Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Spilling sand in the sandbox: tying up loose ends

Jerry Stratton, March 12, 2011

“Bwian” commented on The Adventures of Heisenberg’s Cat:

The PCs are the centre of the universe! Yay!

I agree with this very strongly. The game can’t help being what the participants together make it. This includes the players—therefore their characters actions are key—as well as the GM—whose input is also key, in a different way. The whole enterprise works better if the GM responds to what the players have their characters do. But also in reverse—it helps if the players take account of what the GM just introduced when deciding what their characters do.

The other side of this is that if what the GM is trying to do is make the world seem ‘world like’ to the players, then using 1) ‘secret plans’ (or introducing pre-planned situations, if you prefer) can be helpful sometimes; and 2) as you so remarked, the situation when the players return to the city better be different than it was when they left. This tends to introduce a need for the GM to silently ‘keep track’ of what is ‘happening’ off-screen. That can be at a small scale (what are the orcs in the other rooms doing while the PCs batter down the door), or on a large scale (so what happened to that city, after the PCs left?).

As a GM I often end up with a lot of loose-ends dangling that require a lot of work (or brain-space) on my part to maintain consistency. Any ideas about how to make this less work to handle, while building/ unfolding a sand-box style environment?

First, I really don’t “silently keep track of what is happening off-screen” once the characters leave the area. What “the area” is will depend on what the adventure was, but if it’s not going to affect them, they’re out of the area. At that point, I don’t bother with what’s happening in that area. I tried to find a picture of Harold and the Purple Crayon for the article, because that’s pretty much the way I treat the game: it follows the player characters.

I really did mean it when I said “the plot doesn’t start until the players are involved” and “everything before that is just… potential backstory.” Of course I do keep notes when something occurs to me about a place they might go, or if something interesting occurs to me about a place they’ve already been. But that’s all they are until the player characters actually go there—scattered notes.

I also write a short summary after each session. If the players return to an area, I go back over these summaries and extrapolate what’s happened since. And if I need to introduce something new later, I’ll do a search for something similar in their previous adventures. This allows me to tie in any old incidents they’ve forgotten about with new incidents they’re meeting—i.e., potentially tie up loose threads.

This way, when they suddenly take an interest in the world tree, the adventure will include the druid they just met two adventures ago. Their current adventure didn’t originally include her, and she was just a throwaway character in the old adventure. But now they’re biting on the world tree myths they’ve been hearing? No problem, I’ll pull in the fatherless young druid they rescued earlier.

Sometimes these summaries are useful for other things—they were fighting an unstoppable earth elemental in the last game, and one of the players said, “I have some white powder from Illustrious Castle, will that help?” After the inevitable jokes, I was still left having no idea what this “white powder” was. It was marked “cancer” in the player’s notes. There was no white powder specifically mentioned in Illustrious Castle, nor have I ever dealt with cancer in the game. A quick search of my notes, however, and I knew what it was: in the third adventure they played in, five years ago, they picked up some powdered spider’s web in the Lost Castle of the Astronomers; a quick check in the Lost Castle adventure book and sure enough, there was powdered spider web marked with the astrological sign of Cancer.

As an example, here are those notes:

Astronomers February 12, 2005

Date

It is early afternoon, November 5, 991. November 4 was the New Moon. November 19 will be the Full Moon.

The Castle

Outside the castle is the beaked sweeper.

Beaked sweeper: level 5, 20 survival, +4 defense, +2 attack, 2d6 tentacle damage or d6 beak damage once caught; on called shot, make Evasion roll or strength 0 paralyzation, action time 1 round, full paralyzation. Floats up to 2 or so yards above the ground, movement 13.

Inside the castle is the undead huge spider, +1 level, +1 damage, poison.

Huge undead spider: level 3, 16 survival, +2 defense, poison strength 2, d3 points per round. Damage: 1d3+1.

And of course the sword is in the library room 16 that they have not searched yet, along with the journal of the person(s) who found it describing where.

What Happened?

Went into Abbot Parthane’s room, went past the painting (and saw the signature and dating of 1885) and into the secret passage to the charred room. There were footprints in the soot, human footprints.

They went up to the third level of the tower, and found the sulfur, quicksilver, and powdered spider’s web.

From there, they decided to try the other tower, which they remembered most likely had a spider on the third level. Alvin cleared away the webs hanging down through the broken trap door. Owen took readied a mage bolt and stuck his head through the opening. Then he took the torch from Alvin and used it to start clearing away more webbing. At this point, a web plop hit his hand, and bit him. He (and Alvin) panicked and ran backwards. The spider scuttled back up the stairs. They chose to bypass it completely and go back around to the front of the castle. However, Owen was poisoned and lost a lot of survival points before throwing off the poison. Sonia and Majelica helped with surgery, medicine, and herbalism.

They chose to now deal with the magic library (room 16). Owen cast another light spell into the room, and then Jason first and Alvin next moved quickly into the room, swords at the ready. A pale grey spider attacked them, but Alvin quickly made short work of it.

Here, Majelica began gathering journals, and Alvin found the broken rune sword. They looked for, but could not find the rest of the sword.

They went outside to their horses, to make camp and skim the journals. The sword was found in the charred tower, according to the journal of the Tutor who found it.

The tutors wrote their last entry on the evening of October 7, 1991.

They set up staggered watches, leaving Owen no watch so that he could better rest. On Majelica’s and Jason’s watch, Majelica saw a strange gliding creature out by the front of the castle. They woke up everyone except Owen.

The creature (a beaked sweeper) still managed to sneak up on them, and came up on them while everyone was still ready with missile weapons. Alvin shot an arrow that appeared to right through its wavy legs.

It attacked Randall. It grabbed Randall, paralyzed him, and lifted him off the ground and carried him away. Alvin fired an arrow, and still missed. Majelica woke Owen up, who, still tired, cast a light spell on Randall. Alvin chased after the creature and fired another arrow. It stumbled, but lifted again and kept on going. Another arrow, and it fell to the ground and died. This was about 11:30 to Midnight.

They brought Randall back to the fire and warmed him, and he recovered.

At about 3 AM, on Alvin and Jason’s watch, Alvin caught sight of something moving across the moat. A lot of things moving across the moat. Awaking everyone again, Owen cast a light on the ground towards them. They saw slimy skeleton goblins, watery weeds glistening on them in the light. Everyone panicked, threw whatever they could on their horses (not even saddles, just blankets) and left. They went for half an hour, stopped to talk, and then went for a few more hours.

I’m not trying to be literary or purple. This is “just the facts” reporting so that I can look at this five years from now and know what was going on. You can also see that some of the notes are specifically to remind me of what’s going on for the next game. The section about the state of the castle was to help me a week later to continue where we left off.

Experience points

Since I’m talking about how I take notes, I also nowadays keep experience point notes in the same place. Here’s one more recently from The Yellow Forest (you can see some of it in Fight On! #9):

Conflict (not yet applied)

Player group: Alvin (7), Majelica (6), Owen (7), Zah Eil (4), Riana (5), Eddie (5): 34 total levels vs. 35 creature levels
5 butterfly warriors: (7th level; 23, 33, 49, 54, 46 survival)
Total: 820 (survival) + 3500 (matching) + 200 (excess): 4520, divided by 6: 753 experience per character

Engagement (Applied)

Lizard-human butterfly warrior: (7th level): 140 for Owen, Majelica, Alvin, Eddie, Riana, Zah Eil

Most narratives of any complexity—whether a movie, a novel, or a role-playing game—will have minor questions that were never answered. They aren’t loose ends if they aren’t followed up on by the main characters, because they’re just stuff that happened at some point outside of the narrative. And if the player characters do follow up on them, they’re no longer loose ends because they’ve been tied up. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

In response to The Adventures of Heisenberg’s Cat: There are no plots without players. A plot is a line graph where dead games go.