never fear! sandbox vs. safety rails.

This is going to be the first post in a blog carnival. The rules are simple:

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)

3. You must ad a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.

4. No name calling.

The first response to this post can be found over at Phelanar’s Den

That being said here is my 2 cents on creating a world where players should flee from encounters.

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.”

This all came up because I was playing online with the Fellowship of the Tweets, an original D&D game, the night before. Our party stumbled upon a group of ghouls; nasty monsters with multiple attacks and a paralyze which can last for hours. We had fought a small number of them before and we knew they were not pushovers. Even though we knew how strong they were we still charged into battle and lost. We were spared by our DM and only one of our party was eaten by a ghoul. After the game we discussed the fact that running was, from the very moment we noticed the ghouls, the best option our party had.

Players in 4th edition D&D are given characters who are heroes to begin with; stronger and better than the average person. Every character has a bag of powers and the ability to go toe to toe with some pretty bad ass monsters. This often leaves players feeling like running or avoiding a fight is never a valid option for an encounter. I’m not sure if it is the way 4th edition has been designed or just the way players think, but something has taught us that every encounter should be winnable, and that worlds increase in level/power as players do.

I don’t think they should. I can’t say that about every world. I have no influence over homebrew worlds, and no control over how other DMs run their games. At my table the world in which the player’s characters exist is a whole and stable system. I’ll use Eberron as an example of this. The campaign guide gives a good number of NPCs, King Kaius being one of them. Kaius is a 14th level vampire who is the ruler of Karnath, and could possibly be part of a story line in which my players are involved. If they were to meet him at level 9 and one of them decided to attack him I would not feel it necessary to turn him into a level 10 encounter just so my players don’t lose the feeling that they are the biggest kids on the block. I wish they didn’t think that about them selves.

Don’t get my wrong, I don’t put things in my worlds to over power my players just so I can slap them around and make them feel small. I populate my worlds with creatures which are wondrous and powerful, many far too powerful for a level 1 party to take on. This creates a world which not only gives players a reason to adventure and get stronger, but this world also presents secrets and a bit of temptation inherently, with out having to write these elements into a story.

People want what they can’t have, and they fear what they don’t know. This creates tension just by knowing that there are places too dangerous to explore, wanting to go but knowing it could easily mean the end. Not only does this natural tension end but it presents exciting turning points in a characters career. These turning points are a form of reward for the player created by world not by the story. When a party has learned that a certain area is very dangerous that memory sticks with them. When the players are finally challenged to enter these forbidden lands and they find that they have grown enough in strength that they can survive they fell accomplished. This is a much different feeling of accomplishment than beating the villain who has been hounding them, or finishing a quest. It’s a feeling of overcoming the world, something static which stood as something of a measuring stick for their power.

Do I take pleasure in creating areas which spell out certain death for my party? No and yes, I think it can be fun for a party to get in over their heads from time to time. Yes it feels less than heroic to have to run from something, but it also feels great to return at a later time and put the hurt down on what ever it was that chased them away. I also enjoy as a player knowing that I am playing in a world that feels a bit more alive and whole. I want my character to exist in a world which is not build with each step my party takes. I feel that creating a world which is full of danger is a step in that direction.

I hate to bring video games into this mix but I play them and so do many of people who enjoy D&D; so they are a valid way of explaining my point. Many sand box style video games, MMOs and even some basic RPGs allow players free roam of entire worlds. Fallout 3 is a great example, from the first time your character steps outside of the vault you can go pretty much anywhere in the game. You quickly learn though that traveling too far can get you into a lot of trouble. You know after you take a quick beating that there are areas where you should visit later, when you have a bigger gun. Running for my life is something I did multiple times in Fallout 3 and I didn’t feel any less of a hero when I came to the end. I do understand that in video games death does not mean the end of the story, just the loss of a some amount of progress. Meeting up with something too powerful for a party does not have to end in death though.

If players wander into an area where they are clearly out matched as a DM I help them to realize this with out killing the whole party. There are many ways to do this. Lets say my players party is making their way into a dark jungle. The dragon who sent them on their quest told them never to go there but the party felt that it would be a great shortcut. While in the jungle they are attacked by some sort of shadow beast, a shadow panther, yeah that’s the ticket. After a round of combat where the party had a hard time damaging the creature and the creature has no problem hitting them with low rolls the players should get the hint. This is when the DM queues the escape. An even larger beast surprises the panther that is attacking the party. This new attacker has no problem overpowering the panther and begins to feed on it’s fresh kill. This should allow the players time to escape and find their way out of the jungle. As a DM I would also allow players an insight check and give them the message that if they had a hard time with the panther, and other things in the jungle had no problem with it they might be in over their heads.

I know not everyone agrees with me, but I know one author who does. His name is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He often had his characters stumble upon paths which were blocked by powers far greater than their own. He even brought two lonely hobbits to the black gates of Mordor. Two small hobbits watched as an army poured out of the gates. Suddenly there was an area of the world where those two hobbits could not enter. Some of their party did return later when they had an army, sufficient power, to enter with out the shadow of certain death looming over them. But none the less in his books paths were often blocked though encounters with creatures far above the powers of the parties involved. I never once heard anyone complain that the hobbits should have been able to take on the ring wraiths in a fair fight when they were first encountered.

Some might feel like it’s cruel to create a world and then tell players that part of it is off limits to the because it’s just too strong. Well I am not interested in making those people happy. I could create a continent twice the size of North America for them and tell them that a small patch the size of Rhode Island is off limits and they would still be mad that there is some place they can’t go. Pleasing these people is not my job, I’ll leave that to some other DM who just wants to be liked by everyone.


Posts related to this Blog Carnival.

  1. Taking the Safety Padding Away from D&D4E by WolfSamurai
  2. Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Obsidian Crane
  3. Safety Padding or Just an Illusion by dkarr
  4. D&D: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Adam Dray
  5. Know When to Fold’em by Sarah Darkmagic
  6. Sandbox vs. Safety Rails: A Mini Blog Carnival by Deadorcs
  7. Blog Carnival: Deliberately Overpowered Encounters by Brian Engard
  8. As the World Scales by NewbieDM
  9. Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM Samuel
  10. Setting up the player to fail by The Angry DM
  11. Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Colmarr
  12. Run Away! Run Away! by Jester
  13. Unwinnable Encounters? by Azaroth
  14. Beneath the Raven’s Wing by

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.


About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
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