Sandbox vs Railroad
Over the last few years this blog has focused on player-centric themes, by using a four-part method. This month I'm going to deviate a bit by covering a topic normally reserved for GMs, and by doing a long-form essay. If this approach works well, I might keep the longer once-a-month essay.
While the railroad/sandbox duality is typically considered a GM problem, it's still true that the Players must play in this duality, so this is a topic that's of importance to them as well.
The term "Sandbox" was borrowed from computer game designers; it simply described an open setting in which the Players could decide on their actions and the GM (or computer) would respond to them. Now of course, many Players depend on the GM to generate the action, but others say call this "railroading" because it decreases Player or PC agency. Agency, then, is the ability to make decisions or take actions that matter.
In designing dramatic campaigns we focus on the character, creating intimate settings that allow Players to inhabit their character’s background, leading (hopefully) to the flourishing of the character(s). What does this mean for action adventures? If we put less focus on character backgrounds, what role do Players have in creating an action setting?
Some may disagree with me here, but I find action games are best suited for the oft-maligned “railroad” campaign. While you can always run action campaigns in a sandbox, the desire for fast-paced action will be answered much more directly and frequently if you get on the action train. Just take a look at classic modules and published adventures to see how their scenes are often linked, one action scene after another.
When we talked about dramatic games, we talked about watching what goes on around the table, working to support the other Players’ character actions, and working toward safe cathartic emotional bleed. In action adventure games, by contrast, we talk about watching what goes on on the table. This includes maps, miniatures, dice, character sheets, and rules.In a dramatic game, scenes can float from location to location without too much concern for continuity of action. But in action adventure games, maps are important in determining where and how the action takes place. Whether it's the range bands of Classic Traveller, the Zone maps of Fate or the typical grid maps of DnD, space defines much of the action and pace of these games. Good maps are required, so get the right mapmaking tools—like battle maps—and the right markers. With the right tools, Players will learn to get the gist of a scene quickly, including the positions and ranges of all important characters and objects.
When we talked about dramatic play, we found it was heavily character-driven instead of action-driven. When playing action campaigns, there are ideas you must balance. The first things to consider are the action scenes of the pulp genre and tactical play; imagine your characters in action while building them. You also need to have a good grip on the rules, so you can stay up with the other Players and match the fast pace of action games. Speaking of the Players, since these games focus on goal accomplishments, it's important to remember that your missions will require teamwork.
Last time, we focused on my addiction to drama and making characters that try to fit into the genre. I also mentioned my interest in Korean action films, and I should add Chinese films, too. To me the film industries of these two countries lead the action movie genre, especially for gamers. If you want to get into this, listen to the Jianghu Hustle podcast.
Your character is set, their tragic life is just getting started, and you understand all about being a supporting actor; now it's time to turn toward creating a dramatic atmosphere. When talking about Setting we need to consider both the campaign setting and individual scenes. The campaign setting is there to set the general themes of the drama, while individual scenes provide space for each character to show off their feelings about the world around them, and to indicate how the story affects them. For a good explanation as to how scenes work together to create campaigns, I recommend that you read Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D Laws. Setting the scene is often the job of the GM, but in recent years it has become fashionable for the Players to take a creative hand.
Dramatic characters require dramatic scenes, often spotlighting one or two PCs or NPCs, but how do we do this when games are designed to be a group effort? It’s simple: just learn to let someone else be the star for a bit. This isn’t a new idea, so let’s go through some of the methods you can use to help your friends bring their characters to the forefront.
The above guidelines give us some key things to shoot for when creating a dramatic character, but of course the real question is how to play one. Many of us act dramatically in our games accidentally, but few of us plan for it or do it on purpose. If one is encouraged to take improv classes (as some do to learn how to respond to assorted challenges in gaming), we shouldn’t ignore dramatics. Most of us have some ideas about what drama is, but these ideas are often limited to the exaggerated, black-vs-white tropes of melodrama. We need to learn about other dramatic approaches to bring more realistic forms of drama into the game.
Previously we talked about creating character backgrounds, and we even tried our hand at focusing on secondary attributes to create multi-dimensional characters. In today's blog entry I want to go more in-depth, looking at the mechanics of a dramatic character.
When I think of dramatic characters, I image intense interaction and the ability to do things outside the routine adventure. These characters should be built to handle sensational emotional conflicts and carry powerful scenes. A lot of the material to support this style of play will be drawn from your characters' background, and thus a particular sort of attention must be paid to the background story when creating a character suited to the dramatic playstyle.
From the Ancient Olympics to the “Three Manly Skills” of the Huns―have played an important role in numerous civilizations. Since this is the case, why do we not see these in our fiction and role-playing settings? There have been a few attempts at sports-based RPG games like World Wide Wrestling or XXXX Extreme Street Luge, but very few sports are ever mentioned in non-Earth settings. This is a shame, because a good sport brings out many of the same opportunities as murder-hoboing―but without all the murdering!