Getting Things Dungeon

Let me be clear: I don’t know shit about sandbox games. Yeah, this is coming from someone who’s been running Blades in the Dark for a few years. I’ve treated the game thus far as something more episodic, a scenario-of-the-week sort of deal where I come in with an idea about what I’d like to run and the players sort of follow along. I think I did it that way because completely open-ended scenarios are scary to me, and I felt like it was the GM’s place to provide guidance to what the sandbox state should look like.

Yeah, that was a mistake.

One of my players rightly critiqued me on that, so I swung in the other direction. Gone was “here’s what’s going down”, in was “what do you want to do?”. Solved, right? Wrong. This caused a different problem – the players had complete say over what they could do, completely removed from the context of the world state. I wasn’t happy with this approach either.

So then I flipped open the rulebook and read some advice that John Harper explicitly gave, but I glossed over in my previous read-throughs. It basically boiled down to keeping a running list of loose threads, phrased as leading questions. I figured I would give that a shot. We’re playing on Roll20, what with the state of the world as of this writing, so it was easy enough to have a running list of questions that the whole table could add to. I wrote down a few ideas that I had kept in my head.

And then it clicked: I was getting these ideas out of my head and into a trusted system. This was an invaluable process I did under Getting Things Done, or GTD for short. I’m not going to go into the finer points of GTD, but one of the core ideas is that keeping the things you want or need to do in your head is counterproductive, and adds friction to the stuff that’s already in progress. Instead, it’s best to offload these tasks into an external system that is trusted to hold onto them until you’re ready to make sense of them and plan them. Think of a notebook, or a spreadsheet, or a file folder. When you’re ready to make sense of them and give them context, they’ll be there.

The same applies to the approach I settled on for my game. Instead of having to keep the idea of a faction war breaking out, I made note that a faction war was possible, given the state of the fiction, and I jotted that down in the form of a leading question. I could revisit it when I needed inspiration, but until then, I don’t have to worry about it at all. It also has the benefit of accepting contributions from my players, so I can treat their additions as “wish lists” of story threads that are interesting to them.

Personally, I think this is astonishingly good, and I’m going to use this in any sandbox I run going forward. Heck, even some fixed-story games as well.