Before my age had even reached double digits, my mom introduced me to The Twilight Zone. It was every weekday on KTLA Channel 5, at midnight.
Aside from the impact Rod Serling
had on my mind, his show is probably responsible for permanently damaging my sleeping pattern. Fighting to keep my eyes open, I stayed up religiously to see what the god Rod Serling had come up with next.
Incidentally, it is well after midnight as I write this.
Dude, Role-Playing Games.
How do you reproduce The Twilight Zone effect in a role-playing game? Not so much the social commentary, but that oh, shi- moment. And, how do you avoid coming off as an M. Night Shyamalan movie made after The Sixth Sense?
More specifically, how do you do this in a sandbox?
I do not consider myself a story creator. When Dungeon Mastering, I am not
there to tell a story. With that in mind, I thought I would share some techniques I often use to capture the player’s imagination at the table in the same manner that Rod Serling makes you think about what you just watched after the show is over.
This is not always about a “big reveal” or “twist” (although that can easily develop by chance in a sandbox). They are just methods used as a catalyst for the player’s imagination.
To start, I am going to cover three simple points. The three points can stand on their own, but they are the foundation of how “The Letters” came about. A follow up post will cover “The Letters” case study in more detail.
Dungeon History – Not Story
Dungeon history is probably the most well-known way to tell a story in a sandbox. You are not really telling a story at all. In fact, you may not get to tell the players anything, because the players may never discover the
dungeon history. What is important is that you know that history.
While consistency with a dungeon’s history is important, do not be afraid to steal the ideas of your players. Incorporate what they think is going on, if it makes sense
. You cannot think of everything and this can help fill in the gaps.
On the other hand, toss out ideas that conflict with what is already established. Do not retcon or force something to fit. Consider these ideas false positives and move on.
Do not bore them with a crap load of information (Hint: They will not remember every detail). If they are interested, they will seek more information out. Sometimes they just do not care. That is okay.
Work with what you have. Work with what you rolled. Creativity is more powerful with limitations.
Another easy way to grab their imagination is the small world concept. Need a quick NPC? If it fits the time and location, use one they already met or someone they met while playing another character. They do not even have to be from the same campaign.
Small world NPCs work best when not overused. In just under two years there have been four cross-overs in our campaigns. Sometimes at different time periods. It is actually five, if you count the fact that “the three wise men” bought the Tomb of Horrors map off Selenor and six if you count another one of Sue’s dungeon crawls yet to be posted.
Just like the player’s characters are not snowflakes, neither are your NPCs. At times, a player’s character will briefly rise above the normal. In the same manner, your NPCs may have once had a moment of greatness. Do not plan for this, and again, do not over use it; the NPCs are not special.
As an aside, the small world concept does not include that lone kobold that got away from the players that is now leading the pack of random kobolds you just rolled up. This is easier to swallow and can be used more often.
Finding Answers & Connections
It is natural to be curious. As a Dungeon Master I often ask myself a lot of questions about what is going on in the game world.
You do this already in combat. You have to explain why that 1 sucks or why that 20 was so much better. In combat this is more of a fast and free, thinking on your feet duty. With dungeon history and small world events you need to think it over on the drive to work.
At the very least, figure it out before the players, but there is no need to be a know-it-all-anti-Christ. Just stay one step ahead.
Completing the Puzzle
Your goal is to not explain
. Just give them that last puzzle piece, sit back, and watch them put it all together (just like you did). While one player will remember one minor detail and another player something else, they will fill in the gaps at the table for each other.
That moment when everything fits together seamlessly is
Sandbox Apophenia. When all the connections you discovered are revealed by the players, queue The Twilight Zone music.