Sandbox vs Structured

I don’t think this is a matter of better vs worse as much as preference. Please do what works best for you and your group.


Is it “Railroading?”

About a month ago, I had a discussion with someone about using a more open-ended story structure when writing RPG adventures. We came to the consensus, as many have in the past, that it’s probably better to treat one shot adventures (modules) as a closed structure like a play or a novel. Now, that’s okay for published works. But what about other events?

I used to run literally everything as a closed structure, only to hear comments about “getting run over with the plot wagon,” or “being tied to the railroad tracks.” I take it with a grain of salt at conventions because, again, that’s how they’re supposed to look. At home it’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow sometimes.

Yes, I have certain plot points I prefer the party would get to. Looking at my upcoming Power Rangers RPG series, I have a mix of both styles. Some episodes are going to be pre-planned, especially the two and three part season opener and finale along with some episodes scattered throughout. For everything else, there are random tables and asking the players what they want to do.

I think a certain degree of more structured adventures has its place in campaigns. Dungeon crawls are usually laid out A to B to C and so on. It all usually leads to that boss fight on Level 3 of the dungeon. Or at least back in the day that’s what we did. Nowadays players are somehow more sophisticated? Sometimes I’m still down to break down a door with an axe and smash an orc in the face with a mace. Dungeon Crawl Classics and other OSR games are truly grand for this playstyle.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Choo Choo! Plot train comin through!

I also think it’s okay for new players and very casual players to experience a more structured playstyle. My family group falls into this category. My kids are new enough to gaming and their characters are new enough to adventuring, that the structure keeps things flowing along. My wife is a very casual player, and will go along with just about anything as long as we’re having fun.

My wife has managed to derail campaigns in the past. Her druid cast Comet Fall on a mill that my BBEG Vampiric Ancient Black Dragon happened to be sleeping under. Um… during the day. <poof!> Days of planning up in smoke. She makes good snacks for the group, though. Lol! I couldn’t exactly deprive the group of the victory. They were smart enough to find it without being discovered.

Ironically, the Dungeon Crawl Classics game that I’m planning is going to be mostly sandbox. Actually, I’m doing it as a Hex Crawl. Yes, there will be some premade dungeons and those are structured.

I wanted to add some good old flavorful exploration to my DCC game. Maybe they’ll run into some dinosaurs and other hazards normally found outside of a dungeon along with way. My main focus was to set a game in unfamiliar environs so the group has to explore. Survival will depend on it . They’re going to be in a completely untamed and unexplored (by them) world. As a GM, I’m not even going to know more than a hex or two at a time what’s going to be there.

Example of explored Hex Crawl area.
As I plan to “wing it.”

I think a lot of us in the community have determined a mix of both is best.

Okay, I could possibly be wrong. A lot of it depends on your group, too. If you’ve got a group that’s been together for ages, there’s a lot more leeway in what you can get away with. For example:
DM: I want to start a new D&D campaign on Thursday night at 5:00. (Let’s pretend there are no schedule conflicts…)
Player 1: Forgotten Realms?
DM: As usual.
Player 2: Standard character gen? 4d6 drop lowest. Reroll 1’s.
DM: You know it.
Player 3: Can I play a Warforged Druid Circle of Cenarius WoW homebrew?
Rest of the Group: Groan!
DM: Do we ever say yes to this?
Player 3: Regular Elf Druid, then?
DM: Yup.
Player 4: Got anything planned for adventures yet?
DM: Nope. Don’t need to. Lemme see all your backstories first.
Player 5: We doing a Session Zero for this one?
DM: Anything change since the last Session Zero?
(Everyone looks at one another.)
Player 5: Don’t think so?
DM: Awesome saucesome. Please have your characters and backgrounds ready next Thursday. See you at 4:30. Please bring chili fixins.

DMs with a steady group have an easier time running on the fly than pugs or one shots at conventions for example. They can build off of player character backgrounds. They can improvise. They can even pull out old material and rearrange a few things. A DM with a steady group can even do something off-the-wall occasionally like dropping the group into Ravenloft, and not get too much static for it.

If the group doesn’t know one another, Session Zero is pretty much needed if the group is going to go awhile. My sense of humor is pretty raw and a couple of my children might not have a language filter for example. My DM shenanigans might not run as well with some new players, so I try to stick to published mods early on with new players until we get used to each other.

Otherwise, my group who knows me will be on the lookout for crazy good homebrew artifacts, one PC being the designated harbinger of doom, and at least one person in the party becoming my pet weird luck magnet. That’s only a small part of it. Wait until I say, “Roll a d12…”

Established groups know they can mess with major global events in a campaign world and there will be ramifications down the line. Entire storylines might change. Certain well-known canonical characters might disappear entirely. It’s easier to flex and bend when people in the group aren’t likely to correct the DM on canon, too. Plus, my group knows me and my disregard for Spellhintster and Fritz the Drow.

My default advice is always do what works best for you and your players. If practically running off of a script is your jam, then by all means. There is no wrong way to RPG, and anyone who says otherwise obviously needs to examine their own choices. Some styles and techniques just work a lot better than others. Find your flow with your group and have lots of fun even if it’s a one-shot at a convention!

Please, stay healthy. Stay hydrated. Have fun this weekend. See ya soon.

Author: Jeff Craigmile

I'm a tabletop role-playing game writer and designer from Des Moines, Iowa always looking for more work. I'm the father of four boys and human to three cats.

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