Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Railroading Players Into the Sandbox

As regular readers of this blog already know, I share the OSRs dislike of railroad style play. I don’t think players should be forcefully steered in one direction or another. I firmly believe in giving players real and meaningful choices which impact the game and the world around them. As far as I’m concerned, players are masters of their own destiny.

However, I’ve been wondering lately if there are any redeeming qualities to the “railroad” style of play. Perhaps that’s the wrong way of putting it. Even the terminology is repugnant to me (and probably also to you). Instead, I’ve been wondering about the limited use of plot-driven adventures under some circumstances.

Recently, I’ve been having trouble getting across to my new players just what a sandbox style of game truly is. They are constantly looking for that one adventure hook which will get them into the thick of the game. I’ve explained that we’ll get into the game no matter what they do but they just don’t seem to get it, quite yet.

For example, my players were recently part of a mercenary party traveling to the coast. One of the players got it into his head that I wanted him to uncover a plot to ambush the party from within. He spent the better part of an hour seeking to root out the non-existent conspiracy and was extremely frustrated that he couldn’t figure out what I wanted him to do. Of course, I didn’t want him to do anything…except enjoy himself.

So, I’m working on a sort of D&D version of the nicotine patch. For the time being, I’m giving my players the types of games they’re used to, slowly weaning them off the railroad style, while getting across the point that they really can do whatever they want. One helpful way to get the point across is to reveal to them (in game) that the world around them lives and breathes, responding (or not) to the decisions they make. For example, in our last game the players were traveling through the forest and opted not to investigate some tendrils of smoke curling into the sky above the treeline in the distance. Later, in town, they discovered that some goblins had attacked and killed some homesteaders, including the very man the players had been intentionally looking for.

This has been, by far, a much more successful approach in introducing them to sandbox styles of play than innumerable conversations on abstract gaming philosophies. Railroading players into the sandbox. Who knew!?


  1. It's a simple fact of life that most players NEED to have some sort of goal to stay interested. A quest, geas, plot hook, whatever. I don't think this necessarily contradicts playing in a sandbox setting. The implicit goal of the earliest old school games was simply to get lots of gold pieces, for instance.

    I see nothing wrong with dangling various plot lines in front of players, as long as they always have a choice about whether or not they want to bite.

  2. Cyclopeatron,

    I couldn’t agree more. Unless the players begin with an idea of what they already want to do, adventure hooks are important, even necessary. The key, as you indicated, is perhaps having several ideas so the players are free to go in whatever direction they’d like.