Wednesday, December 5, 2012

World Engines Part One

Today I want to talk about a fuzzy goal that I've had for some time but which has continued to elude me: the world engine.

What is a world engine?

Word engines are systems designed by the referee that encourage a mechanistic sandbox, where the referee allows the dice to make decisions about what happens in their world, rather than simply dictating all decisions. World engines allow for an unpredictability at the table where the DM is as surprised as the players at the developments.

In the majority of games which I have encountered the game world is either a relatively static sandbox where the passive world is reactive to the players, only coming alive when directly interacted with, or a grand railroad where the world changes according to a pre-set schedule dictated by the referee. Only rarely have I seen anything which steps outside of this either/or proposition.

Easily the best example is Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons, which I have been lucky to be a part of for over a year now. As the exemplar of dynamic sandbox play, I am going to spend some time looking at what makes the Cantons tick as I scratch around the edges of a 'worldengine' which can bring the sandbox alive.

In the Cantons the world can change in startling ways that neither PC nor DM can predict or altogether control. This dynamic approach to the sandbox has created some of the most memorable sessions I have ever had the pleasure of playing.

Although Chris keeps his cards relatively close to the vest, what I have gleaned from our after-game bull sessions have hinted at techniques which he employs:

Rising Tide of Chaos: The true nature of these charts remains a mystery to the players, but I understand they are related to the Engle Matrix Method and the article "Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality" from Dragon Magazine #40. What little is known is that there is a slider that moves along a track of Law and Chaos, indicating the relative stability of the Borderlands that sit on the edge of civilization and the weird. As the slider moves based on events which occur in the Cantons, they in turn change the landscape in a number of ways, such as revolts, passing of severe laws, monster incursions, etc. Not only all these events necessarily occur, however. Instead, there is an increasing chance of stranger and more dangerous events occurring as the slider moves deeper into chaos.

Triggers: Modifying the rolls above are player triggers which can greatly change the results. A number of these triggers are pre-built into the setting, where player actions in the dungeon can create cascades of unforeseen events. Two memorable example spring to mind:

The Golden Barge: A crashed bio-organic ship of Eld design, this immobile video/pleasure-dome was the tentpole dungeon for much of the beginning of the campaign. Once we actually reached the control console, however, the dice turned against us. When we next returned the barge had been retrieved by the Eld who towed it away with a cigar-shaped space ship. While the party was certainly discouraged by this development, it was also a revelation - this was a world that did not exist simply for us to plunder it, but one which reacted dynamically to our actions.

The Sleeping God: More recently we have spent quite a bit of time in Kezmarok, which he discusses at length in a series of posts on his blog. In essence, the decadent capital of a fallen empire is besieged by an army of extradimensional invaders and which is host to a vast undercity. While exploring one of the dungeons of the undercity we came across a perfectly preserved old man which could not be awakened. What we did not expect was that this dude was not only undergoing a transformation into godhood, but was at least partially responsible for keeping the invaders out of the city.

Dragging him back to town triggered some real danger as the invaders would become restless. Coupled with a few extreme dice rolls, the army at the edge of the city began to make a major push. Out of nowhere, our long-time home town suddenly faced complete collapse.

Now here is the important part: neither the players nor the DM could have predicted this turn of events, nor was there any certainty about how it would turn out. This was not a pre-scripted, Dragonlance-esque "epic", but rather the results of random rolls. Everything was at stake, and no one had any idea about how it would turn out.

In the end, our party managed to gather a wide range of allies from the powers-that-be and led an army which has managed to stem the tide of the invasion. While the enemy has not been routed, we have managed to return things to the status quo.

Again, it is important to understand that this was by no means guaranteed, and our complete failure (and the destruction of the city) seemed extremely likely. It was only through player ingenuity and stupid luck that Chris didn't blow up his own campaign setting by simply allowing the dice to dictate events. This essential unpredictability has enriched the game tremendously, as not only do our choices matter but the world itself develops in an organic manner.

Next I will discuss two other examples of world engines for dynamic sandboxes: play-by-post games of the '80s and Crusader Kings before outlining a few models I have been tinkering with.


  1. this is really timely for me as I start to run Tartary. Right now I'm trying to stack up some campaign hooks (with middling success) and impart some idea of what the world is about, but as my game plan I... don't have a game plan. There are cities, political tensions, consequences for actions, and I want to throw the players into it all and see what they do. _But it had not occurred to me to make how stuff turns out procedural, based on die throws._ Ridiculous, I know. Right now it's not a railroad but rather a bunch of trains leaving on various tracks to stations unknown. But it could instead be (somehow) a web of influences, and pulling on one strand could affect things far away.

    Hm. Now I need to think.

  2. I'm trying to use the method suggested in An Echo Resounding: There are competing factions, every month they take a domain turn, every month there is a chance that they send invading units to neighboring domains, thus given enough time, domains might disappear without player intervention. There can be invasions, sieges, activities, intrigues (some of the domain moves involve sending merchants, diplomats or other specialized units). The only thing the system doesn't generate are random weird events.

    I like the law vs. chaos axis of influence. Now I need to think up 100 random events and place them accordingly, I guess.

    1. Although I picked up the PDf of An Echo Resounding a while back, I haven't had a chance to fool with any of the sandbox tools. How is it working at the table?

    2. It's tricky. Not many of my players are interested in reading the rules, so you need to find a way for them to make a few decisions (domain moves) based on the information you can deliver by talking for five minutes. I did this yesterday, and it was a bit confusing. In the end, a decision was made and we moved on to other things. Maybe write up a one page cheat sheet to hand out?

  3. Interesting post. I know you preference it with "in the majority of games I've seen" but any link between "a grand railroad" and "events set to go off at a pre-schedule time" is not causal. Scheduled events would only be "a railroad" if players could not do things to alter events.

    Playing a game in ancient Pompeii with Vesuvius is a ticking time bomb is not a railroad. Knowing that an army intends to march on X day unless someone intervenes isn't either.

    In my experience most campaigns have elements in them that fall into all three categories: sandbox thing suspended until players interaction, events with their own timetable, and events random to everyone.

    1. You're absolutely right, Trey. You'll have to forgive a bit of hyperbole while I illustrate my point.

  4. Uh. It should read "you preface it.." Damn the lack of commenting editing.

  5. Very interesting. I'd like to hear more about how these procedures are run in practice though.

    From what little I understand of the Engle Matrix Method, who creates the "arguments" on behalf of the sides (e.g. in the Sleeping God example you mention)? Do the players get to participate in this? Do the characters, or just the players, know what the cause was to the effect they see in the world?

    1. The Engle Matrix method is all over the campaign, although not explicitly stated. The most common use I've noticed is when the players are attempting to convince an NPC of something or when they're trying out some crazy plan outside of the rules as written.

      To answer your second question, neither player nor character are aware of the potential campaign consequences. Only rare does Chris discuss them after the fact and usually only when they are at their most dramatic.

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