Thursday, 11 April 2013

Plotlines, Railroading, and Sandbox Games – Part I

I have been having some weird conversations lately with a self-imposed Arbiter of the One True WayTM.  I had heard that there were people on the InterWebs whose hubris exceeded my own, but I hadn’t actually expected to meet one.  I mean, really.  What are the odds?

In any event, the discussion raised some interesting points that I decided to expand on here.  If you are interested in how I run a game (as I assure you, it is not the One True Way), then read on.  If not, then not.

When I started this blog, I was careful to note that, while I was not going to write “IMHO” and "YMMV" repeatedly, I expected that the reader would understand that what I was writing was my opinion.  Your mileage may indeed vary.  I can (and do!) make claims about what I have seen work, and what I have seen fail, and how often.  But where my experience is at variance with your experience, you should take whatever I say with a big grain of salt.  It is my expectation that, if you are reading this blog, you are smart enough to “get” what I am saying here.

If not, well, that may be my fault.  I have never been one to use two words where twenty will suffice, but, even so, sometimes I may fail to explain an idea thoroughly enough.

So, here’s the thing.  You’ve decided to run a sandbox game, but you’ve been told that the sandbox should (or must) remain static until the players interact with it.  If you follow my advice, you will disregard any such notion.  IMHO, and IME, a sandbox game is at its best when the game milieu is in constant motion.  This motion affects the context of the players’ decisions, and in turn is affected by the outcome (or consequences) of those decisions. 

Plots and Plotlines

There are two types of plots that are of interest to the GM of a sandbox game.  The first is the machinations of various NPCs as they struggle to achieve their goals.  The second is a sequence of events in the fictional milieu that affects the context of that milieu.  To make things simpler, I am going to call the first a plot, and the second a plotline. 

There is obviously some potential overlap.  I.e., “King Baddaz wants to annex the neighbouring Duchy of Wheatfields, which causes him to hire mercenaries; when the mercenaries are later disbanded, some take to robbery” contains elements of both.

It is important that a plotline be logically connected, cause-to-effect, if the players are to have a chance of unravelling it.  This is especially true of complex plotlines.  Remembering that the more information the players can gain, the more context they have for their choices, the prospective GM will want to make these things possible to unravel. 

Other plotlines might be far simpler:  Princess Zelda is captured by a dragon.  If not rescued by the new moon, the dragon will eat her.

Now, some might object that this is not in strict accordance to   To them I say, “Get a grip on reality.  No one goes to for an in-depth analysis of anything.”  Context is of critical importance when discussing any topic.  The definitions of plot or plotline given in do not take the context of a role-playing game into consideration.  Webster’s Unabridged might; I don’t know.  Frankly, I don’t care.  If you are happier discussing the same using newly minted terms, “buglub” and “buglublines” it changes the conversation not a whit.

Yes, definitions are sometimes important, because they are being used to shift or limit what types of conversations can be had.  Sometimes, though, the point is merely to allow a conversation to be had.  In either event, using terms consistently – even if only for the purpose of a particular argument – makes it possible to render a position clearly.  Were I to use the word “trout” for “plotline”, so long as I define the term, and I do not then conflate it with the fish, it matters not at all.

Finally, anyone interested in the genesis of this usage is directed to the Writer’s Digest website (, where you can find many books which have in-depth discussions of plot.  I am sorry to say, however, that you won’t find anything specific to role-playing games.  You will have to extrapolate.

Similarly, when I refer to a major plotline, it is a plotline that either (1) has a large effect on the context of the setting (i.e., a zombie apocalypse) or (2) is focused on by the players (i.e., if the PC’s favourite innkeep has money troubles, and the players care, it can become a major plotline simply because it influences them in play, and thus has contextual meaning to the players which is much greater than its influence on the game milieu as a whole).

Why Plots and Plotlines?

Because without them, the characters are operating in a vacuum. 

It is possible to imagine a world in which nothing ever happens except that which is initiated by the PCs, but it is difficult, for me at least, to imagine why one would want to engage in such a world.  A living, breathing world – or any world which is to feel like one – requires motion.  And that motion cannot always be the result of player activity, unless the goal is to feel stale and artificial.

To some degree, plots and plotlines are just “what’s going on”.  When the PCs stop at the Green Dragon in Bywater to share a pint with Sam Gamgee and Ted Sandyman, they can hear talk of folk crossing the Shire, of walking trees seen in the Northfarthing, and of elves going West.  Why?  Because it is good for the game.  It gives the players context in which to make decisions.  It increases verisimilitude.

At the same time, Saruman is watching the Shire, as are the Rangers of the North.  Saruman hopes to get the Ring.  He has stationed agents in Bree.  He has begun to establish trade with the South Farthing.  Why is this important?  Because it increases context, and it increases consequences.  It gives the players something to worry about……or to think about if they storm Orthanc before discovering Saruman’s purchase of Longbottom Leaf in any other way.  It increases the feeling that the world is a vibrant place.  Failing to pay attention to what is going on might have consequences….just as it does in the real world.

What if the players capture those goblins instead of slaughtering them all?  Again, if the GM has prepared plots and plotlines, he has at his fingertips all kinds of information to reveal through the captives.  All the GM need determine is what the goblins could reasonably know.

How many times have you heard a GM complain that his players simply wade through the opposition, never bothering to talk or take captives?  That happens because either (1) the cost of taking captives is too high, or (2) the cost of not taking captives is too low (i.e., nothing is lost by not talking to folks).  The median, where a captive might know something of importance, and might not immediately cause terrible woe to the PCs, is far more interesting, as it raises a real choice for the players.

How to Set Up Plots and Plotlines

This is actually pretty simple.  First off, when setting up your NPCs, take a second to think about what they want (or want to avoid) and what steps they are taking to make it so.  Not all of them.  Just some of them.  Bigwigs.  A few non-bigwigs.  Enough to make things interesting.

Remember, for each hour of design, you want a minimum of two hours of play.  If it takes five minutes to figure out what Lord Haggard wants, make sure that you include 10 minutes in play that relate to the same – bar rumours, related encounters, whatever.  Your time is valuable.

Second off, determine some events for your milieu.  If you have access to the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures tome, there are some wonderful tables in the back for randomly seeding weekly, monthly, and annual events.  These can be a great spur to your imagination, even if you are not running an Oriental game. 

There is another benefit to using random tables:  You don’t always get the result you would have picked.  Just as it is worthwhile to use other’s maps (so it appears that there is more than one architect in your world) and other’s adventures (to increase the diversity in style and presentation, and by so doing expand the game world), so it is worthwhile to have events occur which surprise even you.

The events listed in Oriental Adventures are rather vague, and need to be adjusted to meet the needs of your campaign milieu.  I strongly urge you to consider using random events to confound (or make difficult) NPC plots, because doing so gives more opportunity for the players to get involved.  If the Lord of Swamp Castle wants to gain more land by marrying his son to Princess Lucky, and you roll “Death of an Important Person”, consider having either the prince or the princess be the person who dies.

Likewise, while “Princess Zelda is captured by a dragon.  If not rescued by the new moon, the dragon will eat her.” is a good example of a simple plotline, it is by no means the only plotline that can occur starting with Princess Zelda being captured by a dragon. 

Why can’t the dragon fall in love with the princess, or the princess escape, or another band of NPC adventurers swoop in to rescue her at the last moment?  Well, obviously, all of those things can occur.  The GM controls the world.  The plotlines that the GM sets, barring PC involvement, resolve themselves as the GM dictates.  The GM may dictate how they are resolved ahead of time, during game play, by GM fiat, or by random methods. 

Does it matter?

Well, it might.  If the GM consistently resolves matters in the same way, or consistently chooses resolutions that screw the PCs, either verisimilitude or player confidence in the GM might be damaged.  If the GM attempts to extrapolate reasonably from the set-up of the game milieu, though, it doesn’t really matter.  If the GM also takes into account how PC activity might have altered planned developments, then it really does not matter.

Either way the GM is making decisions for the NPCs, and/or further developing the web of context, choice, and consequence which is the game milieu.  A self-imposed Arbiter of the One True WayTM may indeed “rail” at the observation, but it is no more possible for the GM to railroad his NPCs than it is for a player to railroad his character.

Which brings us to railroading, which is the subject of Part II.


  1. I like this as a response to my post, even if you didn't intend it to be. I feel it is certainly in conversation with mine.

    My major objection to all of this is the kind of false choice that the sandbox engenders. The players are thrust into a situation and while the focus of the game does become the thread they follow the most, you're still playing the GMs story, so to speak. If that sounds condescending I don't mean it to; I am running a sandbox style game right now and just making an observation about the limit of the setup.

    As a GM, I'm tired of having to paint directions to the various doors the players can go through on our gaming table. Before suggesting I set down my GM's mantle for a moment, let me say that I am not suck of watching players react to being challenged.

    I would much rather (for the moment anyway) sit down with the players and talk about what kind of game we want to play and build the world, the setting, and the major conflict together before rolling our characters.

    A big part of this is how cheated I often feel as a player. In twelve years of gaming, I can count the number of times that the story of my character (as opposed to the GMs) has been told on one hand.

    1. Reasonable.

      I will try to address your concerns in Part II.

  2. Vanguard,

    Some of us running sandboxes actually do sit back on our laurels and watch 90 minutes of the party having a debate with themselves - NOT the DM - about what they'd like to do next. We don't all have to paint directions, and we don't all offer a false choice.

    Some of us are told what to produce regarding the game, and we rise to the occasion.

  3. Hey RCK, the second part of my post just went up: