Monday, April 20, 2009

The Sandbox Again: Gygax on Plot

In an earlier post, I expressed concern with the term “sand-box” play to define the dominant style of how D and D was played in the old days. Not to rehash that post too much, my main concern was that “sand-box,” as it is conventionally used, typically signifies the opposite of “story.”

First, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with DMs using implied narrative elements in their campaigns as long as those narratives are not absolutely pre-scripted and as long as the characters are free to interact with said story elements as they see fit. Fetishizing this idea of “sandbox” can easily lead one to assume that the best way to play is for the DM to simply create an environment that the characters just kind of wander about I while looking for things to do. Any hint of narrative arc must be eschewed

Second, I don’t think that this is how earlier versions of D and D were typically played. In the previous post, I offered as example the strong narrative elements present in the classic and iconic G and D series of modules. Just for more food for thought, consider the following statement by Gary Gygax made in the February 1979 issue of Dragon Magazine:

“each Dungeon Master uses the rules to become a playwright (hopefully of Shakespearean proportions), scripting only plot outlines however, and the players become the Thespians” (29).

This statement, which appears in an article entitled “Dungeons and Dragons: What it is and Where it’s Going,” certainly suggests that in 1979, the height of D and D’s golden age, Gygax had most definitely not rejected the idea of plot. Clearly, Gygax is not advocating the use of pre-scripted plots. Nevertheless, the idea of plot outline seems to be perfectly acceptable.


post festum said...

Great find - I think the quote makes your case quite well.

Of course you already know my view - that the art of DMing involves a special kind of storytelling - so I'm glad to see that the game's progenitors agree.

The really difficult question isn't story vs no-story. Rather, how best to craft a unique kind of storyless story...Narrative arcs that incline but don't determine, as they say.

How about a post or two on your "process" in converting your Fallen Lands to s&w?

Ironbeard said...

Post Festum - I think your right about the DM's job involving a special kind of story telling. Or I'm certainly coming around to seeing your point.

"Storyless story" is a great turn of phrase. I think that's what Gygax means by "plot outline."