The Opposite of Rail-roading


Yeah. I have had this problem. For me it was trying to run a campaign that was a sandbox world with people who just weren't comfortable playing in one. They were used to a DM giving them direction, or to having me as a player run the party leader who said "here is what we are going to do next."
So I changed the campaign and play style. It was their favorite campaign ever once I spurred them into a direction. Sandbox games aren't for every group. Not saying thats the case with yours, but if I was getting frustrated with their play style I would set up an arc of adventures that had them going in a direction and then would see what happened once I gave them more freedom after that.

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First Post
They're fifth level? Sounds like you need a Big Bad to motivate them. Get a villain that's very powerful to start messing with the PC's lives. Maybe some of it's intentional and maybe some of it is that a PC loved one happened to live in the city he decided to splatter with an asteroid. What matters is that the PCs start to take this BBEG personally. Once they are unified in their hatred of this villain, they'll start having plans to take him down. They'll have a goal to keep them occupied.

Nothing promotes focus, party unity, and long-term planning like a Big Bad.


First Post
Sounds like a good time to pimp my Opt In Gaming theory!

Before the campaign begins, get everyone's consent for the plotline you want the game to have. Then, run the game as normal. The players will pursue the plotline that they collectively agreed to pursue. You can even railroad once you've gotten their agreement, because railroading only counts as railroading if its nonconsensual- and you got their consent up front.

What you're doing is similar to what I'm suggesting, except that your group of players appears to be constantly renegotiating their consent to the game's plotlines. Of course its stalling out, you've turned the sort of decision that should be made once into a rolling committee meeting.

What you get them to agree to doesn't have to be very specific. It can be, but it doesn't have to. Personally, I like to go very specific- "Do you want to play in a military themed campaign where all the PCs are soldiers in a human army doing battle with an army of hobgoblins?" That was a recent one. But then, I tend to only run my games for a year at most. You might want a more broad charter if you intend to run a multi year campaign.

Its all about making the social contract work for you. If the group's expectations are clearly stated in advance, the players will do half the work for you in keeping everyone else in line.


Moderator Emeritus
Thanks for all the comments and suggests (some of which were impressively long!*)

Let's see how much I can address from memory. . .

1) Big Bad: It is on its way, but there have been clues to its source. They should get more on this when they get the big "info dump" in a session or three.

2) Trimming the Threads: I hope that the events that are in the cards will lead to their ability to leave at least one thread in the hands of another adventuring party and combine another two into one goal they can handle simultaneously.

3) Personality Conflict: There is certain some of that, as there is in most groups to one degree or another.

4) Time Limits/Deadlines: As I have said, I have done some of that - too much is cheesy.

5) Be a little more meta: I have been trying this, though a player or two of mine can get a little "Darkon" about this sometimes. Though to be honest, the less we have to do this the better for my own enjoyment. (We don't even give each other tactical advice out of character during combats).

6) Railroading: I think my players would probably be more forgiving of so-called "railroading" than I am. . .

7) Use NPCs to comment on their behavior: I do this all the time. I also try to reinforce what total dipwads they come off as when they start arguing and contradicting each other in public, or when addressing someone of authority.

For more background: While my "Out of the Frying Pan" campaign was theoretically as open as any other campaign I run - it took place within a small section of the world and was thematically unified throughout. While fun was had by all, I often got the feeling that the players would have liked to break out of that area and have more room to explore and do other things along with the main "plot line" - so I designed this campaign to start more open and then narrow down as they make choices and go places. I guess I should have been forcing the narrow-down sooner, OR - gone backwards - started narrow and then get "open".


Moderator Emeritus
What you get them to agree to doesn't have to be very specific. It can be, but it doesn't have to. Personally, I like to go very specific- "Do you want to play in a military themed campaign where all the PCs are soldiers in a human army doing battle with an army of hobgoblins?" That was a recent one. But then, I tend to only run my games for a year at most. You might want a more broad charter if you intend to run a multi year campaign.

This is exactly how I do my campaigns, except I dictate the terms to the group within a certain frame and then let them create characters within that frame.

For example in this campaign, all the PCs are young nobles of low birth signed to an "adventuring charter" to gather wealth and prestige for their families while doing some exploring saving their nation. I even gave incentives for characters to have previous bonds and connections (two sets of cousins, one character's older sister is the widow of another's decease older brother, two are from related churches, one is from a rival noble house from two of the cousins, but they have the same liege, etc. . .)

Somehow all this stuff did not work out the way I expected. . .

In my last campaign ("Out of the Frying Pan") the characters all had the requirement of wanting (for whatever reason) to get out of being conscripted in a major war going on in the setting. . . I used this to get them all going in the same direction and driven together by consequences.


Moderator Emeritus
Do you have an example of this from a game?

I'd like to hear what the fictional situation was as well as how the players were acting at the table.

Well, I was going to repost it here, but it is long, but this is a link to an episode of the story hour that involves a long and debate. It was actually the last big one before I had the talk with them OOC about spending so much time arguing.

It has gotten better since then, but it still flares up too often for my tastes.

Euleria, who is mentioned a few times in the post, is the party's steward who takes care of their logistical stuff while they adventure and during downtime like sending messages, determining tax on booty, arranging travel and accommodations, interviewing potential hirlings, etc. . . I can only imagine how bogged down the game would get without her.

Raven Crowking

First Post
Just one more thought.....

It could be that your players don't feel capable of making decisions that are rewarded in-game. If enough of their decisions do more "biting them on the ass" than "forwarding their career", they are bound to think and rethink every decision point.

In addition to the "tough" parts of a sandbox, there have to be very real and obvious rewards for their decision-making. Even where they go wrong, common folks should be lauding them for trying, for example.

Remember, whatever behaviour you want your players to perform is a behaviour that you must reward consistently and often. If you want PCs to talk to NPCs, doing so must offer an immediate benefit to the PCs at first. Then you can slowly delay rewards, and include ringers, as the players learn that talking is often (but not always) worthwhile.

Likewise, try kick-starting them with some basic decisions where the rewards of making a decision -- no matter what decision they make -- are immediate and obvious. Once they realize that decision-making is okay, and that they drive the campaign, you can throw in the occasional ringer again. The more they feel rewarded for the decisions they do make, the more difficult you can make those decisions.



The sandbox campaign is my favorite. However, like you, I can find it to be frustrating at times when players don't engage. At the risk of all of this falling into the category of "Things you already do", here's my two cents:

1. Coinciding with your "PCs aren't special (necessarily)", let their indecision have consequences. You've already stated you have timelines/deadlines etc. Rather than focus on the personal consequences of letting indecision rule, have it impact the setting. This can vary from the minor consequence where a NPC ally is incovenienced to major consequences such as inaction resulting in war, plague, etc.

2. Allegiances/Affiliations - DM-suggestions and borderline railroading seem less like spoon-fed "go here/do this" if conveyed by a superior of their order, commanded by a noble, etc. It doesn't even have to be a "do it b/c they said so". If the PCs revert to their indecisive ways, the assignment is given to another, the PC(s) loses status/favor, has a previously routine request denied them, etc. NPCs can have long memories also.

3. Kickers. The adventure seeks the PCs out, forcing action. This one can be overplayed as much as any other, but it's damn hard to have a debate when people are burning down your house, killing your dog, or trying to kill you. Variation on the theme is important here, of course and it doesn't always have to be life or death. Many of the greatest instances of NPC hatred came from encounters I considered to be throwaways. And for me, nothing reinforces the beauty of the sandbox more than the unexpected transition of a minor NPC into a major one. I've had entire adventure arcs come out of the players' interest in a "minor" NPC once I had to decide what that minor NPC was trying to achieve.

4. NPC timelines. Whether it's an ally, rival, or villain give key NPCs goals and at least a broad plan for how, and especially when, they plan to obtain their objective. If indecision means the enemies are better prepared, greater in number, or higher in level, thems the breaks.

5. In Media Res launchpoints. If none of the above are working or you fear you've used them too frequently, this one can be jarring if your players have never encountered it before. Throw them into a situation/encounter and only after it plays out fill in the backstory of how they arrived at that situation. Maybe their idle lifestyle burned through their loot and they needed work. Maybe after months have passed with little activity they are caught unawares by an old foe. Or a flood wiped out the village or town or fire ravaged the city and now they're homeless.

In my experience, usually 1-4 are enough. When they're not #5 almost always does the trick. It seems to work b/c the amount of unknown information jars them out of their indecision or they're annoyed that the rug was pulled out from under them (even if just a little). Either scenario is a good intro to force a candid conversation. Sandboxes only work if the PCs interact with it. I've found the key is to make the amount of time between "when last we saw our heroes" and "right now" a long enough span that it shocks them a little. My players sometimes get mired in the hour-by-hour, day-by-day play that it's hard to advance the timeline. It drives them nuts when they ask "during the break could I have been planning x". Sadly, no it's a missed opportunity - but you can start doing that now.

Also, to steal an idea from my favorite RPG, Conan, in the 2nd edition they put in a great idea for gaining fate points (or action points, extra XP, goodie of choice). Have the players write down 3 foreshadowed events such as "my character is robbed", "caught with another man's wife", and "duel my hated foe". This gives you insight into what they want from the game. If the situation arises and they take the bait, they earn the cookie. If they don't take the bait, no cookie. Aside from letting them have creative input over the direction of the campaign (in a limited way), it also gives you tangible examples of how indecision resulted in missed opportunities.

Anyway, sorry for the long post. Hope at least some of the ideas are helpful.

And, if you're already doing these things, then I guess great minds think alike!


First Post
Some quick comments: When I've had degenerate playing groups, I would *not* want to ratchet up "Timeline/ Villain Plans", because that just turns into players-vs-DM playing chicken as to who can mess up the campaign more. PCs flee from the region. Or basically dare the DM to see if he has balls to one day run a session where the villain's completed master army rolls in and automatically massacres them. Or, heck, they join it and now they're on the winning side via inaction.

Idea #1 -- Start with fewer choices. You can go to (a) Castle of Doom or (b) Ruined Abbey of Set. Pick one. Ratchet up choices as they get better. Or go old-school and make the whole campaign one major labyrinth with multiple passages.

Idea #2 -- Require them to *Pick a Leader*. Again, old-school, but when I trotted that out earlier this year for a 1E Tomb of Horrors game, I was delighted by how well it worked. I said, "This isn't meant to be lorded over anyone, but if the party becomes totally indecisive I'll assume that everyone follows the leader's direction." It worked great. Feel free to switch leader per adventure or session, but establish that as an opt-in to sitting down to the game.

Idea #3 -- Don't bother scheduling a game session until the players agree on an adventuring destination/ target/ goal (outside of session). If someone really refuses to do that for character-acting reasons, then they don't play that session. If there is disagreement, schedule a session for the majority party. Or pro-rate your time according to number of players in a party. On your web-board have people propose adventuring sessions and get sign-ups before scheduling a play date.

Consider reading the essay at the back of the 1E PHB to back in the mood. The heavy character-acting stuff has got to be sacrificed a bit for the sake of the game. Where to adventure should be chosen before the game session starts. It also sounds like you may have a disruptive player in the mix, consider booting him.

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