As usual, there’s a lot of talk about sandboxing as the ultimate form of gaming. There’s a bit of one-true-way-ism involved, but also in some cases there is a strange myopic way of looking at games as either sandbox or railroad, with no middle ground. When I posted my discussion about running a fast but epic story arc using B/X D&D, I was immediately told that this was obviously some railroad game, evidently because I wanted to tell a story with it across 10-14 levels of play in only 12 sessions.

I definitely don’t buy into the theory that “if it isn’t sandbox, it is railroad”. Adding quests, storylines and goals to a sandbox game does not mean climbing aboard the train and sticking to the tracks.
The trick to good GMing is to provide story ideas that you leapfrog off of what the players are thinking. We work together to make the game better and to tell big stories. You can still tell epic stories without railroading – it just helps if you all sit down before the game / campaign and talk about what you want from it.

I prefer games that feel sandbox-ish, but where the GM throws plot hooks at us. Just because she has planned a badguy and a storyline to hook us doesn’t make it a railroad, it makes it a challenge and odds are we’ll approach it in a way that she was only half-expecting. But both sides of the table adapt and work with each other to keep the game running.

It seems many people think as soon as a quest is involved, it’s a railroad. Even if the players are the ones looking for such a quest. The sandbox is where we play, but things happen in the sandbox aside from us wandering around, and we end up getting involved in these things – whether they be quests for magic items or to pay off debts to a temple or god, attempts to save innocents from tyranny, or even trying to save the whole world.

It’s only a railroad if the GM won’t allow you to tackle the challenge in your own way.

In our Star Frontiers game we are traveling around the Frontier and working as part-time trouble-shooters for the Streel Corporation when we are within their sphere of influence (and sometimes we contact them when we are outside their sphere of influence but find ourselves entangled in something they would find “interesting”). The game is classically sandbox – we trade goods, deal with corporations and the law, and occasionally find ourselves in really hot water. But we also get “tagged” (as we call it out of character) with adventures that we don’t go looking for. We’ve had a ship we were traveling on crash land on a fairly inhospitable planet and had to make our way to the research arcology hundreds of kilometers away to get help – only to discover that it was abandoned and wrecked, so we started investigating what happened.

When I describe how we were stuck on the planet to some gamers, they see the whole “GM fiat crashlanding and overland adventure” as a pure railroad because she had dumped us there without recourse, and we either had to travel to that arcology or die – and then again when we went looking for the missing scientists so they could fix the hardware needed to send for help (something we lacked the skills and equipment to do). In my opinion, it would have been a railroad is if she had done this and had decided on exactly how we were to get to the arcology and then how we had to go about finding and rescuing the science staff and then blocked any attempt to do it any other way. We were left entirely to our own devices on the “how” portion of the game, she just set up the scene for us and let us tackle it our own way (even if in this case there weren’t that many options on what our own way should be). As it turns out, we would have spent about two weeks less travel-time on the planet if we had done a little exploration at the original landing site to find out what else was there (the reason we ended up landing there instead of at the arcology, it turned out, was that there was an emergency beacon there where a research team had dug up a nasty alien surprise… and had left behind a couple of vehicles we could have used), but we did it our way and she didn’t twist our arms to start exploring the local area before heading out towards the arcology.

Oh, BTW, thanks Heather, we all love the Star Frontiers game.