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On rails versus Sandbox

As I mentioned yesterday, the first of my two panels at the Arisia SFF convention is on the topic of "on rails" versus "sandbox-style" campaigning in tabletop RPGs. I was initially interested in this panel because I feel as though my own evolution as a game master has moved from one extreme towards the other.

First, let's define some terms. I'm going to assume at some point in your career, someone convinced you to sit down for three or so hours to play D&D. You got a character sheet, some dice, and a mission and that's that. Role-playing games have gone in various directions since the their origins with Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons, but for the most part certain things remain the same. You get a character, you roll some dice, and you go on an adventure. What has changed over time is how the task of telling a story occurs. Mostly in the past, the creation of the story, was the unchallenged responsibility of a single person called the game-master (or dungeon master). This might be referred to as "on-rails" game design, although that term actually comes from video game design.

Be that as it may, on-rails game design does refer to a certain style of play, where a Game Master dictates the vast preponderance of the story. The GM takes a direct and total control over the world design, monster and non-player character design, and plot. Depending on how serious the GM takes this, a campaign can be extremely detailed, to the point that nearly every eventuality is pre-planned and pre-set. This is how I started out, for the most part. First introduced to RPG's, what struck me was how playing a game like this was essentially story-telling where I didn't have to write all of the dialogue. I learned a lot about writing stories from what things worked and didn't within role-playing games. But I never shook the sense that as the GM, I was ultimately responsible for the overall enjoyment of the game. If the game worked, it was because I did my homework and if it didn't, I must have overlooked something. The number of games that function in this way are almost too numerous to count but classic examples include: Dungeons and Dragons (obviously), the Hero System, Palladium, and the Storytelling system (to a certain extent).

Then you have the sandbox style of gaming which I was introduced to late. Sandbox gaming, compared to 'on rails,' gives more freedom for the players. Instead of a story, there's just a setting. The players are responsible for accomplishing their own goals, in the order that makes sense to them. GM's still have to prepare, but the assumption is that the story would develop in due course as a outgrowth of what the characters are trying to achieve. For good examples of this style of play, check out the indie RPG section in your local game shop, and check out Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard and, of course, Burning Wheel. These are games without a preset 'world,' or 'characters,' only a set of rules governing the outcomes of conflicts. At first, I wasn't sure what to make of it. The idea of having more player input wasn't unwelcome, it just seemed unlikely. I had never had the experience of playing with people interested in creating a story collaboratively. I assumed the whole point of being a character was you didn't have to do that kind of work, you could just sit back, enjoy the ride, and launch the occasional fireball at a passing orc. But I gave it a try and realized what this style offers.

Truly immersive role-playing. The possibility of emergence, or unexpected events taking place through the interaction of players and pre-established facts about the campaign. Nothing is more awesome in gaming than having some small detail that I put into the first session of a campaign suddenly reappear months later when one of the players brings it back up. When done correctly, this kind of storytelling can have real emotional impact.

Really I don't have a problem with either of these two styles of play. Sometimes you need a story in order to get the players from A to B. Sometimes you the players just have to suck it up and agree to the mission into the ghost world because that what the story requires. But on the other hand, no GM should ever have to work alone. A game system that discourages player input and advice is not only counter-productive it blunders past the central reason why anyone would play a tabletop RPG: to create things that only the human mind can invent. If your only intention is to experience a powerful story, read a book.
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