Railroading vs Sandbox: DM Rant

The following rant is brought to you by The Magic Tavern and BDC

It seems to be the debate of the ages.  The argument between railroading and free choice.  That difference between a linear adventure and an amazing open world campaign.  The fact is that somewhere between these ideas is what we actually call Dungeons & Dragons or more widely, the RPG. 

But that’s really up to the individual DM/Gm, isn’t it?  It is definitely not my goal to pigeon-hole every DM into a neat definition, for every man or woman are their own persons.  Each one will approach the game in different way and develop it to their own different strengths or types of play.  That’s what makes the game their own.  But just to get a beginning point, let’s look at a generic definition for the term Dungeon Master.

In the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game, the Dungeon Master (DM) is the game organizer and participant in charge of creating the details and challenges of a given adventure, while maintaining a realistic continuity of events.  In effect, the Dungeon Master controls all aspects of the game, except for the actions of the player characters (PCs), and describes to the players what they see and hear.


But we all know that the actual definition is much more complicated.  One Dm is organized and pays an amazing amount of attention to the details of the rules and lore.  Another is laxer and more prone to weigh heavily into the story, NPC development and description.  And between the two there are a myriad of gameplay styles that I can’t possibly get into in this article.  The point is we’re all different and will handle the game differently.  But this is also true of players.  One player is focused on the character development and roleplaying while others will simply enjoy the story and hope to kill a few things along the way.  For the most part, there are no wrongs or right to any of it.

But that brings us back to the original question; that of the balance between a strictly linear adventure and the freer hand of the open world.  Once again, to each their own, but, if you get deep enough into the game, there will be a moment where these worlds collide.  Where the adventure you planned for is ‘derailed’ into something different altogether.

How about an example?

Artwork by Yang Qi

I am running a side adventure just for one of my players.  He is playing a Kenku rogue with a small splash of sorcerer.  But, at tenth level, he is leaning heavily into his roguish past.  In one session of this adventure, I proposed a return to the city of his youth; a demon infested shit hole where his kind, the Kenku, are being rounded up and slaughtered.  The twist is that his whole backstory is an explanation as to why this is happening.

He stole something very valuable to the Demon King and the fiend wants it back.  He’s had it since the very beginning of the campaign and doesn’t intend to return it.  Because of his theft, his fellow Kenku are being systematically executed.  He knows this and has been returned to this place against his will.  He has also been visited by a raven-like entity of near deific power who has made it clear that he is not here to tell the character what to do.  And that is basically me setting up the dilemma. 

I planned three parts of this adventure leading to his faceoff with the Demon King.  Everything seemed to lead up to this point.  He has taken up sword and cause and now is his chance.  This is scenario I set up.  However, after the first part of the session which ended up being this Kenku and his associates slaughtering a pack of Barlguras and freeing about 30-40 Kenkus, he simply turned to the docks which were a few blocks behind and led the small group to a boat that had been left waiting.  Without a thought, he fled the city and made good his escape to a refuge prepared for him and his kind.

Did I fail?  Did he?  I say neither.  He weighed the choices and thought this to be best.  He even said that, if he were to go confront the Demon King, he might be able to survive, but he could not be so sure about the others in his group.  I’m not sure if he ever plans to go back after the several hundred Kenku in the demon’s city or not.  That’s not the point.  He cut that session short, but it was ok, because it was his decision to do so. 

Now in most circumstances, there would be the others in the party to take into consideration.  Some may decide to run, but some may want to fight.  There would be tension and, in the end, they would either come to a consensus and run or fight together or split and do what their conscious tells them.  But in this game, it was all on one player. 

There are moments like these that come into every Dm’s path when something happens off script that actually defines the story that you, as a DM, and your players are telling.  I could have pressed him into the confrontation anyway.  But, at the very point that he made his decision, I realized that this was all important to his story.  And, not only that, but it was important to the story WE were telling seeing that this ‘side adventure’ was all a part of my campaign setting and the grand, over-arching saga that was unfolding.

There is a definite difference between forcing the PCs through YOUR story, totally facilitating them to tell THEIR story and working together using the rules of engagement of the particular RPG you’re playing, their individual creations (the PCs), the DM’s/GM’s created world and dilemma and what comes crashing together in an amazingly chaotic symmetry we call the collective story.

At times, it ventures more from one aspect to the other.  Sometimes they dictate the encounters and sometimes they simply step into the encounter that the DM has laid out.  But there are times, no matter how much a DM plots, plans and painstakingly develops what comes next, when the actions, reactions or plans of the PCs as a collective or an individual totally rewrites what’s coming.  And what I’m trying to say is that it is all a natural part of the experience and the unique storytelling mechanism that is an RPG.

When approaching a new campaign or the game as a whole the DM has to have a godlike omniscience on his world, the actions and motives of all NPCs in said world and sense of, not only, what comes next, but the consequences of all actions performed by your PCs.  Now, I know that sounds like a lot and it is.  But the DM can control the madness by limiting the scope of the story, of course.

How you approach the game and each session depends, in the long run, on what you are trying to accomplish.  If you’re not sure, that is where you need to begin.

I mean, many DMs and players alike treat the game like a simple journey from point A to point B.  It is a simply an act of getting from here to there.  THERE is usually an event or a big bad that your PCs have to encounter and deal with.  This approach reminds us of the brash beginnings of D&D.  The ancient art of the dungeon is the essence of the classic act of ‘railroading’ the party into a linear battle for their lives.  But I think it has to be more than that to have the PCs become invested in the journey.

Study the classics; the heroic adventures that we either absorbed from books, comics or television/internet/cable.  If you dissect it, there are themes and outlines that have a great deal in common with the classics.  And, NO, I don’t mean Cowboy Beebop; although that is an excellent anime.  I’m talking the myths of ancient Greece and before.  Each hero went on what Joseph Campbell called ‘The Heroes’ Journey’.   This brings a whole new dimension to the game table: Character Development.

If you watch many of the groups all across the internet actually play D&D live, you will see that character development has been brought to the forefront of the experience.  Is this original to, say, Critical Role or any other group?  No, this development has been a part of the game since its inception.  It’s just that, along the way, as we systematically, weekly go through the slaughter of many monsters for the treasures of many dungeons, it becomes one aspect of the game that begins to fade into forgotten lore.  But the Heroes’ Journey is just that: Character Development.

Campbell’s outline simply says that the story takes a character out of ‘normalcy’ and thrusts them into a number of challenges, hardships and temptations in order to get them to a certain place or act; transforming them, not only in body and mind, but morally as well.  The DM is in charge of said ‘challenges, hardships and temptations’ all for the purpose of providing an avenue for, not only, the whole point A to point B thing, but the changing and growing of each PC.

You, as a DM, place these obstacles before the party to allow them to, not only, accomplish some specific goals, but grow as individuals and grow together through the relationships they forge.  As you usher the PCs through your world, you give them opportunity to learn more about themselves and, consequently, show themselves to those around them.  So, these goals your PCs wish to accomplish can be as varied as the number of stories that have been told about heroes since we’ve been telling these stories.

So, what to accomplish?

This is an amalgamation of thoughts, actions and creations of both yourself (as DM) and your PCs.  None of this can be separated.  In Roleplaying Games, we do not play in a vacuum.  Your world does not move and react only to one stimulus but to all.  So, to determine what it is your collective story or even one of the individual PCs are to accomplish, you have to take all of this into consideration.  If you are working in a world set, that means that you must understand the motives and past actions of all involved.  You, as the creator, have the ability to make this as complicated or simple as you want.  You must know if the party does an action, what reaction comes from all others.  Individuals, cities, nations, magical or divine entities will have an answer; even if that answer is no answer.

Once again, you put all of this in motion by placing obstacles in the party’s way, announcing tragedy, hardship and impending doom into the story or opening up the PCs to moral dilemmas.  You do all of this in order for THEM to tell the world, themselves, the other players and yourself WHO THEY ARE.  And, if we are to take the ‘Heroes’ Journey’ seriously, who they are at the end of the trip may be vastly different than who they were when then began.  We simply facilitate them with all of this to allow them to add their part to the story as a whole.

Art by Kheelan at Deviantart.com

The actual goals to achieve don’t really matter although they will matter to the PCs and the world around them.  Whether they seek gold, powerful weapons or artifacts, personal glory or a chance to ‘save the prince/princess’ or kingdom, the real prize is a fully fleshed out character with flaws and personal victories that lives and breathes and inspires you and the player to create more and more meaningful stories with this character or a myriad of other creations.  The point, in the end, is not for the DM to weave a magical story of his own about averting apocalyptic disaster or destroying a great evil although all of this could be a part of what you create.

No, the goal of the RPG is to piece together a joint storytelling experience that creates something unique; something only you and the players can create.   Do you have a structure?  Of course.  But every great story rests on so much more than structure.  In fact, the structure, in the end, is servant to the story and not the other way around.  So, as you grow as a DM, learn to weave a world full of motives and storylines that make room for the creative minds of your players.  Make it a world that is so much more than your own.  Make it a creation of the collective spirit of DM and players alike that you will remember for a lifetime.  Make it something that you will come back to time and time again; like old war stories.  Something legendary.

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