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 ...|
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.
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 ...).
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.