"An episode I did about the sandbox vs. the railroad ... it implied that sandboxing is better than railroading and that's not true ... as someone else said, I think in one of the comments, 'You know, rollercoasters are on rails and people seem to like those.'
"Railroading - we can talk about railroading in a pejorative sense, meaning the players' choices didn't matter. And that is the thing that frustrates players, when they feel like they weren't the stars of the show, it wasn't their actions that mattered. I think this gets back to the 'your story vs. their story' video I did. Obviously, I'm behind the idea of using adventures because I'm a huge proponent of them, I always have been. I think that going and spending ten bucks to get a great adventure that someone has already done all the work for, done all the maps and all the NPCs are all spelled out, all you have to do is change names, maybe, and where it's set so it's appropriate to your world ~ so obviously I don't think having an adventure ready is bad.
"But having it, having a plot, knowing what's going to happen, having set-piece encounters laid out, is not railroading. It's just being ready. Railroading is a result of not listening to your players, I think mostly; saying no too often; and leaving them with the feeling that the NPC's in the world are more important than they are and that they didn't really matter to what happened, or their choices didn't matter, or they didn't have choices."
Now, let me be forthcoming. There is another thread in this video, in which Colville talks about saying "yes" to the way in which players solve problems, which Colville argues fits logically into the above statement. Paraphrased, that argument goes, so long as the players are free to decide for themselves how to overcome obstacles, putting the obstacles in their way is not railroading.
Why This Sounds Right
Role-playing as an activity is understood to be an adventure-oriented framework, one in which fictional characters pursue some sort of goal. Our thoughts turn at once to a series of dangerous obstacles which must be surpassed, in order to get the McGuffin, or some piece of information, which will reveal the location or nature of some other person, place or thing, which logically waits behind another series of dangerous obstacles.
As such, the "adventure" structure is primarily linear. This is neither good nor bad, it simply is. We understand from our experience with films and novels that the characters must seek A to get B, to use against C, before D can be obtained which will bring about the end of E and save F. The multiplicity of combinations belies any argument than a linear narrative structure must be either boring or predictable.
Given this, Colville is not wrong where he describes the DM's solution. To manufacture the adventure, we must create obstacles. Overcoming the obstacles is interesting and a large part of the dopamine rabbit press-button-receive-pellet process that encourages play and enjoyment. Letting the players determine how to overcome the obstacle is important to a sense of self-actualization, so taking that feature out of the adventure does create the feeling that the players are puppets. Giving them a set of problems, then asking that the problems be solved, is a perfectly reasonable expectation on the part of the DM.
As alluded, rollercoasters are fun. As are crossword puzzles, where there is only one answer that can solve the dilemma. Very often, RPG players will gripe about DMs who refuse to permit multiple solutions to problems, yet many popular and enduring games and activities are made this way. There is only one way to put together a jigsaw puzzle. There's only one way to win at golf. No one can say they have climbed a mountain without having stood on the top of it.
So again, Colville is right to argue that the "game" for players is to figure out how to put the ball in the hole or how to get to the top, or how to sort the pieces and look at them as to figure out how they go together.
What This Has to Do with Railroads and Sandboxes
In Colville's other video about railroads and sandboxes, which he links at the beginning of the video above, he explains what he thinks a sandbox is:
"That's the end of the game. The entire thing was the players' idea. John had a completely different adventure in mind, but when the players came up with their own idea, he rolled with it. As a result, even though John had to do some trickery behind the scenes, and the party relied on his friend's high level wizard too much, and there was the whole dragon thing which was supposed to be the final battle, and it happened off screen ... that is a classic example of a sandbox campaign."
For years now, since long before I started blogging in 2008, the RPG community has been struggling to define the difference between a "railroad campaign" and a "sandbox campaign." I've made a few tries at it myself. It occurs to me today, however, after watching the video, that I've been thinking about it all wrong. Instead of defining one type of campaign vs. another, let's ditch RPGs completely and recognize that these two things are metaphors. Therefore, let's define what a "railroad" is and what a "sandbox" is.
A railroad is a permanent road laid with rails, commonly in one or more pairs of continuous lines forming a track or tracks, on which locomotives and cars are run for the transportation of passengers, freight and mail.
The creation of the railroad was more than an industrial process. Mass transport had an energizing effect on the population, expanding culture, the spread of ideas, the sheer pleasure of taking an excursion, opportunities for people of purpose or desperation to leave one part of the world for another, while retaining communication with their roots ... trains were phenomenal. They changed the way we thought, the way we designed cities, the way we viewed materialism and much, much more. More to the point, knowing when and where the destination was served as a terrific selling point for people who wanted to go.
A sandbox is a box or receptacle for holding sand, especially one large enough for children to play in.
The presence of sand, whether or not contained in a box, has no distinct motivation for its use, no measurable intent, no service that is performs, no out-of-box problem that it has been designed to solve, no preconceived level of enjoyment that it gives. It simply exists. Yet there is something in the human nature, most recognizable in young children, that compels activity.
What's Wrong with Colville's Definition
At no time, and in neither video, is Colville describing a sandbox. It is clear that he, like most, have no idea why the word "sandbox" has inserted itself as a metaphor for a particular kind of campaign. Sandboxes are not about solving problems, overcoming obstacles, obtaining prizes or succeeding at campaigns. When playing in a sandbox, the mind conceives of an image or idea, then we attempt to recreate that image in sand.
A sandbox campaign, therefore, is not a linear process. It is nothing like any module that has ever been created for a DM, since the creation of the module itself belies the principle that we are pouring a structureless tool into a box and allowing free association and creativity to produce something.
I have to confess: deconstructing the videos above and writing this post has crystallized my thinking on game play in a manner that I think is new to me. And that is why we deconstruct things. To figure out how they work.
I don't think, now, that I have ever run a sandbox campaign. I have suggested campaigns like this, every now and then on the blog, but just now I don't even think that the mustard farmer scenario I proposed with my fifth post fits the bill. A sandbox campaign would have to lack an adventure entirely, since once the adventure is proposed we are immediately on some sort of road to a known and intended destination.
We've been caught up, I think, in trying to define "railroad to Auschwitz" as a railroad and "railroad that is pleasant and fun" as a sandbox. That's demonstrably wrong. Whether or not we can free ourselves from the cars and see the journey, or feel reassured about the destination, is immaterial where describing the campaign is concerned.
A sandbox is much, much more like our own lives. It's a situation where we're interacting with a lot of people, trying to gather our resources to make our lives comfortable, dealing with shit that comes up, that often has nothing to do with our plans but often affects people we don't want to see suffer or in pain. And all the while, trying to figure out what we DO want, how to get it, whether or not we will lose ourselves in the process, while spending effort and material in the process of making more material.
We shouldn't be surprised that people don't want to run a game like this. Where in the hell would we start? Yet arguably, such a campaign would be far, FAR more relevant to a "character-driven" campaign, where the unimportant bullshit of having to travel to some distant place to find a thing to stop a person from destroying a place, none of which has to do with our "characters," could be thrown aside. Like a drama, rather than an adventure, our characters would sit around and talk, discuss, figure out who we like, what we want to stop, what the meaning of life is and so on ... and get really, really involved in characterization.
Characters in adventures are stock, really. Their motivations are pre-made and their agenda is greed or self-sacrifice. These are pretty easy concepts for us to get our heads around. Adventure characters don't feel crippling pain or permanent loss and confusion. They always get over it. Everything for their motivation is served on a silver platter and they never, ever feel that it's all for nothing. Real character-role-playing is upsetting, uncomfortable and lacking in resolution. We don't watch and read adventures for the characters, but for the simple, straightforward, unthinking lack of complexity that enables us to escape all that real personality-driven stuff we hate in real life.
Given this, does the advice given in the video count as "bad advice"? I think it does, because it misleads the listener into thinking that, so long as the players feel like they're the star of the show, then I can lay the tracks down anyway that I want, pretending to myself that the destination, and all the McGuffins and Clues along the way, are evidence of the players' sense of freedom. This is like saying that if I drive the train, I'm in charge of where it goes. I'm not. Even if we argue that there are multiple tracks and switches, there are hundreds of other trains on this track and we'd be crazy to willy-nilly flip a switch and head off at random.
Colville is arguing, however pleasantly and intelligently, that he has to make a game this way because he has the right to do so as a DM, or rather, he can't think of another way to do it. And he has neatly argued himself into a justification, that so long as there's more than one way to drive the train, and so long as he's willing to let players drive a train from the back car because he's so, so flexible as a DM, then magically we've stopped moving on tracks.
For myself, there's a certain logic in this. I wrote a couple months ago about motivating players into a sort of railroad. Now, I find, I have to change my mind about, and admit that it is a railroad, though much less restrictive than Colville's examples. And I was very knee-jerk and defensive about it, too ... but this is me, admitting that I was wrong, so please blow trumpets as necessary.
Now I'm going to think about how to run a sandbox. I think that's what I'm trying for, with the infrastructure-development system. BUT ~ and let me be very clear ~ players are apt to create their own railroads, without being told to do so. Choosing to set themselves on the path to find a McGuffin and obtain some clues is not how a sandbox works; it only shows a willingness for players to buy their own tickets for the destination they choose. That's nicer than being told which train we're going to board, but it is STILL a railroad.