Box vs Road

   It is way too much fun being like some sort of biker gang or a bunch of Far West outlaws – roam the countryside, cause mayhem, fight in local taverns, set fire to magic shops, beat an Elf senseless, and then skip town when it’s getting too intense, and start all over again in the next big city.

   Why give up that?

   Welcome to the sandbox paradox: it’s a revolving / unevolving kind of play. PCs get to be more powerful, but storylines are ever the same. Players never take it upon themselves to “build” anything big or durable.

   In our long-running campaign of modified Ars Magica, we’re currently trying it. We’ve built a convent on an island, but we have quite a long list of miscellaneous tasks to tackle, like meeting the fisherfolk and beekeepers and their “guild” masters, or getting a handle on the King’s concubine who is much too interested with us and our new convent right now.

   We’re giving up the fun of being roaming outlaws (almost). But after twenty years of butchering monsters and humans alike, maybe we could give that trade-agreement-with-local-beekeepers a shot. What do we have to lose? If it goes south, we can still go back to butchering everyone and skip town – murder hoboes, as another blogger said, and it is so damn true.

   Most of the time, players behave badly in sandboxes, not railroads, for obvious reasons. But there are, of course, exceptions. For Dungeon Masters, the average sandbox is more time-consuming than the average railroad, and it takes a well-behaved DM to run a sandbox, but railroads can be run by DMs behaving badly. Here are two extreme examples.

   There’s the “film director” DM, the one who has a wonderfully convoluted and rich story to tell but is way too lazy to sit down and write an entire novel, or even give NaNoWriMo a try. PCs are nothing but “extras” on his set, and are frowned upon each and every time they dare to improv a little or rock the boat. It’s like their DM is telling them: “Know your place, actors. You’re neither screenwriters nor the director, are you?” And that’s not all. Sometimes these Ultimate Railroad DMs will sit down at the beginning of a game session and declare: “I have been dissatisfied with how it turned out at the end of last month’s session, so today we will start over right after your escape from the sewers, and hopefully we’ll do it right this time...” The last 90 minutes of a previous session – redacted, wiped out, cancelled.

   Laughing, are you? Don’t. I’ve seen this. Recently.

   And then there’s the “dominatrix” DM, the one who wants his players to be humiliated and completely ridiculed and at his mercy, while being railroaded along nonetheless. Example: Prince summons PCs to his palace, but PCs have to leave weapons at main gate. Prince then orders PCs to take part in an expedition he’s sponsoring. PCs say no problem, let us retrieve our weapons and go back to the Gray Troll Inn to grab the rest of our gear / money / components, and then we’re all good to go. Prince says no, ship’s already setting sail right now, right here at palace docks, you’ll miss it if you even run back to main gate. So PCs board ship without any weapons / spell components / blankets / food, and with what money they had on their persons during audience with Prince. Ship travels at sea for twelve days, during which time PCs have to beg for rations and borrow spare weapons from sailors who regard them as amateurs, intruders, and liabilities...

   Laughing, are you? Don’t. I’ve seen this. Recently.

   So, the question remains: sandbox, or railroad? The chance of players behaving badly, or the risk of DMs behaving badly?

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