Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Sinister Superman Sandbox Syndrome

I have a million things to get to but it's been a week from hell and I am just putting down the first thing that popped into my head. Future plans are for a Mekton/Mecha RPG post, some ruminations about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and of course, more Pokemon AD.

Wow. Whose table-top RPG blog reads like this? Seriously. I am pretty proud to have written that sentence. OK, enough of that. Back to near crippling self doubt...

For now, I wanted to talk about something that occurred to me while reading a recent post by none other than the ever intriguing Noisms. While his train of thought and mine do not always line up, I am always willing to jump on that train of his and take it a few stops just to see where it goes.

This time is goes into an idea about forests and fire-fighting Elves and such but that's not the part that really caught my attention. The part that got me was that he uses, as a point of reference, a post by Zak Smith wherein Zak details what Noism calls the Superman Sandbox Problem

Very much worth a read as are most all of Zak's posts. The crux of the matter I want to discuss is that Zak states that in a sandbox style game, the heroic characters are at something of a creative disadvantage.

Hmmm. Perhaps disadvantage isn't the right way to put it. The idea is that a roguish character is more proactive, while a heroic character is more reactive. Therefore, the rogue sets up his or her particular encounters, whereas the hero simply chooses one option or another or blindly bumps into an option that GM has chosen.

Let's say a group of players with roguish PCs decide to - let's use one of Zak's own examples - steal a car from the used car lot, use it in the getaway from a bank robbbery, amd then ditch the car by a church afterwards.

Zak says in his post that if the PCs try to enact this scheme during a game, they basically create that session's adventure. The 'Adventure writes itself' he notes. 

The idea is that this doesn't happen for Superman because...because...wait. Why doesn't it work this way for Superman?

In the same post, Zak gives various possible examples of how a heroic character, Superman in this case, could possibly interact with the sandbox world he's in: As we did for the roguish PCs, let's pick one possible option. For today's session, Superman wants to, umm, ah-ha! He could try to free Mon-El from the Phantom Zone (in the privacy of his own home, I suppose). [In the Fortress of Solitude - ed.]

Here's the difference (according to Zak's post):

"While any of these things may result in a conflict (and thus an adventure)the Superman PC--unlike the rouguish PC--has no idea of what the shape of that conflict will be."

He...um...what? Sorry, I'm not understanding.

How does the rogue in the previous example know, in advance, what kind of security the bank has? How does he know the condition of the car he and his gang have stolen? What if Clark Kent just happens to be in the bank depositing his latest check from the Daily Planet at the time of the robbery? What if the Flash is in town and hears about the car being stolen from the used car lot? What if the used car has a crappy transmission or something else is faulty that causes the car to stall?

Likewise, how does Superman not know he will probably have to face off against villains he and his father trapped in the Phantom Zone when he goes to free Mon-El? Doesn't going to free Mon-El go virtually hand-in-hand with saying, "I feel like getting into a tussle with Quex-Ul, Zaora, and General Zod today"?


"Superman does not choose to sketch out a violent conflict. The rogue does. Superman chooses from a set of options whose consequences (conflict-wise) are mostly unknown." Zak writes.

I guess...but no more or less so than the rogues. It's a matter of perspective and approach. To further illustrate what I mean, let's look at Zak's scenario for Superman in a Metropolis sandbox and compare/contrast it to similar ones I've used (with some pointers taught to me by my Champions Guru friend Will Corpening)...

Zak posts:

"Ok, so picture this:

A GM somewhere writes out the city of Metropolis and the city of Gotham and the rest of the world of DC Comics in excruciating detail. The train lines, the shopfronts, which hot dog store owners are secretly shark-men, every inch of it. It's all ready to go.

Now here comes a PC playing Superman, into this sandbox.

"So what do you want to do today, Supes?"

"Uh, I guess I'll go on patrol."

Off he flies.

"Do I see any crime?"

"Umm, nope, not much, Metropolis is a fully-functioning independent world going about its business."

"Ok, I keep going. Now do I see any crime?"

Right here at the end is where my view point differs. If Superman's player says he goes on patrol over the city, he doesn't find nothing to do. That's not only boring but it takes away part of the player being proactive. 

If the GM begins by asking the player what he wants to do and then the player tells her, then the GM should, ya'know, do that. Have that happen. Having that result in nothing makes no sense.

What the player is saying here, if they're a proactive player, is that they want to have Superman find street crime in Metropolis. Maybe they're tired of Brainiac and Bizarro and just want to stop some bank robbers in a stolen car.

If the rogues went to steal a car to rob a bank, would you tell them there weren't any cars in the lot? That none of the cars had gas? That the city had no banks? Of course not. The adventure writes itself, right? So why would a superhero deciding to patrol for crime find none?

My buddy Will would often open a Champions session by asking me where my character Starguard was and what he was doing. Here are just a few of the actual answers I gave:

He's in space deflecting a comet from hitting the Earth.

He's near Jupiter rescuing an alien starship caught in the planet's gravity well.

He's at our headquarters helping test our 'Danger Room' style training facility.

He's assisting another hero, trying to save the passengers and crew of a damaged 747. 

If you were the GM, what would you take from this? Will noted that I like to play up Starguard's 'space hero' nature,and that flight is important to me.

Do you think he just said, "OK, you deflect the comet/rescue the ship/save the plane. Now what?"

NO! How boring is that? Also, I as the player am indeed setting up for conflict in a proactive way. Why not take me up on it? If a bunch of thugs can turn a stolen car and a bank robbery into an adventure, why can't I do that with a comet and a bunch of aliens that need rescuing?

In the case of the comet, Will took the opportunity to tie my action into another player's opening game answer. My pal AJ said that his speedster, Pulse, was at New York City's South Street Seaport dealing with his arch-nemesis, the cold war, cold weather cretin General Winter. Apparently GW was using a device to attract the icy, space-born object towards the Earth for villainous purposes.

Pulse and Starguard
On the tail of a comet, as the trail goes cold!

In the instance of the 747, it was my attempt to not only do something classic for a flying hero (always wanted to save a plane Superman style) but also a chance to meet another hero from our world setting who maybe I didn't know. As it turned out, the flight was from New York to Atlanta, Georgia and I got to meet a few of the heroes of the South Eastern United States including Sure Thing (a favorite NPC of mine), Swift, and the high flying, evangelical Messenger.

It's a Sure Thing baby.

I always see gaming as a friendly tug-of-war, a push and pull between two forces, the players and the GM. I throw challenges at them to make them think and act to overcome obstacles, but they - especially proactive players - challenge me to come up with things in response to their ideas.

I don't really plan adventures with proactive players in the mix. I layout the sandbox, plant story ideas and options in the setting (hence my term 'Storybox' for my preferred style of play), and then see what the players have their PCs do.

They may feel like waiting for me to give them something.

"We scan the area. Any anomalous readings?"

"We check the Trouble Alert Monitor. Any crimes going on?"

They may want to pursue something mentioned in the background of the setting.

"If there's nothing pressing, we'd like to check out that planet you mentioned two or three session back. The one with the unusual rings. We never got to really look at it and it sounds interesting."

"Is Black Monday still at large? It always bugged me that he escaped. I want to investigate where he may have gone."

They may want to do something unexpected of their own design.

"The other players and I were talking and I think we have a way to upgrade the shjp's Star Drive using a new scientific theory I read about. We're going to dock at a space station and do some upgrades. Let's dock somewhere where we can get high tech parts and maybe find some work should the cost of the upgrades get expensive."

"The team and I talked about it and we're tired of having such poor relations with the Atlanteans. We're going to go on a peace mission to Atlantis, talk to their leader, and hammer out a treaty. Maybe we can help them find and capture that villain Wavemistress while we're in their region. That would really help getting them to see us favorably."

In the end, I agree that the proactive hero is less common than the proactive ne'er-do-well. However, I think that it may be that it's so because we've been trained (and trained ourselves) to think that.

It is also a trope of certain genres that the heroes lives are calm, and peaceful until such time as trouble strikes. Makes sense from both an emulation, and simulation stand point

That said, it's your game. There is no reason it has to be that way if you can fit the idea of a proactive benevolent character into the scheme of things without throwing the whole setting out of wack. My assertion is that generally speaking you can. Maybe not all the time, maybe not in every situation, but if the GM makes time for the proactive heroic PC, and the player uses that time in a sensible and entertaining way, well...why not?


Barking Alien


  1. I read Zak's article when if first came out seven years ago, and felt that he was succumbing to the predominant culture of RPG's, namely their picaresque heritage of Jack Vance novels. Which is to say murderhoboing rogues.
    Is greed an easy motivator? Sure. Is being anti-social an easy conflict device? Sure. But it isn't the only one. And ease doesn't mean quality.
    I work in a job that doesn't reward passivity. Every day I sit at my desk and ask myself what I could be doing. I'm not a rogue. I might be considered opposed to society in some political contexts, but I'm generally not on the wrong side of the law. No, on a good day I figure out people with whom I can network and determine society's ills and who may or may not need a pastoral visit. I'm in my own self-determined sandbox, and it gives me plenty of adventure. I don't need to be Lex Luthor to make something interesting happen.

    1. I'm sure I must've read it too, and indeed a past post on this blog must allude to it. At the same time, seeing it fresh stirred fresh thoughts, and I felt the need to post them.

      I think it all depends on the story you (the GM and players in your group) want to tell. If you want to tell the tale of murderhobo characters doing questionable things, go right ahead. Nothing wrong with that.

      As someone who has never been a fan of that particular approach to RPGs (or storytelling for that matter), and yet has had some very proactive players over the years, it seems the examples previously given don't entertain (no pun intended) all the options.

      Your own career by way of example is a good one. I am reminded of my father as well, who was a police officer. He started as a beat cop of course, a reactive job very often. At some point he made Sargent, and Detective. Police Detectives combine reactive, and proactive to get the job done as real life criminals aren't eager to appear in public spouting out a monologue of their criminal plans.

  2. I apologize if the formatting seems off on this post. Blogger decided to implement some changes recently that ****ing suck monkey b***. I am trying to do my best to repair their idiocy.

  3. I think you're conflating a proactive player with a proactive character, here. In most of your examples, the player action - having their character go on patrol, or scene-framing - either signals to the GM what kind of situation the player wants their character to be in, or straight up puts the character in that situation unilaterally. However, it's not the character that's actually proactive in that situation - it's an NPC or some other aspect of the world outside of the character. That proactive element is either asked for by the player, or actively framed in by the player. So the player is proactive without making their character proactive. This is more or less what the Forge called "director stance" http://big-model.info/wiki/Director_Stance.

    I think that in Zak's style of game, a non-GM player never controls anything outside of the actions of their character. So, a proactive player necessarily acts through a proactive character, and a reactive character is necessarily played by a reactive player.

    Some of your examples do involve a proactive PC, though, like going looking for Wavemistress or Black Monday - though even in the case of Black Monday it's a delayed reaction to Black Monday's escape.

    I do agree with you though - the style of game you're describing works for a proactive player, who could be playing a superhero. I just don't think it makes that superhero proactive.

    1. I think I get where you are coming from, but I'm not sure I wholly agree that the distinction matters.

      I say that only because the original post on the subject addresses roguish PCs doing something like stealing a car in order to rob a bank.

      OK, so in some instances, such as AJ saying that Pulse is fighting General Winter at the Seaport, isn't exactly the hero himself being proactive (we don't know how, or why Pulse first encountered General Winter in this scenario), but the end result is that he ( Pulse as played by AJ) gets to face off against the toughest member of his rogues gallery.

      This set up starts an adventure going. AJ has no idea where it's going to lead, or what is going to happen. He has started the ball rolling however.

      Now, let's jump in the backseat of that stolen car as it streaks off to bring the rogue PCs to their potential heist. What is happening there? Same thing. It's starting an adventure. The rogues don't know what is going to happen, or where it's going to lead, but they are getting to do something they (both the players AND the characters) want to do.

      Now, these are just a handful of examples, and largely they're focused on Superheroes and some Sci-fi. In our most recent Fantasy campaign, set in a region similar to a drought parched New Mexican desert, one of the players is eager to teach the locals improved mining, and forging techniques. Why? So they can drill, or plow the land for water trapped deep below (the PC is a Dwarf, he knows about this stuff).

      Another PC had a similar idea, but from a different angle. His family are wealthy farmers in a far away land. He can teach the people how to irrigate their crops once a suitable water source is found.

      These ideas, which came from the characters as much as the players, were not instigated by any action on my part as GM beyond describing the area, and how the people who lived there dealt with the dry, arid conditions.

      To me, that's proactive, and heroic. It doesn't directly result in conflict, but really, must it?

  4. You already brought this "mistake" up years ago when the blog entry was originally published and I already explained the problem.

    so first:

    1. Please contact me when you disagree with what I wrote, it's more efficient than waiting for me to notice you blogged about it and then I have to come and show yout he part you missed

    2. The problems with equating Superman deciding to save Mon-El from the Negative Zone with a roguish character trying to rob a target are many:

    -The initial problem (Mon El is in the Phantom Zone) has to be pre-created before the adventure. So Superman is still reacting to an existing problem not inventing a scheme from whole cloth. For some other considerations here, see Reed Richards below...

    -VERY IMPORTANT AND POINTED UP IN THE ORIGINAL POST MANY TIMES: As soon as a bigger or more life-threatening problem occurs in the world, Superman must drop what he's doing and address it.

    Literally the ONLY way Superman can decide to save Mon-El from the Phantom Zone is if it's the most pressing problem at the moment. So he has the illusion of choice while staying in character but not really.

    This leaves the GM with only 2 options:
    A) Do not create a sandbox environment with emergent problems and instead let the player invent problems to solve (this is fine, but it isn't a sandbox. A sandbox is when the GM creates the environment and the player decides how to act in it, not when the player has some extradiegetic control of the environment)
    B) Put Superman in a Justice League and decide some NPC like Batman is going to deal with whatever problem Superman doesn't. Which works ok for Superman in a JLA era but not for dozens of other heroic set-ups. The reason things like Dragonlance are such a railroad is they assume the PCs are literally the only ones who can solve the earht-shattering problem.

    -It limits the stakes. As long as Superman has a choice, there must not be anything too major and earth-threatening going on.

    -This is system=specific and can be solved but hasn't been: Most systems do not have any experience point system for solving immanent world problems you just decided to solve (world hunger, Mon-El in the negative zone, etc). While the rogue knows why they're robbing a bank (gold=xp) Superman's player doesn't have an xp-motive to solve a problem until a bad guy he can fight or innocents he can rescue get involved. And once that happens you're back to Superman has no choice but to solve the biggest problem on the table

    -The Reed Richards issue. Ok: So Reed Richards is often deciding to got explore or do an experiment and so you could say he's proactive. But then you encounter all these problems again: what's the xp incentive to just explore the negative zone, or cure whatshernames' blindness or turn Ben human or invent glasses allowing you to see the 77th spectrum?
    The player has to either be a very inventive GM-type on their own and invent problems to solve with ultrascience (leaving the GM to basically make up the problem with it out of whole cloth, in a way that is less "Sandbox" (ie decide or roll dice to see how the environment you invented reacts) than "hurry up and invent something" (ie there is absolutely nothing in the setting which gives the GM any guidelines abotu what's int he 77th spectrum if that's a concept the player just invented))
    ...or the GM has to, again, invent a menu of problems to solve. Which leave the Reed player (being a hero) trying to solve whatever the most serious problem is just to stay in character and again is a false choice.

  5. I apologize if I brought it up before, or if I seemed to be saying I thought your approach was wrong. I just thought of my own approach to the situation as running differently from yours. Neither is right, or wrong, but rather I saw it as a difference in perspective.

    I also wasn't aware it wasn't OK to discuss my own thoughts on the subject based on what I read without checking with you. Again, I apologize. It just popped into my head when I read it from the link on Noisms post.

    As for Superman dropping everything to save the world, yes, that makes sense. Is that what I'm really talking about here though? Wasn't it about how one type of PC can be proactive, while the other would not really be able to?

    If a game session started with the world in danger, a condition generated by the GM, Superman's player opting to have him try to find a cure for cancer, or neutralizing all the world's kryptonite would not make sense. Superman is Superman after all, and one hopes that the GM and players of a Superhero game would be on the same page about what superheroes do.

    Now, let's say there isn't a world endangering disaster afoot. Can we say that? OK cool. So what then?

    I suppose rogues could just ignore it if they suddenly became aware of a citywide sweep by the police that was taking down major criminals groups. They could because their rogues, and don't care I guess. Yet, might it not concern them that they too might be caught? Could they just go about their merry way if that was the plot the GM introduced?

    Option A) as you describe it doesn't make sense to me. I'm not an all or nothing kind of guy. Neither are my players. I am totally down with a Sandbox game that has emergent problems AND the opportunity for players to invent problems to solve. Why not do both? That's not a sandbox? OK, it's not a sandbox. Wee! I feel so free.

    Now, hold on to your chairs everyone...the system related question of, 'What is the XP incentive to just explore the negative zone, or cure someone's blindness? Hmmm. I don't know. In Champions it's maybe 2-3 points? Maybe more?

    Oh wait! The answer is, 'Some but who cares?' If the idea is fun, and entertaining and leads to an exciting adventure, I as GM will give you some XP, but the fun part isn't the XP.

    I know. I told you to hold on to your chair didn't I.

    The fun is five years or more later, after the campaign is since finished, when you are sitting around having pizza and a few beers (or sodas) and someone goes, "Hey Adam, remember that time Ray was Reed Richards and he invented those crazy glasses that could see into the...what was it...77th Spectrum or something? Damn that was awesome. All those weird light beings and their crazy society."

    "Yeah! Wow, I remember that well", says Ray, "Spiderman and Sue were the old people other than my who could deal with that evil, Spectrum-Crystal Guy with the 'Dark Light'. That was so fun."

    1. As soon as the players are inventing problems to solve, then you move out of the definition of Sandbox that people who write sandbox settings use to create those modules.

      Such settings have a specific characteristic:

      The environment has the character of a _puzzle the player must use skill to solve_.

      A puzzle where you wrote half of the puzzle yourself is fine, and it's a game you are free to play, but it is less of a puzzle. It is less about the one thing and more about the other thing.

      You can like that kind of game or set-up, no problem, but my post was about sandboxes and not this other kind of game for a reason.
      RE: XP. The point isn't that xp makes it fun, it's that a player needs a proximate reason to invent a problem to solve, and only 10-50% of my players are closet comic-book writers and so the rest will not voluntarily invent a project for me to sabotage with villains and complications. They will choose a course of action (in the present, not in the future) that has something to do with some in-game carrot.

      As for opinions: no, these aren't matters of opinion.

      What kind of game you like is a matter of taste (and opinion)

      Whether there is a flaw in my reasoning is not in any way a matter of opinion. It's either true or false. If you think I made a mistake in reasoning, then it's not respectful to fail to confront me directly with it.

  6. Oh good lord - please, don't write about anything on the internet without contacting the author first - there aren't enough eyes to roll here.

    As for the rest, when someone starts using words like "must" and "only" regarding a superhero game's possibilities you probably don't need to read much further. They don't get it.