You Unlock this Door with the Key of Imagination

This entry is part 31 of 42 in San Check

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.

Twilight Zone

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?

Twilight Zone Pinball Backglass

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.

Oil Furnace Tim Denee

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.

The Necropolis Parkinson

Work with what you have. Work with what you rolled. Creativity is more powerful with limitations.

Small World

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.

Some Movie About Soap

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.

Yigael's Wall Omen II

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.

Planet of the Apes OMG Spoiler

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.

Delve - San Check - TOC
[«««] PreviousNext [»»»]

  1. You know, for kids!
  2. Digger, Please!
  3. Semantic Railroads
  4. Mapping Progress
  5. Honeymoon Adventure
  6. No One Games in a Vacuum
  7. House Rules, You’re Doing It Wrong!
  8. WotC’s Poisoned Apple
  9. Oh Shit Run – An Outside Perspective
  10. Greyhawk Campaigns
  11. Nostalgia Vomit
  12. Dicing with Dinosaurs
  13. The Eye of the Dragon
  14. What Did You Do Over the Summer?
  15. It’s Like Cops and Robbers, but with Dice!
  16. Emergent Death or Why Losing Is Fun!
  17. How to Train Your Delvers (More WotC Snark)
  18. WotC’s Babel Fish
  19. More Nostalgia Vomit
  20. Fantasy Fighting
  21. Fighting Fantasy
  22. The Delvers 1985
  23. From Weird WotC to the creator of Giant Space Hamsters
  24. The Daedalus Complex
  25. There Is No Cow Level
  26. Double-decker Bologna Sandwich!
  27. It is Not a Secret Door if You Tell Me
  28. All Apologies
  29. Be the First to Solve the Mystery and Claim the Dungeon Treasure!
  30. Dungeon Treasure & Hidden Treasure
  31. You Unlock this Door with the Key of Imagination
  32. The Answer to the Mystery at The Delvers
  33. The First Keeper
  34. Sandbox Apophenia
  35. Nearly Enough Dice – Interview
  36. The State of The Delvers
  37. Vicariously Join Two Girls and Their Mom Around the Gaming Table
  38. Cassette Cover Art
  39. Bastion of the Boglings
  40. WotC Piss and the Last Boy Scout
  41. Campaign Timeline
  42. B4: The Lost City


The Delvers Podcast B-side