Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Railroading and Sandboxing: Know Thyself

Yesterday I talked about the difference between railroading and sandboxing. Or rather, I discussed why I don’t like either extremes, and it has a lot to do with my upbringing, in the 1980s, awash in moral ambiguities and shades of grey. I have never liked being pushed into a definition, for the simple fact that it tends to discount any other possibilities. In the 1980s, I was very careful about being labeled a “nerd,” back when that meant something very different, and I really didn’t like being called a fan of certain things, like Star Trek, for example. There was this ridiculous notion that you could either like Star Wars or Star Trek, but not both. We were all still getting pushed, metaphorically or otherwise, into lockers, back then, and so rather than being pigeon-holed, I did my best to stay out of it.

But I digress, only a little.

There are more DM Help Tools now than ever before, really too many to count, in the form of Reddit groups, Facebook groups, websites, You Tube channels, Official sites and places like DriveThruRPG and DMsGuild that sell thousands of innovations for the harried DM. There are so many, in fact, that it’s hard to know what to use and what to invest in.

One of my favorite things is the seemingly endless myriad of random table generators available to DMs for little to no cash outlay. Granted, this is a feature of D&D anyway, but the idea that anything you want can be randomized is a freeing idea; whether it’s a d20 list, a d30 list, a 5d6 list, or a d% list, anything from the contents of a person’s pockets to a random dungeon can be made with just a few rolls. I love that.

But I don’t love it in the middle of a game. Not for me, anyway. My DM style is more narrative, and I like to sit back before a game and think about what the best twist, the coolest scene, the most interesting destination would be.

That’s when I use random tables. I brainstorm with them, often rolling several times as a process to get a few ideas running around in my head. This is a huge help for me, and it keeps me from doing a lot of rolling and pausing in the middle of a session.  

I also like to write general guidelines for areas such as the forest they are traipsing around in, or the city they just pulled up to.  Even if they never go to the mountains in the west, or visit the upper crust part of town, I have something there in mind and I don’t have to struggle to make it interesting if they suddenly get the urge to go there. In fact, I only fill out those general details until I need to do more.

The one thing I rely on the most is a list of names I have pulled together beforehand. Players love to “go to the blacksmith” and look for cool weapons. You don’t need to create an interesting blacksmith shop (not unless it’s an essential location for your campaign). All you need is the list of equipment with gold costs, and an NPC. This person doesn’t have to be interesting, but they can be. Most of the time, players just want something new for the quest. Asking them what they are looking for saves you a ton of time. When they tell you, “any magic swords?” You can reply, in character, “Magic swords? Where d’you think you are, anyway, Dimnae? I got regular swords for killin’ regular things, all right?”

Boom. Done. Role-playing.

On your DM notes, you write the NPC name you randomly picked, along with the notation, "black smith, gruff demeanor, scornful of magic."

That’s it. You don’t NEED anything else. If they keep going back to that guy, you can have him warm up to the players, maybe show them his high quality scale mail he makes, and use it to part them from their gold. The players will let you know if they like him and want to see more of him. That’s when you make a short encounter using Tolzan, the Blacksmith and his suddenly missing children.

The other thing I have, ready to go, are a few small encounters tailored to the environment. They all involve combat, and a little treasure. Five room dungeons, or one-page dungeons with a simple set-up and execution. These are my “wandering monsters.” I truck them out whenever the players falter, don’t know where to go, or worse, insist on leaving in the middle of the quest to head down a side alley.

Emirkol  the Chaotic was always
good for spicing things up.

That usually means the players are bored, and it’s up to me to liven things accordingly. These simple, generic encounters can be dressed on the fly to either refer to the existing story, or just provide a bloody break in the decision-making. And whenever possible, tie the seemingly random bits together by moving the clue you were going to bestow on them at the end of the session to something they get for defeating all of the thugs who tried to ambush them.

I know that sounds like you’re circumventing player agency, but if you are a narrative DM who likes to craft a story, then you will learn quickly how to use every part of the buffalo, if you know what I mean. Narratively speaking, there’s no difference between the guard with the crucial letter inside the warehouse and the bandit who jumped the party down that side alley they insisted on investigating.

The real trick to not undercutting player agency is to never let them know you’re doing it. When they take off down that alley, shuffle a few papers, make a roll, react to it, shake your head, and say, “Okay, you’ve not gone more than fifty feet down the alley when you hear footsteps behind you…” and now you’re in the little encounter you’ve been sitting on for three sessions.

The players will do what they do: turn and yell at whomever had the bright idea to NOT go to the warehouse, and then we roll for initiative and in this case, the game is your friend because even simple combat takes time. While they fight, you have plenty of time to restructure what you had planned for them, up to and including leaving the game in a cliffhanger, which is one of my favorite things to do that keeps players engaged.

Preparing ahead of time is not railroading. Picking up your dungeon and setting it back down in front of the party is not railroading. Giving your game some structure in the form of pre-written material is not a cheat. Now, if the players want to hop the fence and you tell them they can't...okay, that IS railroading.

Trying to find that balance of spontaneity and craftsmanship is the thing to cultivate. Play to your own strengths, and shore up your own weaknesses.

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