Scripting, Railroading and Sandbox


Advice


Ive read a lot about the differences in GM style and I get that its very much an individual thing, each GM finding a comfortable nitch but for the sake of discussion let me present the following.

My PC group is traveling and I design an encounter along the road ahead of them. It includes a small roadside inn, a nasty group of brigands holing up there and a possible adventure seed with the innkeeper if they do well.

Some will say that is scripting, railroading.

But some of the more freeform GMs will tell you that they build and encounter more or less 'mobile' so that they can place it wherever the PC goes.

That isn't scripting? To me its the worst kind of railroading. Build an inn, plant it, and if the players go there.. great! If they don't, oh well. You cant keep shifting the damn place around till they hit it.

Similarly some GMs will say they leave everything to chance. Their PC group is in a port town and are looking to book passage on a ship. They let it be random, working out the details of the ship after they PCs pick one. How is that freedom? Now if you designed a half dozen vessels and let them pick, sure! But that's a ton of wasted work. If you design one and let it be the one they pick... again your guilty of railroading.

Its kind of nuts don't you think?

Where do you stand?


The term railroading is generally a term for the plot is set, can't be changed.

Using a general encounter when the time is right is not railroading, because unless its am encounter extremely important to the plot, then it really isn't railroading.

It would be railroading/scripting as well if you don't let someone bypass an encounter. However it's perfectly fine to recycle that encounter, and maybe give the pcs some incentive to go back to scary dungeon x.

Sovereign Court

Why is moving an encounter/adventure around until the PCs decide to run it the worst kind of railroading?

As far as where I stand, to each their own. Railroading isn't a four letter word to everyone. Some groups like to be railroaded. Others only kind of want rails, and some none at all. Railroading, scripting, sand-boxing doesn't work in absolutes they are sliding scales.

Grand Lodge

2 people marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

The art of gamemastering is presenting a sufficient illusion of free will. If you're determined to be sandbox, then what you have to have ready is a brace of encouters ready to go. And a key thing to do that is to not sandbox for strangers. Do it for players that you have a handle on what makes them tick... what kind of choices will they tend to range between given certain situations, and plan from there.

Once a campaign gets started and players develop a rhythm it should get easy.

Pure sandbox play is impossible unless you want nothing but a set of serial unrelated encounters to define your campaign. You need to be willing to compromise on that ideal unless the thought of pulling your own hair out by each individual strand from stress is your cup of tea.


Pan wrote:

Why is moving an encounter/adventure around until the PCs decide to run it the worst kind of railroading?

As far as where I stand, to each their own. Railroading isn't a four letter word to everyone. Some groups like to be railroaded.

Indeed. I love a good railroad. If it helps to ensure a good plot and isn't too blatant/oppressive, I'm all for it. For me, "sandbox" is the 4-letter word. Because it's become synonymous with groups putzing around for hours hemming and hawing about what to do next, and DMs trying to half-assedly throw an encounter together on the spot because it's impossible to actually be prepared for anything. I'm sure it's not always a bad thing, but I've always enjoyed the railroaded games more than the sandbox ones.

Note: Railroading the party in order to make your DMPC(s) perform awesome things and take up the spot light is most decidedly *not* an example of railroading for enjoyment and a good plot.


Railroading is forcing encounters to run alongside rails. Acually having set encounters is not railroading unless the party is actively tring to avoid it and you force them to do so.

To be more general, railroading is forcing players to act in a certain way or ignoring their action.
Proposing set encounters is not railroading unless it goes directly against players action.

In your example, players getting to the inn is not railroading. Railroading would be forcing them to actually take a break there couse it happens right there to be night, there are tarrasque going around ecc.
As long as your player can freely just go straight and ignore it, it's just fine.


Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Maps, Pathfinder Accessories, PF Special Edition Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Superscriber
rgrove0172 wrote:

Ive read a lot about the differences in GM style and I get that its very much an individual thing, each GM finding a comfortable nitch but for the sake of discussion let me present the following.

My PC group is traveling and I design an encounter along the road ahead of them. It includes a small roadside inn, a nasty group of brigands holing up there and a possible adventure seed with the innkeeper if they do well.

Some will say that is scripting, railroading.

But some of the more freeform GMs will tell you that they build and encounter more or less 'mobile' so that they can place it wherever the PC goes.

That isn't scripting? To me its the worst kind of railroading. Build an inn, plant it, and if the players go there.. great! If they don't, oh well. You cant keep shifting the damn place around till they hit it.

Similarly some GMs will say they leave everything to chance. Their PC group is in a port town and are looking to book passage on a ship. They let it be random, working out the details of the ship after they PCs pick one. How is that freedom? Now if you designed a half dozen vessels and let them pick, sure! But that's a ton of wasted work. If you design one and let it be the one they pick... again your guilty of railroading.

Its kind of nuts don't you think?

Where do you stand?

I may not be using the terms right, but I don't think it relates to world/scenario design as much as to the ability of players to affect the plot.

I could imagine using all the techniques you mention in a railroad game (where I've got a decent storyline worked out for the players to uncover, more or less in the order and at the pace I determine). I could also see me using those approaches in a sandbox game (which I generally run heavily improvising with per-written pieces dropped in as they seem appropriate).

I think the "sandbox-railroad" spectrum is more about whether youre running a "DM driven plot vs Player driven plot".

FWIW, I much prefer railroad campaigns. Our group doesn't have time to waffle about deciding what to do. We want clear, easy to find plot hooks the DM can be confident the players will bite at.

Liberty's Edge

rgrove0172 wrote:

Ive read a lot about the differences in GM style and I get that its very much an individual thing, each GM finding a comfortable nitch but for the sake of discussion let me present the following.

My PC group is traveling and I design an encounter along the road ahead of them. It includes a small roadside inn, a nasty group of brigands holing up there and a possible adventure seed with the innkeeper if they do well.

Some will say that is scripting, railroading.

But some of the more freeform GMs will tell you that they build and encounter more or less 'mobile' so that they can place it wherever the PC goes.

That isn't scripting? To me its the worst kind of railroading. Build an inn, plant it, and if the players go there.. great! If they don't, oh well. You cant keep shifting the damn place around till they hit it.

Similarly some GMs will say they leave everything to chance. Their PC group is in a port town and are looking to book passage on a ship. They let it be random, working out the details of the ship after they PCs pick one. How is that freedom? Now if you designed a half dozen vessels and let them pick, sure! But that's a ton of wasted work. If you design one and let it be the one they pick... again your guilty of railroading.

Its kind of nuts don't you think?

Where do you stand?

I stand against bait. On principle


1 person marked this as a favorite.

Frankly, games consistently turn out BETTER with 'mobile' encounters. This is not railroading until and unless the DM arbitrarily starts to thwart reasonable player choices and resource investment to avoid the particular encounter or outcome that is planned. E.g. the players spend significant effort making sure the crew of the ship they hire are not pirates and then the GM decides the crew are pirates ANYWAY.


My grup has never left the train once since we begun playing years ago.


~shrugs~
If they avoid your encounter then they avoid it. It really is their loss. They don't get the XP... or the loot... or the role play... If this is part of your planned story arc then they are just doing things the hard way by losing out on all the potential gain they could have gotten from the encounter.


I actually run a pretty tightly 'railed' game but have been criticized now and then by other GMs. I find the idea of a 'sandbox' game impossible unless you completely flesh out an entire region before play or can somehow make up a consistent, detailed and in depth world from scratch on the fly. Every adventure module or path you buy is apparently 'railroading' to some people but thats exactly how I run my games. Plot point A, to B, to C, then D etc.

The players get that they are in a script of sorts and as long as they have some freedome on how to react to it, they are fine.

Not sure where some GMs are coming from when they start getting preachy.


It seems, from where I sit, that any group requiring pure sandbox play would either need to luck out in finding that rare, nigh-unique DM who's been preparing a game world just for $h!+$ and giggles over the past 25 years and is also a master of extemporaneous characterization ... or be willing to wait patiently while he lays the red carpet of engrossing locale inch by laborious inch before their privileged feet.


Railroad vs Sandbox IMO is really less about playstyle and more about plot design. If you make a plot outline that says something HAS to happen so that something else happens, that's railroading. If the thing is going to happen anyway, no matter what action the players take, that's called sandboxing.

Even the BEST storyteller GMs have certain "set pieces" of the plot that they need to get done, otherwise there's no story at all (EXTREME SANDBOXING). So in these instances, you lay out your set pieces. Let's say you know that you want to have a noble revealed as a werewolf and later that werewolf murders the head of the local church. If there is only 1 solution to move between set piece a and b, then you're railroading. If there's dozens of ways to get there, then you're sandboxing.

Another good way to think about these styles is to consider the humble dungeon.

Railroading is: a small, 4-6 room dungeon where all the rooms are meaningful to resolving the plot point that drew the PCs in (kill monster X, find treasure Y, whatever).

Sandboxing is: a few key rooms important to the plot scattered among a dozen non-sequitors such as dead-end passages, mindless monster encounters or empty chambers.

Neither is inherently bad or wrong and both might exist simultaneously in your playstyle, even in a single game session. The fact of the matter is that unless you're going COMPLETELY at random there's some kind of framework, or "railing" to your game. Heck, even if you're doing random but you choose to roll on low-level encounter charts since the party is indeed low level, that is still a framework based on APL. Most humans crave structure of some kind or another and it's the GM's job to find the sweet spot plotwise so that the players can enjoy the game.


I think these terms are essentially meaningless. Since "railroading" is pejorative and "sandbox" typically isn't, a lot of people will frame what they're doing as a sandbox, even if it's clearly a railroad.

Honestly, I think this has caused some serious problems. Having your players agree to follow a plot thread is a lot different than saying it's a sandbox, but moving them along that thread regardless of what they do.

Ironically, that's the exact behavior "railroading" was created to describe. It's just spread its stain over a lot of GM styles since then and created a ton of confusion.

So, just ignore "sandbox" and "railroad" entirely when people are using them to describe their games. The rest of their description might be interesting, but those words don't really mean anything.

Cheers!
Landon


I've found that in my group, I need main driving story. Along side it I need several optional side stories so they have the feel of a sandbox. I also discovered that it's usually better to tie as many of the side stories into the main in some way shape or form.

If I don't give the group something to focus on it's 30min of limited game time trying to figure out what they want to do.


Sandboxing is my preference. It is most definitely not easy to do it correctly, and as a DM, you need to be prepared to send beloved NPC's and story hooks packing if the PC's surprise you.

In my campaign, the PC's were transporting a dead body (very need-to-know) from one city to another. On the road, they run into a Ratfolk Gunslinger who claims he's been ordered to escort them to their destination. He has a holy symbol of Asmodeous dangling from his pistol, and he's being rather rude, so the PC's decide it's a trap and attack.

Behind the scenes, everything this NPC has said is legit. The PC's contact in the destination city cashed in a favor with a wealthy beneficiary (though Evil), who sent his contract killer to make sure the PC's got there in time. Foreseeing this possible encounter, I knew it was likely to turn for the worse. The NPC was 5th level, had a Giant Rat mount, and the PC's were 1st. I wasn't worried. If the PC's attacked, the NPC would subdue them all, stabilize them, and proceed with his mission (escorting their unconscious and ungrateful asses to Eradene). To my surprise, the PC's killed HIM.

This ended all future plot-hooks involving the PC's (I had quite a few planned), and I needed to think quickly about what the beneficiary would think of this development. Long story short: the beneficiary ended up writing up a contract for one of the more naive PC's, basically selling his soul to the beneficiary, becoming the new unwitting "contract killer".

So I took a bad thing and rolled with it - in fact, made it way more fun/entertaining for the PC's. That's something I don't think railroading (though still a viable preference) could never accomplish.


Here's some railroading:

DM of the Rings IV: Uphill Battle


Ah, sandboxing can be fun (basically how I ran my games in 2e). The trick is to NOT over-develop the world they are playing in.
Personally, I feel that it breaks down to something like the following:

10% World Building - Countries, leaders, races, etc. Thumbnail description of the various "centers of power" should do it. Only detail/map the starting city/town (or even just a neighbourhood if it's a large city).

20% Plot Hooks - A good idea is to have a major "epic" plot hook (epic in how long it spans and how big an area it covers), and then build plot hooks for adventures that would spin off from that epic scenario playing out. This is something you can build up as time goes on, and the players get further into the world. That way, when they work their way up the adventures and discover the epic earth shattering thing, you'll look like you planned it all ahead of time, like some kind of Xanatos Gambit.

50% Mobile Prep - Create areas, encounters, "stuff" that can be plopped down as appropriate. Once it's placed, write it down as a fact of the world, but until then, these are just ideas.
This gives the most freedom to build the world as interesting as possible for the current game. The bit of world building you've done will keep cohesion to the world, but encounters and highlight locations are better used to enhance the specific plot/player experience. After that, it'll always be memorable and feel natural anyways.

30% Winging It - You can never plan for what the players can come up with. The best thing is to stat out generic stats for creatures/NPCs based around the APL or CR for the area/encounter, and then just toss in some abilities (sneak attack, breath weapon) as appropriate with unique description to get your impromptu combat going.
Once you know the path the players will be using, you can use the time in between sessions to detail more specific encounters.
The nice thing is, barring some static stuff that you can leave peppered around, most plots that advance over time will build up and up, so even if a side plot is left and the players come back to it, it makes sense that the encounters will have beefed up in their absence and still meet their CRs.

.

A nice method for encounter/region building is something I found a little while ago called the Slaughterhouse (aka, Angry DM Dynamic Site-Based Adventure Planning and Management Tool).

It takes the idea of Schrodinger's encounters, and runs with it, whole hog.


There will be players and GMs out there that will consider everything that you do that doesn't directly involve the players saying, "Yes, let's do that," railroading. As has been said, the term "railroading" is primarily used as a pejorative, and I find it to be exceptionally misleading.

For example, if you play any of the Paizo adventure paths, there are certain points in the story that are unavoidable, even if you manage to delay them. This isn't railroading, but it is good plot design. Your stories don't have to exist in a vacuum; when a good plot point is avoided, things happen. Is this railroading your characters? I would say not. Paizo's adventure paths only do a certain amount of "sandboxing", and the rest is up to the GM to develop as they see fit.

However, putting players into the setting and saying, "Okay, find the adventure that you want to play," goes counter to the notion of, "there's an adventure here, and this is the start of the plot". Sure, it's fine to "choose your own adventure", and there's nothing wrong with that style of game play, but even the choose your own adventure books had a plot to follow, and certain plot points were inevitably unavoidable. A good GM can get players to invest in the plot, and thusly want to follow it.

And yet, there will still be players and GMs that call that "railroading".

The most important thing to take away from this is that it doesn't matter. As long as you and your group are having fun, it's all good.

Best wishes!

Silver Crusade

1 person marked this as a favorite.
rgrove0172 wrote:
I actually run a pretty tightly 'railed' game but have been criticized now and then by other GMs. I find the idea of a 'sandbox' game impossible unless you completely flesh out an entire region before play or can somehow make up a consistent, detailed and in depth world from scratch on the fly.

If your players are having fun with the tightly railed game then tell the other GMs to sit on a ten foot pole. Different groups have different play styles.

I run a sandboxy game with some rails at the beginning to give them some momentum in the right location. Sandboxy games don't have to mean the whole world is the sandbox it can just mean that maybe one city is the sandbox or one forest. Perhaps they are given a mission and this gives them some momentum when they are uncertain about what to do.


Landon Winkler wrote:

I think these terms are essentially meaningless. Since "railroading" is pejorative and "sandbox" typically isn't, a lot of people will frame what they're doing as a sandbox, even if it's clearly a railroad.

Honestly, I think this has caused some serious problems. Having your players agree to follow a plot thread is a lot different than saying it's a sandbox, but moving them along that thread regardless of what they do.

Ironically, that's the exact behavior "railroading" was created to describe. It's just spread its stain over a lot of GM styles since then and created a ton of confusion.

So, just ignore "sandbox" and "railroad" entirely when people are using them to describe their games. The rest of their description might be interesting, but those words don't really mean anything.

There does kind of need to be a word for that style in the middle that most gamers actually play, where there's a plot and stuff the party will have to deal with, but they've got a lot of freedom about how they tackle things and the GM will adapt to what they do.

Railroad is one extreme, where you will proceed as the GM wills regardless of what you want to do. Sandbox is the other extreme, where there's nothing really planned out and you can wander around and deal with whatever you choose. Sandbox is also often tied to allowing the possibility of encounters that don't follow the CR guidelines, usually with big warning signs so you don't lose too many parties.

But there really isn't a good name for the middle. And there should be.


I always joke that players shouldn't be upset if they're invited into a campaign entitled Swords of the Sultan then wonder why the DM is hemming and hawing when they abruptly decide, ten minutes into the first session, that they'd rather go kill vampires in Vlachia.

Of course, perhaps what's best is to drop the players into a sandbox, then build the tracks in front of them once they go to the station and choose a train.


Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Maps, Pathfinder Accessories, PF Special Edition Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Superscriber

Stop the metaphor - I want to get off.


Jaelithe wrote:
Of course, perhaps what's best is to drop the players into a sandbox, then build the tracks in front of them once they go to the station and choose a train.

As long as you're willing to start a campaign with no idea what it's going to be about.

It's generally some idea of a basic conflict that gets me excited about running a game in the first place. There are antagonists. They are doing things. The PCs come into contact with those things, usually at the outer edges and get drawn into the antagonist's plans. Plot and story ensue.
Exactly how it's going to turn out is up to them, but there's definitely something going on that they'll have to deal with. That's the campaign premise.


Steve Geddes wrote:
Stop the metaphor - I want to get off.

It's not our job to get you off, Little Steven.


Jaelithe wrote:
I always joke that players shouldn't be upset if they're invited into a campaign entitled Swords of the Sultan then wonder why the DM is hemming and hawing when they abruptly decide, ten minutes into the first session, that they'd rather go kill vampires in Vlachia.

Yeah, if you get to the point where you're about to run a specific adventure and the players are aware enough of it to be able to purposely avoid it, that would be a big red warning light to me.

As with so many other topics, it's down to communication of expectations. If I'm running a specific campaign with a new group I'll make sure to let them know what the campaign is before we start, and that they're expected to stay within the ballpark (although they're free to wander that ballpark as much as they want.) If I'm running a completely open sandbox, I'll make sure to let them know that. If they're not happy with that, then there's time to talk about it before turning up and running into issues on day one.


Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Maps, Pathfinder Accessories, PF Special Edition Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Superscriber
Jaelithe wrote:
Steve Geddes wrote:
Stop the metaphor - I want to get off.
It's not our job to get you off, Little Steven.

:)


Jaelithe wrote:

I always joke that players shouldn't be upset if they're invited into a campaign entitled Swords of the Sultan then wonder why the DM is hemming and hawing when they abruptly decide, ten minutes into the first session, that they'd rather go kill vampires in Vlachia.

Of course, perhaps what's best is to drop the players into a sandbox, then build the tracks in front of them once they go to the station and choose a train.

Speak to me of these Swords of the Sultan. It sounds like something I would very much enjoy playing.


Someone above mentioned sandbox games not following the CR. Ill have to admit here than when crafting my world I don't give a lot of attention to the CR. The world is there afterall, even if the PCs are not. It seems silly that somehow it scales itself to a group of people walking across it.

If Im designing a monster haunted castle ruin on the edge of some woods, well it is what it is. Perhaps its filled with lesser threatening things and perhaps its filled with far worse. Encounters, monsters, npcs and the like just happen, they don't conform.

For a group of inexperienced adventurers knowing when they are over their head is an important element.

If the Innkeeper tells you there is 'Great Evil' up at the old ruins and that dozens of hardy adventurers have been lost there. What makes you think a group of green 1st level adventurers has any business trying it. Some scouting and some research might just reveal its full of much higher level threats and is not for you.

Consider if all the published adventures were in your world already. Your players would have to pick and choose what they think they can manage.

I don't sandbox per se, but I do flesh out my world independent of the PC capabilities.

Community / Forums / Pathfinder / Pathfinder First Edition / Advice / Scripting, Railroading and Sandbox All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.