Tuesday, December 19, 2023

THE WUXIA SANDBOX

I run Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate as a sandbox with dramatic elements. It was designed with sandbox play as the goal, which is why "Wandering" is the first word of the title. The aim was to have a wuxia RPG where you can drop the players into the setting and let them make their own choices about what to do. Today I want to talk about how I approach sandbox and drama in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. This will be part of a series of post and today's is just an overview of key concepts discussed in the books. 

The Sons of Lady 87 Campaign book* is a sandbox adventure. It is also probably the best example of how I run Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaigns. In the introduction I label the sandbox approach I take a 'Living Adventure'. That is terminology I have been using in much of my description of running RPGs. I explain where the language comes from in the introduction. It is how I prefer to describe play, over sandbox, because 1) it is a little more poetic and dynamic, whereas sandbox feels static and dry, 2) it emphasizes the importance of characters in a sandbox, both NPCs and PCs. The interactions between the characters is what matters. It is about prioritizing the notion that NPCs aren't pinned down to a particular place, but live in the world as the PCs do, responding to them, taking initiative on their own. 

I do still use the term sandbox and used it in the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate book, and there is probably a downside with clarity when I prefer Living Adventure instead. But I think it is a better label. 

For Lady 87 I really wanted to emphasize this way of running Ogre Gate. When I introduce dramatic elements, which I do it is through NPCs, rather than through dramatic events. And the NPCs must be treated as living characters. I find this creates a stronger sense of believability and underlying logic to the world.

A simple example might be this. Master Yao wants to obtain the Phoenix Crown of Bao, and the one of the player's has recently acquired the phoenix crown of Bao. Learning this information, Master Yao sends his men to ambush the players and steal the crown. One could sidestep all of this and simply jump to the players being ambushed at their inn at night. But for me the point is to make Master Yao just as much a player in the game as the PCs. If he wants to ambush them, he needs to do reconnaissance and there may be opportunities for players to learn his intentions along the way. And if his efforts fail, I need to figure out how he responds to any developments. You allow for the dramatic but you don't make it a foregone conclusion. And and you don't start with a dramatic beat in mind, rather you begin with Master Yao's motivation. 

This may seem a like a small distinction, maybe even a distinction without a difference, but it really does matter in play. It is a way to avoid the GM simply being a storyteller. Drama is about conflict, not about heavy plotting. You have the emotion and excitement of drama but not the railroad of plot. 

Using this approach you don't imagine the villain doing anything triumphant or climactic, you simply imagine the villain and go from there. This means many of your villains will die ignoble and embarrassing deaths. Because you are playing fair with the players. The villains plans may be thwarted, the players may surprise them, they may have a series of bad dice rolls. This may seem like obvious stuff but I find it is the thing I hear most GMs having difficulty with because they feel like they owe the players a big final fight with a boss or a climactic ending of some kind with a worthy foe. But I have learned from experience that players value feeling like their actions matter. If their actions lead to the quick death of your glorious villain as he scurries away humiliated, that is fine. Eventually a villain will emerge who is more of a challenge, but that needs to happen naturally. 

And the players may surprise you. I have had instances where I introduced an NPC expecting him to be an enemy of the party only to have them befriend him. This is good for you as GM because you should always be willing to adapt to the situation and you really need to learn to keep those kinds of expectations in check anyways. Plus, this is something that can happen in the genre. Unlikely friendships can form and lead to interesting results and tensions. 

To be clear this isn't how Ogre Gate must be run. There is no 'must' in Ogre Gate, and this is but one way to approach Ogre Gate's Drama and Sandbox approach (see image above). But I have run many successful longterm campaigns using this approach so I thought it worth talking about. 

This works particularly well in a wuxia campaign because wuxia is so character driven. It is the stark personalities of the martial world and the grudges they have that fuel so much of the genre. In an RPG, this works great because the players are free to be independent heroes on their own, forging loyalty and making enemies as they wish. Their friendships and grudges will supply an endless source of material for your campaign to have life.

And it doesn't shy away from exploration. Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is world filled with strange hidden locations, manuals tucked deep inside trapped tombs and chambers, supernatural beings and esoteric masters residing in far off places. But it is also a place inhabited by people, which means eventually the roots the characters form become important. It is a very good sandbox ecosystem for long lasting campaigns.  

I will go into more detail next entry but the way this typically works is I let the players make their characters and they can come up with whatever concepts they want. If I am concerned I don't have enough active players, I may provide a handful of possible starting points for the sandbox (like the starter premise in Sons of Lady 87). I then have them connect their characters to elements of the setting (this will be the next topic of the series). Finally I drop them in and ask them what they want to do. There isn't anything planned out in my head. I just see what the players do and allow the world to react. I draw on a variety of tools as well such as grudge tables, encounter tables, and other random ways of managing things. In future entries I will also talk about how I react to player actions in game and how I navigate that whole process. 

Here are all the posts so far on this topic:

KUNG FU AND CHARACTERIZATION ON THE FLY  








*While the PDF of Sons of Lady 87 is available on DrivethruRPG, you can find the print version HERE. 


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