Many role-playing gamers set sandbox adventures as an ideal. We all agree that railroads make bad adventures, so do sandboxes offer all the virtues that railroads lack?
In role-playing adventures, sandboxes and railroads fall on ends of a spectrum. Railroads offer players no options. Sandboxes allow complete freedom, including freedom to choose a goal. If a character favors a bartending in Barovia over vampire hunting, they still get a place in the campaign.
Boxes of sand let kids choose their own goals. They can make sand castles, bake sand cakes, anything. And when they grow up, they can stage miniature battles.
Some games deliver all the freedom of a box of sand. Minecraft lets you play a survival game, but it owes its success to all the other things you can do: Some players build forts or replicas of the seven wonders. Some create a circuits from redstone. Players make their own goal.
D&D used to force a goal on characters
Original Dungeons & Dragons never started as pure sandbox, because the rules included a goal: Take treasure from dungeons and the wilderness. By rule, characters who won treasure gained experience and power. They won D&D. See The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.
When the original D&D characters reached high, name level, the game turned into a sandbox where players chose a new goal for their characters. Stronghold building offered fighting men an obvious goal, but some other classes lacked anything as clear. What do you want for your bard or druid? Should a wizard build a tower or start a school? Apparently, many high-level wizards go mad and build dungeons. Where else could the living-chess puzzles and reverse-gravity rooms come from? Endless possibilities await!
Instead of embracing the freedom of a high-level sandbox, players returned to dungeons.
Sandboxes can overwhelm players with choices
In Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon and How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success, I described the attraction of dungeons. Among other advantages, dungeons limit the characters’ options. This doesn’t just help dungeon masters prepare, it helps players.
Common wisdom suggests there is no such thing as too many choices, but psychologists conclude that people flooded with options become paralyzed by them.
When dungeon masters offer a true sandbox and come willing to improvise any course their players choose, they confound players. Once the players stop wondering what they’re supposed to do, they struggle to choose from boundless possibilities. Whatever they finally decide, they leave the table with a nagging feeling that they chose wrong.
The value of limited options
In D&D, dungeons, patrons, and hooks all limit the options that players’ face. Such tropes give players direction. A little direction improves the game.
Make no mistake. Players still want options. Every game session should leave players wondering what might have happened if they followed a different course. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea recommends that giving players three plus infinite choices. DMs should offer three known options that take characters closer to their goal, while being open to anything players want to try.
Many sources of DM advice suggest seeding a sandbox setting with hooks—opportunities for players to land in stories of their choosing. Exactly. Those hooks help players narrow all the options of an open world to a sweet spot of three plus infinite choices. They nudge the game a bit closer to the railroad end of the dial. Some railroad-phobics might even argue that such hooks show a DM working too hard to push players through a story. Their ideal game only works with perfectly spherical, frictionless players. The real players at your table want hooks.
The sandbox dungeon
D&D’s mega-dungeons limited players’ choices, but many fans still tout multi-level dungeons as sandboxes. Sure, characters need to adopt the goal of seeking treasure, but they never need to dutifully follow a story arc planned by a DM. Plus, players could chose a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to delve. A few D&D players still favor that style of play.
Embracing story and fewer options
Despite the freedom of a dungeon sandbox, most D&D players craved story and deeper motivations. The D&D game changed to provide. When Tracy and Laura Hickman penned a series of classic modules including Ravenloft and the Desert of Desolation trilogy, they led the change. Their introduction to a self-published version of Pharoah gives D&D adventures four, new requirements:
- A player objective more worthwhile than pillaging and killing.
- An intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself.
- Dungeons with some sort of architectural sense.
- An attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions of playing time.
When characters explore Castle Ravenloft, they quest for more than loot. They aim to free the land from the menace of Lord Strahd. Adopting the goal of a story takes a measure of freedom from players. Now the their options narrow to the choices that lead to the magic items that will help defeat Strahd. Few players mind. They see clear options that take them closer to achieving their characters’ aims. As the adventure progresses, the players’ paths narrow to a railroad that leads to a final confrontation.
Of course, at any time, the characters could leave the railroad and open a tavern in Barovia, but that never happens. Partly because D&D players like doing D&D things such as smiting evil and winning treasure. Partly because players follow D&D’s social contract by honoring the DM’s preparation. Mostly because players enjoy stories in D&D and they willingly abandon the freedom of a sandbox to foster them.
Too often, D&D fans tout sandboxes as the pinnacle of adventure design. Dungeon masters and adventure authors aim for the freedom of a sandbox, but just leave players feeling adrift. Players enjoy D&D most when they see a few, clear options that take them closer to achieving their characters’ aims.