Friday, September 20, 2019

Railroading and Sandboxing: In Conclusion, Jargon is a Crutch

These vocabulary words are useful in that they summarize complicated concepts, and that leads to greater communication. But we live in a time where everyone skims, and no one is very good at reading for context anymore, and subtlety is gone and nuance is out the window, and…I guess what I’m saying is, “Sandbox” and “Railroad” are positioned in our current lexicon of geek patois as Yin and Yang, a positive and a negative, one to emulate and the other to assiduously avoid at all cost.

I’m here to tell you not to drink that Kool-Aid. As we have grown and matured into not just a hobby but a pastime with numerous social applications, a developing and evolving vocabulary is essential for critical study, creative writing, and even in the classroom. But we are still talking about Dungeons & Dragons, in the end.

In the introduction to the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, Mike Carr asks the rhetorical question, “Is Dungeon Mastering an art or a science?” Again with the binary choice! Why can’t it be both? I posit that it is, in fact, a balancing act (on the teeter totter or whatever metaphor you wish to use). Carr goes on to make a few points, which I will repeat in brief:

If you consider the pure creative aspect of starting from scratch, the "personal touch" of individual flair that goes into prepar­ing and running o unique campaign, or the particular style of moderating o game adventure, then Dungeon Mastering may indeed be thought of as on art. If you consider the aspect of experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches, then Dungeon Mastering is perhaps more like a science - not always exacting in a literal sense, but exacting in terms of what is required to do the job well.

Esoteric questions aside, one thing is for certain - Dungeon Mastering is, above all, a labor of love. It is demanding, time-consuming, and certainly not a task to be undertaken lightly…But, as all DM's know, the rewards are great - an endless challenge to the imagination and intellect, on enjoyable pastime to fill many hours with fantastic and often unpredictable happenings, and an opportunity to watch a story unfold and a grand idea to grow and flourish. 

…Dungeon Mastering itself is no easy undertaking, to be sure. But Dungeon Mastering well is doubly difficult. There are few gamemasters around who are so superb in their conduct of play that they could disdain the opportunity to improve themselves in some way…Take heed, and always endeavor to make the game the best it can be - and all that it can be!

My takeaway from that, back then, and now, is to not get locked into one way of thinking. Adam West as Batman had an array of aerosol can oceanic threat repellents in his Bat-Copter. I bet you a million dollars he never had a reason to use the barracuda repellent spray. But I’m sure he’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Do not fear the railroad. Do not be overwhelmed by the sandbox. They are tools to be creatively used, not fixed states of being that are never altered when set in motion. The biggest realization you can come to as a DM is this: You’re making all of this shit up as you go.

And for the record, I think Dungeon Mastering is emphatically and unequivocally an art.

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