The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Sunday 17 April 2016

Classic Rant: "Subway" Vs. "Sandbox"

I love the Sandbox game. In theory, I adore the idea of creating a world, filling it with people, filling it with things going on, and then telling my players "go nuts".

In practice, though, Sandboxes are a different story. I think that every time I've gone "full sandbox", the campaign has failed.

It could be a question of players. My players have gotten used to rich campaigns filled with recurring NPCs, which I guess is kind of my forte. In a sandbox, usually the players will end up moving from place to place; meaning that they end up missing out on some of that depth.

But it could also be due to the need for protagonism. With a "full sandbox", the PCs don't really matter more than any other denizen of the world. What they do is entirely up to them. If you are playing a true full sandbox, the GM should really do nothing to create a particular situation where the PCs get to shine; the PCs can get themselves to those places, but it requires that they do so, and if they get in over their head, they probably get into trouble.
I've had this expectation of protagonism happen in games where there clearly should be no such expectation on the part of the players; be it in a sandbox-type of game, or in another context. In my Legion game, for example, I've had players at time expect that things would go their way sheerly on account of their being "the hero", even though the particular Legion genre does not fall into that trap (and it wasn't players who were just misinterpreting the context! It was players who were very familiar with the Legion comics, where individual Legionnaires fail very often, or even die); likewise, they've complained if the solution to a situation is provided by an NPC, even though it is clearly an ensemble game (note that I don't mean complaining when there is no possible PC action that can solve things; that's another issue, and an error that I have on occasion made, that's real "deus ex machina"; I'm talking about calling it deus ex machina when the 5 PC superheroes are not always the sole architects of success out of a team of 23 superheroes).
It could just be my group, but I think its not. I think that it takes a very particular kind of player to be a real fan, in practice and not just in theory, of the "Pure Sandbox".

Even in the best of scenarios, the GM had better stack that pure sandbox full to the fucking brim of stuff. My most disastrous sandbox campaign ever was probably the Wilderlands campaign I ran for 3 or 4 sessions before my players revolted on me. We had just come off of playing an intense campaign set in Port Blacksand, a city of scum and villainy full of colourful characters. In the wilderlands campaign, to avoid seeming repetitive, I decided that instead of placing the PCs at a starting point in the city-states region, I'd start them out in the middle of nowhere, in the far north. There, they spent session after session slogging through forest territories, trying not to get lost, to find food, and occasionally fighting some monster that was in a given hex. It was a disaster. I don't know what I was thinking.

In any case, I think that a safer way to get the good out of the Sandbox style of play without the bad is to make use of a slightly different kind of campaign, one which I recently heard of described as a "Subway". Imagine a network of lines connecting to a series of stations. The PCs are free to travel along that network like they want, to hang out at the given stations, but there's some structure. You can't get straight from Broadway to Commercial, you need to get through a few other steps (though maybe, if the PCs are hell bent, they can go up the stairs onto the street and take a cab). You create places where the PCs start and explore, and give them things to do, but you let them decide in what order they do it or how long they want to take.

I had usually described my RC D&D campaign, one of the most successful campaigns I ever ran (where the pcs played from levels 1-36 and ended the campaign achieving immortality) as a "sandbox". But in fact, it wasn't quite that; it was really a Subway. It had most of the elements of the Sandbox: a huge world (Mystara), with the PCs free to explore it, a real-time element (the campaign didn't skip over time, we played from day to day, excepting times when the PCs CHOSE to skip over time by engaging in an ongoing project for several days, weeks or months), and set-piece locations (nations, monsters, dungeons, etc) that changed as time went by.

But I realize now that right from the start, I had a subway system installed. The PCs could have chosen to ignore it, but they didn't. Naturally, they followed the directions the subway pointed to. They chose the order in which they did things, they ended up hanging out in Darokin and the Five Shires for a very long time, for example; but in giving them places to go and specific things to do in the world, they had a semblance of structure that didn't just leave them flailing in the vast world.

My current Starblazer campaign is even more of a "subway". The PCs are on the edge of local space, trying to find Earth. The technology of their 2nd Empire starship is such that it can travel at hyperspeed through conventional space, where traveling from one star to another can take weeks. But they can also travel through 2-space, which can shorten their trips to mere days; only 2-space is like a network of tunnels: a given star might link to 1, 2, 4, or more other stars through 2-space, but to get to specific star B from specific star A you might need to pass by a number of systems along the way. Of course, my players go on 2-space, meaning that there's a framework to where they travel in the stellar region and what they encounter. They decide which direction they head, but they have pointers on where to go that's easier than other places, and that's where the action leads.

So yes, as much as I love the Sandbox in theory; I think in practice a good sandbox often needs some roads. If that's built into the setting (like it is in my Starblazer game) that might be more elegant, but I think that even in a situation like my Mystara campaign, where the "roads" were really through a slight bit of GM-intervention, that's not something to look down upon if it avoids your player characters slogging through four sessions worth of do-nothing forest-hexes.


(Originally Posted July 14, 2010)


  1. Very interesting. It reminds me of Hill Cantons and point-crawls, although apparently you wrote about "subways" first:

    In any case, I'm a fan of this technique; I think I would always allow players to go off the grid, provided they do so on purpose (i.e., not just stumbling around).

  2. Interestingly, all my different players crave for a structuralized adventuring. Whenever I tried to run sandbox games it ended badly, once on a verge of mutiny. I think part of it is a problem of a medium itself, as RPGs are terrible in imprinting fine innuendos and clues which typically get glossed over or get forgotten by the next session unless there is unusually vigilant and dedicated chronicler in a group. Also I think that players (well, mine at least) expect sort of immersive story with obstacles to be overcome but are leery of directionless freedom and sense that "God is not in the house". I actually never remember any of them complaining about railroading in either mine or other GMs stories unless it was particularly bad case of "you can do this only this and no other way because I wrote so". So yeah, what you call "subway" approach is probably sort of a sweet spot for most of my friends.

    1. The way I handled Sandboxes was like Grand Theft Auto. The players worked for an Earl that gave them jobs but outside of that just about everyone had something they needed help with and the players could pick and choose to take those or not. Gradually they built up relations with a temple or Inn and I worked in additional adventures dealing with these new friends (or enemies).

  3. What's an "RC D&D" game? The one for folks who don't want to shell out the big bucks for Coke or Pepsi?

    Personally I like Canada Dry ginger ale over any cola...

  4. I think this is the way I've planned most of my sessions... however a warning. I've seen at least a few people use the word "subway" the word to mean "railroading where you can't see where you are even going". Some may already attribute horrible things to that word :-) although you're description using the word makes complete sense.