Blog Carnival: Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails?
This is my response to the blog carnival topic started on Twitter by @ThadeousC. Here are the rules:
1. Your post must be on topic.
2. If you wish to participate in this blog carnival, please post a comment saying so and you will have 24 hours to write and post your response (if you don’t have a blog of your own to post on, email me at DMSamuel AT IronNeuronEnterprises DOT com and I can give you a contributor spot here to post your article).
3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.
4. Be respectful. No name calling.
This question is very interesting to me and I appreciate the breadth of answers that have already been written for the blog carnival.
Why Did This Question Come Up?
In 4e it is very easy for the DM to scale monsters and encounters to fit the party level. It is the first edition where I have had an extremely easy time doing so, and I can even rate the encounters easy, medium, or hard based on what I am throwing at the players. This ease-of-encounter-building ensures that making encounters that are the matched to the level of the party seems like the right thing for the DM to do. But is it good for your players to assume that every encounter is beatable? Does it lead to arrogance? Does it lead to erroneous assumptions? Does it lead players to take more chances since they know they will survive? Or does it lead players to make fewer creative moves because they know they will win in battle?
Realism in the Game Setting
I have mixed feelings about this question. I feel it is important that the players are adventuring in a world that lives and breathes around them. This should includes the fact of larger and more powerful enemies, of a much higher level existing around them. In my 4e games I find it so easy to scale that I don’t have a tendency to send unscaled encounters at my players, and certainly haven’t done it on purpose. Because of this topic I have begun thinking about this a great deal, wondering if it is a problem and if I should do anything to change it.
On one hand, it seems that 4e is tailor made to be this way… the PCs are heroic from the get-go and are expected to best most bad guys they come across. On the other hand, I do want the world to have a sense of realism, even in the face of playing a fantasy game. I want the players to feel challenged and triumphant when they finish an encounter.
I’m Saying One Thing and Running Encounters A Different Way
Upon reflection I realize that I am saying one thing (that I like to make it more realistic with monsters of higher levels existing) and then running encounters a different way (always scaling to the party’s abilities). So, I started thinking about older editions of the game and how I used to run them. I was unafraid to give the players an encounter that they may not be able to defeat and I expected them to flee if they could. It was understood about my DMing style that this would happen sometimes. I was thinking especially of Basic D&D/OD&D (easy to do since I am a member of the Fellowship of the Tweet game run by newbiedm). I started playing around with the idea of random encounter tables. Since I run games in my own homebrew setting, I could tailor these encounters to the location or area and not to player level. The problem with this is that I don’t think it’s fair to throw an overpowered encounter at my players without giving them a warning about certain areas or types of terrain (e.g. swamps are dangerous), or at least planting the seeds and clues that let them know there are dangerous areas.
So, no reason to do a random encounter table – I can just drop those hints when needed. Maybe planting seeds is the right way to do it for my campaign. I do think that a living world has to have those more dangerous creatures. So now the question is: Do you throw those creatures at your players? The answer: only if they insist upon it after fair warning and enough clues/seeds have been planted. This will bring my 4e game closer to the way I used to run OD&D and 1st edition AD&D.
Sandbox vs Rails: The False Dichotomy
I think 4e has opened up the possibility that running on “rails” has a different definition, or at least a different connotation, than it did in previous editions (at least for me). As a long-time DM and player, I used to consider “railroading” a bad thing, but I think maybe the rails aren’t such a detrimental attribute to include in a campaign, as long as they are mixed with the illusion of a sandbox. How does a DM accomplish that illusion?
3 ways to give this illusion: 1) provide several adventure hooks to the players at all times. They can feel free to pick up whichever thread they want and follow it. I already do this for the most part, so it will be no big deal to accomplish this part. 2) Give ample hints of a bigger enemy in several different places in the world. I don’t mean a larger conspiracy organization or anything like that (though it would be valid), I just mean to drop hints about where overpowered monsters are found. The way to bring this together? 3) Make one of the hooks lead to a place where the encounter is overpowered – as long as the players (PCs) know the area is dangerous, it is their choice to enter that area chasing that hook.
So that method meshes the rails and sandbox together, making the terms meaningless in 4e. Maybe that is why the designers added the skill challenge as a true game mechanic, rather than leaving it just to the “role-playing.” Maybe that’s why Wizards of the Coast created the system with such ease of scaling and re-skinning monsters. 4e Really is a DM’s boon, and the system makes it so that the rails can sit squarely in the sandbox and no-one misses either type of game because everyone gets both.
To read the other posts in this blog carnival, click the links below:
First Post by ThadeousC: mydndgame.net
Second Post by WolfSamurai: Phelanar’s Den
Third Post by Obsidian Crane: The Daily Encounter
Fourth Post by dkarr: dkarr’s LoreMaster Page
Fifth Post by Adam Dray: adamdray’s LiveJournal
Sixth Post by Tracy H.: SarahDarkmagic.com
Seventh Post by Deadorcs: Init or What?
Eighth Post by Brian Engard: Gamecrafter’s Guild
Ninth Post by NewbieDm: NewbieDM.com
Tenth Post by DMSamuel: You just read it!
Eleventh Post by TheAngryDM: D&D 4e Advice with Attitude
Twelfth Post by Colmarr: The Astral Sea
Thirteenth Post by Azaroth: Turning It Up To 21 Sided
Fourteenth Post by Ryven Cedrylle: At Will
Hope you are enjoying this Blog Carnival!
Until next time, I wish you good gaming.
Sand image subject to creative commons attribution, was taken off of Flickr on 6/23/2010 and is property of mikebaird
Dual tracks image subject to creative commons attribution, was take off of Flickr on 6/23/2010 and is property of laffy4k
Desert Tracks image subject to creative commons attribution, was taken off of Flickr on 6/23/2010 and is property of Nesher Guy