slaves. I had drawn a reasonably thorough map of the palace, and had prepped troops and officers and emplacements. I had also noted in my prep that there was a local group of natives on this planet the Hutt had taken over, who resented him and his minions. They were sort of like Ewoks but reptilian.

    So, the PCs met these natives, and rolled an absolutely amazing success on some sort of social roll. Like, 4 or 5 successes *and* advantages. (The FFG SW system distinguishes binary success/failure and and/but results.) So I decided the natives, on hearing the PCs wanted to take down the Hutt, showed them a secret tunnel they'd been digging into the Hutt's basement.

    It radically altered the whole session—now, the PCs had a way in, from an unexpected direction no less. I hadn't planned for that at all. But once they were inside, I stuck to what I had written. I wouldn't have allowed a good information or social roll to alter how many troops there were, or radically alter the interior structure of the palace. It just wouldn't have been kosher.

    So I think that's a successful application of DW's principle in action, and how someone committed to a High Myth game can still allow for lots of engaging improvisation.
  • Yeah, FFG SW needs blank spaces to work. Remember, I kinda dig both idioms, as long as you've got very clear rules if you try to mix them. FFG SW still has somewhat of a traditional combat system, right? Been a while since I read it
  • edited April 2017
    "Prep parameters, not facts" seems like a viable idiom to me. My sense of a coherent gameworld hinges more on what could or couldn't exist than on what specifically, in the end, does exist. As long as the reality is from the "could" group, I'm happy.

    I think one of the risks of ad-lib is that it can be hard to improvise something that is all the right kinds of plausible/logical/fair/whatever befits the groups' standards. But if you already have a framework to improvise within, your odds are way better.

    In the case of the Lizard-Ewok tunnel, the basic functional reality of the palace is a constraint, and the level of enmity between Hutts and LizWoks is a constraint (i.e. this tunnel isn't already filled with bloodshed, nor is it being reserved for that purpose), but within those constraints we haven't defined everything about whether there are or aren't tunnels.

    Maybe in some games "Are there tunnels?" would be high on a manageable list of GM considerations, but in plenty of other games it wouldn't be, and the answer to that question would have to be provided on the fly. Accordingly, this quote makes a lot of sense to me, and I really don't sweat perfection at all:
    In D&D, things can become salient at any time. The idea is to make your best effort.
    In Delve, I don't know what's gonna happen when the players try shining sunlight on a demon stone through the fifth rune in the alphabet. But I do know the class of magical relevance to which each of those components belongs; my ad-lib will not be out of the blue, but rather consistent with the other principles of magic I've previously defined (and thus also compatible with what I've previously communicated to the players).

    Side note: For me, knowing everything that I know and trying to grasp the most correct answer, in the moment, to a question I hadn't anticipated, absolutely feels like Playing to Find Out. The times when it just feels like Making Stuff Up are the times when I don't have enough constraints and I have no sense of "objective" correctness.
  • The times when it just feels like Making Stuff Up are the times when I don't have enough constraints and I have no sense of "objective" correctness.
    I guess when you make things up in order to further story, you're closer to impro land and when you make things up in order to be consistent, you're closer to sandbox land.
  • That sounds about right.

    I think part of the fun of a being a sandbox GM is finding the lines for "making up" versus "negotiating" versus "prepping" versus "randomizing on the spot".

    For instance, if I had no idea how a mirror responds to a demonic spell, I might try to figure out, first, what the nature of demonic magic was. And, if I didn't know, I could randomize it or ask the players (particularly effective if the topic doesn't appear to be relevant to the current situation, or is asked well in advance!). With enough remove from the "salient" question on the table, it becomes easier and easier to be objective.
  • edited April 2018
    I have a hard time living up to the prep ideal. Because sometimes it's like "I just see it and I just know" what would happen or how something works or looks.

  • I guess when you make things up in order to further story, you're closer to impro land and when you make things up in order to be consistent, you're closer to sandbox land.
    I feel that I myself wouldn't be able to make that distinction most of the time. If the two were clearly opposed, maybe, but usually the things that are consistent with what has been established will be appealing to me as a good story and a good story will be appealing because it has consistency.
  • I have the same fear which is why prepping is appealing.
  • I now have the three tiers of truth.

    1. go to prepped facts, if no answer ["no" is also an answer, but if it's truly unanswered], goto:
    2. go to mechanics (such as rolltables). if no answer, go to:
    3. make it up. note the gap. fix it for future sessions. don't feel too bad. you're growing as a DM
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