Look, if players have time to worry about whether their player-agency sandbox is having its balance disrupted by a railroaded power-structure, then a GM needs to find more effective ways to occupy player time.
|Where's my choo choo?|
photo credit: amanky via photo pin cc
Some of the folks that write about these topics are fine folks, and I read their stuff - partly from amusement and partly, like many others, to seek out hidden kernels of knowledge that might make my games better. I'm not saying we should stop seeking out knowledge, but rather that we should strive to use the right tools for the right job.
I have very few high-level game rules. Recall my Rule #1 of Game Design, which is the highest number I've posted: The game must be fun. (to be fair, Rule 0 and Rule 00 sort of mathematically cheat a little.) If a sandbox with a complex spider-web power structure is what's fun right now, then I'll go for it - but I won't get so married to it that I miss a great opportunity to make an on-the-fly change that improves the fun that players are having.
In software design, some folks think that SCRUM is a one-size-fits-all solution to everything, and in the same breath point out that no two shops implement SCRUM the same way. My promise is this: there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any broad problem domain. Successful folks, in any endeavor, encourage change and growth to better fit processes to the people and problems involved.
In gaming, the people are the players, and the problem is "how do we have fun".
I'm working on campaign design for a campaign that starts next week. I gave a "setting" setup, with lots of room for players to improvise. The setup said that one of the players was a royal noble, not likely to inherit due to birth order. I gave a few loose details on the royal family and the kingdom, and let the players take it from there.
In the two campaigns I'm setting up, one group created a background that centers around the noble's secret life as a sort of disorganized Zorro-slash-Tomb-raider, and the other group is centering around a structured court life with a formal military-trained noble and a bit of internal group intrigue (is that ninja an ally for real?).
Originally I had planned on running fairly similar adventures for these groups, but now that the groups have come together, it's obvious that the players in each group want a very different game. By giving the player groups a chance to derive the details of their background, I have signed an unwritten contract that says I will mold the game to fit their ideas. They are both playing in Oria (the default setting for Phoenix), but they each have their own version of the world that combines core features of that world with the players' unique outlooks. If I didn't allow this - if I was stuck on "no no that dungeon over there must have an orc lair underneath it" - I would be violating Rule #1.
When a player makes a background that talks about how their character enjoys sailing on the open oceans, there's not a single good reason to force the campaign into a perpetual dungeon expedition. When a player wants to seek out the divine knucklebone of the dark queen, why not modify the next adventure to let them seek it out? Was your idea as a GM on the divine kneecap of the bright king really that much better?
My favorite adventures, as a player, have always been when my ideas and the GM's ideas merge together into a story that can surprise us both. That requires everyone involved to be flexible at times. It also requires us to respect individual desires (and yes this includes the GM's desires as well).
By allowing a player to make a character background, or in fact by allowing a player to make any decision at all, an unwritten contract has been created between the GM and the Player that allows the player to give some direction to the campaign, while expecting surprises and challenges from the GM.
I'll bet that as long as this contract is fulfilled, everyone involved will have a fair chance at great fun.