The Railroad vs The Sandbox

Epistolary Richard has some interesting thoughts about “railroading” right here, using Witch as an example of a game that railroads a game from start to finish, but, ya know, in a good way (Cheers! Richard!). Richard is obviously correct here, but I’d never thought about linking it to the concept of railroading.We should reclaim this word as our own!

So, in most of the games I like, you take away all the uninteresting choices so players can focus on the interesting ones. The players still have a lot of agency, but in a tighter situation so it’s easier to keep on the same page with each other and make a coherent narrative. Plus it gives a bit of structure to scenes so you don’t have to invent things from scratch every time.

I think most games are like this to a degree. For example, in Montsegur 1244, you’re all stuck in a castle, more or less, so bumping into each other doing daily chores is a totally fine way to start a scene, and you know where you’re headed. In My Life with Master, you mostly have just two choices; try to make friends with someone or do what your Master told you to do. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you’re in a single town and you’ve got a very clear job to do. In Ribbon Drive, you’re mostly in a car.

The most sandbox-style game I can think of is Apocalypse World. Lots of player agency, even if the characters are constrained by their harsh environment. I think AW is more difficult to play too, and certainly to MC. But I’d be interested to hear other thoughts on this one.


2 thoughts on “The Railroad vs The Sandbox

  1. I think it’s hard to say if a GM’d game is inherently sandbox or railroad. I’ve not played AW itself, but I’ve played a few ‘powered by the apocalypse’ games, and while you have a bit more agency than usual, they still seemed pretty GM controlled.
    In these cases what the designer intended seems less relevant.
    More unambiguously sandbox have it baked into the rules, like Microscope or Fiasco.
    I was going to say all word building games are sandboxes, but I played Downfall last month and you are on definitely on rails. Also, in Intrepid, it’s all pretty open what you create and do, but once you put a character on a quest they are locked there till it’s done, so is that a mini-railroad?
    Finally, I like the idea of reclaiming railroad as an explicit design goal rather than a nasty word that is always wrong.

    • Makes sense. ^_^
      Regardless of how sandbox you intend a game, a GM can take away player agency themselves. This is probably harder in GMless games.

      The inverse is much rarer, but possibly still happens. Had players in MLwM try to kill the Master early, for example. It would break the rules, but I can imagine a super-sandbox-minded GM saying “Sure!”

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