One of the Holy Grails of gaming is the “sandbox game”, where there is no overarching meta-plot, or even individual plot arcs, but where the characters are put into a world that is both realistic and autonomous, and allowed to interact in that world however they see fit. To a True Believer of the Way of the Sandbox, everything else is ‘railroading’, where the GM is nothing but a wannabe novelist who wants to Tell A Story. (Like this .)
And like most stereotypes, there’s a bit of truth to this one. The GM Express can be a long and boring ride to a foregone conclusion. Everyone likes affecting the outcome of the game, and having their actions and decisions really matter. But just because railroading is BAD, the opposite of it is not necessarily GOOD.
Nobody likes railroading. But very few gamers have the same practical definition of ‘railroading’. To some gamers, railroading is when player input is completely ignored or superfluous to the progress of the plot. To others, railroading is any attempt by the GM to introduce a plot, or otherwise influence the story.
The truth is, railroading is what you call it, and that definition is only good for one person: you. Most gamers will find their happy spot on the spectrum between Freedom and Storyline, and will call everything on the Storyline side of that happy spot “railroading”. Most gamers will also change over time. Personally, I like story-driven games with enough flexibility that I can go outside the box from time to time. You may or may not. And there’s nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with any of these approaches.
(Extra XP if you figured out by now that this really isn’t a defense of railroading, but more of a discussion of freedom vs. storyline.)
The Sandbox as Myth and Reality
(or: self-important headers make me look smart!):
Some players relish the ideal of the sandbox, but when it comes down to actually playing the game, it often results in option paralysis as the players try to figure out which goals are attainable and which are unrealistic, and the optimal way to achieve them. Sometimes the difference between the two is not clearly marked, but very fatal. A good GM can send the right signals as to which goals are attainable, but then we’re back to a possible railroad situation as the GM guides the players actions…
Another layer of complexity pops up when Player A wants to do This, but Player B wants to do That. This and That are (of course) mutually exclusive… Conflicts like this can be worked out at the table (and it may be fun to do so), but they can also wreck a campaign or even a friendship. An effective story or plot can draw disparate players into a cohesive unit with some shared goals.
GMing a sandbox can be a nightmare. If you want a complex and dynamic world that also appeals to the individual tastes of your players, then you’d better get started a few years in advance…
Finally, a sandbox game can expose some group issues that would otherwise stay out of the way. One of these is the difference in player personalities. A player with a strong personality (for lack of a better term) may well find something to do, and go do that thing. The players who don’t want to rock the boat, or who don’t know how to effectively disagree will end up doing Mrs. Strong’s work for her. (And you thought I was going to say Mr. Strong, didn’t you?) Being the gamers we are, handling inter-group conflict is usually not our forte.
Finding Your Happy Place:
So you’re saying, “OK Telas, for the sake of you shutting up already, I’ll accept your that a sandbox game has some drawbacks. Does that mean I have to lead the players by their noses?”
Not at all. There’s a lot of room between the ol’ GM Express and “I dunno; what do y’all want to do?”:
- Guide, but don’t railroad. The difference is all in how the players perceive the GM’s handling of the game. This is one of those skills that can only be learned with practice, so get to GMing.
- Talk about it before the game. Have each player define ‘railroading’ in very specific terms, with examples. Use their agreed-upon definition as your own for this game.
- Be flexible; if the players aren’t enjoying something, then change it. I don’t care how cool you think it is; the players are the audience.
- Listen to the group conjecture about the game, and adopt their ideas if they’re cooler than your own. Nothing makes a player happier than a “I knew it all along!” moment.
- Look for clues  on their character sheets for what they want to do, and provide them with those opportunities.
- Dangle multiple paths  in front of the group, and prep the ones they follow. The group gets the freedom to choose the ones they want, and the GM doesn’t have to prep an entire world. Plus, if you manage it properly above-game, you can let each player pick a thread in turn, so Mrs. Strong doesn’t always do the choosing.
- If you do choose to give the players a lot of freedom, talk about it above-game. Make sure the group lets you know where they want to go, and what they’re interested in. If you need to, manage the discussion so Mr. Strong doesn’t walk all over the rest of the group.
What’s your definition of railroading? Any suggestions on how to balance Story and Freedom? Do I have this completely wrong? Sound off and let us know.