June 22, 2010 by deadorcs
My good and fellow blogger, @ThadeousC, brought up a pretty interesting topic the other day on Twitter. What good Thadeous mentioned is whether or not a DM should place accessible encounters that the players are forced to flee from. Thanks to the resulting discussion, Thadeous decided to blog about this topic on his own website, and start a mini blog carnival to boot.
Two camps formed up pretty quickly after that first Tweet. One camp insisted that the sandbox was the only way to go, that an open world for the characters to explore was the most logical duplication of a real “exploration” experience. The other camp insisted that only by guiding the narrative “the safety rails”, could you create a shared story that the players would truly enjoy. The implication here, is that with a shared narrative (the “safety rails”), the heroes would always encounter just those sorts of things they were capable of defeating.
After watching the interplay back and forth between both camps for awhile, I decided to weigh in on this topic myself. You’re going to find that I’m a bit of a fence rider when it comes to this topic. What I hope to do in my contribution to this mini blog carnival is to explore the merits and drawbacks of each camp and let my readers decided for themselves.
The Sandbox is a style of playing whereby the DM creates his setting and places various encounter areas based on the overall flavor of his campaign. There may be dragons in one spot, an evil kingdom in another spot, and a kobold camp down the road. The encounters are placed so that the world is interesting, but little consideration is given to how those areas will relate to the heroes. Thus, while those kobold campers might be pretty easy for low level heroes to take care of, the dragon a few miles over is going to be an entirely different story. Here are some features of the Sandbox style campaign.
The Sandbox is friendlier to a DM’s campaign setting. The heroes are forging their own story, so the DM has less to do in regards to narrative. After all the base work is done, the DM can slap a map down and basically say, “here you go”.
The Sandbox is open territory. Motivated heroes can use elements of the Sandbox to build real lives and families for themselves.
The Sandbox more accurately reflects how the world works. Heroes have (usually) grown up there and know a little something about the local area. If they want to experience the world, they have to explore.
The Sandbox is labor intensive for the DM. A wide variety of adventures have to be made available so that the heroes always have an appropriately leveled quest they can undertake.
In a Sandbox campaign, it is quite easy for a band of heroes to encounter a situation that is well beyond their power (and level) to control. The only option in these cases (usually) is to run like you’ve never run before.
The Sandbox can be manipulated by clever heroes. Heroes of high level could (theoretically) take over their old home towns when they become powerful.
The Sandbox can be prone to power vacuums when an iconic place setting in the Sandbox is defeated by the heroes.
My analysis: The Sandbox is fun, but only for motivated players. The DM must have a massive amount of campaign information available for a Sandbox campaign to truly come alive. The DM must also be very good at providing “leads” to the players in order to seek out adventure. The leads must be varied and subtle, as anything else leads the heroes on to “The Safety Rails”.
The Safety Rails
This is Thadeous’ term for a style of playing that is more episodic and story driven. The DM provides a series of adventures that are designed to take the heroes through a particular story arc. Some vague and broad information about the world is known, but the only area of interest to the heroes are those areas that relate to the current adventure.
The Safety Rails are less labor intensive. As long as the DM can provide a series of stories that connect together (in even the vaguest of manners), the adventure can continue.
The Safety Rails are very easy for a player to deal with. You’re along for the ride. You may be helping to make some of the story happen, but you don’t have to feel responsible for whatever events unfold.
The Safety Rails don’t waste much of the heroes’ time. Whatever drops in their lap, they can pretty much be sure that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s no mucking about with “should we follow up this rumor? What if it’s too dangerous” part.
The Safety Rails pretty much guarantees that the heroes will succeed. It might be dangerous, you might lose a hero or too, but overall the party will almost always defeat its current foe. With this type of campaign, you almost have to. Otherwise, what would be the point? The story must go on, and the heroes have to help write it.
The Safety Rails don’t allow much “real world” interaction between the heroes and their world. They may “save the day” from time to time, but they’re not worried about their “daily bread” because before you know it, a new adventure will drop into their lap.
The Safety Rails can easily turn into a “DM railroad” where the players pretty much give up all narrative control and go along with whatever story the DM provides.
The Safety Rails can be tiresome if the story arc continues for some time unabated. “Are we still trying to find the McGuffin of Evermore? We’ve been looking for that forever!”
My analysis: The Safety Rails is probably a much easier way to play than the Sandbox. It’s less labor intensive for the DM, and less investment for the casual player. However, players that want a more immersive experience are going to be disappointed in this style of play. They will probably feel trapped and not in control of their own destinies (even if they’re doing cool stuff to save the world). In addition, the DM must work not to make the story arcs too extensive or they can get boring.
It is possible to combine these two methods of gaming, but it’s a give-and-take process. In recent years, the advent of MMO computer games have given us the illusion of a Sandbox while really guiding the player onto the Safety Rails. Unfortunately, MMOs can use a conceit that DMs really can’t. Let me give you an example from my World of Warcraft days. In WoW, your player can pretty much walk/ride/fly to any point in the game universe. However, if you stray too far from an area of your level, the creatures you encounter will have a very visible “skull” icon above them, indicating that they were at least 10 levels above you. Such a power difference is a very visible indication that you shouldn’t mess with such creatures. No such conceit exists in Dungeons & Dragons.
How have I handled this conundrum? Well, I sort of do what the MMOs do. I don’t place stickers over my creatures that say “Tread Not Here, For There Be Dragons”, but I do grant the illusion that characters are free to go where they’d like. At the same time, I “goose” the players with obvious leads (adventure hooks) so that they don’t go wandering off unattended. It seems to work pretty well with my players. I haven’t really polled them (although I should), but I suspect that if asked they’re more happy with the Safety Rails, than they are with a Sandbox.
For further information on this topic, I encourage you to take a look at the following blog posts:
Until next time…
Game excellently with one another.