Thursday, August 23, 2012

What about the Consequences?

I'm just riffing here, so bear with me. This post may be a bit on the short side, but I hope to get my point across despite my need for brevity. Mostly, I want to get the crowd's thoughts on what I'm thinking about at the moment.

It occurred to me: there's lots of talk about the vaunted sandbox campaign and its virtues. I'm a believer in giving players lots of plot hooks to follow and freedom of choice, etc. I do believe in the idea of the sandbox and all the "player agency" goodness that is supposed to come with it.

But as far as I can see, there's not a lot of talk on the RPG blogosphere about the consequences of player actions. There's a lot of talk about letting players do what they want, but I haven't read much in the way of follow-through when it comes to the repercussions of player actions. Of course, I don't have my eye on every single RPG blog, and at least one of the most respected RPG blogs out there has included mention of consequences with regard to player actions (UPDATE: -C over at Hack & Slash actually posted about consequences as a result of my post).

Now, granted, any GM worth his/her salt should rightly see player actions as a chance to create resultant plot twists. But I dare to surmise that there are many sandbox games that occur in a consequence-free vacuum. That is, players wreak havoc in town, wilderness, and dungeon and the only thing they might face as a result is trouble with the city guard (and once those guards are "dealt with" by running away from them, bribing them, or even killing them, the problem is usually over).

If players cast a charm on a city official and convince him to grant them a pile of gold from the city coffers, he'll probably be pretty pissed when the charm wears off...not to mention that any of the official's underlings present during said "charm-and-grab" will be fully aware of what's going on. The players should expect to be hunted by the authorities, complete with wanted posters going up around town and a bounty on their heads. This is especially true depending on the ruler of the city in question. If said ruler is a hard-ass, players should think twice about pulling off flamboyant and highly-visible hijinks, lest they draw unwanted attention.

This is just one example of what form in-game consequences can take. Skilled players will take advantage of positive consequences of their actions and will adapt and work to overcome the negative consequences. Of course, the style of play for a specific campaign or group of gamers may call for purposeful disregard for consequences. I'm talking about what I might call the more "default" mode of roleplaying, where some aspect of cause and effect is considered an unspoken agreement.

So, my questions to you are:

What do you think of player agency/sandbox play and consequences?

Do you have any examples of such cause and effect in your own gaming experiences?

Have you ever roleplayed where you found yourself in a consequence-free environment?

Have I missed other blogs that talk about consequences stemming from player agency/sandbox play?


  1. I haven't tackled it in my blog yet, but that's a very worthy and interesting topic. I think I'll have a go at it in the next few days.

    1. I won't claim it's ground-breaking or otherwise brilliant in any way, but here's my off-the-cuff thoughts on the subject:

  2. There are always consequences for player action in my campaign — even if the characters don't necessarily see it immediately. Here are some of my musings on how my own interaction with players and their choices have affected my campaign world:

  3. From one of my posts on swashbuckling sandboxes: "And that last touches on my final point, that the sandbox must react to the actions of the adventurers. The player characters' actions - and sometimes their failures to act - carry consequences. My simple rule is this: if the adventurers are winning, someone else is losing, and that someone may choose to do something about it. . . . Earning a friend may mean making that friend's enemies the adventurers' own as well, and if that holds true, then the enemies of their enemies may offer alliances as well. A swashbuckler's sandbox is marked by a dynamic tension as the adventurers tug, os simply brush against, the web of relationships they encounter in the game-world."

    I'll post a more detailed answer to your questions today or tomorrow.

  4. Here's my take on this, mainly from the view of a player, not a GM.

  5. The hard thing about this is, I think, connected to the idea of opportunity cost. There will be N possible things that the PCs can choose, but they can really only do one of them, so the opportunity cost of option 1 is that options 2..N remain unattended for however long it takes to do #1.

    In reality, N is infinite, but that is clearly impossible to model meaningfully. So the problem for the referee is how many balls to keep in the air? For example, I have several event lines going on in my current game, but currently this is only about 3-5 different things, depending on how you count. For example, in addition to the main dungeon exploration, most obviously there is a necromancer's stronghold to the west that is at war with a demonic incursion, but there are a few less obvious things progressing independently of the PCs as well.

    More than 3-5 would require some more sophisticated tracking system, and more work every session (since you need to think about and update what happens in every different "plot" periodically if you want the trade-off that the adventurers experience in deciding to go after one rather than another to be anything more than handwaving).

    So I guess the question is, what is the best value of N (practically speaking) to model a living world? And what is the best way to do that given limited referee time and resources?

    1. Sounds like good fodder for a follow-up post. The mental hamster is now awake and running in the wheel...

  6. I've posted a little about this - the "why don't the players rob the merchants who buy the treasure instead of the monsters?" consequence:

    . . . and a little of the mechanics of PCs showing up and spending a lot of money on their base city.

    Basically everything players do in my games come with consequences. Video games tend to bother me when the consequences don't happen (you charm the guy and rob him, but no one cares), or they don't make sense (you charm the guy and rob him, so everyone you ever meet knows this automatically and hates you). I desperately try to avoid that.

  7. Thanks one and all for the comments! I want to find time to read all of your thoughts in detail.