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Tuesday, March 29, 2016


It is a mistake to think that Sandboxes and Railroads are opposing styles of play or mutually exclusive. The two styles are separate levels of play, and the difference between the two is that at times, players in a Sandbox campaign will end up in a hot pursuit, whether of their own choosing, or being chased by the setting itself, in which case the adventure will cease being two-dimensional and will become linear. In the linear campaign players are characters in the DM's story and the segments of the game that are sandbox exist in the story telling and negotiation between the DM and the players.

When I talk about the levels of play, I mean that there is a simple level of the Dungeon Crawl - stay at the inn, catch rumors at the tavern, go to store, outfit your party, go to the Dungeon, kill the monster, get the treasure, buy more stuff, back to the Dungeon. So goes the Dungeon cycle. As the players advance in level, they can Hex Crawl and go to other places in the fantasy world, and find other taverns, chase more rumors, and find another dungeon whilst exploring hexes. The DM's world expanded as the players advanced in level. The level of the Sandbox occurs in the story space between the adventures, and the gaming that takes place involves the players interacting with the setting, while spending gold and skill points to develop their characters. Let's say that your 5th Level Fighter wants to step up to the next level of his weapon specialization. Through role play, the player realizes that he has surpassed his current fencing instructor, but the Master tells the player of HIS teacher, and now the players must journey a long way on a quest for the Fighter to find his new teacher. This kind of gaming was not provided for in the vanilla editions of D&D, everyone sort of levels up automatically and acquires new abilities. This is the Sandbox, it helps the D&D cvampaign side-step what Dave Arneson criticized about D&D - get treasure buy bigger sword to get even more treaisre to buy even a greater sword.

The biggest fallacy of the OSR is that there is no story in traditional D&D - Dungeon Crawls and Hex Crawls. After all, a DM draws a map of the labyrinth, keys the areas in it, makes notes as to what Monsters, Traps, and Treasures the labyrinth contains. DM then creates a small towm to serve as the base for the players cum adventurers. Simple world, then as the players advance in levels, the DM craws the map of the adjoining areas and the players engage in hex crawls or wilderness exploration. This creates an illusion that there is no story in an old school D&D game, but it is wrong. This is a form of story-telling - where the rooms provide critical incidents and the corridors connect the incidents with each other. It might be a non-linear, non traditional story, but it is still a story. It becomes even more of a story, when a DM desides to flesh out a theme or a back-story for a dungeon, when DM creates an adventure for the players that gives them a reason to enter thr labyrinth, and defeat what is there. DM doesn't even think of how he or she is telling the story within the parameters of the Dungeon Adventure. The unique format of the Dungeon Crawl and the way it formalizes and processes the DM-player storytelling interaction is the reasom behind the remarkable success of the Dungeon design/Dungeon Adveture format. The further we move away towards representing more complex adventures and situations, the harder it becomes and the weaker the game mechnics of adventure design become. Gygax and Moldway did not write anything as good for Wilderness design as they did for the Dungeon Adventure, and the Second Edition folks and beyond did even less for the non-linear non-tactical adventure design, ot the node-based adventure design, that represntes the schematics of an Event-based as opposed to the site based adventure design.

Brooser's Sandbox partly consists of fleshing out the setting in which event based adventures and character development can take place, and then forcing the players to traverse the wilderness between points where critical encounters in the adventure take place in accordance with the traditional rules for D&D travel.


  1. So, you're saying that story and sandbox can be merged, just don't write for the players. This is sound advice that allows the game to function at its best. According to your philosophy, I began playing sandbox as soon as I figured the above out. I think that the new DM typically does write the player's parts, and it is probably for the best if the players let him/her do that; at least for a little while, just so he isn't overwhelmed by all of the stuff going on.

    I will point out that not all 2e adventure modules were railroad jobs, or written badly; many were, as they were still experimenting, but there are still a few gems that offer some terrific teaching points, and are classics that stand on their own as fantastic products.

  2. Sandbox is the fertile soil out of which many stories grow, Zen-like. It's a state of mind on part of the DM. You never know, what will fixate the players, at which players they will be railroading themselves. A brief example. In the first season of Midlands, the players formed their expedition to explore the frontier at their hometown of Ryeland. The trick was to get to the Blacklands Barony and make it their base of operations. One problem - access to the Barony is restricted, if the patrols stop them wandering without purpose, it won't lead to anything good. One PC had an aunt living in the Barony. They decided to go visit her and take it from there. They could get there six day overland or about four by water, and boat is safer. Another player had an uncle who was a merchant captain. A Plan! The journey took them down one river into a grat lake and upstream into another river. The lake was under control of the Bandit King, who collected taxes on all commercial goods crossing his territory. I knew nothing of the Bandit King except that it was a bit of a joke on the players - Bandit King was not called that because he robbed anyone, but because he ascended to his throne not by divine right of noblemen, nor by the law of the Frontier. Another thing was that his men at arms boarded all ships with spell casters as saergeants at arms. The boarding of the shop and collection of the duties was part of non-combat game session, during the course of which the players journeyed on the water. Later on, palyers came across the Bandit King, when a tief, a Barony local, heard at the guild that the Outlaws and Vagabonds who speak well of the Bandit King are not real thieves and are to be attacked on sight, if encountered. This wa sa small geographic backstory, players were not even adventuring for the guild, but the players became obsessed with the Bandit King, and had they not been tied up in the adventure I was running at the time, or, had the game continued, they would have traveled to see him. That's how much the lead players were dying to see who he was, and the limited information about him just drove them nuts. Another example, my thief belonged to a rather ugly band of highwaymen, who were in league with local corrupt merchants, who sold overpriced goods to the settlers traveling to the edge of the frontier, merchats told them about the caravans of settlers, and the Highwaymen robbed them at sword point of the tools and farming implements, and what not, when the settlers camped for the night, selling the stolen goods back to the merchants at a fraction of the original price. Depravity of evil.

    My thief, naturally, balked at this, as any normal person would, at the sight of an honest man and the leader of the settlers being beaten into submission, before his group wouod be robbed. DM took this as an opportunity, that the other Highwaymen would set him up to take the fall for the crimes, since the player didn't really fit in with the band. During subsequent adventure session, one of the NPC's from player's backstory warned him that the guild master didn't like the player's character and spoke ill of him at a drinking party. That player was hypercareful and fled, without seeing anyone off for a good buy, which would have turned into a regular combat encounter, since the NPC's would have tried to capture the player's character and hand him off to the law. Neither tangent was planned, but grew in a well seeded sandbox as a result of gaming, and keep in mind that there was a major adventure that I had prepared for the players. It was something that they had no choice in the matter - it was a campaign Push - once the players got to the Aunt, the town was raided by slavers and the players first fought to defend themselves, then became the spearpoint of the town's defense against the raiders.

  3. 2e was not all bad, some of the writing was good, and they tried bringing in knowledge from literature and theater stage to improve the adventure design aspects of the game. I have not read any of the 2e modules, so I can't comment on their quality.

    Don't write the players parts, let the players' do it. Write the NPC's parts insetad! Let's say your Court of the Vampire King. Figure out the direction in which the Court and the Kingdom are headed - what does the King want, in which direction the outside world is pushing the Court, then write the NPC's parts do define their position to the Vampire King and to the direction in which the Court is headed. What would happen to these NPC's if the events develop on their own and the players don't show up. Worst comes to worst, you can adopt that into a novel, but if the players ever do show up - you will be able to figure out the NPC's actions towards the players based on how these NPC's perceive the players since you already know what the NPC's position is towards the situation, whatever it may be. So, nothing is lost, and you aren't writing for the players.