We recently played another of Ethan’s Civil War scenarios. The adventure has us going through the Siege of Vicksburg. While the story gave us options of what we could do, there's an act structure where we go from place to place in a set order. After we talked about the game after recording, it got me thinking about freedom in RPGs. For this game we had to be ‘on the railroad’, but it helped us experience the story Ethan was telling.
When done right, sandbox games lets players be in control. The players can go where they want, and find their own solutions to problems. This lets the players feel like they have more agency over the game. Letting things go at their own pace also allows for more character interactions.
Such freedom has a price, though. The GM is going to need to do a lot more prep. Having ideas for scenes that could fit wherever the players go, and having NPCs ready to use. By setting up ‘generic’ scenarios and NPCs, this can be easier. Rather than planning for the specifics of the adventure, have a few ideas ready. When it comes time to use them, dress them up with where the players are or who they've met. The other major issue is the potential to derail games. A funny NPC or a unique location might unwittingly draw the players' attention.
If you don’t want a sandbox scenario, the other option is to make it a railroad. Railroad scenarios have only one obvious solution to the PCs’ problems, or is the only option available. Doing this allows the GM to define the experience for the players. It can help make horror scenarios feel scarier, as it restricts what the PCs can do. Also, new players can get a better feel for a game if there’s only one way to get to the ending. And there are ways to make the PCs feel like they have control or options even when they don’t. Giving them a choice to make, such as “you have to escape, which way do you run?” or “what do you use to attack the monster” gives the players the illusion of choice. It doesn’t matter that, for these examples, the players will face the same obstacle regardless of which option they take.
In the game Ethan ran for us, we were able to choose our actions and how we reacted to things. It didn’t matter, though, as the scene would change around us and we'd be dropped into new sieges. This was ideal for what Ethan wanted to do, but if we might have felt like our choices didn’t matter if Ethan wasn't careful. That can be the problem with railroad scenarios. A too obvious or too restrictive railroad might distract the players or make them not want to play.
Prewritten scenarios tend to be railroads, and this can mean the game can seem inflexible. For several of prewritten games I’ve ran, like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Leverage, I always feel like I have to put my own spin on the scenario. There were parts in each game where players were expected to do something. More often than not, the players will do anything BUT what they are expected. For example, I had to rip out chunks of Leverage since the players thought of creative, better ways to deal with problems.
As is always the case for issues in playing RPGs, the key is being open with the people at the table. By asking what the players are looking for when they play, the GM will know how to run things. Having an idea of the scenario allows the players to know how to play and how to let their PCs act. Both sandboxes and railroads have a place at the table. It’s all a matter of knowing when to use them.