Thursday, 20 June 2019

Railroad / Sandbox / Other - The Third Alternative

Image (cc) Dean Peters
There is a sliding scale between the "Railroad" and the "Sandbox" when it comes to RPG campaigns, and between pre-planned and on-the-fly content.

Railroads are pre-set linear story paths that the players can break by deviating from them; this is the main criticism that tends to be levelled at traditional published adventures.  The storyteller in me wants a beginning, a middle, and an end for my campaign "season" just like a TV season, but I don't want to railroad the players. And I don't want to prep it all up-front!

Sandboxes are environments that let the plots be driven by the players; the GM leaves hooks and clues for them to find but the story follows the players' choices.  The storyteller in me loves this, I love to build in player stories, but I don't want to prep a load of stuff that won't get used and I don't want to wing too much

But these aren't the only structure options, these are just the options we see in modules because they are the options that are easy to publish.  I'm looking for a low-prep option 3.

Some people love a sandbox. I love the idea.  The Welsh Piper blog has some amazing hex map creation tools perfect for sandbox campaigns and hex crawls are an old-school D&D staple, but that's a lot of prep up front.  The counterpoint is that sandboxes run on the fly can lack focus - this is one of the many things I agree with The Angry GM about.  Popular opinion is that a railroad is bad, but a railroady module is easy to run for new GMs or those with limited prep time - until the players break it and you end up having to write your own material to fill in gaps or get players (literally) "back on track".  Neither is ideal for me.

So what's the alternative? How do I combine the focus and direction of the railroad with the freedom and player agency of the sandbox? I need a structure to prevent directionless meandering and expanding and wasted prep, but it needs to be flexible to accommodate players doing what they do best and making their own story.

I want my players to have agency; I want their decisions to matter and I am fully behind the Rule of Cool and saying yes to great solutions I had never thought of.  I also want to build a coherent story that has a direction and rising tension and a climax.  This can be done organically, but that doesn't help in the context of campaign seasons.  "A railroad main quest in a sandbox of side quests" is a solution I could borrow from video games.  But tabletop games are BETTER than video games because of the dynamic nature of the fiction, so I need to be better than that!

This is what I have been trying to do for a decade. Somehow my neat planning sheets spiral out of control and expand exponentially and every time I burn out. Justin Alexander's node based design model and three-clue rule have been a great inspiration over the years but I'm still inclined to prep too much.

As I touched on last time, playing Stars Without Number has greatly helped me to think in terms of prepping elements that can be combined. My project for this year is to get a method down on paper to let me plan campaigns as dynamically as I like on the railroad-sandbox scale.  I'm going to look at how we can break a campaign into (re)usable elements so we can then combine them in as dynamic or structured ways as we like, your comments are always welcome!

PREV Campaign Planning & Management Project NEXT


  1. A lot depends on the players, some don't handle sandboxes well and spend to much time on details and red herrings, testing the improvisation skills and patience of the GM, and ultimately the campaign gets bogged down because of it.
    Railroading can be a lot of fun too at times, especially in high action RPG's, creating a bit of an 80s video game feeling.
    A railroad campaign also doesn't have to feel as if the players their decisions won't matter. They might end up with better equipment, get contacts, loose friends.

    For me personally, I think it's fine to railroad adventures within a sandbox campaign. It gets the story going without having to wait for players to make the 'right' or an 'important' decision while still offering them plenty of flexibility.
    Usually this means you spend like half an hour of gametime talking about what they want to do next and what they learned from the story they just went through.

    1. A refreshing angle, thank you. I personally think that if everyone is having fun then whatever the GM is doing must be OK! Loving the thought of an 80s videogame RPG too.


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