Sunday, January 19, 2014

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.


  1. Of course, right here "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." is where it all went bad!

  2. Wrong. It's not railroading if the players are free to jump off the tracks at will. The players COULD have gone off in a different direction if only they had refused to be predictable. The fact that the ARE predictable, and John exploits that, DOESN'T make it a railroad.

    People are responsible for their own actions. At some point, the players must assume responsibility for allowing themselves to chase every carrot put in front of them.

    You might as well blame a film for making you cry.

  3. And yet they aren't free to jump off the rails as the Dungeon Master purposefully puts up obstacles they're unwilling to overcome and drives them towards his predefined goal.

    The choice between overcoming their aversions and not is still there, but unless they choose to overcome their natural tendencies than the choice is not a meaningful one - and as you're well aware most people do not choose to confront things that bother them.

  4. In my mind, if the DM is "plotting a storyline," he won't be able to help but railroad his players. Dammit, Jim, I'm a DM, not a novelist!

    Granted, some folks do both... but I'm curious as to how much they mix those roles.

  5. I think I may disagree with all of you but I am not entirely sure. To me, this article merges to completely different almost opposite ideas instead of combining them.

    I run a lot a Storybox games. Sandboxes with a story.

    I know my universe(s) exceptionally well and I have placed big and little goings ons throughout them and every once in a while, if the players decide to go to where one is happening and decide to get involved, they become part of and help generate a story.

    I don't know where they are going to go or what they are going to do. They could befriend the villain, attack each other or find out about the power struggle in an area and leave it. I don't care. I have populated the setting (be it a city, a country, a planet or a star sector) with what I hope are interesting characters, dramatic events, epic battles and cool treasures or things to discover.

    Sometimes, the players meet those things. Sometimes, they decide to open a Cantina on an out of the way, backwater world and see what happens.

    It's all good.

  6. I never said "putting up obstacles." Those are your words, Charles. And obstacles can be overcome. Obstacles are not walls. Nor did I say "guiding encounters." Again, your words. When you answer a question, you really should try to answer the question asked. Not invent your own question, paste it over the one you've been given and then go ahead with propaganda.

    Making this question answering exercise a farce.

    1. Listen, I'm trying to get worked up about this topic and your comments, but honestly, I just don't care about this subject and had you not asked the question I wouldn't have touched on it.

      Let's just talk about something else that we each find more interesting. Heck, I'll even let you pick again and I'll do my best impression of Samuel L. Jackson and get right passionate about it.

  7. It's not railroading. Railroading robs players of agency. They had all the agency in the world. That the GM dressed the scenario in such a way that they choose to follow the path he wanted them to take is not railroading, it's breadcrumbing maybe.

    Now, if they had, after he pushed their buttons, chose to break out of their expected behaviors and done things contrary to his plot, and he instead engaged the deus ex machina, of say a high level NPC who places a gais upon the dissenting character(s) to complete said quest, then yes, that would be railroading, because when the players exhibited agency, the GM nullified it and returned them to the tracks.

  8. "People are responsible for their own actions. At some point, the players must assume responsibility for allowing themselves to chase every carrot put in front of them." +Alexis Smolensk

    That's the gold right there.


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