D&D General Not Railroad, Not Sandbox ... What else is there?

jgsugden

Legend
We all hear about Railroading and Sandbox games - but there is no singular definition for either of these terms, and many people would apply them differently. Further, I don't think that every game situation we see fits neatly into these two boxes. So, I'd like to hear people brainstorm on other approaches that do not exactly fit into these boxes. As there is no singular universal definition for either of these terms, I am going to provide them for the purposes of this discussion, and will intentionally use a definition that is on the narrower side for each to make sure we have room around these points.

RAILROAD: A linear storyline where the DM forces players to follow the predesigned storyline of the adventure. To be a railroad under this definition, there must be a path for the PCs to follow, and they can't be allowed to meaningfully deviate from it, wityh course correction achieved either through planned obstacles, contrived improvised barriers, or out of game dictums by the DM. The DM drives the story.

SANDBOX: A player driven storytelling technique in which the DM presents options, but players drive the direction of the game towards whatever goals they wish. To be a sandbox under this definition, the DM can't redirect the party with barriers constructed with the intent to alter or limit their choices. The DM will drop options in front of the PCs, but the players are free to ignore the provided options and go in a very different direction if they so desire. The story is player driven.

So what doesn't fit neatly in these boxes? Here are a few things I have used or seen that might fit in broader definitions of Sandbox or Railroad, but I do not believe fit in the narrower ones I provided above.

BINGO CARD: The DM prepares a series of challenges and the players can choose which of the options they wish to pursue, but they are not free to go "off the menu" and pursue a goal not prepared for them by the DM. In these situations, the DM tends to start preparing several places the PCs might explore, and then tweaks them as the PCs advance so that they are an appropriate challenge when the PCs arrive there. The PCs have choice, but it is a multi-choice option.

CARD TRICK: The PCs are given the illusion of choice, but in the end there is no real choice when it comes to the big things. In this situation, the DM allows the players to make superficial choices, but regardless of what they choose to do, certain events will transpire at times selected by the DM that will progress one or more main storylines. For example, the PCs would be given choices like a sandbox game, but the DM will include an artifact in a treasure haul right before they hit 5th level, enemies will come looking for the item and try to steal it at 8th level (and will continue to do so until they succeed), the PCs will discover where it is by coming across clues at 11th level that indicate that they must use it, and the PCs be given their chance to use it to save the world at 17th level. The main storyline is on a railroad, but the supplemental storylines are a sandbox.

Thoughts? Other ideas that do not fit neatly into the above, or are another (perhaps better) way of thinking of Bingo Card or Card Trick?
 

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DND_Reborn

Legend
I think those are pretty good definitions. FWIW, I run Card Trick games. Ultimately, there is a railroad going on, but plenty of train stops and other tracks (adventures) which the players can choose or not to do.

I can't think of any others that don't fall into one of those four (or a variant there of maybe).
 

Oofta

Legend
For the most part I run a "Bingo Card" game. Maybe. I look at the campaign as a series of chapters that last 1-4 game sessions. While the players choose the next chapter or suggest one I didn't think of at the close of whatever chapter we were on, once they're there their* choices are somewhat limited. This gives me time to prep and get things ready.

In addition, if people choose not to pursue some option, I figure out what's going to happen because they did not pursue that option. Sometimes it doesn't matter in any significant ways but other times their home town will get burned to the ground because they didn't stop the invasion when they had a chance.

Once they are in a prepped area they still have a lot of options. I'll have a general idea but I always run a very improv heavy game because I'm lazy. That and the players never do what I expect half the time anyway.

*Don't you just love the English language? How many ways to use "their" are there?
 

Ive never done this and actually just came up with it while reading the OP. I could pull this off in AD&D but probably not in 5E because Im just not well versed enough in the rules. What if the DM did no preparation and the players brought a few scenarios/plots to the table (with no mechanics) then presented them in game through roleplaying? The DM would have to improvise from there with back and forth with the players (providing they had enough grasp on the game system) but I dont think anyone would have any predetermination or expectation of where the session will go until its done. The game would truly unfold organically. Might be a fun experiment for a game or two.
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
The other thing is that these are just techniques, and I think most DMs are using combination of these depending on the phase of the campaign that they are in. I know I do, and most of the other DMs at our tables do as well.

To be fair, the one which is the less used at our tables is the sandbox, because we play story-driven games and most of our players enjoy having some sort of story-arc, so sandboxes are usually periods only in the campaign. Also, our players are mature enough to recognise that linerarity is not bad in itself, sometimes it's just what the story needs, so we don't have problems with any of the styles.
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
A method I have used in the past that strikes a bit of balance between the two extremes is the branching plot.

Basically the adventure is divided into various focus points where the players make a X vs Y (or however many options you want) decision s which lead to preprepared different focus points.

So Scene 1 of am adventure might be about defending a keep from attacking ogres with the branching being failure to defend the keep is Scene 2 but successful defense is scene 3. This way a GM can prepare a series of setpiece locations but the players have some agency over which path to take.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
IMO, Sandbox and Linear are not exclusive to each other. Moreover, I would say that any campaign can be defined as some blend of Sandbox/Linear. Bingo Card is more-or-less a sandbox consisting of linear elements, whereas Card Trick is essentially a linear game with a sandbox veneer.

I've run campaigns that you refer to as Bingo Card, except that players were free to go their own way and do their own thing if they chose. I just called it a sandbox. Not every sandbox is run the same way, nor is every linear game.

There's nothing wrong with creating new labels to define particular styles of campaign, but I don't think that makes them something other than a particular approach to some combination of sandbox/linear.
 

For the most part I run a "Bingo Card" game. Maybe. I look at the campaign as a series of chapters that last 1-4 game sessions. While the players choose the next chapter or suggest one I didn't think of at the close of whatever chapter we were on, once they're there their* choices are somewhat limited. This gives me time to prep and get things ready.

In addition, if people choose not to pursue some option, I figure out what's going to happen because they did not pursue that option. Sometimes it doesn't matter in any significant ways but other times their home town will get burned to the ground because they didn't stop the invasion when they had a chance.

Once they are in a prepped area they still have a lot of options. I'll have a general idea but I always run a very improv heavy game because I'm lazy. That and the players never do what I expect half the time anyway.

*Don't you just love the English language? How many ways to use "their" are there?
I run an exact same type of game. I design a bunch of nodes or places to go, and they can go there and look at them and thus find more stuff or deepen what they've already found. By tying in the points together as they find them, it creates a somewhat cohesive story, and by planning out just 2-3 nodes in advance, I can make it look like I even planned for things to go this way :p
 

Similar to some of the things here is the "Zelda" method. In this, players are given options, but limited options. But completing goals given by said options unlock new options. These new options can be foreshadowed before being unlocked. Leveling itself is a Zelda method lock after a sense. PCs can be aware of the presence of powerful foes in a specific area, with the understanding that they need to level up before facing them. TBH, sandbox games are typically disingenuous, as they can not have unlimited, unrestricted choices in a game like DnD, where power gating is baked into the leveling system.
 



Fanaelialae

Legend
TBH, sandbox games are typically disingenuous, as they can not have unlimited, unrestricted choices in a game like DnD, where power gating is baked into the leveling system.
I don't recall anyone ever claiming that a sandbox game requires unlimited, unrestricted choices (maybe the Platonic ideal of a sandbox game, but even that's arguable).

Imagine a fantasy game without levels. In this game, a single giant is a tough, but not impossible, challenge for a party. Does the game cease to be a sandbox if the land is invaded by the giant king and his army of 1,000 giants?

That's an impossible challenge for a party to take on directly, but I disagree that it makes the game linear. The party must simply find alternative means to address the challenge. That might involve the use of guerilla tactics, or recruiting allies powerful enough to fight a giant army, or even relocating to a neighboring kingdom that isn't being threatened by giants.

Just because the characters aren't powerful enough to overcome every possible challenge with overwhelming force, doesn't make a game linear.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I would say (as the DMG does) that there are two types of adventures: Location-Based and Event-Based. Location-based adventures involve the characters exploring some forgotten ruin or wilderness location. An event-based adventure involves the interaction between the characters and the villains as the villains do their dastardly deeds - the location is secondary. A given campaign - which is just a series of adventures - may have a mix of both. All of them will take place in a world or setting.

The rest is really about how the DM structures the prep and what processes are used to present and resolve content. A DM might use a hex crawl or a point crawl design for location-based adventuring and as part of world-design and a detailed dungeon map for certain locations. An event-based adventure might just be a timeline of the villain's actions that will occur if the PCs don't intervene, plus relevant locations where some of the action takes place and NPCs that can help or hinder the PCs. As above, it may be a mix of these things.

Whether or not something is a "railroad" depends on the DM. Railroading isn't about the linearity of the structure of the adventure in my view, but rather whether the DM interferes with the players' ability to make reasonably informed choices that change the direction of the adventure and campaign. It's a subversion of what the players want to do. If, on the other hand, the DM and players all agree that they will play a particular adventure path ahead of time and will stick to it, then this is not railroading. There is no coercion or subversion happening here. The players have made an agreement and a choice to stick to the prepared material as best they can. If, however, the DM presents the option to engage in the adventure path or not and the players choose not only to find they're engaged in it anyway, then we probably have a case of railroading.
 

I don't recall anyone ever claiming that a sandbox game requires unlimited, unrestricted choices (maybe the Platonic ideal of a sandbox game, but even that's arguable).

Imagine a fantasy game without levels. In this game, a single giant is a tough, but not impossible, challenge for a party. Does the game cease to be a sandbox if the land is invaded by the giant king and his army of 1,000 giants?

That's an impossible challenge for a party to take on directly, but I disagree that it makes the game linear. The party must simply find alternative means to address the challenge. That might involve the use of guerilla tactics, or recruiting allies powerful enough to fight a giant army, or even relocating to a neighboring kingdom that isn't being threatened by giants.

Just because the characters aren't powerful enough to overcome every possible challenge with overwhelming force, doesn't make a game linear.
From the OP, highlighted for emphasis.
SANDBOX: A player driven storytelling technique in which the DM presents options, but players drive the direction of the game towards whatever goals they wish. To be a sandbox under this definition, the DM can't redirect the party with barriers constructed with the intent to alter or limit their choices. The DM will drop options in front of the PCs, but the players are free to ignore the provided options and go in a very different direction if they so desire. The story is player driven.
 




Fanaelialae

Legend
From the OP, highlighted for emphasis.
SANDBOX: A player driven storytelling technique in which the DM presents options, but players drive the direction of the game towards whatever goals they wish. To be a sandbox under this definition, the DM can't redirect the party with barriers constructed with the intent to alter or limit their choices. The DM will drop options in front of the PCs, but the players are free to ignore the provided options and go in a very different direction if they so desire. The story is player driven.
Okay. I'll accept that definition for the sake of argument.

That means that unless the DM puts high level monsters in that area with the intent of altering or limiting their choices, it's still a sandbox.

One way a DM might do this is through organic world creation. Some areas have ecosystems that have a higher average CR than others. For example, a kingdom of the giants. No intent to limit the players is involved, but rather the DM considers what makes sense in a giant kingdom (giants, dire animals, etc). This may limit the players in effect, but not because the DM intended to do so, hence it does not violate the definition of sandbox that you quoted.

Personally, though, I think you can absolutely design a sandbox to be gated. That might involve making certain areas higher CR, or simply involving barriers that a low level party cannot overcome (exploring the sunken city of Atlantis is largely impossible until you have some means of water breathing). I don't think that intentional gating means that a game isn't a sandbox. IMO, it's only truly linear if the players come up with a clever solution to bypass the gate, but the DM heavy-handedly prevents them from passing the gate anyway.

One of my favorite styles of sandbox is what I think of as Linear Sandboxes. This consists of a number of relatively small sandboxes (perhaps around 100 square miles each). There's an overarching goal of progression, but otherwise the players are completely free to do as they desire.

In one example of this style of campaign, our world had died. The cycle of rebirth required heroes to undergo a trial which involved traveling through the memories of the planet and collect the souls of unborn gods. Collecting all of the souls in a memory would allow passage to the next memory. Ultimately, if the heroes were able to overcome the trial, the gods would be born and renew the world (and also grant each hero a boon). It's very linear in one sense (the arc of the campaign), yet each memory was completely non-linear. We even threw the DM for a loop when we caused a temporal paradox that he completely didn't expect (but he handled it with aplomb and didn't try to railroad us at all).
 


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