Sunday, September 13, 2009

4e Sandboxing

I've been reading a fair bit about the railroad-sandbox dichotomy lately. Like most things on the internet, both sides of the argument are exaggerating to make their point. There is no reason that a sandbox can't have a plot, and no reason that a railroad can't have organically-growing spits and turnings.

I've also been reading a lot about the whole balanced encounter "problem". Of course, there is no problem, just exaggeration in order to argue against or denigrate other people. It's purely ridiculous for any DM to assert that they don't balance things somewhat. They don't ring the town with dragons, and they provide a mix of creature levels throughout the game environment. So they balance things, if not on an encounter-by-encounter basis.

Personally, I like the idea of being able to "balance" encounters, because it helps me fulfil my basic goal as a DM, which is to ensure that everyone has a good time. This is a role-playing GAME after all. I play sports for competition, I rescue people from car accidents to fulfil my community duties, and I play games for fun.

Having the ability to balance encounters doesn't mean that each encounter will be "balanced" - that's another exaggeration, spread by people who want to argue that their style is better. What it means is that I get some surety about the actual difficulty level of the encounter. Fine-edged control, rather than the semi-blunt spray and pray methods of many previous RPG's that I have played.

I, rather than luck, decide how tough I want a given encounter to be. This also lets me put in the appropriate "watch the fuck out" warnings in place. Again, something that sandbox purists may say isn't something they do, but which I consider essential for ensuring that I'm not that asshole DM that nobody will play with.

This section of the blog is going to be largely a design journal for my ongoing on-line campaign. We're running the game using Maptools and Skype, with Doodle for scheduling and MSN for private messaging. I'll be talking about encounter design, sandboxing, developing plot lines and working with online tools.

If anyone would like to read session summaries and more information about the actual campaign, go to


  1. Good points. D/D is just as much a game as it is a story, and being able to know how tough a certain part of it is going to be can only help you as a DM.

    I am impressed you've kept an online game going. I've tried many times with my scattered gaming group to do so, using maptools, steam voice chat, and msn for private messages, but I have never been able to get it to keep off the ground for long enough to become an established weekly tradition. Some of my players seem to be of the 'if we can't play face to face, the next best thing is not to play at all' school of thought, unfortunately. How do you keep up excitement for a game that is admittedly not as fun as being gathered around a physical table?

  2. For context, I like sandbox and story both, but I have a niggling objection to one line you wrote about sandboxes. I think that "watch the fuck out" messages are just as essential to sandbox play. Not even just necessary to not be an asshole GM, but one of the core features of the style that makes sandbox play even possible to enjoy.

    There might be people out there who play sandboxes like russian-roulette with hexes, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that's stupid and missing the point. Sandboxes are most entertaining/useful, in my not so humble estimation, when the place-based nature of their encounters telegraph a lot of information about what the players are getting their characters into. That's doubly true for random encounters, since when they're not tied to the region and its degree of dangerousness wandering monster encounters strain disbelief and player patience both.

    After all, what point (let alone fun) is there in stumbling around in the dark? The entire appeal of a playing a character in a sandbox is being able to explore it and make your own plans. If it were just a matter of "hey let's go into this bright forest oh shit a beholder", you might as well just make nameless characters and take turns flipping the Monster Manual open.

    By all means, avoid playing in any Roulette Sandboxes. I heartily encourage such wisdom! :) Just don't assume that sandbox designs take away your ability to "put in appropriate 'watch the fuck out' warnings" as you normally would.

  3. The sandbox model is a very tempting one for a GM but does throw up this problem of "watch the fuck out" warnings.

    With computer games, players will accept that they cannot enter a certain area of the map until such-an-such a mission has been completed. In RPGs, players will just keep trying to find a way in.

    A great example of this is Grand Theft Auto III where players are stuck on the first island because the bridge is down. Everyone just accepts this and gets on with the mission on the original island.

    Try doing that in an RPG and the players will be hiring boats, swimming the river, trying to teleport etc etc etc.

    The sandbox works great for computer games because players accept there are limitations to the game. An RPG is built on the premise that the only limit is your imagination so players are less forgiving of artificial limits.

    I'm not sure how to square this circle.

    My suspicion is that the current design of RPGs do not lend themselves very well to sandbox design. Or at least sandboxes where the GM is not making up 90% of stuff on the fly.

    A move away from fixed encounter where location X contains monster Y worth Z experience points is required. Plus a more elegant way of having "Fuck Off" signs - e.g. areas that can only be entered under certain conditions.

    I'm not sure how this would work but I cannot help thinking that to unleash the power of sandboxes we need to go revisit some of the basic concepts of RPGs.

  4. "I'm not sure how to square this circle."

    Kill the PCs.

    No, really. If you tell them, "the villagers' legends of the basilisk-haunted Nightmare Stoney Death Valley echo in your ears as you spy a stand of unnaturally-detailed statues in a clearing as you climb the ridge and look down on the valley," and the players heedlessly continue, then they're making a choice. Respect that choice, and face them with the basilisk.

    The point of "fuck off" signs isn't to prevent them from going in like an invisible brick wall in a videogame. They need to exist so that players can make intelligent decisions about what to do with the characters. It's no different than when players read character building forums in order to make intelligent choices about character design. In both cases, having the relevant information available means that they can improve the effectiveness of their characters.

    I suppose it bears underlining that sandbox games are not well suited to play styles where there is an over-arching plot that requires the characters to stay alive throughout the entire campaign. The threat of character death is necessary in order for the players to try to min/max the relevant statistics: hit points and avoidable exposures to life-threatening saving throws.

  5. What is this blog post about if not telling people your way is right and theirs is wrong? You just did exactly what you were trying to argue *other* people do when they talk about these topics. The total sandboxers and total railroaders are as right as you are, with your middle-of-the-road tactics. Do what works for your group, and don't judge. That is all.

  6. I'm also a bit confused by this sandbox/railroad dichotomy, since I've never really played in either type of campaign, just mixes of both. I find it particularly offensive when people jump on the whole "story-based play is bad" bandwagon. It gives the impression that there are a group of players out there for whom grinding around in the wilderness like a WoW session, specifically eschewing any form of plot or development, is the only way to role-play. And they make sure to tell you that last bit too - that they're the only ones doing it right.

    It's weird, because it seems to me that almost every real game comes down to a mixture of sandbox, story and GM fiat (aka "railroad").

  7. Eeenteresting - getting some posts on a year-old posting..

    @Anonymous - man up and use your name, bud. As far as this being a post saying that my way is "right", well, it might be. But I think of it rather as a post that is discussing the issue of semantics. Sandboxes are never reflections of some sort of 'real' world - they are always scaled in one way or another. And Balanced encounters don't have to be. But that's just my thoughts.

    I was actually just thinking the other day that the static dungeon design, which is often recommended in Sandbox building, is a helluva lot like WoW. You go in, find the same thing regardless of time of day, season, previous trips. It's odd.