Sandbox versus on-rails DM-ing

Now this isn't meant to be a war between the two styles of running a game.
What I want to address is the viability if both styles and every variation in between. I am addressing this here since it would be the most relevant in D&DNext. Perhaps provide something useful that the developers can add to the DMG Next for upcoming and veteran DMs.

What are the community's thoughts on the various styles of running a game?
What is a more enjoyable style, in your opinion, to play in?
Do you feel it's better to lead the party around by the nose or to go, "Do whatever you want"?

My games, those I run and also the ones I play in, tend to be primarily an on-rails kind of experience. The DM sets the framework of the story to the characters(players) but is still in charge of the overall direction. I'm entirely fine with this style of game. I have never had a good experience with a game in the sandbox method of games. Now granted this was one game and it ended disastrously, though it was hilarious to watcrather DMfume as we made sure the disaster spread to everything, as little as it was, he had built up in the short game.  Also didn't help that he only provided "known challenges" of to high for the party so we didn't have a whole lot of good choices. 
My next game, I am intending on trying a more sandbox approach to the overall gameplay with occasional "hooks in the nose" important plot events to party layers with the overall story. 
So what about the rest of you, what are your thoughts on how to run a game?


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I often develop a 'hub', a home base (city or town for instance) from where the PCs can strike out on various quests and adventures (either in the hub itself or to nearby locations).  When they're ready, I develop more hubs and nearby locales and things spread out from there.  

It's sort of a hybrid of an on rails and sandbox campaign I think.  The PCs can roam around the hub and its surroundings freely (sandbox style).  The scale is small enough that I'm not overwhelmed (I have a few quests, encounters and interesting locations ready to go).  When they're ready (and I've had time to prepare), I'll reveal more hubs for the PC to explore.  The world gains some nice detail and it's at a pace that the myself and the other players can handle.

I picked up on this technique after playing a few video games.  For instance, Link always seems to start out in his home forest and by the end of the game ends up half a world (or more) away.  As each location is revealed, Link spends some time adveturing there.  Works for me ;).
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The on-rails aproach does not seem to work too well for me or some other gms that I was a player within their groups.I find when you set out to design a specific kind of adventure with specific goals in mind that more often then not the players deviate greatly from their goals.Not leading them around by the nose to acomplish things mind you.Letting them do their own thing while still trying to keep the basic premise and goals of the adventure seems to be chuggy.


With sandbox too much freedom usually means much more work for the dm.Also I found that most players given ultimate freedom tend to either get bored with things or refer back to the gm on alot of things more then they normaly would.


So Like Artifact above I tend to both run and enjoy playing in games that are a mixture of both.I also run my games much like Artifact in that I use the hub and spiral outward aproach.The hub may not be a village/town etc as the starting point.The hub may be just the starting point in general.I have done or seen alot of variations on this aproach.Shipwrecked and you start from a beach (the lost) aproach.A prison or slave compound escape etc.


I like the hub/spiral out aproach because it allows me to ryn or play in a game that is can be done with as little or much preperation as you like.One week you have little time to prepare so you throw some encounters together that take place in the near surrounding areas of the hub.Then you can just make up a basic reason why they need to travel to these various locations and experience the encounter.When you have time you can sit down maybe design a dungeon with puzzles,traps,multiple encounters,a detailed plot and story etc.Since the bigger more planned adventures can be more dangerous it makes sense to me to have a location like this be further away from the hub.More overland travel with random encounters etc before you arrive at the main destination.          
The games i've run that worked best were ones where i was railroading but the players thought they were playing in a sandbox campaign. I come up with NPCs, plothooks, encounters, etc, and basically plop them down infront of whatever direction the group goes, slightly adjusting things to make theses elements seem like a natural outgrowth of the player's decisions. They think its all freeform, but its really stuff that i had planned out.
Every style can be fun, it is a matter of finding the right balance between what the players and DM want to produce a fun campaign. Some combinations tend to work better then others, tightly story driven campaigns favor at least a bit of railroading to keep the story moving, while open format character driven campaigns favor sandboxes. However, almost any combination can work.

In general sandboxes are harder then railroads. They require a more experienced DM to be good, because the DM will have to work with less preplanning and know the game mechanics better. The campaign setting also has to be detailed out better, because the players need to have more material to work from when they are expected to come up with ideas on their own. It is also helpful to have more experienced players, so they are a better judge of what makes sense within the campaign world and what is more likely to work within the campaigns social/technological/magical setting.

4e seems to favor story based railroading a bit, but you can certainly run a sandbox in 4e. The most important things for running a sandbox are a well thought out campaign setting, the background, environment and social material that are not rules at all.
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What is a more enjoyable style, in your opinion, to play in?



If I get to pick?
Sandbox.
I don't care if we're playing FR, GH, PF world, etc., or something you've created.
But I don't see any reason why I shouldn't have freedom of movement on the map.  I assume that you, the DM, will write adventures ahead of my wanderings, based upon what we've played in past weeks, where we are, where we're going, my background, etc.
Because this is the story of MY/OUR CHARACTERS, not your pre-determined novel.

 

Although I can have fun in a railroaded game - provided you let me know going in.
For ex; Right now our Sun. night group is just finishing up the 6 part PF adventure "Rise of the Runelords".
It's a pretty straight forward module crawl. 


Do you feel it's better to lead the party around by the nose or to go, "Do whatever you want"?



When I DM I start off by crafting an adventure for 1st lv characters.  It'll be something that will (likely) keep their attention, provide future hook/ideas, etc.  I don't have anything specific planned as a sequel, chapter 2, etc....
 
After that (or hell, even during it)?   The players are free to take things in any direction they like.
Even better is if the players give me characters with some kind of background/goals/motivations!
The games i've run that worked best were ones where i was railroading but the players thought they were playing in a sandbox campaign. I come up with NPCs, plothooks, encounters, etc, and basically plop them down infront of whatever direction the group goes, slightly adjusting things to make theses elements seem like a natural outgrowth of the player's decisions. They think its all freeform, but its really stuff that i had planned out.


I think that kind of hybrid system works best.  Create an adventure in advance, then refluff on the fly.

I've also found that it helps to keep a list of plot hooks and exotic terrain/locations for when you are forced to come up with a brand new adventure on the fly.

There are a great many problems that can be circumvented by players and DMs having a mature discussion about what the game is going to be like before they ever sit down together to play.

 

The answer really does lie in more options, not in confining and segregating certain options.

 

You really shouldn't speak for others.  You can't hear what someone else is saying when you try to put your words in their mouth.

 

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I'd say sandbox. But to be more precise I'd like to be a good story, quest's, maybe even a main quest, some clue spread arround, but characters got the decision. As a character I want to be free to choose what to do.
As a dm I try to give as much freedom as possible, even if sometimes, if there are part's I particularly like or put a particular effort in it, I railroad a bit, giving just fake choices that all leads to the same moment. The only difference is how you get there.
Either style is a perfectly valid and viable way to play D&D. CCS has already relayed my opinion, for the most part. For extended campaigns, I prefer sandbox. If the DM is going to have a plot he wants us to follow - let us know beforehand, so we can just follow the plot, instead of wasting time pointlessly trying to do other things.
Either style is a perfectly valid and viable way to play D&D. CCS has already relayed my opinion, for the most part. For extended campaigns, I prefer sandbox. If the DM is going to have a plot he wants us to follow - let us know beforehand, so we can just follow the plot, instead of wasting time pointlessly trying to do other things.




Yes, thinking of wasted time....

One of the worst games I ever played was a railroady FR campaign that was (poorly) disguised as a sandbox.
The DM had read all of the FR novels of the time.  He'd read ALL the FR material.  And he supplied even more original content!  He started us out in Waterdeep.  He had all kinds of detail & description going on all around us, all the time.

But after awhile?  It became painfully obvious that all this stuff was behind a glass wall or something. 
It was like we were sitting in the "Small World" ride at Disneyland, just passing by.  We could look, but try as we might we couldn't touch/interact with any of it!
 
Either style is a perfectly valid and viable way to play D&D. CCS has already relayed my opinion, for the most part. For extended campaigns, I prefer sandbox. If the DM is going to have a plot he wants us to follow - let us know beforehand, so we can just follow the plot, instead of wasting time pointlessly trying to do other things.




Yes, thinking of wasted time....

One of the worst games I ever played was a railroady FR campaign that was (poorly) disguised as a sandbox.
The DM had read all of the FR novels of the time.  He'd read ALL the FR material.  And he supplied even more original content!  He started us out in Waterdeep.  He had all kinds of detail & description going on all around us, all the time.

But after awhile?  It became painfully obvious that all this stuff was behind a glass wall or something. 
It was like we were sitting in the "Small World" ride at Disneyland, just passing by.  We could look, but try as we might we couldn't touch/interact with any of it!
 

He was telling a story for mainly his own benefit it seems.He was not telling a interactive story which is what a rpg is supposed to be.
He was telling a story for mainly his own benefit it seems.  He was not telling a interactive story which is what a rpg is supposed to be.



Yep.
Eventually his DM style improved.  But even after playing with us & running many better games, every now & then he'll drift back into such behaviour.
He was telling a story for mainly his own benefit it seems.  He was not telling a interactive story which is what a rpg is supposed to be.



Yep.
Eventually his DM style improved.  But even after playing with us & running many better games, every now & then he'll drift back into such behaviour.

Well it is good that he was able toadjust for the most part.I guess you chalk up the slips to old habits die hard.I know of a gm like that,he still slips into the power gamer,iron handed sort of style.
I try to take what I see as good techniques from both styles and utilize them when I deem appropriate:


  • Plot events happen in a pre-decided way according to a timeline, even if the party is not required to pursue them. They only change when the party does something to change them. The party must know something about the events' existence to appreciate this.

  • In my experience, some players make their own direction or play off of others' directions readily, while some aren't sure what they want. If they are at a loss, those PCs may need an event to personally affect them to give them some direction. If they are playing fine on their own, I needn't "railroad in" information or other stimuli (some players "take the hook" so consistantly I don't always give them a hook if they are already having fun doing what they're doing).

  • Allow the party to see enough of the world to make informed choices, and let them reap whatever consequences they sow.

Personally I like the idea of a sandbox campaign in theory but in practice prefer a campaign that has some kind of story arc going on.

Kind of like having your main quest but being able to duck off for the odd mini quest or two on the way.

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Personally I like the idea of a sandbox campaign in theory but in practice prefer a campaign that has some kind of story arc going on.

Most campaigns are a mix to some degree.

Even when I'm running a sandbox style game, there is usually some overall plot. It could be an overall campaign arc, a more limited adventure arc or even the individual characters arcs pushing things, but without something to give direction, the sandboxes tend to end up muddled and boring. At the other extreme, story driven campaigns need to give the characters and players some flexibility or the whole thing becomes a railroad. The story can still be quite constrained at the top level while giving the party freedom to deal with their immediate problem however they want. This is how the best story driven campaigns usually work.

Many of may campaigns cycle back and forth, with some adventures being fairly railroading simply because the party has to go to A to get the quest, then B to get the key then C to open the lock and so on. The nature of the quest forces the party into a straightforward adventure. Other adventures are much more open. Political adventures, investigations and dungeon crawls tend to have multiple encounter locations and the party has the freedom to wander back and forth as they wish.



Yeah, I have a mixture.  Mainly because even the extraneous places of the world have a subquest or storyline feel to them.  I have yet to create a dungeon or thing that's just there to be there.
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quote author=56832398 post=519321747]Considering DnD is a game wouldn't all styles be gamist?[/quote]
Personally I like the idea of a sandbox campaign in theory but in practice prefer a campaign that has some kind of story arc going on.

Most campaigns are a mix to some degree.

Even when I'm running a sandbox style game, there is usually some overall plot. It could be an overall campaign arc, a more limited adventure arc or even the individual characters arcs pushing things, but without something to give direction, the sandboxes tend to end up muddled and boring. At the other extreme, story driven campaigns need to give the characters and players some flexibility or the whole thing becomes a railroad. The story can still be quite constrained at the top level while giving the party freedom to deal with their immediate problem however they want. This is how the best story driven campaigns usually work. 




Agreed. My groups and I usually prefer story driven campaigns, but the players like the freedom of sandbox adventures. What I have found works best is a mix of both. I have a basic plot, progression and climax but I allow the players to determine how they progress and reach the end and use their choices to alter the course of the story. So instead of A leads to B leads to C, my adventures (even the story driven ones) are usually A leads to F, leads to C, leads to R etc. This method isn't for the faint of heart and it requires a lot of work and flexibility on the part of the DM. It's taken me many years to be able to effectively run these kinds of campaigns but the enjoyment my players and I get out of these is worth the effort. 

That being said I'll never allow the players actions to completely change the plot of the story or allow them to go on off tangents that will just eat up valuable game time and if there are certain points of the story that need to happen, they'll happen. I usually tailor these story points to the PC's current location and past actions but these events can not (with few exceptions) be avoided. Often times when I've given to much freedom the players get lost or hung up on unimportant details so I'll need to railroad them a little to get them back on track (so to speak). So in essence I've found (in my experience) that neither one (sandbox or railroad) are much fun when used exclusively but when used together can you really run some great adventures

"We are men of action, lies do not become us" ~ D.P.R.
That being said I'll never allow the players actions to completely change the plot of the story or allow them to go on off tangents that will just eat up valuable game time and ~



How sad.
Railroading is absolutely fine as long as your players don't realize you're doing it. ;)

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That is a good tool, Crimson_Concerto, even during more open adventures: the illusion of choice.

I like to be surprised more often when I DM, so I'd favor this technique. Even so, I may have designed the rudiments of an NPC who is never met; the party instead occupies themselves with a faceless NPC who came into existence but 2 seconds ago. I can cannibalize the planned NPC for this one. I can make differently baited hooks lead to the same adventure without the adventure being visible from either hook (so the link is not visible to the players). Perhaps I'm using it as more of a safety mechanism when the party goes "off the map"; move pieces of the map under them as they walk.
I tend to have to use a combination of the two, particularly when starting a new campaign with a new group of players that may not be familiar with each other. In that case, I find it's easiest for me to start off with a fairly linear "rail-road" type of game. The hook can be as generic as a man coming into a tavern on a dark and stormy night - but there should be a defined in-your-face starting point to help get everyone focused.

Once the game moves forward, the world starts to grow and the players become comfortable with each other and their own playing styles within the setting, I tend to open it up and provide more details with less direction - more "sandbox" style. That's not to say I ever leave things entirely open-ended; I tend to like to have one over-arcing plot to a campaign, but it may fade in and out as the game moves forward.

As for what I prefer to play in, it also varies. Sometimes it's nice to have a straight forward here's my goal adventure, and other times it's fun to tell the obvious adventure hook to go hang itself and wander off on something else.

Clearly whatever the ruleset for D&D Next winds up being, there should be room and guidance for being able to use both styles.

What's the matter, you dissentious rogues, That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion Make yourselves scabs?
i hope its 100% sandbox
That being said I'll never allow the players actions to completely change the plot of the story or allow them to go on off tangents that will just eat up valuable game time and ~



How sad.




Why? The point of the game if for everyone to have fun (the DM included). In a story driven campaign I make my plots loose enough that they can bend with most PCs actions but if the plot of an adventure is that the PC's are suppose to save the kingdom, then they need to save the kingdom as that is the plot of the story. I don't care how they do it but they need to do or else the entire campaign is a failure and where is the fun in failure. To be sure I don't hold their hands (and will let them fail on minor issues) but I won't let them run rampant and do whatever they want since that's not fun for me and if they fail then its not fun for anyone else either. 

Besides "completely" means just that, a complete 100% change but that doesn't mean a 99% change (or any other number below 100%) which I think is well with reason.

"We are men of action, lies do not become us" ~ D.P.R.
I strongly favour a hybrid system - a 'hub and spoke' locational setup, with a central city (or caravan, or starship, or whatever) to which the PCs can expect to return; and an overall plot arc that should inform PC decision-making.

So my favourite Planescape campaign had the PCs based alternately in Waterdeep's Castle Ward and Sigil's Market Ward, and heading off on far-flung adventures as and when the need arose. Those adventures could be quite linear ("You're in prison, in Dis, along with your arch-rival; can you co-operate with him for long enough to escape?" or "Can you get to the isolated haunted castle before demons over-run it?"), but when the PCs were in town, they made their own decisions freely. An impending tanar'ri invasion plan provided the main plot arc; the PCs stumled over it, and counter-plots by both guardinals and baatezu, practically everywhere. But which bits they found, and where they chose to go next, was determined by their choices, not just mine.

My next campaign takes place in a large, sprawling empire. But I'm confident that the PCs will want to go to the old and the new capitals soon and often. And the emperor is slowly dying - the anticipated succession crisis provides a built-in plot arc, which the PCs can shape to their particular interests as time passes. (Will they identify a potential claimant who needs to be stopped? Will they seek to profit from the disorder? Could they work to split the empire up? Could they establish a claim for one of their own number?) But as before, specific adventures may be a lot more linear ("Can you get the quinine shipment to the malaria outbreak?" "Do you trust the Chief Shaman enough to go spelunking for his lost scrolls?") And there may be other driving questions to answer. ("Just how old is the pre-dynastic urn we found? Are there more like it?" "What is the shogun's daughter trying to achieve, and should we help or hinder her?")

If done right (and it doesn't always work perfectly) I find that this formula gives a good "TV drama" feel to the game.

Z.

I never really played that much (and I was probably to young) to notice the difference. I guess I would probably like a mix of both. With too much freedom you can get lost or caught up on details that are not important, but with too little freedom you'd feel more like an audience then a participant. 

I like the "hub and spoke" that zerozobb mentioned. That is similar to the format in the Neverwinter Nights computer game. For each section of the campaign, you had a home base. You went out on missions from that base.
DnD is inherently a sandbox game, because the players can try anything or explore anywhere and the DM can cover it where a computer could not. that said, because of the monumental task of trying to keep track of an entire world, i have developed something similar to the "Hub" style:

 i develope a general area that the players are all from. their likely from various small towns or one of a couple major cities. i then develope several secret orginizations, some good, some bad, and develope several encounters that might occur with each of them. i then give the players free reign and say go anywhere, do anything. if the players decide to try and leave my prepared areas i pull out my secret organizations, and find one that fits the current situation.

as the story progressess, the players discover a couple of them more than the others. this naturally occurs because each PC is after a specific goal, and has a specific way of doing things. these secret organizations, and their goals, are how i decide what kind of stuff the party does at the Epic level.

its not a perfect system, but it works, and the players feel as though they are in a dynamic sandbox.
I often develop a 'hub', a home base (city or town for instance) from where the PCs can strike out on various quests and adventures (either in the hub itself or to nearby locations).  When they're ready, I develop more hubs and nearby locales and things spread out from there.  

It's sort of a hybrid of an on rails and sandbox campaign I think.  The PCs can roam around the hub and its surroundings freely (sandbox style).  The scale is small enough that I'm not overwhelmed (I have a few quests, encounters and interesting locations ready to go).  When they're ready (and I've had time to prepare), I'll reveal more hubs for the PC to explore.  The world gains some nice detail and it's at a pace that the myself and the other players can handle.



This is, I believe, the perfect way. And it can be easily developed in one or other way, if the MG wishes so...