What’s happening In-Game
Last week they arrived at a new location, I ran it like a sandbox, there was a lot of exploration and some organic group worldbuilding, but not a lot of plot points or action – which was exactly what was called for. But this week I tried to ride the same relaxed energy again. Problem was, the players had crossed the “we’re ready for action” threshhold and they wanted cool scenes – not a sandbox.
As a result, not much happened, so I’mma use this post to talk about better scene planning.
Do Scenes, or Sandboxes, Not Both
It’s easy to make up sandbox elements organically, from what your players say.
Party: “Is there, like, a prophetess we can talk to?”
GM: “Sure – uh, she’s half-senile, but highly revered by the younger clergy and she lives smokes a big hookah.” (quickly creates this NPC in his notes and draws an arrow between her and some piece of plot info – scribbling out the NPC who was originally going to give that info)
|If you GM “guess so,” – squished like grape.|
Like Mr. Miagi says: Walk scene-side, safe. Walk Sandbox side, safe. Walk middle, get squished like grape.
If you try to make up scenes organically the same way you flesh out a sandbox, your scenes will lack flair. If you try to work pre-planned scenes into a sandbox that your players are currently exploring, you’ll spend most of your time looking for opportunities to do your planned stuff while they do annoying unpredictable stuff – and that’s too bad, because that unpredictable stuff would be lots of fun if you were in the right frame of mind to react to it.
Don’t Make Them Work Too Hard For Clues
So the party got attacked and the bodies (plus a still-living assailant) disappeared without a trace.
Now, an assassination attempt only serves a purpose if it reveals new information about the plot. In this case, the knowledge that someone was trying to kill them was not new information – the party was already trying to find and kill her! So, did my attack add suspense, danger, and raised stakes? Absolutely! Did the “vanished without a trace” element add any new information? Absolutely not. Did that completely stymy the gameplay because now the party had no idea how to follow up on it? Absolutely.
Every scene must lead to another plot element. Otherwise the scene gets the party nowhere. (If you haven’t seen this tool from Gnome Stew, take a moment to check it out.)
Sometimes you’ll get yourself in a “no clues” situation accidentally, if you’re a GM who likes to keep your mysterious storyline close to the vest. Sometimes it happens organically because players did something that surprised you. But even if you can’t think of a very good clue, it’s better to do something kind of silly, or an obvious Russell’s Map (”Uh, as the bodies evaporate a blue vapor rises from them – you manage to catch some in a vial. You’ll have to have a wizard examine it later… when I’ve… though of what it is…”) is better than leaving them with no clue.