Sandbox vs Railroad


Going back now to the first campaign I ever ran; I remember that I drew up about 18 or more interconnected maps on construction paper. I had made detailed lists of the populations of various humanoids and monsters in each area (complete with Random Encounter Tables!) I had an extensive history of the world written up in timeline form that I had typed-up on my mother’s typewriter (this was a long time ago.) I even had a litany of NPCs ready to interact with and shape the world around them. As I covered in my first blog, my friend did almost nothing that I had anticipated, and we ended up using about 10% or less of the stuff that I had prepared ahead of time. Most of our sessions involved me having to make up an NPC or plot hook on the spot, or ad hocking rules for mass combat with siege weapons, castles, and dragons.

I was panicked at first. We were not only doing things that I had not prepared for ahead of time, but we were completely ignoring the massive pile of prepared material that I had, and wanted to actually run for someone! Then, my friend wanted to build a castle of his own on a newly conquered patch of land. I had an adventure drawn up that involved clearing a highway of Orcish bandits, and figured here was the perfect chance to get him to take up one of my quests. I told my friend that the quarry that mined the rock that he would need to build his fortress was many miles away, and that he would have to travel there in order to secure a contract with both the quarry, and the caravans that would carry his stone to him.

My friend foiled my first attempt to get him to take the plot bait by deciding that he would not have to go at all if he sent his NPC companion to settle the terms. I rolled some dice, and informed him that his companion had indeed made all of the necessary arrangements, however his first shipment has been delayed for an unknown reason. I figured that now the quest could begin, however, instead of investigating (as I assumed he would) he told me that he was simply going to continue to wait. I rolled some more dice, and  I informed him that his second shipment was now also late. He gave the order to send some of his scouts down the highway to see if the caravans were coming, or if they were missing, or what was going on. I rolled some dice, again, and I proclaimed that his scouts had returned with a caravan guard, who had been badly wounded in battle, and was clearly dying. When asked what had happened, the guard claimed that the wagons were set upon by Orcish bandits wearing black cloaks with an angry red eye painted on the back.

“[The world] could be a dynamic and interactive simulation, rather than a series of adventures to be played in order.”

Now at last my hook was set, (or so I thought). My friend would have no choice but to go and confront these bandits, and eventually discover that they were actually outcasts from a local tribe that had been taken over by a bloodthirsty chief who exiled anyone unwilling to slaughter human villagers during raids. But he never went after the Orcs. Instead, he once again thwarted my attempts to get him involved in one of my adventures. He had my wizard character cast stone shape everyday until my character had built his castle for him using his magic. I was utterly defeated. Not only had he evaded my adventure, but he had accomplished his goal in spite of my attempts to make completing the adventure a necessary component of achieving that goal.

That is when it occurred to me that the world did not have to be run from Point A to Point B, like a fantasy novel, or a role-playing video game; instead it could be run from Point A to Point Q and back to Point A. It could be a dynamic and interactive simulation, rather than a series of adventures to be played in order. So I sat down and thought about what the consequences would be of my friend’s character not finding out about the bloodthirsty Orc Warlord in his backyard. I plotted out that the Warlord would eventually unite all of the other Orc tribes under his banner, and lead them in a single massive glorious assault against my friend. And that is exactly what happened. It was an amazing epic campaign. It was one of the best battles I ever had in any game. It was easily one of my most memorable adventures ever too, even if he never did find out that this all stemmed from a low level plot hook that he never took…

Good Gaming my friends!

– The Dungeon Master



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