The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Building Adventures.
We can’t discuss tabletop roleplaying adventure design without acknowledging the power and influence of the sandbox and the railroad.
A sandbox is a scenario that allows player characters to wander freely and explore the world at their leisure. Creating this type of environment is seen by many as the best thing ever in tabletop roleplaying. It allows players do as they please with largely unfettered agency. The key drawback to this style is that it requires a lot of preparation and strong improvisation skills on the part of the gamemaster. Every contingency needs to either be anticipated beforehand or dealt with on the fly. Sandbox play can be fun, but it can also become deeply unsatisfying. If all the player characters do is wander from encounter to encounter with no unifying sense of purpose, the campaign can become boring and repetitive after a while.
A railroad is a scenario where events unfold in strict accordance with the gamemaster’s predetermined plans. Problems only have one solution, and it’s up to the players to figure out what that is. The plot is on metaphorical rails, and can only move in one direction. Railroading is viewed as a cardinal sin toward players. It takes away their agency and doesn’t reward their creativity or input. The main advantage to this style is that it’s significantly easier for gamemasters to prepare, because it limits the number of elements that need to be accounted for. There is also some degree of satisfaction to be gained from finding the correct solutions and reaching the clearly-defined end of the adventure.
The Sandbox and the Railroad
Both of these styles can be viewed as existing on opposite ends of a spectrum. One end seems to sacrifice ease of prep for player agency. The other downplays player agency for ease of prep. It’s possible to find a personal gamemastering style that incorporates the strengths of each while mitigating their relative weaknesses. The right style for you and your group will vary. Finding your collective comfort level along the spectrum between the railroad and the sandbox is important.
Like any other form of fiction, a tabletop roleplaying adventure works best when there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Player characters can pursue a goal without being railroaded into one specific way of achieving it. That same goal prevents characters from wandering aimlessly through an open-ended setting. A balance of styles will respect the players’ creativity and choices, while reducing some of the burden placed on the gamemaster. There’s a satisfying amount of closure. Achieving the goal means that the adventure has come to an end with the characters “winning”.
Building Adventures is about finding that balance. There is a way to create tabletop roleplaying scenarios that don’t require a harried, over-scheduled gamemaster to be ready for every possibility. These can still allowing players to make their own choices, and solve problems in their own way.