Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sandbox vs. Railroading

One thing that most RPGers agree on is that Railroading is bad. Railroading is when the Gamesmaster has a pre-concieved notion of where the story of the game is *supposed* to go, and he railroads the Players into having their Characters go along for the ride. To do this he causes certain options which in the real world might be possible, to become impossible to the Player Characters, usually for a thinly disguised reason.

"Our Characters walk out of town and into the mountains to the West." say the hapless Players.

"Not so", says the Railroading GM. "The mountains are ... mmm ... blocked by a huge rushing river on the edge of town!", says the GM as he is furiously thinking, "damnit, they have to find the McMuffin before they go anywhere because otherwise the Princess will not be saved, and that's totally bad-story - I ... Must ... Stop ... Them ..."

And so it goes on. The Railroading makes the Players feel like they have no choices, and it ruins the fun for them. Afterall, they think their Characters should be able to do whatever comes to mind, and go where and do whatever their Characters want.

This however can lead to some pretty crappy stories in the end. Instead of finding the McMuffin (heh) they go to the great rushing river outside of town and then wander around until they find a goblin and then jump it, kill it, and takes it's stuff (a copper coin). The Gamesmaster, being miffed that his story has devolved from a Save-The-Princess tale to a Kill-The-Monster-Take-His-Stuff story. It's still a story. But it's a pretty crappy one, so far as stories go. If we wrote the story out ... it would be pretty dull. "And then, in the forth year of the King of Blahmoor, the Great and Mighty Adventurer's wandered aimlessly through the dungeon killing orcs and taking their stuff. Meanwhile the beautifull Princess Gwendolyn was left to die in the dark cold cave of the Ogre that kidnapped her two adventures ago that they forgot about when they saw an orc and then chased it to a dungeon and then went wandering around in there collecting trophies and ..."

So Railroading became the natural inclination of GMs who wanted something more from the story. They create a big world filled with amazing story material, and it's only fair, they think, that those stories get played out. Despite the Players.

Now the problem is that Players don't like being Railroaded (who does?), and so the solution that has been proposed is called Sandbox play, and it's highly prefered.

Sandbox is where the Players are given free reign to wander around the World at liberty. They can explore and discover whatever they want, and the Gamesmaster acts as unbiased observer and game Referee. And all is well with the World because the Players get to run around and kill things and take their stuff. Only the Gamesmaster finds this perturbing if he actually wants good stories to come out of his or her World.

The question is, how do you get the best of both? What techniques can be used to allow the Players freedom in your Worlds, and yet still wind up with stories that amount to something more than what the average dungeon crawl produces?

There are ways. But what are they? How do you handle it, oh Gamesmasters?

(Cross-Posted from the LRPGSW Yahoo Group)


the_blunderbuss said...

Have you tried this?

Enlist the players (not the characters) on the story you want to tell.

Ideally as players (everyone, including the GM, is a player) you create fiction together. Assuming this is true then with an idea of the group's goal in mind the players can play their characters and create fiction that will move the collective fiction towards that goal.

In a pinch: The players exist as different entities than the characters, they have different goals and different minds. Talk to the players about the game, use the characters in the fiction.

Dyson Logos said...

I definitely don't buy into the theory that "if it isn't sandbox, it is railroad".

The trick to good GMing is to provide story ideas that you leapfrog off of what the players are thinking. we work together to make the game better and to tell big stories. You can still tell epic stories without railroading - it just helps if you all sit down before the game / campaign and talk about what you want from it.

I prefer games that feel sandbox-ish, but where the GM throws plot hooks at us. Just because she has planned a badguy and a storyline to hook us doesn't make it a railroad, it makes it a challenge and odds are we'll approach it in a way that she was only half-expecting. But both sides of the table adapt and work with each other to keep the game running.

It seems many people think as soon as a quest is involved, it's a railroad. Even if the players are the ones looking for such a quest. The sandbox is WHERE we play, but things happen in the sandbox aside from us wandering around, and we end up getting involved in these things - whether they be quests for magic items or to pay off debts to a temple or god, attempts to save innocents from tyranny, or even trying to save the whole world.

It's only a railroad if the GM won't allow you to tackle the challenge in your own way.

the_blunderbuss said...

@Dyson Logos

Actually it's also a railroad if you, as a player, are not allowed to pick what you want from the game and apply that decision to the fiction.

To give a silly example: it's a rail-road if you're not picking the challenge.

Argent said...

Railroading is bad - on that we can probably all agree. However the questionin my mind is when does rail roading kick in?

If the GM has set up an adventure where a princess has been captured and will die if the PCs don't investigate and the players decide they'll wander around the wilderness instead, then its time for DM and players to part company. If a DM has a game planned and has invested his time in designing it, building it and running it I think it's a little bit rude to decide to ignore it completely and make them run some off the cuff game. It's polite and only fair to give the game a go and then gently explain at the end of the session that that type of game doesn't interest you.

Where railroading occurs for me, is when the DM controls how the princess is rescued. Where suggestions and ideas are blocked not because of failed challenges but because of DM fiat. As others have said it's about how you create the story together.

Zzarchov said...

The disconnect I have is that the GM has the story. Why?

When I GM I expect the players to bring the story. Im just the guy refereeing the setting.

Likewise when I play, I expect the GM to stuff it and let me tell the tale "Fi-Tor the magnificent" or the "wise Zard the all knowning" rather than try to force his story down my throat.

I never read in the DMG when I was young though that it was my job to tell a story, not the players.

Dyson Logos said...

"When I GM I expect the players to bring the story. Im just the guy refereeing the setting."

So all the story is in the hands of the players and the GM is just there to adjudicate die rolls? Might as well just ditch the GM if he isn't involved with the story.

In my opinion, EVERYONE is there with the story. They work together. Sometimes players show up with stories, other times the GM has stories. The railroad is when the GM won't accept any other way of achieving the "end" of the story than the one they have planned (like in the Dragonlance modules).

vbwyrde said...

Thanks for your comments folks. I wrote that in order to spark thought and discussion on the distinction between railroading and sandboxing. That seems to have worked pretty well. I appreciate your feedback. As for me, I'm of the mind that there is a sweet spot inbetween, as others have suggested. I also agree that everyone should bring Story to the table. For me, what I like to see from a GM is a great World in which there are things which are new and amazing to my mind, and at the same time the GM gives me the freedom to respond to them as I think my Character should or would. I don't care to be railroaded, but I don't like aimlessness either. I tend to have my Characters seek out the root causes of things, and that creates story-oriented adventures. When I GM I try to provide an interesting World in which exciting things happen around the Characters. If they just look at them from afar and go "ooohhh... ahhhh..." and then decide to skip it, that's ok with me too. I really try to avoid thinking "Gosh they *should* rescue the Princess!"... if they don't then that's the story. Sometimes the story really is "and then they wandered into the dark cold caves of the underwolves and slew the monsters and returned with great treasures... oh, and the princess they left behind perished horribly in the frothing maw of the Ogre-King." :)

Adventure Materials said...

I know that this is a little bit of a stale post, but the way I like to DM is like so:

At the end of each session I ask the players what the expect from the next session, and try to work that in. It allows for sandbox play with a cohesive, entertaining story for everyone. If the players decide to deviate from their plan because of whimsy (or a little surprise I throw their way), then that's fine--there's a big world out there for them to explore. I'll improv as much as I can, and then when it gets to the point where I am drawing blanks or the game is losing some balance because we're just totally out of the adventuring zone we had talked about ahead of time, I'll generally call for an end of the session and we will decide where we want to go from here.

In this way the players are the ones deciding on the story, but we're all the ones telling it.

My new blog,, is going to be documenting a new sandbox campaign using 4e rules and a OD&D mindset around this concept, both as a solo-adventurer campaign and with whatever players we pick up along the way.

vbwyrde said...

That sounds like a pretty reasonable way to handle it Salathor. Personally, I try to create enough backstory so that wherever they go I have an inkling of what they might run into. Since I play a very rules light system (my homebrew) and use computer support, it's relatively easy for me to create adventures on the fly, which helps immeasurably with the sandbox approach since I don't require a huge amount of pre-game setup time for each adventure. The thing that I like about this is that I can allow the players to maintain the sense of mystery each game. Were we to discuss where the adventure will go each session and base it on their expectations then I fear that would limit the surprise and mystery aspect, which to me seems quite a large part of the fun of my game. The Players know they can go anywhere and try anything, and do so spontaneously, so the feeling they have is much more like the world is really "out there" for them. I think that leaving the world completely open ended to the players helps to create an atmosphere in which immersion is more feasible.