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

pemerton

Legend
The total freedom as in the idea of a “sandbox game”for a player to take their in game characters and to do whatever , whenever and however they please at any given moment is an illusionary and ultimately counter productive idea to what a RPG is.
Because, although a player can desire for and direct their character to do exactly what they want them to. This is not conducive to a game designed around teamwork and group goal completion. Even if one were playing a game with only one player and a DM, it would still not work within the structure of a game. That total free form freedom only works for an individual within their own imagination. No game needed.
Are you familiar with Apocalypse World? In A Wicked Age? Even Classic Traveller?

I know this is in the D&D subforum, but you made a claim about all RPGs.
 

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Torranocca

Villager
By you, perhaps, but I have never seen anyone else describe play like this as sandbox play.

Sounds like naked power gaming which is common here and all over the web. I believe most GMs will discourage this type of play rather than arms race with them.
The concept you elude to as in “ arms race” has nothing to do with the situation I was writing about, whatsoever. The player was not power gaming or min/ maximg at all.( I have delt with plenty of those and rules lawyering over the decades)
The player explained to me that he intended to repay the weapons smith in spades, after he won fortune and fame. I of course broadly advised him of the possible ramifications of his actions before he committed to them. It is not the DMs place to force players to play sensibly and it is not an adversarial relationship between players and DM that is fostered in game I run.
This is an example of what can often happen if you play hands off on character choice and do truest free open play.
 

Torranocca

Villager
That had nothing to do with Sandbox, though. You get me into a game where things are linear and my paladin could(but wouldn't) do the same thing. That was a player issue, not a Sandbox issue.
You seem to me, again like others, to be touching on the real underlying issues I am alluding too. “Sand box/ Railroad” is a false dichotomy, neither are the issue because neither exist as many in these discussions seem to believe. The issues are more closely related to how more modern players and obviously, the game designers of WotC era D&D have brought concepts from video games and comic book/ movies superhero’s into a gaming structure where they are a mismatch.
Older games were run on a premise that players wanted to create characters that, through their deeds and adventures, would eventually become renowned heroes.
From 3.5 D&D onward, the games ran under the premise that player characters started out as defectors heros and automatically obtained the mantel of Super Hero’s by virtue of not dying. A massive amount of reward for little to no effort, this fed( In my long years of observation while running games) a sense of entitlement among many players that the DMs owe everyone else their efforts and attention while they themselves show up to sessions with little to no idea what went on in the last meeting beside some clever remark or joke they made. Then spend the new sessions messing with their phones, combing endless expansion books for new feats and advantages to stack, and asking what is going on when it is their characters turn to act. If they then do something completely random and do not get the positive result they want, the game is not “sand box” enough. If their random actions or decisions go badly for their characters” this is a railroad/ choo choo plot and it doesn’t matter what I do!”
This has been unique to D&D as far as I have observed
I’ve also run BESM,Fading Suns, Riddle of Steel, participated in Shadow Run,GURPS and Exalted. The issues above did not come up in those systems. Although I will note, power- gamers flocked to Palladium’s RIFTS games like bees to honey 🤪
 
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payn

Legend
The concept you elude to as in “ arms race” has nothing to do with the situation I was writing about, whatsoever. The player was not power gaming or min/ maximg at all.( I have delt with plenty of those and rules lawyering over the decades)
The player explained to me that he intended to repay the weapons smith in spades, after he won fortune and fame. I of course broadly advised him of the possible ramifications of his actions before he committed to them. It is not the DMs place to force players to play sensibly and it is not an adversarial relationship between players and DM that is fostered in game I run.
This is an example of what can often happen if you play hands off on character choice and do truest free open play.
Trying to steal and kill their way into a holy avenger at level 1 isnt power gaming? Also, none of which, explains how sandbox play has anything to do with this.

I am done here.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
You seem to me, again like others, to be touching on the real underlying issues I am alluding too. “Sand box/ Railroad” is a false dichotomy, neither are the issue because neither exist as many in these discussion seem to believe. The issues are more closely related to how more modern players have brought concepts from video games and comic book/ movies superhero’s into a gaming structure where they are a mismatch.
Older games were run on a premise that players wanted to create characters that, through their deeds and adventures, would eventually become renowned heroes.
From 3.5 D&as onward, the games ran under the premise that player characters started out as heros and automatically obtained the mantel of Super Hero’s by virtue of not dying. A massive amount of reward for little to no effort,
You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what Sandbox and Railroad games are. You are correct that it's a False Dichotomy to reduce the game types to those two, but your examples have nothing to do with either.

Mismatches, starting as super heroes, old school, and whatever other types of characters you want to talk about are not relevant to the game type. You can run Sandbox and Railroad with all of those. You can play either and want a lot of reward for little effort, or little reward for lots of effort. Sandbox and Railroad are DM styles, not player styles, though players can prefer games of a type.
 

Torranocca

Villager
You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what Sandbox and Railroad games are. You are correct that it's a False Dichotomy to reduce the game types to those two, but your examples have nothing to do with either.

Mismatches, starting as super heroes, old school, and whatever other types of characters you want to talk about are not relevant to the game type. You can run Sandbox and Railroad with all of those. You can play either and want a lot of reward for little effort, or little reward for lots of effort. Sandbox and Railroad are DM styles, not player styles, though players can prefer games of a type.
I sense we are talking in circles and I do not agree with your assessment. All games have a balance of freedom and structure or the game would be unplayable. The dichotomy, as I have stated before is false. It comes down to a matter of individual subjective judgement and not a “ style” at all. This is how I have experienced it in over forty years of running RPGs , ten years of that as a Gamestore owner/ operator hosting games six to Seven days a week for many hundreds of players. I add this not to add weight to my experience as I am not trying to convince anyone I am right. There is no argument to win because I’m not arguing. I truly believe there are many subtle different ways for players to play and game masters to run the game. Some of these ways however are a poor fit for the D&D systems as written and intended.
 

Torranocca

Villager
Trying to steal and kill their way into a holy avenger at level 1 isnt power gaming? Also, none of which, explains how sandbox play has anything to do with this.

I am done here.
I sense you are annoyed by our differences in outlook. I am sorry it comes to that. “Sandbox” as describe in the discussions on this forum denotes a freer form of player interaction in a reactive setting without pre determined outcomes and forced paths to take( obvious or obfuscated in ralation to weather then players sense it or not) as in “ Railroad”
I am not dense or being argumentative, just stating again…. These concepts don’t actually work in the context of the game and are in truth a false dichotomy. The game must be played as a balance of both and neither to play the game at all.
Players given absolute freedom go sideways rapidly 100% of the time in my experience. Players forced to play in a one track linear game without real choice or meaningful effect on the plot, die of boredom rapidly, and rightly so.
 


Torranocca

Villager
I am not making claims of anything thing. Just sharing my experiences and thoughts on primarily D&D. No need for pedantry. In the context of discussion about various D&D editions”RPGs” is descriptive not all encompassing😁 I do address other RPGs in a later post.
 

Torranocca

Villager
You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what Sandbox and Railroad games are. You are correct that it's a False Dichotomy to reduce the game types to those two, but your examples have nothing to do with either.

Mismatches, starting as super heroes, old school, and whatever other types of characters you want to talk about are not relevant to the game type. You can run Sandbox and Railroad with all of those. You can play either and want a lot of reward for little effort, or little reward for lots of effort. Sandbox and Railroad are DM styles, not player styles, though players can prefer games of a type.
Let me clarify for the sake of an ongoing discussion. I understand clearly what other posters mean when they state “Sandbox” play vs “Railroad” play.
One is not supported by the nature and structure of the game the other is supported but few players I have met would care to play that way.
I run what is best described as a living game world. There are things happening and events playing out on their own time tables in these worlds. The players in my games have the freedom to get involved in events or not, create events or not, avoid events or not. These things and events all have a life of their own. My game settings are persistent and moving through time. If the players do nothing things happen. If they do something, things happen. There can be great fun for all as players intent plays out for good, ill or even unexpected or unforeseen consequences.
I have seen and of course allowed players actions to alter the events and the settings to great degree if they choose to take real actions, risks, attempts at heroics and so forth.
I have also seen and allowed players to spend game session upon sessions playing “ dodge the story hooks at every opportunity” and wander around the game worlds site seeing and discovering new environments. Guess it was fun for them, they kept coming back( seven player party) and telling me how much they loved the game and setting. ( boring and a bit frustrating for me, but there it is)
Perhaps this is closer to “ sand box” as some of you surmise. I don’t know really. Someone earlier described a “ sand box” game as: if their character wanted to go to Northern barbarian tribes and make himself the leader, storyline or plot be damned, that is what the player was going to do. I can’t imagine a DM or even other players who would enjoy or agree to even play a game like that.
 

S'mon

Legend
I guess there's a point here that sandbox play offers freedom of choice for the player group within the scope of the sandbox - few sandbox games lack any boundaries - but the player group normally needs to more or less stick together. Individual PC actions normally need to be brief or abstracted. In my Faerun Adventures game, play primarily takes place in a ca 120x100 mile area mapped at 2 miles/hex, and mostly in a 50x60 mile area. If a PC declared he wanted to go to Northern barbarian tribes and make himself the leader, the player is effectively removing that PC from play. Playing unmodded Skyrim, you can't go to Cyrodil and try to become Emperor, that's outside the scope of the sandbox.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Let me clarify for the sake of an ongoing discussion. I understand clearly what other posters mean when they state “Sandbox” play vs “Railroad” play.
One is not supported by the nature and structure of the game the other is supported but few players I have met would care to play that way.
I run what is best described as a living game world. There are things happening and events playing out on their own time tables in these worlds. The players in my games have the freedom to get involved in events or not, create events or not, avoid events or not. These things and events all have a life of their own. My game settings are persistent and moving through time. If the players do nothing things happen. If they do something, things happen. There can be great fun for all as players intent plays out for good, ill or even unexpected or unforeseen consequences.
I have seen and of course allowed players actions to alter the events and the settings to great degree if they choose to take real actions, risks, attempts at heroics and so forth.
I have also seen and allowed players to spend game session upon sessions playing “ dodge the story hooks at every opportunity” and wander around the game worlds site seeing and discovering new environments. Guess it was fun for them, they kept coming back( seven player party) and telling me how much they loved the game and setting. ( boring and a bit frustrating for me, but there it is)
Perhaps this is closer to “ sand box” as some of you surmise. I don’t know really. Someone earlier described a “ sand box” game as: if their character wanted to go to Northern barbarian tribes and make himself the leader, storyline or plot be damned, that is what the player was going to do. I can’t imagine a DM or even other players who would enjoy or agree to even play a game like that.
That was me who said that about becoming the leader of the barbarians. You say you can't imagine that, but the bolded portion is exactly the kind of game where it's possible.

You say "plot or storyline be damned" as if it's bad, yet say that the players in your game are free to get involved with events or not and create events or not, which is "Going north to become leader of the barbarians plot or storyline be damned."

If I wanted to go become leader of the barbarians, I'd enlist the other players or I wouldn't try it. Everyone has to be on board with what the group does, since it's not a one man show. Perhaps one of the other players wants to be the druid advisor to the new chief. Maybe another player wants the freedom to explore the barbarian lands for old ruins. Something others can't do, because the barbarians don't allow it. And so on.

That sort of thing is exactly the players creating events and letting the rest of the world unfold as you've set it up.
 

Torranocca

Villager
That was me who said that about becoming the leader of the barbarians. You say you can't imagine that, but the bolded portion is exactly the kind of game where it's possible.

You say "plot or storyline be damned" as if it's bad, yet say that the players in your game are free to get involved with events or not and create events or not, which is "Going north to become leader of the barbarians plot or storyline be damned."

If I wanted to go become leader of the barbarians, I'd enlist the other players or I wouldn't try it. Everyone has to be on board with what the group does, since it's not a one man show. Perhaps one of the other players wants to be the druid advisor to the new chief. Maybe another player wants the freedom to explore the barbarian lands for old ruins. Something others can't do, because the barbarians don't allow it. And so on.

That sort of thing is exactly the players creating events and letting the rest of the world unfold as you've set it up.
That brings some clarity now that you specified you would need to enlist the rest of your party to invest in your tribal takeover idea. That was not the impression from your previous post. So… we are on the same page talking about the same thing from slightly different approaches.👍😁
Would you then say the “living game world” concepts I run my games with, align with your understanding of a “sandbox “ game?
 

S'mon

Legend
Would you then say the “living game world” concepts I run my games with, align with your understanding of a “sandbox “ game?

'Living world' is an important part of a good sandbox, yes.

The defining features of a sandbox I'd say is that it has a geographical area that can be intreracted with in a wide variety of ways at the option of the players. It's not linear, and there is some kind of 'box of stuff' to interact with.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
That brings some clarity now that you specified you would need to enlist the rest of your party to invest in your tribal takeover idea. That was not the impression from your previous post. So… we are on the same page talking about the same thing from slightly different approaches.👍😁
Would you then say the “living game world” concepts I run my games with, align with your understanding of a “sandbox “ game?
Yes. Your game as you describe it is a Sandbox. The players are free to go any direction they want, biting on tidbits of information or not as they choose, creating their own story or following something you've done as they choose, and even abandoning something mid way if they choose.
 

Torranocca

Villager
Yes. Your game as you describe it is a Sandbox. The players are free to go any direction they want, biting on tidbits of information or not as they choose, creating their own story or following something you've done as they choose, and even abandoning something mid way if they choose.
So again we have more understanding. Now if we consider the opening question of” Sandbox” and “Railroad” “what else is there?” Maybe where my appoach diverges from these will become more apparent. Why I believe that “Sandbox” vs “Railroad” is a false dichotomy and neither is actually how anyone truly plays D&D consistently or sustainably.
There has been a lot of previous discussions on the roles and workloads of both DMs and Players. I don’t want to go off on a tangent, only point out that those who advocate for the idea that Game Mastering is no more work then playing and the DM has no authority outside a specific interpretation of the letter of the rules, is in for an adversarial and mostly unenjoyable game.
What decades of Game Mastering has taught me is to build and run a living game world that is both internally consistent and has the openness and flexibility to accommodate fantastic elements and chaos. I crate and run a game world and then invite players to create characters to bring into that world. They then get to explore, interact, effect, change, add to or subtract from what has been created and is still ongoing in creation. Or not… the players can be complete tourists and do nothing involving risk or heroism. If they are going to come in like wrecking balls just to see what chaos, havoc and destruction they can create? Well that’s a choice also. They should not be shocked that the setting/ world has foils and defenses against such actions and players decrying “ this is a railroad plot! We can’t do anything we want…” falls on deaf and chuckling ears. 😁
My responsibility as DM is to create and run a game settings that has a life of its own while constantly fabricating new and interesting plot hooks to entice the players to get involved and explore deeper. This to me , is the essence of the play, This is not a “sandbox” but may contain within it something like sandboxes.
Just as in a published module is not in a “ Railroad” plot. It is a structured story with limited outcomes. The means and ways for the player characters to interact with the story is still wide open, just not unlimited.
As an example: One cannot show up to a hockey game with a basketball and then insist the settings conform to their desires. That is outside the nature and structure of the game.
 
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estar

Adventurer
What I have watched and participated in over the last forty four years of RPGs is a series of changes, more about the nature of the players then the changing of editions.
I started out with hex and counter wargames in the late 70s and then started playing D&D off and on starting in 1978. But it didn't become my main source of gaming until the release of the DMG in the summer of 1979.

What leaped out at me compared to the wargames I played was D&D's flexibility. Not only in terms of what we now call settings but in terms of what you could do. While AD&D had rules to handle a lot of things, it was obvious to my junior high self that you could do anything that you could do if you were actually there as your character. This was helped by the setup of having a referee and a bunch of players. D&D wasn't oriented to resolve conflicts between players or the players and the referee. There were no victory conditions. Just vague goals of survival and going on adventures.

All of this was in marked contrast to the wargames I played where one or players went at each other to achieve some type of victory conditions. That in order to be fair you had to play by the rules of the game. Those rules could be very detailed creating a lot of options to use to achieve the various victory conditions. D&D in contrast jettisoned all that despite often using many of the same types of mechanics wargames use. And it made D&D a far more interesting and flexible game.

There was a short period of time that my focus was on running the adventures I bought. But I quickly realized on my own that I could use D&D's flexibility to create my own worlds. That the players could have any type of adventures they want to pursue in those worlds. Given that we were 13 to 14-year-old junior high schoolers what most of us wanted to do is carve out our own realms or niches as the end goal. Players who like wizards wanted to build towers and make magic items to sell and use. Players who played fighters wanted to become lords or even kings. Thieves wanted t take over or found their own thieves guild and so on.

And I was amicable to this and rapidly became known as the DM who let players trash his setting. My reputation grew because I used what the player did in the previous campaign to become part of the background of the setting for the next campaign. Adventures still happened however they were a means to an end but not the point of the campaign.

As I and the people I refereed grew older the goals became more sophisticated. It became more about making one's mark on the world. Not how I defined it or what the RPG nominally said, but what the players wanted to do.

Go in dungeon- find and defeat adversaries- collect rewards- stay alive- escape with rewards- get better equipment- get better at survival- rinse and repeat. Become a hero by doing heroic things and hopefully survive long enough that the title of hero befit your characters.
As a result, the above was only true for a very brief period of time for me and for those who I gamed with. "Trashing my setting" was in full swing by 1980. I still have my earliest notes which folks can see in the below blog post.

The first campaign of the Majestic Wilderlands
 

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?
Pick-a-Path, or Choose your own Adventure style, with a braided bush of progressive events (2d or 3d matrix).

Begin at A1 (upper left) with optional endings at upper right Al# or lower left #1, with end goal at Z# opposite corner of A1. Use symbols for 3rd dimension designations ! @#$&?*, etc.
 

estar

Adventurer
This is why the Railroad/ Sandbox dichotomy is sort of a fabricated polarity that doesn’t truest exist. So much of what these Discussions boil down to is the use of terms and lack of precision or common interpretation.
It boils down to are you as the referee willing to let players "trash" your setting. If the answer is yes then you are probably running some sort of sandbox. If not then likely you are railroading the players in some way. I use the word trash deliberately as it has a negative connotation when it comes to expectations and plans.

I have been writing and blogging about sandbox campaigns for two decades and always have been consistent in the terms I use and how I use them. I was part of the group that originally popularized the term sandbox to describe a type of roleplaying campaign. It was coined in the early 2000s as a way to describe what the $70 Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set was good for by the team of authors, including myself. To our pleasant surprise, it snowballed from there and its use grew beyond the discussion of the Wilderlands.

There are a lot of nuances to running a sandbox campaign. But the core of it is the idea is that players can always go left instead of right. That the worse consequence of doing that as far as the logistics of running a campaign goes is the referee saying "OK I need a week to prepare my notes on how to handle what the party plans to do".

This is in contrast to the other approaches to running campaigns where there are out-of-game fences around what the players can and can't do.

It was common in the past that what all of you are calling a “ Railroad” plot was called commonly a”Train” plot. This denoted a linear path to be followed with a distinct goal to be achieved ( or failing to achieve) at the end.
Being on a more linear path as in a train plot has an entirely different connotation then railroad, because being railroaded has a distinct negative connotation and indeed an entirely distinctly different meaning to it.

What is being called a sandbox, like a lot of modern discussion terms is a computer game concept a little bit shoe horned into tabletop gaming terms. The total freedom as in the idea of a “sandbox game”for a player to take their in game characters and to do whatever , whenever and however they please at any given moment is an illusionary and ultimately counter productive idea to what a RPG is.
Perhaps counterproductive to your idea of what an RPG is but not to mine. What I do is create settings that have interesting places to adventure in as well as interesting situations to experience. I have a group of players make some characters that fit within the setting. I work with them to figure out where their characters are at the beginning of the campaign. Then after the campaign starts, they are free to do pursue whatever goals they have for their characters in the manner they see fit.

I use the mechanics of a game to make this happen in a way that is fun and interesting to all involved including me. The use of a game cuts down what I have to explain on how the setting works. Game mechanics are an effective and concise way of communicating the most common options and their consequences to the players. The use of a game allows me to resolve what the players try to do as their characters in a fair, consistent, and impartial manner.

As for the illusionary part, there are limitations imposed by how the setting is defined. Unless there are some fantastic or supernatural elements involved a character can't flap their arms and fly in a fantasy medieval setting. But in a Traveller campaign where the characters are on a low-G world with a dense atmosphere, they may be able to do just that. Other than that, the players are free to do whatever their character can do within the setting.

There is more to it but that is the general gist.
 

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