Thursday, September 29, 2016

GrognardPunk (or how we need proper definitions to discuss games and all that)

Today I'll be revisiting another post of mine. But instead of talking about how I changed my opinion towards something I wrote more than 3 years ago, I'll post and expand upon a fragment I didn't use in the original post. It's been sitting in my drafts for a long time now and I think it might be of interest to some of you. As the title suggests, it relates to gaming ... a bit. 

Introduction

I wrote a DungeonPunk Counter-Manifesto a while back. It was a response to another manifest that I just couldn't let stand as it is, so I presented an alternative. My initial post back then actually had a long introduction to my train of thought and reference points. But, as those things sometimes go, it started to overwhelm the original idea to formulate a counter-manifest. So I dropped it, thinking that people who know about "punk" and read my response will relate to what I made (or not).

Post modern approach about it ... [source]
It's the nature of manifests that they are individual expressions claiming their statements as general truths. In the context of the exchange of manifests above, I thought it became clear that it is simply different approaches to give a bit color to that theater of the mind we call our hobby. Because, you know, when all is said and done, we are just talking elfgames here. So there's another reason to drop the analytics in the original post: it's all fiction. Nothing more than a thought experiment about how the punk-attitude could (or should?) manifest when playing an old school game of D&D. How to play a punk to play a game.

Successful or not, that's what I did in the original post. It's not about "look how punk I am!!!" or being one of the cool kids, it's not even "this is how it's done!". It's just how I'd do it in the given context and as a response to an attempt I don't agree with (and which I basically interpreted as a hedonist attempt to assimilate punk ...).

All that aside, there are good reasons to talk about the origins of words, their changes over time or how semantics illustrate that no meaning of words is really fixed and why we need even more words to attempt something like a definition. Not to formulate a truth, but to find a common ground to communicate.

So what's this about again? Here's that (slightly altered) fragment (also check this definition of PunkPunk if you haven't in the original post):

----------------------------------------------

Authenticity and the Punk

I have to admit, it all gets a bit fuzzy down the decades, but if you get to the core of it, it's quite easy to see what punk could be. Wiki quote:
"Punk-related ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-conformity, direct action and not selling out." (from here)*
Right? Right. Nothing about fashion or music here. It's all about attitude. Anything else would be posing, then.

Also interesting is the history of the word. It was already around in late medieval times and meant a piece of rotten wood, at best suitable as tinder. It is documented for the first time in 1596 and Shakespeare used it in Measure for Measure (1603/04) to describe a prostitute. After that it was used to describe homosexuals, which changed in the 1920's to describe a rookie, especially among criminals (source is the German Wikipedia page about the punk subculture here). Words are funny that way.

But what does that mean for a genre? It needs to illustrate a world that leaves room for something like that. A dark and oppressing world, where enough young people are powerless and uncontrolled (because insignificant) enough to form an active subculture and desperately "fight" the establishment with some Nihilism in the mix. Cyberpunk got that right (as a genre and as a role playing game). Warhammer is the closest to DungeonPunk I know of.

And one of those three is a poser ... [source]
The "Posers"

I don't see that for Steampunk, to be honest. Sure, you could have a clock-driven artificial limb, but that's from the cyber part of Cyberpunk. Our perception of the Victorian Era doesn't lend itself easily to a punk attitude. Too distinguished, too sophisticated in our historical view of it, with the establishment on its rise to power. So for me, it's mostly just posing with the tropes. As do most of the others. Let's see some highlights.

Stone Punk has The Flintstones as the prime example. There is no need to comment any further...

Eberron is strongly associated with DungeonPunk. Nothing against the setting, but that label rubs me just wrong. Here is part of a short description (tv tropes being the source again):
"It's a Dungeon Punk setting influenced by pulp serials, Indiana Jones and Film Noir, as opposed to classical High Fantasy. Eberron has taken a different path compared to most D&D settings in that it averts and subverts most classical D&D tropes." (from here)
See the discrepancies? Indiana Jones is pulp and the pulp serials where inspired by noir fiction which has some roots in the modernist movement Expressionism and, arguably, Poetic Realism. Anyway, I digress. None of that is associated with punk. It's the default setting for DDO, no punk there either.

Going down the list, one might realize that most other punk punk iterations (including Steampunk) are closer to the pulp serials we know and love than to anything punk. That's not a bad thing. It's just not what the name suggests.

----------------------------------------------

And here's the expansion:

Well, that's Semantics for you ...

And that's maybe the morale of the story: words and their meaning change over time and instead of arguing what punk is in the definition I quoted above, I could just as well say that all the people talking about punk really talk about a weak piece of wood, only worth to start a fire (if at all), with another guy arguing it's all about prostitutes ... All this is right, to some degree, as the word held all those meanings at some point or another. Some of those meanings went obsolete and new meanings are added on a regular basis. And occasionally a word will hold contradicting meanings until common use has sorted it out.

Steampunk is a good example for the process, actually, as it shows how common use and acceptance forces an additional semantic dimension onto a word when used in another context (steam + punk) because referencing another strong denotation (cyber + punk). In that sense steampunk is nothing more but the Victorian interpretation of the cyberpunk aesthetic and not the attitude (with the (weak?) attempt to somehow make it work by using airship pirates, because pirates are long gone at the end of the 19th century but way more punk than the Victorian Era could ever be**).
How is that "punk"? Well, it isn't. [source]
It's all good, then. Things change and punk just isn't punk anymore. Right? Well, not so much. The whole idea of language being a fluid concept that is used to communicate content includes us using it and a change in language is actually a compromise between opposing forces: those who want a change and those who want to keep it as it is. We are all more or less active parts of this and as such responsible for what happens, which leads to:

The Evil That is Google! [cue for dramatic music]

Well, I guess I screwed my ranking just now ... Anyway, the internet is our general source for information these days. You want to know something, you "google" it (another word, a completely artificial one at that, gaining additional semantic dimensions because of common use). The phenomenon I'm talking about here is that the further you get away from what is considered mainstream, the more obscure get the sources.

What I'm saying is: google "sandbox", for example, or "OSR" and it's people like me you'll stumble across. Our hobby is too young to have anything resembling a codified definition of most of the terms we use to communicate gaming thoughts. That's a problem and a process, that's what we write about and why we write about it. It's also why we have said responsibility.

And that right there is the reasoning behind my original post. Check for the word DungeonPunk (as I originally did in 2013) and it won't turn up much (still doesn't). So when I encountered something that went against every definition I could find about punk, I felt obliged to propose a public alternative***. Not that it had (or has) any kind of impact for anything but my own gaming ideas, but it is out there and people can use it to form their own opinion based on my findings.

GrognardPunk!

"grognard", another word that accumulated additional meanings and strayed somewhat from its original denotation. Well, GrognardPunk doesn't exist as such, really (and obviously means "grumbling rookie", for those wondering :P ). I mean, the definition above actually describes the DIY-niche of our hobby as well as it describes punk. Grognard (as we understand it) might pair up nicely with punk, but I could also say that's a weakness of the definition itself and it definitely doesn't mean we are all punks now (a problem you'll get for finding common denominators). So that's my last thought on the whole shebang: if you do it, do it thoroughly but stay open minded ...

MonkeyPunk? [source]
I think that definitions and semantics are important when discussing, well, anything worth discussing. Because if we at least share the common understanding that it is all open for debate and if we discuss to explore what it all could mean instead of who is "right" and who is "wrong", well, then (and only then) we are able to gain some insight from it and might end up being better than we were before. But that just doesn't happen if we are rigid, uptight, political or ignorant about those things. Topics like "what punk means?" or "what is a sandbox?" matter, that's why they are discussed. That's why they deserve to be treated with sincerity (which starts, for instance, with finding out what a word actually could mean, before using it for a manifest).

I should really write something about chimpanzee ninjas next ...


* Is anyone else seeing the parallels to what we came to call the OSR? We should call it GrognardPunk...

** In the end it's all fiction, of course, and pirates are kind of like punks, so Steampunk does kind of work ... but it helps to show that you have to bend the source a bit to make it work good. ClockworkPunk might apply when using pirates for real, I think :)

*** Of course I can see now that the combination dungeon + punk is supposed to reference steam + punk and, consequentially, cyber + punk. The thing is that while "steam" resonates quite well with "cyber" (one technology substituting another, so to say), the same can't be true for "dungeon". And "dungeon" being a really weak link here puts a lot of pressure on the "punk" side of things, linguistically speaking ...


Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Random Narrative Generator (a picaresque fairytale sandbox experience for LSotN)

Well, that's something I've worked on for some time now: an advanced and expanded version of the D30 Table of Picaresque Storydevelopment! I had some time to test the whole thing, too, and I think that this (or something very close to it) will be the main DM-tool for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It also links to my last post and the discussion with +Ripper X that followed under it and the one with +Ed Ortiz on g+ (which is connected to a post about the social rules of sandbox-play on his blog Dungeons & Dutch Ovens and spawned some discussions on its own). This post shall illustrate my thinking, then: it's a method to weave a random story around a group playing in a sandbox ...

But first some theory.

1. Collaborative Storytelling

This is, in essence, what role playing is all about. It's an experience somewhere between reading a book (interpreting a literary language into a coherent narrative or understanding) and playing a team sport (a competitive social endeavor using rules to achieve a defined goal). The book part applies because we "read" the social interactions and the random signifiers the rules produce like we'd use a literary language to read a book. The team sport aspect applies because we adhere to a set of rules (traditionally) enforced by some kind of referee to advance some sort of story about a group of individuals working together to experience adventures. The result of that is just that: collaborative storytelling.

We actually do this for a long time now ...
[source]
All those aspects qualify it, in my opinion, for the use of traditional story telling mechanisms (like they established in literary theory and whatnot). Following that train of thought, role playing being a communication medium in its own right means that those theories and ideas need to be adapted to it to be effective. For that we must not as much answer what kind of stories we tell but what structure naturally emerges when we get down to tell them. In my experience the picaresque is the best fit in most cases, especially for campaign and sandbox play.

Lost Songs as a setting also brings the Dark Ages and its epics into the fold, a lot of it being the source for fairy tales nowadays (fairy tales can be described as the very same legends festered though the centuries and with a romantic spin in the end ...). So that's the kind of story I want to have in my games. Coming more or less from an "old school" D&D background, I almost immediately started to look for random tools to use for that ("almost" because I actually used D&D to fill the gaps when I started testing Lost Songs ...).

The hardest tools to substitute turned out to be the classic Random Encounter Table and the Monster/NPC Reaction Tables. They had been so essential to my DMing style that anything else but using them felt like coming up with stuff. Well, a few months ago I came across that chart structuring all fairy tales down to 31 kinds of development written by Vladimir Propp (chart is on the wiki page, too) and instantly thought I could use that in the game, as randomizing it would necessarily result in a picaresque chain of events ...

2. The Narrative and the Sandbox

Where from does the narrative emerge in the sandbox game? The DM offers, the players decide? Or the DM puts them in there and the players explore it to find them? All that, to a degree, and none of that. The sandbox is a fictional construct and it's easy to forget that it is in that respect more like the equivalent to the language, the paper and the ink that make a book: it's a growing storage of linked information. In both instances, book and campaign, advancement is linear and independent to the turns and twists the narrative might take: you start in the beginning and use the rules to get from chapter to chapter (because it's just as impossible to read a book without using the specific rules for reading it as much as you couldn't play a role playing game without agreeing about some rules).

Rolling the dice from scene to scene is, in that sense, very much like turning a page. The narrative is what happens through that, but not because of it. And that is the crucial point. To keep with the book analogy here: the author writing the story and the reader reading it is the equivalent to the participants of the role playing game producing the narrative.

Book carving by Guy Laramee [source]
For that it's important to realize that we as readers never just consume, we interpret and make it our own story with our own understanding. Same is true for role playing games. While some of the contribution to a story that is associated with an author is traditionally also associated with what a DM does (world creation and so on) it's just as important to see that the players have their part in advancing the narrative with their decisions.

But advancing does not mean that they are creating the narrative. No, they attempt to enforce certain outcomes of situations they encounter by channeling their intentions through their characters and expressing them through the rules, thus informing the story that is formed by the narrative (and the campaign that is formed by the stories). The DM is in that a bit like an author that has lost control over his main characters (a bit like Stranger than Fiction). And this is where we get back to Propp and the twists and turns a story can take.

There are three sources for twists and turns in a role playing game: (1) player decisions, (2) system output and (3) the DM giving it all context. They all are connected, obviously, but (2) and (3) share a very specific bond as the boundaries are very flexible and very much a matter of taste. I see the sandbox game as one side of a spectrum that goes from allowing as much random output as possible and deciding as much as possible. That might mean NPC reactions or what the weather is like, but it also means what turn the story takes.

And this is where something like the Random Narrative Generator comes in: instead of me as the DM deciding how the world reacts, I'll rather let the dice decide that part and find ways to weave it into the narrative afterwards. I actually found it hard to let go of, but just as rewarding. It made me realize that it is very much possible, with the right tools, to leave those decisions on the system side of things. It's fascinating how a group of people can make sense of almost everything and that's exactly what happened in our games. I, as a DM, could get surprised about the development of the narrative as much as the players, but without feeling unprepared.

3. The Random Narrative Generator

All you need is a setting and a place for the group to start. That usually comes with some loose adventure seeds and a sense what's going on in the area. What happens next is pointed towards by a result of the table below and realized as the players interact with their surroundings. Making it work is the first rule of thumb. If a result wouldn't work with the ongoing narrative, make it a story they encounter or hear about, maybe a single incident that has nothing to do with anything else. On the other hand, connect as much as possible. Villains are plentiful everywhere, but if a result goes well with an established villain, use that one for it. If you feel the narrative could use another villain, that's the way to introduce something like that.

A lot of this is vague and abstract on purpose. That way one result could mean anything from the Wild Hunt challenging the group to a game of wits to just an old man that talks in riddles. Whatever fits the flavor you want in your setting or think appropriate for scene.

There is yet a third aspect worth keeping in mind when using this: not all results mean the characters achieve something. Some results will only resolve if external factors somehow intervene. It's the result of a living and breathing world that not just the characters are responsible for it to keep spinning.

It's not what you get but what you do with it ... [source]
The last aspect of this is keeping track of the results. Lost Songs will have a sheet for this, but a sheet of paper is more than enough to get this going and keeping all your ducks in a row. I usually use one or two of those results per hour gaming (sometimes less, depending on how busy the players get with one of those). And here we go (you might skip it, though, and go directly to the example further below):

Roll 1d30, 1d6 (for the Story Development Table) and 3d6 (for the Random Encounter Table below)
Story Development Table:
1. Absentation: (even results) characters or (uneven results) someone close (friend/relative) need to leave (1-2) community, (3-4) family or (5-6) secure environment, because (read result on 3d6 table).
Are heading towards danger.
2. Interdiction: (even result) forbidding edict or (uneven result) a command is passed to the heroes to (1-2) avoid […], (3-4) don’t go to […] or (5-6) don’t do […] and it is related to (read result on 3d6 table).
Doing or not doing is going to have consequences.
3. Violation of Interdiction: A villain is involved either in (even results) a lurking or (uneven results) a manipulative manner. A warning is ignored by (1-2) someone close to the group, (3-4) a third party or (5-6) a foe and it has something to do with (read result on 3d6 table).
The group gets involved when the shit hits the fan.
4. Reconnaissance: A villain makes an effort to attain knowledge needed to fulfill a plot. He/she (1-2) seeks information, (3-4) needs an item or (5-6) searches someone for abduction and does so either (even numbers) somewhere in the social circles of the characters or (uneven numbers) to test the heroes themselves. It has something to do with (read result on 3d6 table).
The information is somehow relevant for the characters.
5. Delivery: Villain gains information for one of his evil schemes. The information is (1) incriminating information about a character/the group, (2) the final ingredient for a spell, (3) location of a treasure, (4) black mail material against a NPC, (5) the last piece in his evil plan or (6) inciting war between two factions. The source is (read result on 3d6 table).
Trigger against group when appropriate.
6. Trickery: Someone important for the group is either conned (even results) or kidnapped (uneven results), because (1-2) villain needs the group's help, (3-4) for the money or (5-6) needs it for another scheme. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Substantial loss, somehow intercepts with the characters plans.
7. Complicity: Either someone close to the characters (even result) or the characters themselves (uneven result) are schemed into working for a villain to (1-2) obtain some treasure from, (3-4) fight someone of or (5-6) acting under false pretense against (read result on 3d6 table).
Conflict because of deception. Either the characters do wrong or see wrong done by someone they know otherwise.
8. Terror (even result) or Lack (uneven results): (1) the characters help is needed to gain a magical item, (2) there is a murder, (3) a friend in dire straits because he owes, (4) there are attacks and thievery, (5) a community needs a problem solved or (6) magical mischief abound. The source is (read result on 3d6 table).
An imminent problem that needs help, people that need saving.
9. Mediation: Group or character gets a message that help is needed somewhere else, either because some sort of catastrophe that happened (even results) or to prevent one from happening (uneven results). This is either (1) a quest to appease the gods or else …, (2) a community is weakened and needs protection, (3) escalating tribe rivalry, (4) people had to flee from their homes, (5) evil has announced itself and is coming or (6) because of some massive loss. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Time is of the essence here and the characters could make enemies if they won't help.
10. Counter-Action: An opportunity arises to either challenge a local threat (even result) or do someone important a big favor (uneven result). This is about (1) getting rid of a rival, (2) a weakness of an aggressive tribe, (3) the signs are right to deal with some fairy folk, (4) getting rid of some incriminating evidence, (5) the weakness of an evil gets known, (6) help with something and making sure that the benefactor stays anonymous. Reason for the opportunity is (read result on 3d6 table).
Both events will give the characters some high visibility and they'll be recognized as heroes for it if they succeed.
11. Departure: This is an official request for help, the beginning of (even results) an adventure or (even results) a mission. It’s (1) a call for arms from the tribe, (2) a dungeon crawl heist, (3) a holy man with a mission from the gods, (4) a hunt, (5) a foreign official needing help or (6) about an expedition. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
This is a new beginning, a new story emerging.
12. First function of the donor: The group is tested for worthiness, either by (even results) combat or (uneven results) by some sort of contest. Form of test is (1) some sort of race, (2) in public, (3) a battle of wits (like a riddle), (4) an ambush, (5) a physical challenge or (6) official business. The possible ally is (read result on 3d6 table).
No bad feelings here but the opportunity to gain some powerful allies!
13. Second function of the donor: An opportunity arises to do an ally a favor as a spillover from something else the group had been doing. Helping would mean (1) some form of hardship, (2) giving up on a goal, (3) freeing somebody, (4) some sort of reconciliation between parties, (5) gaining the donor some influence or (6) gaining the donor some wealth. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are affected.
The group is doing something and something else comes up that could benefit an ally.
14. Receipt of a magical agent: The group gets an award for their actions. This is (1) a magical item, (2) a source of power, (3) something they desired and couldn’t get before, (4) the missing pieces to something they built/may want to build, (5) something from another world or (6) the loyalty and aid of a powerful entity. It manifests through (read result on 3d6 table).
This is not the normal loot but something special the characters might actually cherish.
15. Guidance: The group is (even results) transferred/delivered or (uneven results) somehow led to some crucial (main quest related?) location that (1-2) reveals a donor, (3-4) provides a magical agent or (5-6) leads to a villains home base. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Someone does the group a favor here, maybe with ulterior motives? Sure :)
16. Struggle: The group is confronted by a villain, either by (even results) combat or (uneven results) by some sort of contest. Form of confrontation is (1) some sort of race, (2) in public, (3) a battle of wits (like a riddle), (4) an ambush, (5) a physical challenge or (6) official business. Use (read result on 3d6 table) as the backdrop for the scene.
This is a stand-off between a villain and the group. Serious business, either way (still not necessarily conclusive).
17. Branding: A random character is somehow marked, either (even results) through magic or (uneven results) with an obvious item. The marking is (1) a sign of allegiance the character has to wear (2) only seen by ghosts, but provoking them, (3) a ring as a sign of friendship, (4) a sign that someone is scrying on the character, (5) a talisman as a sign of respect or (6) some sort of minor body alteration as a curse. Goes back to something related to (read result on 3d6 table).
The magical kind you might want to get rid of or it will have consequences. Getting rid of the item or (for instance) losing it, on the other hand, will result in social repercussions.
18. Someone else’s Victory: A villain is defeated either by (even results) some of the group’s allies or (uneven results) exterior forces. The villain is (1-2) killed, (3-4) outsmarted or (5-6) banished. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are at fault for this new development.
One problem less for the characters to solve. But it could still have repercussions (like no award and so on).
19. Another problem solved: Some (even results) misfortunes or (uneven results) issues of the group get resolved. This means (1-2) something missing is found and now available, (3-4) some magical hindrance is gone or (5-6) someone is free to at now. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are at fault for this new development.
A problem solved means the way is free for something else, either for the story at hand or another story. Someone might expect gratitude, though.
20. Home: The group gets an opportunity to gather some important news from their home. They get access to those news by means of (1) travelling merchants offering wares from the tribe, (2) warriors from your tribe on a mission, (3) dreams, (4) vision of a random holy man, (5) somebody putting out word that they are looking for the group or (6) a magical agent. The news are about developments regarding some (read result on 3d6 table) issues.
Not necessarily bad news, it should still leave the group considering the trip home to their tribe.
21. Pursuit: Something (even results) or someone (uneven results) is tracking the group to (1-2) capture them, (3-4) harm them or (5-6) intercept when inconvenient and it has something to do with (read result on 3d6 table).
Subtle or not, a pack of wolfs or a phantom summoned by an adversary, it definitely is dangerous enough to think about not confronting it (if the group gets aware of it early enough). Escalate to pursuit if possible.
22. Rescue: The group gets unexpected help in a potentially harmful situation (1) by natural obstacles, (2) by something else happening, (3) by someone taking an interest for different reasons, (4) as circumstances change, (5) as alliances shift or (6) as other heroes appear. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
Either a problem that is about to arise or something that’s a bit in the past and still a problem, this one gets easier to handle (not solved) because something significant happens.
23. Unrecognized arrival: Something changed and the group is (even results) unrecognized or (uneven results) unacknowledged among (1-2) their kin, (3-4) an ally or (5-6) people you should know them, because (read result on 3d6 table) did something.
This is not only about respect (or the lack thereof) but also about the consequences of someone influencing reputations. Very annoying.
24. Unfounded claims: (1-2) a false hero, (3-4) a villain or (5-6) a possible ally steals the groups thunder (even results) publicly or (uneven results) behind closed doors. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
This is not only about respect (or the lack thereof) but also about someone influencing reputations. Very annoying, potentially even threatening a group’s quest and needs to be dealt with.
25. Difficult task: An opportunity arises to gain public prestige by answering a challenge. This challenge is (1) a riddle per character, (2) a test of strength, (3) a test of endurance, (4) a test of wisdom, (5) a test of finesse or (6) a test of cooperation. Those challenging come from the (read result on 3d6 table).
Very difficult, but also very rewarding, this challenge should something that puts a stress test on the whole group.
26. Solution: A quest has become time sensitive and needs to come to a conclusion right now because (1) the gods demand it, (2) it’s about to get worse fast, (3) someone else is about to do it, (4) of a health issue, (5) all the group’s progress is about to get lost or (6) there’ll be nothing to gain by it. (Read result on 3d6 table) bring the bad news.
Whatever the group is doing right now, they need to change course and wrap this one up for good.
27. Recognition: The group is celebrated by (read result on 3d6 table) for (1) being there, (2) something they have accomplished at some point, (3) one of their alliances, (4) something they didn’t do, (5) something they haven’t done yet but are about to or (6) who they are. The recognition comes from (read result on 3d6 table).
This is a very positive occurrence, but still, there might be some hidden agendas abound …
28. Exposure: A (even results) villain or a (uneven results) false hero is about to be exposed and the group is summoned to (1-2) witness it, (3-4) give testimony, (5-6) help enforcing it. The exposure is initiated by (read result on 3d6 table).
This might either be about a known villain/false hero or someone the group hasn’t been aware of until now (which might bring its very own set of implications, like false testimony …). Whatever fits the situation best.
29. Transfiguration: The group gets an opportunity to (even results) heal some permanent damage or (uneven results) compensate some of their losses as (1) they encounter a divine being, (2) they find a safe haven, (3) they get offered sanctuary by a holy man or woman, (4) a ritual feast is about to happen where they are, (5) they get access to a magical agent or (6) a fay offers a deal. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved with the opportunity.
This is something entirely positive and refreshing. Make them happy!
30. Punishment: A villain suffers the consequences of their actions (1) at the hands of some heroes, (2) as the victims fight back, (3) as one of his/her evil schemes fails, (4) when the gods get angry, (5) as the law interferes or (6) as he gets betrayed. Somehow (read result on 3d6 table) are involved.
The characters are not the source of this punishment, but this may be a great opportunity for them to get involved. Might be a proper riot or might be something as mundane as an execution.
Random Encounter Table (3d6):
Use your best judgement or the order from left to right as the 3d6 landed on the table (with the die on the left being the left column, the die in the middle the middle column and so on) or go from left to right in the order the numbers appeared (if you use digital alternatives). Entities are always agents of the force they stand for. This is vague on purpose as you should be able to use this as it fits the story element at hand. A force of nature, for instance, might be an angry wind ghost or a happy bear or even a recluse. It all depends on the most interesting turn the story could take or what helps evoking the setting. It doesn't always have to be used in concert with the d30 and the d6, especially if you just want to find out the story that encounter is in instead of how it affects the narrative at hand ("is" and "aims for" go a long way here).
A: Entity B: Is C: Aims for
Force of evil Angry Power
Force of nature Mean Trouble
Force of magic Disappointed Dominance
Force of tradition Generous Compensation
Force of culture Forgiving Peace
Force of love Engaging Contact

4. An Example

So how exactly does this work? I think an example is in order. Basically you shouldn't need more than an adventure seed and a backdrop to let the show begin. You will need nothing more for what happens next but the two tables above. It has all the twists and turns or NPC interactions you might need. Roll the dice and interpret the result into the narrative as the players chew on it.

Okay, a quick set up: The characters just arrived in a little hamlet deep in an old forest. The hamlet is mainly made out of wood and around 100 people live within the wooden palisade protecting it. There is a small pond in it and a sheriff is taking care of the law of the king. We enter the narrative as a great white bulette (aka landshark, for the uninitiated) starts terrorizing the town (think Jaws meets Tremors):

Great 4e Monster Manual illustration of a bulette attacking ... [source]
First result (13/5//121): Second function of the donor (gaining him some influence). Affected is a force of evil that is mean and aims for power.

First thing here would be to identify the donor. That's potentially a powerful ally. In our set up above my first instinct is to go with the sheriff. So the group is helping in town to prepare against the next attack of the bulette and comes across a mean entity trying to gain some sort of power and doing something against it would help the sheriff gaining more power himself. Here I'd go with a political plot to get rid of the sheriff (they now see an opportunity to accelerate their plans!) and the characters stumble across it somehow as they take care that all citizens are on higher ground (maybe a note they find or one of them overhearing some conspirators whisper about it in the shadow).

This could go several ways, of course. I think the first thing you come up with usually works best. Another option would have been to use something like this as an introduction of someone powerful (not necessarily a potential donor for the group but illustrating their power nonetheless). Setting this up properly as the characters make their way through town and the implications this has would take at least an hour, I think. More if you make that plot against the sheriff a thing. We'll see ...

Second result, triggered as soon as the intrigue is made known to the group (8/3//311): Lack (a friend in dire straits because he owes). The source is an angry force of magic aiming for power.

One could go here and connect this to the bulette, making it the source of the problem or at least a result of it. But my first impulse here is to connect this to someone living in the hamlet, someone the characters already encountered and liked enough to help out of sympathy (for random encounters between developments, I'd just roll the Encounter Table for inspiration and see what happens). An angry magic force aiming for power could be anything from a wizard to a fay or a god, even a ghost, if you want to. So that friend has an obligation to fulfill and he can't do so because of the monster terrorizing town, so he asks the characters if they could go back into town to get this for whatever is lacking (I'd randomize the appearance of the bulette as they interact with the town as long as it doesn't come up as a story development, so there's some risk going into town). Since I can't come up with a solid explanation, I'll go for mysterious instead (players don't need to know everything immediately). I know that friend is afraid of the consequences and even if he won't tell (or is just vague about the consequences) he'll urge them to do him this favor. And he'll bear dire consequences if he doesn't get it. I'll go for now with a religious object (maybe something about a promise he made to a fay connected to it and if he doesn't ...).

As you see, this is about injecting some flow into the narrative. Writing the result down usually brings the first results just by thinking about what it could mean for the narrative right now. Being vague or only revealing part of a result isn't a bad thing, either.

Third result, rolled after the group has decided what to do about their friend's problem (24/6//662): Unfounded claims (a possible ally boasting publicly about thing the characters did). Involved are engaging forces of love aiming for trouble.

So this is a fool in love, talking hero in public to impress a girl. That guy is desperate to proof himself and won't admit that the stuff he boasts with right now are actually the deeds of someone else. If the group already did something in town that he could have seen but not many others (like driving away the bulette or killing looters or whatever) I'd use that. At some point in the narrative the group will get wind of that and might have to deal with it, too. Done right, they could earn an ally doing so (as the guy means no harm and might actually be useful to have around).

Some things come easy, but you already see how this depends on the actions of the players. The group needs to finish things (or fail at them) to make others come in effect. Well, let's do one more.

Fourth result, as soon as I've decided how to use the third (8/1//516): Lack (the characters help is needed to gain a magical item). The source is an angry force of culture looking for contact.

Nothing comes easy. The characters are asked to retrieve a magical weapon to fight the bulette effectively (a legendary arrow, I'd say). For that they must travel to the nearby camp of an enemy tribe and find a way to get it from their shaman. One chance to get the item is doing that tribe a favor, as they are desperately seeking contact to a recluse in the woods (who seems to have good reasons for avoiding them but doesn't know the characters, right?). They are to give that guy something (possibly opening a completely new can of worms).

Another tricky one. How the players take on the problem is totally up to them, of course, and that solution the dice indicate, might never come to pass (although I'd seek an opportunity to hint towards it as they collect intel about that tribe. Time should also be a problem. For one, before they could go and get that item the people need to be safe enough to do so and then they need to be fast about that business, too.

Final Thoughts

And that's how you apply some literary theory to a role playing game. Use this as it fits your narrative. If you want to find out what happens next, you'll just throw the bones and see what they tell you. Believe them and they'll never disappoint you. Right here we have some intrigue, a love story, desperate attempts to rescue a friends soul and a delicate mission to get hold of a magical arrow necessary to fight the pest terrorizing the hamlet. That's a couple of hours worth of gaming and even more in foreshadowing. It all feels quite organic as it evolves and grows as the players do their thing.

The thing is that the story might originate from the setting or the sandbox or it's the answer to something the players want to do, but it always evolves around the group and goes with them until resolved or left behind (to maybe come back and haunt them later).

One last thing: there will be a pdf of the whole thing in the near future and it will have a permanent home in the DM-tools section for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, I'd like to point out that there is a new button under my avatar on the upper right that allows you to print or make a pdf out of parts and pieces of my writing here. It's way more convenient than c/p any of it (if people exist that do such a thing here ...).

[source]
I thought about making two posts out of this but I'm glad it's all out there now in one piece. I'm well aware that only a couple of people will read down to this point (thanks, then!) but I think I was finally able to give a complete picture of how I DM my LSotN sandbox. There is (still) more to it as I develop the proper tools to fill that sandbox a bit more, but you actually should be able to use this in every fantasy game out there. I know I'll test this one a bit with D&D the next few weeks.

If you like this one and get an opportunity to test it, too, I'd be happy to hear about it. As usual, comments are always welcome. As this is an entry to an ongoing dialogue, I'd be very happy if we expand a little further on the topic. I know people have other world engines (because that is what we have here) to keep their sandbox alive and I'd love to hear about them.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Sandbox vs. Player Agency

What happens when people are allowed to do what they want? They do exactly that. What happens if you emphasize that fact? They start thinking that there are no (social?) rules at all and - in a worse case scenario - you'll get anarchy. Natural Story development: bye-bye. Without the proverbial golden thread to follow, everyone is on their own and the game can get dysfunctional within hours. I've seen it happening and today I want to talk about preventing those problems. Bring a cup of coffee, it's a long one again ...

The "True" Sandbox

My thoughts always wander back to Morrowind when pondering what a perfect sandbox looks like. I'm sure it's not the only example, but it's the one I know. In Morrowind you start as a weak level 1 character. Weak is crucial. There is a story line worth following, but it is useful (at some point even mandatory!) to "gather experience" before you are allowed back into the main plot. For that you are left with absolute freedom.

It's at that point in the story (at the latest) when we start experimenting with what we can get through with. Killing a guy in public? They'll come for you in force and that's nothing you would survive in the beginning. So: restart from the last saving point. Stealing stuff? Might work, but if they catch you, you'll at least loose everything you stole and make jail time or try to resist (and most likely get killed again) or pay them. Entering any kind of ruin or cave you may come across? Deadly beginner mistake. Again, restart from your last saving point ...

Over time you'll either get bored or you get busy working the challenges they offer for low level characters. If you do the latter, you'll have to talk to a lot of people. You start learning about the world and how things work. By choosing what you want to do, you get involved. You choose agency (like becoming an assassin, mage or drug dealer ...). With those choices you get drawn in even further. You gain opinions and positions towards those pixels.

And at some point you'll ask yourself what your character would do if given a certain set of choices. Not what you would do, but what the fictive collection of data with a face would do. At that point you are fully involved and invested in the game. You have gained in-game agency.

Morrowind being a sandbox in the truest sense, getting involved is just an offer and there is no guarantee that you'll get invested, too. But there is a very good chance. Because once you get involved and you start to care, you'll stay around even if you've reached a point where your character is independent enough to actually do what you tried in the beginning and get away with it. But you won't (as much), because you have better things to do.

[source]
The "True" Agency

What is agency*? Without any context it's basically the ability to do what you want because you are a conscious being. And that's just that: without any context. That's like, say, a free market. It's only a piece. There is a classic metaphor about three blind men describing an elephant. Each is touching a different part of the elephant and describing it as the real deal. They all are right, in a way. But still, they only describe the part they are aware of**.

The phenomenon described here goes a bit further than just agency, but it still illustrates the point: you can describe agency without context, but it still won't be what it actually is in a living environment, which of course offers choice but also limits it. To what degree this is true is, obviously, very, very debatable. And people will do so on a regular basis (anarchism has a very different idea of what we can do than, say, socialism or democracy ... and that's just one direction we could run here).
A problem of agency ... [source]
But at its core it's just that: consciousness allows us to recognize a choice and act according to it within the limits given by the environment.

Why the term "player agency" isn't cutting it

Some of the same goes for the term "player agency". Player agency is generally described as giving players choices and having that somehow expressed in the rules. It is as much a good example for how agency needs context as it is a bad example of how to create a functional terminology for our hobby.

Let's start with the "good" part. Players want agency at the table. They want a choice or ideally:
They want an agreed upon limitation and/or expansion of imaginable choices that relate to what they'd expect in a real life environment.
There's a lot of "what if" in there, like, what if we could cast spells or what if we were stinkin' rich. A role playing system can do that but still must be agreed upon, as opinions what constitutes a "real choice" might differ quite a bit from case to case (some people like Vancian magic, some don't, to give one example). You don't want to give your players the impression they've lost agency ...

Now for the bad part. I think "player agency" is bad terminology because it only describes part of the picture (that elephant again!). It implies that agency in a gaming environment is something individual, something like a right a (one) player has that needs protection. A perspective like this will, no, has to lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary discussions. 

The definition I gave a few paragraphs above illustrates the problem quite well, I think: no player is alone, they are part of a group. And every group will have a Gamemaster of sorts, so it's actually about all the participants of a game. But there is yet another dimension to the whole affair, as characters could actually demand agency on their own (a narrative agency, maybe?).

You might question the "demand" part here, but it's actually something quite common, as it is the form of agency a Gamemaster would summon on a regular basis when he says something like "A paladin wouldn't/can't do this or that, because ..." or "You can't do that because you just lost your legs ...". It's a bit abstract (and maybe worth a post on its own), but a characters imposed limitations will also to some degree mean a shared agency, which makes him an entity of both the player and the Dungeonmaster ...

Let's get back to my observations about Morrowind in the beginning. There was a palpable difference between the choices you'd do playing the game (do what you want: pure player agency) and the choices you'd have playing the character (accepting character limitations: in-game agency). The first held the danger of getting bored and losing interest, the second had a good chance of leading to immersion. Immersion is what I want in the game.

But to get this kind of connection in something as analogue as tabletop role playing games, you first have to accept that this kind of gaming is a collaborative effort first and foremost. And that strongly implies that the same is true for the amount of agency all participants have in a game. A player unable to accept that his idea of agency (a "right" granted by definition) might be disruptive for that very reason, should keep playing computer games.

Conflicting player agencies ... [source]
Sandbox versus Agency

To make matters even more complex, we have to consider how all of this not only works in the more traditional*** role playing games, but also how it works in a sandbox. "Traditional" first, I'd say. The core of the traditional game is purpose. Characters have goals, quests, backgrounds and clear bounds that help limiting choice in a gaming world in a way that puts an emphasis on the story told at the table. Different games explore different options of this for as long as the hobby exists, from completely scripted to completely DMless.

Still, the focus in all of those games is (arguably) to emulate genres into narratives and those narratives into stories. The rules are used to emphasize and limit choice to a degree, just like described above (the Paladin as class is always a welcome example here, but the same goes for the limitations of abilities in form, power and accessibility or limiting a game to genre conventions or the race-as-class approach ... take your pick).

A sandbox game is different to those traditional games in that it takes away as many limitations as possible, beginning by the world and going as far as designing rules towards the same principle. And that results in an abundance of choice, beginning as early as with character creation****. A game like this needs a conscious effort of collaboration to work. The DM should provide a strong sense of place and culture, so they know where they come from and a just as strong sense of the stories people tell, so they know where they are headed.

A bit crazy, but very concise ... perfect world building! [source is Pratchett, of course]
It just as much demands the players to get on the same page, to not (or not only, depending on the game) match and connect on a system-level, but more on a personal level (ideally as a group, but mainly character-wise). It is important that they as players agree on characters that allow them to tell the stories they all want told on the backdrop the DM is offering.

But it just might not be enough. The problem I've encountered a few times now is that if it's not the rules but the world players have to consult for guidance and quests, it also demands a level of involvement that many players aren't willing to invest readily*****. There is nothing wrong with that, actually, and I think it's something a system needs to address somehow. 

It's a bit like what I described for Morrowind above, but different in that group effort aspect. You meet Morrowind at your own terms and you either get along or you don't. But with a group it's far more difficult. The problem, in my opinion, is that it is accepted to limit a character's choices (because that's something you choose to do with the options you get) but not so much those of a player.

And this is where player agency rears its ugly head and smiles ... We are so concerned about limiting another person's agency, that we shy away as soon as it's just implied. Or people feel it's personal if they can't have their personal snowflake ideas realized of what the character should be.

It sure happens in other games, too. Especially if they come with point buy systems. But if you take away the traditional consensus that a certain type of stories is going to be told and reduce the character creation to being a platform for all kinds of possibilities, you will have that problem emphasized. And it will continue to be problematic as the narrative emerges from actual play. If you have strong personalities at the table pulling this, it can get outright disruptive.

The next thing you know is other players getting unsatisfied with the game.

Conclusion

I won't be the one changing the very popular term "player agency". But I hope that I was able to shed some light on another perspective regarding the issue. Tabletop role playing games aren't computer games and what is deemed totally all right when done on your own in a game, will be far more complicated to do in a group where you actually have to work together. I think it's important to recognize this if we are to formulate a working terminology for our hobby, as it's the only way to find a deep understanding of what we are actually doing here.

As far as agency in a sandbox game goes, I'll have to think more about how to root characters more in a world to limit player agency without limiting the freedom of the sandbox. It's that shared agency bit that I believe to be an integral part of every role playing game and it's something that needs to be agreed upon. How to do this is an entirely different matter. I've explored some ideas regarding this in the past, if for other reasons.

To make a sandbox really work it doesn't only need to breathe and grow, it also needs rules that root characters deep enough in the setting that a DM has enough agency about them to ensure player agency doesn't run amok in his campaign. Forcing players to accept limitations to their character (as they would anyway) is one way to achieve this. Another one could be to connect xp awards with certain behavior like cultural habits and so on. If a culture is well defined, it will simulate the social limitations we experience in real life and that will lead to acceptance regarding limitations to a players agency. It needs to happen.

The group and collaboration aspect is also something worth exploring further. Maybe it's not enough to tell people they need to find a way to form a functioning group, maybe it needs some sort of system, formula or rules, too. A form of contract, maybe? But all that needs more thought and will finally find its way here (and hopefully into Lost Songs of the Nibelungs).

More when I get there. Opinions, comments, experiences and ideas about all of this are, as always, very welcome. Please share your thoughts.


* Now, that's a deep bunny hole, I'd say. Start with Wikipedia, as they actually have some decent entries about the topic: here's the sociological variant, here the philosophical and here it's structure versus agency. Deeper yet would be reading this here essay about morale agency. Just follow the bread crumbs. Kant is in there somewhere and Descartes' Cogito ergo sum

** You could say now, that they are wrong because they don't realize that they only experience part of it ...

*** I might need to write a word or two about how I define "traditional" in this case: although you could argue that the first role playing modules strongly suggest an open world kind of approach (Keep on the Borderlands, Village of Hommlett and all that jazz), the preeminent style of play was more the more or less framed telling of stories (as evident in everything from AD&D onward, going as far as completely scripted adventures for the Dragonlance line). My impression that this is what is recognized as the "traditional" mode of play comes from seeing the problems players will have with an completely open world. For one, it is an easier mode to play.

**** Lost Songs of the Nibelungs has a character generation that establishes a characters bloodlines (the roots, if you will) and the connection to the other players. No classes, no direction, just a number of points to buy a selection of equipment, skills and advantages. Characters also start at level zero and will only as they advance find out what they are.

***** Yeah, well, sorry, it's one of those posts. What I'm talking about here is not only those players who only think about the game as they sit down at the table (although those are meant, too, of course). What I'm thinking about here is something that happened two times in just as many months now: players told me they had no other choice with their characters than to do what they did (in both cases I strongly disagree for the reasons stated above, as they ignored character agency and just saw what they wanted to do or the lack of choices thereof). In all those cases, interaction with the world would have helped avoiding character harm and/or death ...

Friday, September 9, 2016

Ape Men for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (Monkey Business Extra 1)

Not much time right now, but still, some signs of life might be a good idea and since I'm working hard to get Monkey Business out there into hands, I thought it best to combine the two and give you some new classes for your D&D Rules Cyclopedia/Labyrinth Lord games. They were a byproduct of writing Monkey Business and will have a home there, too. Here is the first:

The Gorilla

Something like a large barbarian light. Tough, thick skin, prone to violence and rage in battle, very relaxed about everything else. That'd be a gorilla for you. They don't wear metal armor, but have no problems with bone or even stone armor. They can use every weapon, but prefer the blunt variant. The huge blunt variant, to be precise. Add their natural armor to this and those guys are really a force to be reckoned with. Get them up the evolutionary ladder a step or two and you also get something worth playing ...

They are not very fast and move like humans.

Prime Requisites: Strength and Constitution

Experience Bonus: 5% for STR or CON higher than 12, 10% for STR and CON higher than 12

Hit Dice: 1d12 per level up to 9th level.

Maximum Level: 9

Armor: No metal armor, shields permitted

Weapon: Any (prefers blunt)

Combat Progression: like Cleric

Weapon Mastery (if you use that): demi-human

Saves as: Dwarf

Fantastic gorilla art by a Miroslav Petrov [source]
Special Abilities: GOING APE! (+[level] to damage and attack, +1 HP/level for CON/2 + [level] rounds and [level] per day, save vs. spells to end or avoid an unvoluntary rage), GOING LARGE! (Counts as large with all the benefits and drawbacks that come with that, may use large weapons with one hand) and THICK! (natural armor bonus of 2 due to thick skin and fur)

Gorilla Experience Table
Level   XP 
1       0
2       1.500  
3       3.000
4       6.000    
5      10.000  
6      20.000
7      40.000
8      80.000
9     160.000
And that's that for now. There'll be some additional rules for using this with Monkey Business (they need drugs to stay on the sentient side of things). Next up will be Chimpanzees (some time next week, I think).

Maybe I'll be able to write another piece the coming weekend.


I used Building The Perfect Class for this and you should, too ...

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Talking to myself: Culture vs. the Sandbox (June 2014)

Still quite busy and the blog has to take a hit for it. But I'm not or out of ideas. Just busy. Anyway, I had an idea that might be a fun exercise, doesn't mean much work (I hope) and will result in something that requires a cup of coffee and a bit of muse: I'll re-examine a two year old post of mine and add what my thoughts are about it now. Maybe it even starts a discussion. We'll see. The basic premise:
"A lack of story in a game is always derived from a lack of culture represented in a sandbox/setting/gaming world ..."
I'll c/p the original content here and write my current thoughts about it in between, marked as [Today: ...]. This being a post from two years ago should mean that most of my current readers might not be aware of it or totally forgot about it. That's a plus, I think :) Well, here we go:

Yggdrasil 1: Classic interpretation [source]
I've tried, you know [Today: Still trying ...]

All those random shenanigans I've tried, the tables I used to create content with in the last few games, the random maps and names, all this left me feeling, well, unprepared at the table. A strange feeling for a DM indeed and most unwelcome, to say the least. Although I had everything I needed (as far as content goes), I struggled with an apparent defect of connection between what was generated randomly and the interpretation of that content during the game. In other words: as soon as I had rolled what the players were encountering next (a specific creature or event with a motivation and reaction to the characters, etc. ... you all know what is possible), I started to feel the urge to make a story out of it, the result being not random at all but, in the contrary, totally my design, so to say. Exactly what I had tried to avoid in the first place and not even with the luxury to have a developed story arc at hand, but with the need to pull it all out of my arse as I needed it.

Usually I have no problem with generating connections, interpretations and new content as I need it on the table, but this felt different. This Tyranny of Randomness forced me to think about the people present in a tavern and there motivations at any possible given moment the characters might be entering the locale. It asked for weather and day-to-day routines of peoples, current politics and their effect and all those little nooks and crannies that are really really needed (and in a huge amount, no less) to produce the necessary amount of information that could result in a satisfying variety of adventure hooks needed in a "true" sandbox to make it work.

Because, if you just use a shortcut and make a table with all the funny things you think possible in a specific sandbox, you might as well admit that all this is not random at all, but a random assortment of exactly all the things that could possibly happen. There is a difference.
[Today: Yeah, Tyranny of Randomness, here we go. Main reason for this being so intimidating at the time had been that the tools I used back then were not ideal for what I was doing. You see, the classic D&D game (I used a heavily modified D&D Rules Cyclopedia at the time) completely relied on the DM being somehow prepared or using an official product, so it never intended to produce a random chain of events and instead a random chain of turns ...]
Take for example rumors of a bear attacking wood cutters near a settlement. A good enough adventure hook, I think. But where is that bear coming from, why did he leave? A bigger predator claiming his territory, maybe? Why is he attacking people? Is it for a lack of other prey? What's with all that, then?

So you see, every event has a chain of relevant causalities (of connected events, if you will) leading to it. The results of these events (if you dare going as far as producing that much information, that is) might be random, but you have to start somewhere. And that place is so totally unimportant and insignificant for what happens at the table, with so much small and moving pieces in between, that it doesn't seem worth to even try to figure out where to start.

But if you were looking for where to start with those chains of events, cultures would be the way to go. It might seem counter-intuitive, especially with the example of the bear above, but stay with me. I'll get there.
[Today: Funny, right now I'd say you have to go with stories instead. That being said, I'd like to stress that the way we tell stories is indeed derived from culture. So the bonus content here would be that if you try to emulate a certain culture, you should learn how they told their stories and use that in your game ... But on with the text.]
Causality goes both ways ...

It's a good thing that causality can go both ways from an established point, if that point is well chosen. Constants and varieties are the base criteria for such an endeavor and that's exactly what the term culture enfolds. Following that link to Wikipedia will only help in realizing how big a topic culture can be, this is the variety. On the other hand it shows very well how all those cultural variety is labeled, so there are your constants. That all cultures are a product of their specific surroundings is where causality comes into play. If you have a social group of sentient apes living on a shore, you'll have some fishing and legends and rituals connected to the sea, stuff like that.

So this might be a point from where an interpretation of causality easily goes both ways. The characters encounter a settlement at a shore and a DM just knows there will be forms of cultural representation regarding that fact. Going the other way would mean, if the surroundings change for the settlement (say, they were forced to leave, for instance), they will take some of their cultural achievements with them (maybe some legends and stories and names remain in their songs, stuff like that) so that at a later point it can be recognized and traced back again, etc..

As far as creating content for a role playing game is concerned, this means basically:
Every point of entry in a campaign is legit. It's either created up to the point of entry, from that point onward or somewhere in between.
[Today: What I'm saying here is that you can start wherever you want to create random content, as long as you keep straight what's established as fact and what is just known by the characters. As long as the construct you are ending up with retains credibility, it'll hold in a campaign. That's causality derived from constants and variety ... ] 
Yggdrasil 2: Esoteric interpretation [source]
Perception of a world, the players view (an intermission).

This occurred to me some time ago and maybe it's worth a post of it's own, but for this argument I deem it important to have it at least mentioned as food for thought: the flow of information in a fantasy setting (or in every setting, if you think about it) prevents a complete and true understanding of the world surrounding a player character. All characters can know is interpretations and stories, distance being one main factor regarding the accuracy of the information gathered, culture being another one.

So even if you start a campaign with nothing but an idea for a starting area and tell the players tall stories about what the world around them is filled with, nothing of this needs to be true and might be challenged entirely in the next village. Even if a DM did do all the work to create a complete world, the only chance for the characters to know it with some kind of certainty should be by exploring it, because it's not about what's a world comprised of, but about how a culture interprets and communicates it.

So the "true" sandbox is not the world/map itself (the board, if you will) but the amount of interpretations (or stories!) of said world. And that is the amount of cultures in a setting.
[Today: This really should be a post of its own. And I really can't exaggerate this enough: Nothing we tell our players needs to be true. It just needs to be connected. As they explore their surroundings they'll update their knowledge with what they think is the truth and so on. It's the classic "No one goes into this forest, there are demons in there!" and then it's just some creative savages or a curse with a tragic story. Or both and the players just find one aspect. The relation between what is known and what the story says is happening just needs to be nourished constantly. Stuff like "You thought that it was dark magic, but it just had been ..." or "The elders had been wrong about that foreign land to the east and that sea they talked about had just been a giant lake after all ...". As long as you are able to establish meaning and connections, it'll keep credibility. We rely far to much on the maps we use as being true and base our games on them, but that's a very young idea in history and an illusion on its own.]
It's evolution, baby (Creating a Sandbox 101)!

Let's get back to that bear again. What we like to perceive as culture is more often than not a direct result of our natural heritage. Opposing thumbs, courtship display, all that stuff. This is, again, about capabilities resulting in behavior in accordance to its surroundings. To phrase it another way, it's easier to create a possible pattern of what a bear might do than it is to do the same for a human being, but ultimately it's the same basics. Evolution allowed for the development of cultures with the intelligent apes, for the bear not so much, which leaves him with what evolution is capable of.

This is where the relevant data is, this is where stories are developed. You'll need the lay of the land, that is true (and easy enough achieved with a degree of difficulty open to the top), but it'll mainly produce constants with almost no variety. So if that's done, you'll just have a board for all the parties involved to leave a mark on.

Layers and layers and layers of true randomness!

Next is where the DM decides how vanilla it gets. It is basically the decision how much culture a DM is willing to invent or how many memes and tropes he is willing to use.  It is a very broad spectrum, ranging from, say, the elves, dwarfs and hobbits how Tolkien described them to a complete new set of races, invented from scratch. Or a world having no moon, one moon or 5. But whatever is decided, I believe it is important for a DM to make the decision where to start consciously and up to a point where the number of former decisions, random or not, produce a pattern complex enough to carry a narrative.

This means layers and layers of decisions if he wants to have a sandbox-setting or a world-engine with a totally random, but traceable history. A huge task.
[Today: It actually makes me a bit happy to read this, as I really managed to build something like this two times since I wrote it. The first is a Random Territory Generator I use for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, the second is a Mission Generator for The Grind ... both produce very specific results for the stories they want to tell, just as described above.]
Culture, memes and the story ...

Alright, let's connect some dots and get back to the thesis at hand. I think it's conclusive that it's almost irrelevant were to start with the randomness or what kind of map is used, as long as there's enough to work with (a few encounter and reaction tables and a map worth exploring, maybe). The available cultures, on the other hand, might be what really matters when a DM creates/prepares a setting, because it is what the players get confronted with as soon as they start creating characters and in the game it's their tool to interact with the world. And it is how stories emanate.

Memes can come in handy in this in as far as if, for example, a player has a more or less clear picture of  what a dwarf is, he can easily enough play one. Some familiarity with a setting can go a long way in helping the players getting some immersion. Another argument for using memes is that to recognize variety you need to know the source. So it helps when describing a set of random cultures if the source is still recognizable.

In the end, if you want to know what the people do and why they react the way they react, you need a fair idea of the cultural context surrounding the encounter to make a story about it. If the players live in a matriarchy, for example, all the roles they know might be reversed and if those roles are inspired by a medieval society, you'll have women knights courting men in fancy dresses and so on. So everything a DM establishes for a culture helps him telling the stories the characters encounter. The more work he puts in that, the better will be the stories he's going to tell.
[Today: There are two things happening here. For one, it's important that the decisions a player has in a game are informed by what the setting needs and by that it will enter the story. It's an idea I incorporated (for instance) into the character generation for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and I can say with some confidence right now that it does indeed work. The second part is how cultures manifest in a setting and how that informs NPC decisions. I still need to do this and it had been the main reason to read this old post to begin with.]
Yggrasil 3: Marvel interpretation [source]
What next?

Those are the basics so far. Maybe it's able to start a discussion, exploring those ideas a bit further or even challenge them. Maybe not. Anyway, in future posts I'll further examine how a DM could utilize the idea of culture as a tool to carry the narrative of the game and I should give some examples, maybe a system how to randomly generate a culture. Right now I think it might be useful to have an index for a culture how obscure their idea of the world surrounding them is. Something like, the lower the index, the closer are those interpretations to reality ...
[Today: Well, I thought I'd agree less with something I wrote 2 years ago. What changed from then to now, though, is that I believe I found (almost) all the tools I need to make this work for me. The last piece in this puzzle, at least for LSotN, would be the Random Story Seed Generator I wrote about a few months ago. I'm right now working at an updated version (which will be posted soon, I hope), but it already works great as it is. I'm still missing a culture generator that'll help me bringing the Dark Ages to life in the game. And that's it. I hope you guys enjoyed this little re-post and maybe we get to start a discussion here or you'd like to share some of your ideas about randomness with us. Comments are, as always, very welcome.]