It was a dark and stormy Game Night


A reflection on the ideals of the sandbox gaming style in the context of a multithreaded RPG campaign

It was a Wednesday evening, and that means it was Game Night (not especially dark, or stormy; I borrowed from Bulwer-Lytton for dramatic effect). We had just concluded a high-level D&D adventure, a beefed-up version of Goodman Games' "The Stormbringer Juggernaut". Treasure divided, prisoners given over to the authorities to receive justice, loose end tidied, i's dotted, t's crossed.

What next for our band of intrepid heroes? Numerous threats to the stability of the realm were discussed. I decided to roll the dice on this occasion: players' choice. I don't normally do this, for reasons that will shortly become evident.

First, I must explain a few things about our D&D game to the unfamiliar reader. Our campaign setting - an instance of the World of Greyhawk - has enjoyed an unbroken run since 1995, though the gaming group, subject to line-up changes, has existed since the late 70's. One reason for the longevity of the campaign is that it's multi-threaded, that's to say there are several adventuring groups in existence at any point in the campaign timeline and various other characters inactive on the benches, so to speak. We aperiodically switch between these threads. Parties are usually composed of PCs who are of roughly similar power level though sometimes with a fairly wide spread about the mean, maybe +/-3 experience levels. Sometimes there is crossover between parties. The front running party in this race is average level 19.5. The hindmost is approximately 7th. I feel a new party of 1st levels might be spawned sometime soon as players hanker once again for some street-level antics. Meanwhile, I still have plenty of epic-level material in my drawer to challenge the higher level party for years to come. More discussion of our campaign may be found in the 'Gherkin's Greyhawk' thread elsewhere on this forum.

(Apologies to gamers reading this who don't do the whole D&D and 'levels' thing. I understand how much the mention of 'levels' and 'classes' pains you, I really do, but in our game these are accepted abstractions that we have embraced and actively enjoy, while fully aware of how poorly they represents any kind of [quasi-]realism.)

So, having explained a little about the history and structure of our campaign, let's return to the game night in question. Generally, the determination of "What Next?" is made by the main campaign DM, being yours truly. There had been some recent remarks made by a player, let's call him "Beta", implying that the way I was running things was a bit 'railroad'. Now in fact, every adventure I run is a predetermined environment in which PCs are at complete liberty to react in any way they wish (including, if they so choose, simply walking out of the 'box' though this rarely happens these days).

The "Alpha" player who is usually the main decision-maker for the group in gaming matters cleared his throat. "Well" he declared, "those Hill Giants in the Jotens are the nearest threat, so let's deal with them first."

OK. Not actually what I had in mind as my first preference....but, after all, I had opened up the decision making to the players, so I should be prepared to accept the consequence.

Alpha continued, and immediately confirmed my worst suspicions regarding what would happen if I democratised the decision making that went into the inception of a campaign adventure:

"Let's round up everyone we know and launch a mass strike on those Hill Giants."

My heart sank.

Imagine, in real life, trying to get all of your friends, family, colleagues, and contacts, to assemble in one place, at a particular time. In our campaign, my guess is there are probably nigh on a hundred player characters and closely associated NPCs, cohorts etc. Excluding followers.

In real life, we understand that it's a 'big ask' to get a large number of people physically together and focussed on one task. But in the RPG fantasy world, it's not so clear why they wouldn't answer the call. The plethora of campaign PCs are not independent individuals with lives of their own....they are controlled by 5 real people who will have no trouble agreeing to move all their toons to a particular place and 'engage'.

Let's suppose they managed to show up with 50 PCs. The bulk of them are, say, 10th-13th level. A few in the 14-17 range and even fewer, 18+.

With a fighting force like this, they could chew up the opposition pretty rapidly, though some lower level PCs may be at risk of becoming casualties if they are outflanked.

What are the downsides, for the PC army, if they do this? Well, when it comes to division of the spoils, each individual PC might find their haul a little disappointing. (The same applies to their earned experience points). But if they finish the adventure very rapidly, then the rate at which they are earning may be acceptable. It will feel more like a mass, set-piece battle rather than an adventure, over in one short-lived orgy of destruction.

However, in approaching things like this, the PCs will be breaking an unwritten rule of the campaign that applies both to themselves and their opponents in various quarters. Imagine if their various enemies, had a get-together one day and singled out ONE of the PC parties that are trawling around in the campaign, and said: "Let's all team up and eliminate that threat".

Pretty soon, the campaign would descend into a mob war style of game rather than the dynamic of a series of adventures that take small groups of PCs into interesting settings and provide opportunities for roleplay. The RP side of things would be stretched thin in a game of large hit squads stomping about the place as they pursue their vendettas, in which players are controlling half a dozen characters each or more.

This, I think, is where sandbox purists tend to over-idealise their chosen style of game. The pure sandbox does not function well for every kind of setting, though it might work well for the typical self-contained, bounded setting inhabited by a single PC party that is encountered most frequently in RPG games. For a small group of itinerant adventurers exploring a wilderness and encountering fragmented, disconnected opposition, it can work well. Similarly, a small group exploring a city that is either predetermined or randomly determined usually works fine. And in fact, even a large party can work satisfactorily in a sandbox city environment; because there are several considerations that will serve to split the party up into smaller, more manageable groups. First, unlike the dungeon environment, the city is a relatively safe place, and so there is less pressure to stick together. Second, the city serves disparate character interests, and not all in the same location. Third, if push comes to shove, the DM can invoke laws of assembly; the local despot won't take kindly to a large well-armed group wandering about like they own the place.

But in the multithreaded campaign, it is incumbent upon the referee to artificially keep groups of PCs separated, if the players have a tendency to form 'megaparties' when permitted to do so. And this artificial separation....can feel a lot like a railroad to some players (because it is). But it's the only way to prevent the campaign from collapsing in on itself if the players fail to come up with a roleplay rationale for that necessary distance themselves.

I find the sandbox / railroad dichotomy interesting. I don't really recall any discussion about it pre-2000 though that's likely due to my being more isolated from the wider gaming community in the pre-interweb days. The impression I have is that this dichotomy was identified in the late 90's and with particular relevance to 2nd edition D&D adventures, and if we look earlier, Dragonlance. These adventures had an ambitious tendency to style themselves as story narratives, but often deprived the players of agency. In truth, I think this irked some players more than others. My recollection of Dragonlance is that some of the players really didn't mind being led by the nose as long as they got to kill monsters and take their stuff in the process. Though it was a bit harsh if your character was destined for death by the story. Perhaps the most rigid, inflexible example of railroading was the module "Vecna Lives", where the players literally have no choice but to follow a linear path and the DM is explicitly instructed to invoke Deus Ex Machina to ensure they do. The plot is predetermined and the PCs are virtual bystanders. The purpose of the module is to conclude story threads in the World of Greyhawk. In its own way, though, it fulfils a purpose which might be useful to a certain target audience of DMs. Another argument in defence of "Vecna Lives!" is that it is intended to be a "horror" style adventure. Does a lack of agency inflicted on the PCs make for a better horror-style experience, like a nightmare whose outcome you are powerless to alter?

I am sure that terrabytes of articles and blog posts have been written on the subject of sandbox vs. railroad. I find the underlying reasons why sandbox advocacy (in particular, advocacy of the style as "Proper RPG-ing") rose to prominence a more interesting discussion point than the actual arguments for & against the style. My feeling is that it may be more than simply a counter-reaction to the linear nature of narrative-driven D&D adventures. Over the same timespan as the emergence of the sandbox dogma in gaming, social and political ideas in the West have increasingly and more stridently revolved around individualism, (economic) liberty, small-statism and these are ideas that have been talked about by a wider spread of the public than before rather than just students and practitioners of politics. We have also witnessed what is referred to as a "narcissism epidemic". Meanwhile, we have seen a growing tendency by the public to eschew the advice of experts, and a rejection of technocratic solutions to society's ills. Is it coincidental that we have seen in gaming culture, the rise of the Cult of Sandbox, with its promise of unlimited player agency? Is it a coincidence that some referees nowadays feel it's a good thing to allow the players, subject only to some challenge-rating-dependent budgetary limit, to determine for themselves the loot they find in a haul of treasure, even? Though my own games do not follow such a style I am not saying those who do, are "doing it wrong"; but it's interesting to see how it possibly ties in to a wider social context.

I veer away from absolutist dogma. The spectre of the Railroad Adventure (like the spectre of the worst excesses of collectivist & technocratic modes of social organisation, perhaps...) stands as a warning against the Games Master assuming too much agency for himself at the expense of player agency, but the ideal that we must Destroy All Railroads is as flawed as its antithesis. And I believe this to be analogous to a wider truth about society.

I will end with a proposition to serve as an additional talking point:

The Sandbox is only ever a Sandbox for one player

This is not strictly true in a genuine sandbox game, but it is often, de facto, a practical truth. Ponder this if you will, 'greners.

Some interesting thoughts, Gherkin. Thanks for sharing. :)

I think it's interesting that what it means for a game to be a "sandbox" game seems to have increasingly skewed over time. The implication from the "sandbox" descriptor is that there's flexibility and freedom within some set of specific boundaries, that is to say, the sandbox has edges or walls of some sort. As you mentioned, the sandbox game evangelist often praises the notion of "Unlimited Player Agency," but the fact is that everything is bounded.

The advantage that the RPG has over other formats is that it has the capability for the walls to move. As a strictly practical matter, no game can be perfectly unlimited: there aren't enough hours in the day (or patience, for that matter) for that much prep. However, the RPG has the flexibility to change and move with its actors. The players may "exit the box," but the fact is that the box follows them wherever they go. Even excluding the practical limitations, there are boundaries to the experience: Are we playing fantasy, or sci-fi, or noir? Ok, but what kind of fantasy? Does my dwarven wire-fu monk fit within the aesthetic of this game? You could argue that disallowing someone from playing their cyborg sniper agent in a Greyhawk DnD game is "limiting player agency," but I think that even the most diehard sandbox advocates would agree that some degree of consistency in style and substance is vital to the success of the game.

I'd argue that any RPG experience exists as a contract between everyone at the table, and that games are most successful when everyone can agree on what the boundaries are. The GM may act as a dramaturge of sorts, but by and large these games only succeed when everyone agrees on the dimensions of the sandbox. Your example of the PC "megaparties" is interesting. To me, that signals a (perhaps unconscious) pushing up against the walls of the box. Your players are exploring an optimization of solving a problem within the game by taking advantage of opportunities allowed by it. However, the logical conclusion of this approach runs in violation of the style and feel of the game up to that point, which in turn brings up the question as to whether you as a group want to allow that course of action in the game and what other consequences may result from doing so.

It's important to reiterate that what should be "allowed" in the context of that example doesn't have to be determined by the GM alone. There may be an out of game conversation about how clumping up in megaparties could impact the game negatively, and as such the players at the table agree to not pursue that course of action. Creating our own restraints is, after all, an important component of the much-lauded principle of player agency.

I've been a part of games that were "too railroady." I've also been a part of games that seemed to wander aimlessly, lacking any kind of drive, direction, or purpose. My feeling, however, is that those complaints stem from a similar source: confusion or frustration with the shape of the sandbox. A player complaining of a game feeling too much on the rails is, in essence, saying "I wanted this game to do X, but its doing Y instead," or perhaps "I don't understand why X fits into our sandbox and Y doesn't."

In summary, I guess what I'm saying is that "player agency" is perhaps more about what we choose not to do than what is chosen. Furthermore, the difference between a Railroad and a Sandbox game is not about player agency so much as it is stylistic choice: Are the PCs the driving force behind the plot and events of the game, or are they a reactionary force, responding to the plot as it is lain out ahead of them? A great game can arise from any point on that spectrum.