Saturday, August 27, 2011

Railroad vs. Sandbox

As previously noted, I've been delving into the old school movement, and I've primarily discovered that a lot of the vitriol of the old school toward the new school seems to regard the idea of railroading.  Primarily, the more story-driven games of the post-Hickman revolution encourage (sometimes strict) attention to the plot, whereas old dungeons are just dusty holes in the earth where you can muck around however you'd like.  This argument isn't without merit — in fact, I'm even somewhat inclined to agree — though it ignores the fact that you can have a plot-filled sandbox or a bare-bones linear adventure, and that all axes aren't mutually exclusive.

Anyway, after reading this post over at Zak Smith's blog, I was contemplating this idea a little more.  I'm presently running a fourth edition game, and the group is having fun with it.  I will admit, however, that it's quite different from the games I usually run.  I've typically only run sandbox games before.  Imperial City was pretty sandbox; toward the climax, the PCs moved toward specific goals, but before then, I ran games centered around going to restaurants, settling personal vendettas, and taking pilgrimages to foreign countries for completely personal reasons.  Live by the Sword was more focused, but the characters could ultimately do whatever they want (note: "whatever they want" usually meant "violently self-destruct," which is arguably the most sandbox thing you can do).  False in Some Sense was a smaller sandbox (the town of Terra Lake), but PCs could do whatever they wanted or even deal with the consequences of leaving town; I usually consider the possibility that the PCs will stop fighting and move to greener pastures.  True in Some Sense is even more sandbox; the setting is currently the continental United States, and is only linear in the sense that there is currently only one character trying to fulfill her goals.

I've run a few more linear games before, too.  We Are Control and World Pulse Remix: All the Agents both run in the episodic format of assigned missions.

Which brings us to Crux of Eternity, my 4e game.  It falls somewhere between the two: here's a campaign setting with some stuff in it and some tantalizing stuff outside your established territory (there's the 4e canon Points of Light to the East and an ocean to the West with at least one major trading partner in it), but since you're not doing anything else at the moment, here are some quests.  There's a linear plot (these quests are all leading to a climax), but there's also a sandbox (you can always tell the Citadel where they can stick their quest and go do something more interesting).  The escalation is what makes it odd, though.  Power progression in 4e isn't exactly predetermined, but it's close.  There's a balance of power inherent to 4e adventure design, and though it can be ignored, it's not badD&D always seemed to lend itself to an adventure path building off the structure of level progression, although it appears that older editions were frequently played more like Call of Cthulhu (as in, sometimes you're supposed to fight and sometimes you're supposed to run).

Using the level-progression structure keeps things some things simple while making others more complicated.  On the one hand, planning a game is pretty simple.  On the other hand, every crazy idea that pops into your head is just a distraction to that finished product.  As presented, 4e just doesn't have that kind of wiggle room.  The focus does have the advantage of keeping campaign planning on track, but it's still very different than having a bunch of plot hooks on a plate, and letting characters pick and choose.

So far, though, I think the linear structure of 4e is pretty good for beginning players, because it helps keep everything manageable.

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