Last night my players turned to me and asked, “Where do you want us to go? You’re the GM; what do you have prepared?” I blinked, smiled, and confessed, “I’m equally unprepared for both options! What would your characters do?” Crickets.
(Prep-lite is both a blessing and a curse, let me tell you.)
After getting burned by a few sessions where my own character had been outclassed and outwitted this summer, I wanted to avoid the dreaded “railroad” in my own game, opting instead for a sandbox-style world. I based the story threads on the backgrounds and motivations of the party, and crafted several leads for them to chase with multiple conflicts brewing in different parts of the world. But I might have given them too many choices–left the door open too wide such that no one story thread called to the group as a whole.
Here are a few of their options from last night alone:
“I don’t know what the main plot is,” my boyfriend admitted.
“That’s because you guys get to choose what you want the main plot to be,” I said, confident that I was “doin’ it rite” cause I was following the advice of numerous blogs and GMing advice articles. Or something like that.
But somehow my answer didn’t seem satisfactory. The pacing was still wrong, and the party wasn’t as excited as they used to be. We have been spinning our wheels in the same town for the fifth session in a row, and I couldn’t come up with a compelling enough reason to kick them out–at least, none I was willing to entertain for fear of–*gasp*–railroading them.
As it turns out, there are a number of articles out there warning of the pitfalls of poorly done sandboxing. Gnome Stew points out that without a strong opposition, sandbox campaigns can feel boring. They even have a post “In Defense of Railroading.” Reddit and StackExchange each have their own takes on the pros and cons of sandboxing. It’s definitely a balancing act.
Perhaps I have been worrying too much. There’s a difference between nudging PCs in a certain direction and forcing them down a specific path with predetermined outputs no matter the inputs. If I can play up the threats in the world, they’ll feel more compelled to act, and soon.
Dan Clark (you might know him from the Star Wars RPG Beginner Games and his work on WFRP3) gave me some sage advice: “When you’re backed into a corner, have the villain barge in with a shotgun.”
What are your experiencing running a sandbox campaign and finding the right balance of “railroad” vs player agency?