No Bad Guys!
Bad guys and sandboxes don't mix.
They work great for episodic content, and serve as a good prop against which to foil your hero so you can get across your story, or ethical/moral point, but that's not what a sandbox is about. If you're in a sandbox, you should be getting sand in your face constantly, and from all directions as you bump and ricochet around between competing motivations. When you look at the big, zoomed out, global picture, it should just be one big mass of chaotic squiggles. Now, you might see a picture in the squiggles, but if the sandbox has been done correctly, that picture is only pareidoila, and where you see a bull, I see a fox, and she sees a three story building on fire.
Over the past few weeks I've been working on "The Dark" of Hot Springs Island. The dark is where the DM will be able to find things like tables, hex descriptions, dungeon maps and writeups, factions and NPCs. The hex descriptions are done (and have been done for a while). The dungeons are coming along very nicely, and the tables are smoooooth as silk. The NPCs and Factions however, have been hell.
I don't want there to be good guys, I don't want there to be bad guys, and I don't want the avoidance of good guys and bad guys to feel forced. The information needs to be informative and evocative, but modular, and immediately gamable. It needs to be able to inspire clusterfuck situations, without needing fifteen pages of backstory that no one actually gives a fuck about or wants to read.
This has caused me to crumple up a good deal of lined yellow paper.
Svarku and his Fuegonauts have been a straight up pain in my ass. Svarku is a douchebag efreet. His Fuegonauts are vicious, bloodthirsty, and associated with fire. Other factions on the island are associated with water. Tropes say that fire are the "bad guys", and water are the "good guys", but damn it, I don't want either of them to be either. We're talking about the elements. The elements aren't good, or evil. They're elements. They're half a step above chaos. They been fighting for an eternity, and they'll continue fighting for an eternity. There shouldn't inherently be a right side. So how the fuck to present this?
There should only be a bad guy once you pick a side, not before. Obviously personal prejudices and historical tropes will color a player and DMs perspective of things, but I want to fight them as much as I can. Or perhaps, not fight them as much as not succumb to them myself and provide meaningful choices for all sides.
Today, I think I got it. The Diviner and Wintergreen came over, and we started talking about the dark and where we were going to go with it. We haven't had a chance to meet in a while, and it was great to get together today. The Diviner has written up a lot of good foundational stuff for the dark about who the NPCs are, where they are now, and some general notes for the DM. I loved it all, but hadn't been able to put my finger on what was missing, and as we talked about it, I realized that the "what" is what had been missing all along.
So together the three of us went through and discussed Svarku and the Fuegonauts from the specific perspective of "what do they want" and "what do they NOT want", and the web of motivations just fell into place. It was a beautiful thing.
Edited to add an example for the Combustarinos:
What do Combustarinos want?
• Want to ride Svarku's wave of utter success to complete victory
• Want Svarku's *actual* respect
• Want to stay on this gravy train for as long as they can
• Want to be at the VIP table
• Want to give him water elemental cores (but only gift them when they have a substantial amount, like 100) Skeet shooting water elemental cores from the BBQ area of the tower. Throw them out and shoot them with fire to explode.
• Want to constantly have stuff to KILL (not just fight like a normal fire imp)
What do Combustarinos NOT want?
• Don't ever want to go back to what they used to be
• Don't ever want to be perceived as a NORMAL fire imp
• Don't ever want to lose favor, respect or face with Svarku
• Never want to lose their knife or chest emblem