Answering Questions, Part 5: The Railroad in the Sand
So, sandbox games. If the DM has everything planned out down to the end, does it necessarily follow that the DM has railroaded the campaign? Could it not be that the DM just knows the players so well that its possible to judge their actions, even tweak them using game events, without ever having to put up an invisible wall or telling the players they NEED to do a thing? +Alexis Smolensk
Let’s imagine just such a campaign and Dungeon Master.
John has spent years developing his campaign world. He has countless maps, spreadsheets, random encounter tables, the detailed histories of his campaign world, and an overarching theme and storyline he would like to present to his players through the campaign’s progression.
Now John has an aversion to heavy handed Dungeon Masters ever since that incident at GenCon ’85, so he’s bound and determined that he will not railroad his players. He sits down at his desk and begins to prepare the campaign, plotting out a storyline of major events that should happen and minor events that would be good to occur as immersion points. But like every good Dungeon Master John knows that once the players sit down to the table even his best laid plans will come to nothing if he doesn’t throw some guidance in there from time to time.
There are several ways John could achieve this goal and nearly all of them are terrible. Yet John knows his players well, having gamed with them for decades, and he quickly sets up a few guiding encounters to appeal to their individual proclivities and aversions. Over the course of the campaign he’ll use each of these ‘button’ encounters to poke and prod his players towards his desired ending.
Now did he railroad his players?
In all likelihood the players enjoyed the hell out of the ride, but it was a ride with a single starting position and a defined ending that allowed for the players to feel like they were in control when nothing was further from the truth.
If John had wanted to run a sandbox game then he should have come to it with his world and allowed the players to go wherever the hell they wanted, crafting the story as they went and building their own ending – whether it was a group orgy of death and destruction or a heroes ending with the sun setting in the distance and the pretty girl (or boy) on their hip with beckoning lips and lusting nether regions.