Storyline vs. Sandbox

When role-playing first emerged as a hobby, most games were what are now described as “sandbox style” campaigns. That is, the game master created the campaign milieu as a sandbox in which his players could romp at their heart’s content. The sandbox allows for a maximum of player freedom; they can decide that, today they want to trek to the other side of the planet, and off they go. Megadungeons are often seen as a tentpole feature of such campaigns. Often, the sandbox style of play is seen as allowing the players and game master to explore the world together, according to their fancy.

A plot-driven campaign, on the other hand, is focused on a particular story line. Often, this story is an elaborate affair constructed by the game master, and the players are expected to follow the various clues, visit the detailed locales, and eventually the players experience the triumph of fulfilling the quest (or failing valiantly in the attempt).

This does not mean, as is sometimes erroneously assumed, that the sandbox type of campaign has no plot. In fact, it will often have many plots going on at the same time, running inexorably along their course. What distinguishes a sandbox-style game from a plot-driven game is that in a sandbox the players are free to pick up or ignore the various plots that they uncover as they see fit. In the plot-driven game, there is no game if the players decide to take a course that radically deviates from the plot the game master has devised.

It cannot be stressed enough that neither way of designing a campaign is right or wrong, or better or worse. In such matters of style, it all comes down to personal preference. If the game master and his players simply enjoy the free-wheeling style of a sandbox, or if they love the satisfaction of undertaking a months-long quest with a chance to grab glory at the end, then that style of play is the right one, for them.

Neither style is without its pitfalls, however. The sandbox campaign can, understandably, suffer from a certain lack of connection between the player characters and the campaign setting. Without some sort of meaningful anchor between them, the perils that the players encounter can lack significance unless they are directly aimed at the player characters. And that can get monotonous after a while. Sandbox does not have to equate to rudderless.

The plot-driven game, on the other hand, can fall into the trap of “railroading.” Railroading is a term to describe the phenomenon of the game master forcing the players to follow a certain pre-set course of action through heavy-handed tactics that remove even the illusion of choice on their part. In such cases, the game master turns into a narrator, while the players are simply passive participants. Such heavy-handedness is hardly conducive to a game where the player characters are supposed to be central to the game.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “Storyline vs. Sandbox

  1. I'm taken with the idea of the DM and players 'exploring the world together', and want to read more about that.

    A corollary question about containment:

    Is a sandbox setting more robust if it contains 'mini-railroads', and vice versa, can a successful 'railroad' setting be created out of contained 'mini-sandboxes'.

    I agree that neither approach is inherently superior to the other. I'm just curious if the perceptions of the two types of campaigns can't be broken down and recombined in other ways.

  2. Is a sandbox setting more robust if it contains 'mini-railroads'

    if you had said "mini-plots" i would have agreed. 🙂

    i am sure you can get the best of both worlds.

    a major plot set in a sandboxy world. there is a storyline going on, but the players are always free to abandon it (for a time) and pursue other goals.

    what this kind of game needs is a strong story, that makes the players want to keep going. if you need to railroad, the story simply isn't good enough. just like in a good book the story should suck you into it. the players should not want to follow other paths (at least most of the time).

    along the way there can (and should) be plenty of plothooks. some of those might be connected to the main story, some might not. some might turn into mini-plots, others will be nothing but minor distractions.

    obvisouly this kind of "main plot" has to be flexible. it should be just an outline, with the "story" (and most definitely the end, if there has to be an end) emerging from play.

  3. I'd agree with what shlominus said, scottz. Mini-plots, yes; with the proviso that the players are free to pick them up and set them down as they wish (which is what has been happening in my own Greyhawk campaign, with the cult of Wastri plotline).

    Mini-railroad implies that the PCs have no choice, which is what would be anethema to a sandbox campaign (or a well-constructed plot-centered campaign, for that matter).

  4. Fair enough.

    I'm knee deep in C1… the tournament 'use' is a railroad, but without the plot element of the poison gas (and its time limit on survival), is it a mini-plot?

  5. I would say no, because if the PCs decide to go off into the jungle rather than explore the Shrine, it simply remains there, static. It's a location, not a plot.

    Now, something like the Temple of Elemental Evil, on the other hand, absolutely contains a plot (more than one, as a matter of fact). If the PCs leave the Temple alone, there will be repercussions for the campaign setting.

  6. In terms of adding a rudder to a sandbox, I find that in the beginning, it is beneficial to put together a few "plots" that will be happening, even if only in the background as the players ignore them. The rebirth of a long forgotten god, a coup in random generic benificent kingdom, invasion from without, etc. These things happen and provide "jumping on points" for the players if they so choose. If they don't, then they still move along at pace, perhaps make changes to little things in the players' scope (a favorite NPC is killed in civil war or a once safe haven is destroyed).

    Another fun thing I learned from another DM is that, sometimes, the best adventures come about because of ideas from the players themselves. They sit down and start adding up completely unrelated elements and come up with some grand and far reaching plot to rule the world that . . . upon looking at it that way . . . all you can say is "yeah, sure, that sounds good!"

  7. I think the distinction between "sandbox" and "plot-driven" campaigns is certainly valid. And like others I'm working on combining the best of both, when possible. One thing that I found useful in this regard is the "Spiral Method" of GMing. Instead of having specific plot points that must be followed in specific order, what I do is I have plot points in the back-story that will occur regardless of what the PCs do if they do not interact with them. The Prince of Lira will wage war against his brothers in the Western Desert if the PCs do nothing. If they do discover this fact and work towards altering the course of events they may succeed. Or they may not. The way the Spiral Method fits in is that I may not have a timeline for that war. It is a free-floating plot that could occure any place and any time, depending on what the PCs are doing. I put things in general areas. So in this case, this plot point might get triggered any time the PCs wander toward the Western Desert. The Spiral Method creates plot points but disconnects them from specific time and place. This allows the PCs as they wander the Sandbox to spiral into the awaiting plot points. The problem with the sandbox method, for me, is that it can lead to too many plots in play as PCs pick up on plot points, drop them, picking up on new ones, and over a period of time it may lead to too many loose threads. The answer to this, as GM, is for me to keep track of those loose threads and periodically, when appropriate, reintroduce the abandonned plot points in order to tie up the loose ends as I go. An example of this process can be found on my blog where I wrote out the story in prose form. Over time the loose ends got tied off, and at the end of the adventure it had a nice "Homecoming" feeling as the threads all got tied up. I did not plan it that way in advance. I used the Sandbox and Spiral Method to achieve this effect. So I think it works. The hard part is keeping track of loose threads, and tying them up in a natural way. Meaning I don't force the players to tie up the loose ends… I just reintroduce things they've forgotten about periodically throughout the story.

  8. It's not to say that a sandbox doesn't have a plot. On the contrary sandboxes do have plots. But the plot evolves naturally as do the character's personalities and stories.

  9. I ran plot driven campaigns for awhile, and the latest fizzled for the same reason the previous did. The simple fact was schedules. Getting everyone together to play at the same time was just too hard.
    Enter the sandbox, and the rediscovery of OD&D with it. Everything just fell together. If some people can't make it, no problem. If my kids just want a quick adventure, OK.
    I have a blog where PCs can get caught up on the adventures they missed, and see "rumors". These rumors are subplots they can pursue if they want, or just go out and wander.

  10. I've been attempting to run something, broadly speaking, that sways between the two points. There are certainly plots going on, I've got a time line full of things due to happen and, with the odd exception (being ambushed, being arrested, etc), the players are free to pick and choose where they go and what they do. After each session I update what will happen based upon actions and knowledge gained and the adventuring region can be edited as needed.

    At the moment they're following a certain storyline to do with their characters' origin, but after that it'll be interesting to see just where they take things. Part of the fun of being the DM, for me, is, on top of the inherent creative exercise of world-building, enjoying seeing what the party will do with the tools I hand them. I like being a story teller, but I love listening to a good yarn just as much. Mixing in different amounts of the two polar choices you describe feels like the the right choice, more often than not. I have doubts about the ability to form a long-term interest without some inherent blurring of the two extremes.

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