Thursday, March 4, 2010

Story Driven games VS Sandbox games: A false dichotomy

This is not a system specific issue, but one I constantly see crop up. A choice between a game being story driven or sandbox. And this bugs me, because its not a choice that exists.

The choice between a story driven game or a sandbox game implies they somehow are opposite. That is equivalent to telling someone they are either sitting or asleep. The opposite of sitting is standing and the opposite of asleep is awake, you can be asleep AND sitting just as you can be awake and standing. They are not opposite.

Likewise the opposite of sandbox (player driven) is railroad (GM driven) and has nothing to do with being story driven. A sandbox game is often MORE story driven, since with an average party it has 4 story tellers (PC's) to a single reactive player (referee). A GM driven game (what most people incorrectly call a story driven game) has 1 story teller (the GM) and 4 reactive players (the PC).

Sandbox games are not about dungeon crawls or random exploration, though they certainly can be. They are about the 4 players telling a story with the tools at their disposal (their PC) and the audience (the GM) reacting to it. It can be about anything, it can be about running a farm and a family and never involve leaving town or entering battle (boring as that may be to some).

Am I alone on this one?


  1. Not at all.

    I'm not into pre-scripted adventures either, but for those who like that style of adventure, they go and play them...

  2. Totally agree. Years before hearing the term sandbox I was running games in that style. None of my players would have put up with railroading. And you're right -- these days "story-driven" seems to be a euphemism for the ol' railroad.

  3. Hear Hear. This is exactly what bugged me about the whole brouhaha about Faustusnotes' post (if you don't know what I am talking about, then good! Be glad.), the assumption that old school sandbox play was not "story driven". I actually just made a post at my general RPG blog ( asserting the same thing you say here, that sandbox is generally more story driven because each PC gets to tell the story.

  4. FYI, I'll just cut and paste what I said to FN about the idea of 'story' in my comments to his comment on Carl's post. FWIW, I don't think that he actually addressed my points.

    "It would be a mistake not to differentiate between 'story' and 'the story'. As far as I can see, the notion of story merely reflects the constructive perception that we place on events within any campaign and within the OSR, it's the term we give to the developing narrative, retrospectively viewed, that emerges from the interplay between DM and players. The Story on the other hand is something imposed from outside before the campaign starts and (in certain cases, though not all, I should add) dictates the direction of the campaign. In this latter case, measures need to be taken if players decide that they want to depart from The Story, even unto Deus ex Machina interventions and miraculous saves from certain death.

    I should stress that not all story-based campaigns are like this, although there is sufficient truth in it for parodies like DM of the Rings to raise a good few knowing laughs amongst the RPG community."

  5. I have to agree too. When I hear "story driven" I can actually hear the train coming down the tracks. Its just a clever way of saying "this is the story and you will each play your assigned part so that the story will come to fruition...whether you like it or not"

    However, the term "sandbox game" makes me think of small plastic shovels and buckets and makes me what to take a shower immediately after playing.

    I always called them "free form" games, but that's just semantics.

  6. I have to disagree here. I think "story driven" is a far different term than "railroad." A story driven game tends to have a very strong metaplot that the PCs are agreeing to be a part of. This does not always equate to railroading.

    The other side of this, the sandbox game, is not always just a player driven story... sometimes its the DM saying, "Here's your world... go get it."

    You also mentioned two of my favorite terms up there, Active vs. Reactive players. Some groups are made up of players who enjoy being reactive. I've played with several groups like this. They love their characters, but they don't have a ton of time to invest in the game, so they want to get together and have a story they can be a part of.

    A good game can have a reactive player base and be primarily story-driven, just as a good game can be all about active PCs driving the story forward with a barely present GM (been in this situation too). Both were fun, and both were interesting games I still tell stories about.

    Sometimes you wanna play Amber and have a whole universe at your fingertips... sometimes, you just wanna kill some orcs.

    Just something to think about.

  7. To morrisonmp:

    I am not saying that a GM driven game is not fun, or not rewarding. Im saying that being GM driven does not make it story driven automatically.

    Specifically that it is a false dichotomy that Story is bound to the choice between sandbox and railroad.

    Now certain styles FAVOUR story, much in the same way standing favours being awake (to go with my other anology), I do believe that. But just as you can sleep standing up, you can have any combination of GM or Player driven and Story or Non-story.

    Story is not about GM or player driven.

  8. I like how you express this. Though I'd prefer you not call GM-driven games railroad. Railroad is the most extreme form of this, but there's a lot of room to play in games where there are many ways to go about a GM-driven plot. Personally I have a hard time running a full sandbox world - I'm not as good an improviser as some. But within the material I prepare I try to make it open for players to take different approaches at different times. I'm frequently surprised by what my players do. Yet it's still within a prepared direction. For your analogy, perhaps it's leaning against a wall. :)

  9. As stated above with the term sandbox (bringing to mind terms of childish useless and impermanent play), the term railroad is similarly crafted by those opposed to the practice.

    Sandbox and Railroad are both terms of dislike. Rather than rebelling against railroad as a term, I would consider following the sandbox model and just make the term your own.

    And again, if you like a GM driven game then go for it. Its more important the game is done well and to the expectations of the group than be done in a specific style.

    So if someone throws Railroad at you like an insult, just say "Ya, I like railroad games, who doesn't like trains?"

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  11. I think you are thinking about something akin to Story Now when trying to equate it, or at least to show how it's supported by Sandbox play and not about story-driven, the word you use (I daresay in reference to what Ben Robbins pointed in his West Marches example). I consider story-driven as a game close to what you get in Pathfinder RPG's adventure paths. Adventure 2 will follow adventure 1 and both are scripted in advance. It's just one step away from railroading (and no, I'm not saying it's not fun) and implies a strong GM control of the story. On the other hand, if you consider as "story" the fact that an adventure might emerge from the Sandbox as a collaborative consequence of the shared fantasy, all I can do is hail at to your post: not only Sandbox play supports well this sort of play, but it's almost necessary to feed it.