Sunday, December 17, 2017

Everything is a Road

"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.

And now,
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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.


  1. Really interesting stuff here. As you note, I don't think any players want a *true* sandbox game, because they will inevitably set up their own railroads because there will be destinations they wish to reach.

    But maybe, we can say that the games you want to run are ones that actually allow the players to make their own railroads, by giving them sufficient information to make intelligent and meaningful decisions within the context of the created world? At least, that was what I have always felt the purpose of your trade systems* and tech systems were.

    And I think calling that kind of game a sandbox, versus the traditional "railroad" of "DM sets up an obstacle, players knock down obstacle" would mesh with what others mean when they say "sandbox."

    *As an aside, I had repurposed much of your trade system for my game world, to some good results. It has actively led to players making decisions based on it. So thanks for that.

  2. This has certainly stirred up some poignant thoughts about what the common terminology we use to refer to rpg concepts actually means, but I'll have to confess that I'm not wholly sure what the takeaway to all of this is supposed to be. I suppose that you're correct that Coleville is giving bad advice for running a sandbox insofar that he's giving advice for running an open-ended adventure instead of the "true" railroad concept you're touching on here, but given that hardly anyone is looking run (or play in) campaigns nearly as open ended as what the platonic ideal of a sandbox would actually look like, is it actually bad advice for running a game?

    You're pretty spot on in your characterization of Coleville as a guy who uses a lot of words to declare that water is wet, and here he uses a lot of words to ultimately declare that a GM should allow his players freedom in approaching the challenges he presents them. Is the very act of presenting challenges for the players as they pursue a goal fundamentally closer to a railroad than a sandbox? I've certainly been convinced this is the case, but all I've really been able to get out of that is that the terminology we use in our community to describe these things are ultimately pretty useless - but unless you're suggesting we should be aiming to eschew the structure of adventures altogether (which I don't think you're doing?) I'm not sure if I'd necessarily say Coleville is teaching any particularly poor form, here.

  3. I'm working on the problem intellectually. Don't want to rush. I do think there's room for dismantling the adventure format, but I'm not sure at the moment how to contain it in a post.

    Here's my short-handed thinking; managing a keep, without the DM constantly trying to put the keep in danger of invaders, instant-add-water monsters, or a dozen other distracting hooks, is much akin to a real sandbox, isn't it? Note that I didn't say a sandbox isn't about solving problems; it just isn't about solving out-of-box problems. If you decide, as I often did, to build a bridge of sand, then that's a problem that has to be solved - and as we experimented that way as children, we fascinated ourselves for hours. Is there not room for contemplation in that direction?

  4. Let me add some details that have come to light on my facebook page (hey, look for me on facebook, good conversations about these blog posts arise).

    Read this post from 'Crossing the Verse:

  5. And my response to Carl, the author,

    "Yes! We're on the same page, going the same direction. Your point is the stronger: that the key to the sandbox campaign is elucidating the world's properties to the player, so that the player can reshape those properties to produce the desired effect or created thing. And that is the holy grail.

    Regarding your last point, sandbox vs. railroad. Consider this as a measure. We're only running railroads. Surely, a railroad AND a sandbox, together, is better than railroad alone. There's no danger of our only running a sandbox, because we have so many examples of railroad that we can fall into the latter as easily as a pool of water.

    Therefore, the better game isn't the sandbox. The better game is the one that includes the sandbox, the extra feature, over and above the feature that already exists."

    And Carl's answer,

    "Holy shitsnacks, you're right! It's not that a story-driven game (or a railroad) is a bad thing, it's that it's lacking the potential of a sandbox. And that's partly why we get people who argue that it's possible to have a good railroad game: those games have elements of the freedom and autonomy that a sandbox provides."

  6. And my final comment,

    "Having shifted my thinking on railroad away from forcing prisoners into boxcars, letting it include the careful, free choice to get aboard an excursion car and see the country, then I don't have to be disparaging about railroads (I don't have to redefine the term, either, as Colville does, so that I can feel better about myself). I can see the railroad for what it is: a link between sandboxes. A link that lets us carry resources from one sandbox to the next. The problem, until now, is that we've been so obsessed with the journey, we've missed the point of the destination."

  7. "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."

    This really interests me, but I don't think I totally understand it. Perhaps because I have always thought of DnD as a game about adventures. I would like to hear more about what the experience of getting involved in characterization is like compared to what is experienced the "flexible adventures" you have described on the blog.

    The mechanics of the game do a lot to support games that revolve around acquisition and survival. This mechanical core of the game seems to push adventure-type play. Do you think that a different focus in play style needs certain different mechanical elements? I know you are working on a system that describes human communities, tying together their economies, culture, health. That combined with the idea of "figuring out who we like, what we want to stop" makes me think of a political endeavor.

    But I guess sandbox gameplay could be focused on something smaller than village-scale. I'm thinking of gardening, which, described as an adventure, would sound something like "First we slew the weeds, then we hunted down the seeds of the elusive heirloom tomatoes, next we fought off waves of pests and went on a quest for water during the drought. Then at last we hauled off the juicy red fruit!". But a lot of the problem solving involved in gardening isn't so directly about "will I get a crop, or will my plants DIE?", but has more to do with "what sort of crop do I want, what crop is suited to this piece of land, this climate, how do I balance those against each other?" and then after doing that in one spot for some years developing a relationship with the specific bit of land and the seasons, which feeds back into the questions.

    Summing up, maybe one is about getting something (tomatoes), and the other is about tinkering with something, rebuilding it (the garden plan and purpose)? Anyway, your post has prompted a lot of thought, and I look forward to reading more on this subject!

  8. Samuel,

    Regarding the quote about drama vs. adventure: I was emphasizing that when we normally speak of "character-driven plots", we don't mean adventures like Indiana Jones and the Age of Ultron. We mean films like Regarding Henry or Slumdog Millionaire, where the plot revolves around individuals reconciling what they believe and suffer with the ordinary, everyday, believable choices that every person has to make, regardless of their station in life. I'm highlighting that those people who insist that RPGs are about "characters" have a strange idea what makes a character-driven plot, compared with everyone else's definition.

    Sandbox gameplay could be smaller, or larger, than village scale. It could be anything. I think you give a good example. Here are some others.

    Do you recall the series I did on starting a trade town? There was very little adventure in that - mostly, it was problems. What to build, who to get permission from, who to hire, how much to gather, how to encourage people to invest and so on. Problems, yes, but not go-and-get-this, or fight-this, or learn-this-clue. More like, let's try this and see if it gets a result. Let's push all the sand up into a hill and see how high a hill we can make before it collapses.

    Do you remember an old video game called ZooTycoon? Here are your animals, here are your cage types, here's your options for selling stuff to your guests, here are your costs, here's your income ... now arrange things so that you make the highest profits with the best organization for the least number of zookeepers and custodians to manage the animals, without the people getting hungry, thirsty or tired. Go. Do your best.

    That latter is definitely a sandbox. Set number of tools, limitations on options, endless, uncertain possibilities based on the manner in which you distribute your resources.

    D&D could create that. Or recreate a systematic war campaign to conquer a foreign country. Or anything that we're prepared to develop rules to cover.

    Without, I'll rush to point out, having to translate those rules into code.

  9. As a native Californian, we drive every where and measure distance by how long it would take to get there. I bring this up because, I feel the perfect metaphor for what I think you are talking about would be a network of highways and freeways, with the dm being a chauffeur. You get on the freeway at one point follow along for awhile, party decides it wants to something else, take this exit or that interchange, end on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, whatever.

  10. Alexis, your deeper examination of this is worthy.

    The sandbox style of play that is typically described brings to mind more of a petting zoo... lots of animals to interact with, some come to you, some are disinterested, some run away and planty of shit to step,in if you are not careful.

    So, the motivational goals of the players ideally set the type of play and the type of game presented: explore, puzzle solve, conquer, rob, intrigue... DM provides the landscape and antagonist interaction.
    Less free game the GM sets goals and method/path to success. More free opens more to player.

    Looking forward to how you progress with this.

  11. This is interesting food for thought, but I don't know that you've sold me on such a broad definition of a railroad. I do think you're on to something, here, I'm not exactly sure what, but I have a feeling that you're uncovering a big rock and we're only seeing a piece of it.

    I don't think it's the difference between a railroad and a sandbox, though. I wrote a longer reply on that disagreement, but put it in my own blog to keep the comments here more focused:

  12. I think, when people complain about a railroad, they are complaining about the fact that they cannot pick their destination, nor the path they run through - they can only choose whether to look at the scenery or their phones.


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