Sandbox vs. Safety Rails – A Mini Blog Carnival


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

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:

3. Dkarr

Until next time…

Game excellently with one another.


12 thoughts on “Sandbox vs. Safety Rails – A Mini Blog Carnival

  1. Ian says:

    I grew up, D&D-wise, in a sandbox. I've run games as an adult that always wanted to be in a sandbox, but they weren't, quite – possibly because I learned to run a different edition than I grew up on.It may be that people who want a sandbox are also people to whom game balance is not the be-all and end-all that the game has been moving toward for the last two editions.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for this post. I just posted a shared it on FB. "players that want a more immersive experience are going to be disappointed in this style of play"I couldn't agree more. And what's worse is when your players decide to buck the rails, and then… since you were not running a sandbox game… you're scrambling as a GM to fill in the world around them that's just beyond the horizon (beyond the rails).We recently did something similar in a SR game; basically took a big boss final fight battle (that was expected) and turned it into a diplomacy, hide in seek.. and we never even reached the "final boss" in the adventure. Our GM… was scrambling to fill in the details. Fortunately, for a group of old school sandbox players, we just filled it in ourselves (that and the shadowrun universe is SO WELL defined, that's it makes it super easy to derail an adventure). Anyway… my point is that the GM was scrambling… and my advice for most new GMs is, regardless of the adventure, always play it like it's a sandbox. Try to prepare for the unexpected, build around the adventure. You'll end up with a safety net — and the players will definately feel the difference. Ever played at a table where the GM was pushing the PCs to take some course of actions because that's the way the adventure was scripted??… [[shudders]]

  3. Enerla says:

    Some article about sandbox vs safety rails as a response to your blog spot. As you might see I came to very different conclusions.

  4. Sam says:

    Latest post in this blog carnival:'s the 10th one, full links to all of the first nine can be found at the end of my post.Cheers,DMSamuel

  5. R.M. Walker says:

    @ChicagoWiz Thank you for providing the link. I continue to be interested in running a true sandbox campaign, and these tips are sure to help. Thanks again!

  6. ChicagoWiz says:

    @RM Walker – you're welcome. point is that even an inexperienced DM can do a sandbox and I think a sandbox/story hybrid is easier than purely one or the other. My big AD&D sandbox has a constantly ticking running world dynamic behind it. It's up to the players to get involved one way or the other, but the world does move on without them. They have to make their mark.

  7. WolfSamurai says:

    It's funny. I was the first to reply on topic, yet I'm still going around commenting on the other blogs because I still have more to say or people have brought up points that I wish I'd said more of. It really is a topic with a lot of room for discussion and commentary.

  8. R.M. Walker says:

    @WolfSamurai & Mr. Anonymous. Thank you for all the comments. I knew this was a pretty rich topic when Twitter exploded with it after @ThadeousC 's comments. Awesome discussion!

  9. Anonymous says:

    If I created or played in a Sandbox campaign, then I can reason that there would be areas in which would be too dangerous for the PC's but should be done within reason.For example, if the starting point of the Sandbox is in the village at 1st level, then the surrounding areas should be pretty much low-level encounters, but if the PC's were hell-bent on crossing the surrounding wilderness to the wastelands beyond, then they risk facing off against monsters or encounters that are way above their head.Nothing would kill enthusiasm for a campaign quicker than to have a random encounter table that calls for a CR 11 monster for a bunch of 1st level characters who got only three miles outside their village.Now for the Safe Rails campaign where essentially players do A, then need to do B, then can do either C or D, but must be done before E, it should be scaled for their level. Otherwise, what's the point? If the GM tells us that we need to rescue the princess from the dragon, but to do so we need to enlist allies, create armies, etc., that's cool. We'll spend the campaign doing that, but again if the first place we head off to, we encounter a full band of trolls and we get stomped, campaign is over.Now, if our first task is to get the aid of the dwarves and we're supposed to head off to dwarven lands and as players we decide to go off the rails, then it's our fault if we encounter a band of trolls.I can see how this could be considered a form of railroading, but all computer rpgs pretty much follow this format and well as computer sandbox games.

  10. WolfSamurai says:

    I think that some of the ease (or lack thereof) of running one type of game or another really depends on the DM and the group. If your DM enjoys and is good at doing things on the fly, a sandbox game might actually be far easier than running a rails game. Other DMs would hate that level of improv and chaos. Some groups also love that freedom to do whatever they want at whatever time. Other groups aren't interested in the freedom and would look at you funny if you threw down a sandbox campaign for them. It's all about finding what the group finds most fun.I personally think that the best plan involves giving players the freedom to do whatever they want all while giving them every reason in the world to do exactly what I want them to do, but that's me.

  11. R.M. Walker says:

    @ChicagoWiz Before I respond to your comments, I wanted to give you a huge thanks for taking the time out to read the post. You're one of the Veterans, and I respect your input. It's appreciated.I suppose I should have been more specific on a couple of my comments. After reading it again, I realized that it sort of reads as if I'm put off by a sandbox campaign. I'm actually not. I still think, though, that compared to just plopping down an adventure, (prepared or otherwise), a sandbox campaign is going to require more overhead. I know you have excellent strategies for reducing this (I've read your posts on this subject), but I think for the average DM it might be more intimidating. If you find a link, I want to get it posted up here to help those that are still intimidated by running a sandbox, regardless of what edition they play.I guess some of my comments are related to fears of what might happen as opposed to what can be avoided. You're absolutely right when you say that if there's a power vacuum, then the DM should step in and fill that void. I agree, however, it does mean additional work (explaining what happened, historical back-fill, impact of new thing on area, etc.). Of course, one man's work is another man's pleasure, so perhaps that's where the part lies.Thanks again for the comments, Man. Thought provoking and appreciated!

  12. ChicagoWiz says:

    —-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.—-Not true, in my experience. I started off with quite little – enough that the adventurers had about 3 destinations they could get to realistically at their level. There was one big "dragon in the backyard" that spanked them hard and taught them that not all encounters are "appropriately leveled" – that's to encourage thought, exploration and recon. It worked.As time has gone on, I've expanded the world, but there are still quite a few "one sentence only" or blank spaces for me to fill as the players explore.—-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.—-Yes, and good! You would not believe how much fun it has been to watch my players quite happily plan for the day they mount the troll mage's head on a spike. And they may do it! Same troll that killed 7 PCs in one session.—-The Sandbox can be manipulated by clever heroes. Heroes of high level could (theoretically) take over their old home towns when they become powerful.—-This is not a bad thing! If that's what the players want, then it should go that way.—-The Sandbox can be prone to power vacuums when an iconic place setting in the Sandbox is defeated by the heroes.—-Why do you say that? And in the same breath, so what? Nature abhors a vacuum for sure, and a clever DM can and will fill the void with what logically comes if the players leave it as such. That's not a bad thing :)—-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".—-I certainly respect your analysis, but I'm not sure it's correct as I've seen my experiences lead to the opposite. I have a "drop in" campaign where people play for their own reasons, but they have a good time doing it. They make their story, but I don't think it's so much as motivation as it is about compatible players. Some players want rails, some do not. I also don't think you need a massive amount of info – I wrote a blog post awhile back on busting that myth… I don't have the link off the top of my head.

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