Thursday, February 29, 2024

Building Bhakashal - Trust the Process

In a sandbox style game, the referee leaves things open and the PCs actions drive the play. This concept is hard to explain to someone who is used to running a narrative focused game where the DM constantly tweaks things to keep the game going in the “right direction”.

I have no idea what the “right direction” is for the game.

So how do you adapt to this? When I am asked what the role of the referee is in Bhakashal, I tell people it is to interpret prompts, whether these be character actions, random encounter rolls, encounter reaction rolls, etc, etc. The beauty of this is that I don’t know what’s going to happen until the game starts, I have no expectations.

I think many DMs do not work this way.

This week’s session had an interesting moment that shows how this works at the table.

The PCs are trying to find the Forgotten City, located somewhere in the Sea of Dust, a gigantic desert. However, they don’t have a location for the city, they just know its out there in the desert somewhere.

Here’s the key part: I had no idea when we started how they were going to find it, and neither did they. It’s not my job to make this happen for them, they have to create opportunities. It takes a lot of faith to do this, there is a strong pressure on the referee just to tell the PCs what they need.

I have learned over the years to trust that things will either work out (they will find the Forgotten City), or they will pivot. There is no “fail state” here, in a fully sandbox game, you either find what your are looking for or start looking for something else. It doesn’t matter if I don’t know how they will figure out where the Forgotten City is, we just play and find out.

I know this would drive some ref’s nuts, “but what if they can’t find the city”.

But what indeed.

They have been travelling through the mountains to get to the desert. It has been a long journey, 5 days across the ocean, then 2 days to the mountains, and 6 days through the mountains to get us to the beginning of today’s session.

The last thing that happened in the last session was that a group of NPCs robbed the caravan warlock, Mahl Unoss the Puissant. Unbeknownst to the party, Unoss was taking a powerful crystal ball with ESP to another warlock to exchange it for another powerful item. Two NPCs created a distraction and snuck up on the caravan at night, then stole the crystal ball. They had planted a spy on the caravan to watch how Unoss handled the item, and to slip something into his drink so he would be sleeping at the time.

Just like a group of PCs would do!

The NPCs were a dual class warlock (magic-user)/phantasmist (illusionist) and a spider (thief). They fled into the night and Unoss eventually woke up and discovered the theft. He absolutely had to get this item back, and he asked the party Slayer (ranger) to help him track the thieves. Three party members went with him, the party Warlock, Mercenary (fighter) and Slayer. The Slayer took some time to find their trail, and the pursuit was on. The NPCs had mounts waiting in the trees and were quickly on their way.

Then the party made its only tactical error, their Slayer is a Garudin (bird-person) and flew into the air to find them rather than relying on tracking on the ground. People lament how flight is overpowered, but in this case it meant that the NPCs had a chance of spotting him, and they did. If he had stayed on the ground and tracked from there they wouldn’t have known they were being followed. Since one of the NPCs was a phantasmist, he made an illusion to confuse the party and it worked, they went off in another direction.

The party then tried to find the trail again, it took some time, but they did, however the NPCs were now quite a bit ahead of them. Eventually the NPCs made it to their base where the other party members were waiting, then one of the NPCs, Luxifal the Cerulean (the warlock/phantasmist) doubled back with his party and approached the PCs (as an illusion).

Now, both Luxifal and Unoss are Bhakashal warlocks, so they are haughty, arrogant and don’ t take any guff. Luxifal proposed that Unoss and the PCs leave now otherwise he and his companions would have to slay them all. I rolled an encounter reaction roll to see how Unoss would take this sort of threat. It came up very high, so it was my job to decide how to interpret this, why would Unoss react positively to a threat?

My job is to interpret this in a sensible way.

I decided that Unoss is a smart guy (17 Intelligence!) and that he didn’t think Luxifal would just show up on his own to confront the party, thus the rest of his group were probably hiding and ready to ambush them, so rather than pushing back, he would try to talk him down.

Unoss and Luxifal traded jibes for a while, Unoss insisting that he had to have the crystal ball back, Luxifal insisting that it was now his and that Unoss should leave.

Then one of the PCs asked Luxifal if they could offer him loot in exchange for the crystal ball.

That was unexpected. The party had recently scored a huge haul and converted it into precious gemstones. Each one had several thousand GP worth of gems on their person. They pooled their gems and made Luxifal an offer.

One thing I love about this style of play is that it isn’t obvious whether or not a NPC would take what amounts to a bribe. And I don’t have to make that decision, the dice will. The sum they offered was significant, so I added a small modifier and rolled, the result was strongly positive.

So Luxifal agreed to the deal. We spent a bit of time coming up with an exchange protocol, the party didn’t trust Luxifal and they didn’t trust him. Eventually the crystal ball was obtained and returned to Unoss.

You might ask, why did the party voluntarily give up thousands of GP in gems to get an NPC’s crystal ball back?

There are two reasons. First, over the last 6 sessions the party has travelled with Unoss. The party warlock spent time talking to the NPC about magic, they even exchanged scroll spells at one point. Also the party has had several random encounters with Unoss around, they were both impressed by his abilities and Unoss and the PCs had saved each other a few times. They felt a bond with him.

Good NPCs will do that.

Also, the party has learned over and over again that it’s not about YOU being the most powerful person in the room, its about alliances and networks of power. If a powerful person owes you, that’s a win. Unoss is a powerful warlock and they did him a HUGE favor.

However, this is Bhakashal, and a powerful warlock like Mahl Unoss the Puissant does not want to be owing the party a favor any longer than he has to. So I was actively thinking about how he could pay the party back.

On the way back to the caravan, Unoss and the party were talking about whether or not they should have fought the NPCs, and Unoss’ mission. Unoss asked them for more details about their mission, keen to see if he could help and pay off his debt. They mentioned that they were looking for the Lost City, and they didn’t know how to find it.

They were thinking of finding a sage and asking them, or perhaps looking for local guides who knew the desert well who might have stumbled upon it. The problem was, according to them, that any guide they found would claim to have found the Lost City, but the party had no way of knowing if they were telling the truth or just fleecing naïve adventurers.

That’s when the penny dropped for me, I instantly knew how Unoss could help them. I waited to see if one of the players would figure it out.

And they did.

The party mercenary (fighter) got excited and said that Unoss could use his ESP crystal ball to check to see if the guides they found actually knew where the city was. It would take time, many would genuinely think they knew but not actually have any direct experience. It wasn’t a guarantee, but it was a good plan, and it gave them a way forward.

I could have just given them a map (I actually rolled a map in a treasure hoard several sessions ago and rolled a 1 in 100 chance that it was a map to the lost city, it wasn’t!), but instead the game just dropped this into my lap. The possibility of Unoss having his crystal ball stolen was a random encounter option, it might not have come up, then the party wouldn’t have even known he was carrying it. The party helping out, so Unoss owed them a favor was also unexpected.

The lesson here is that I didn’t have to give them anything, the game eventually created the circumstances for success. The best part is that the players were proud of themselves, through their actions and clever thinking they had a plan to find the place they were looking for, and I didn’t just “give” it to them, it emerged organically from play.

This is why travel shouldn’t be “hand waved” just to “get to the adventure”.

Trust the process, and let it happen.



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Building Bhakashal - Trust the Process In a sandbox style game, the referee leaves things open and the PCs actions drive the play. This conc...