Theory: Run Railroads Through Your Sandbox

Although I don’t play role-playing games often, I like to think about them. They’re interesting both from a definitional perspective (is Dungeons & Dragons a “game” if there’s no winner?) and as a source of technical problems to solve. One of those technical problems came up recently online: how to motivate players in a freeform, “sandbox” game. I find that issue particularly fascinating because at its root are definitions–the competing natures of the “sandbox” and the “railroad”–and solving it requires one to break down some of the barriers between them, mixing the two styles of play.

“Sandbox” role-playing games are familiar to video gamers who enjoy the Elder Scrolls series or Minecraft. These games allow players to participate in storylines, or not, as they choose, and provide alternative activities for those who want to explore the game world on their own terms. Star Wars Galaxies, the now-defunct MMO, was a classic example: players could save the galaxy . . . or set themselves up as a shopkeeper . . . or attend in-game dance parties.

“Railroad” role-playing games, by contrast, have a fixed plot that the players are required to follow. They can make tactical decisions about how to negotiate with a queen or defeat a dragon, but the plot only proceeds when the queen gives the players a quest or the dragon is slain. Deposing the queen, allying with the monster, or otherwise deviating from the pre-determined story is not an option.

In recent years, “railroad” has often been treated as synonymous with “bad.” If someone wants to run a railroad game, it’s said, he or she should instead write a book and spare players the experience of going through the characters’ motions. Sandboxes, where the players can do anything they choose, are argued to be a more interesting mode of play for all involved.

The trouble is that setting up the sandbox doesn’t always lead to a great game. People often go to great effort to construct a wonderful, vibrant, fascinating world–and then find that their players don’t interact with it. Rather, the players wait for someone to give them direction, as though they can’t do without the hated rails.

Frustrated world-creators sometimes frame this problem in terms of preferences: they like the sandbox while their players prefer the railroad. However, there’s another way of approaching the issue that makes it far more manageable. The problem, one could say, is that the players are behaving rationally in an unknown environment.

Consider what a sandbox looks like from a player’s perspective. The player is confronted with a very complex system (good sandboxes, after all, have a lot going on). It’s hard to predict the consequences of actions, but given the elaborate weave of the setting there are apt to be unforeseen and even negative ones. How should the player respond?

A player might, completely logically, answer “do nothing.” Since any action could end up badly, and there’s no way to predict which courses will be fruitful and which will get the players in over their heads, it’s sensible for them to wait and see. Rather than empowering the players, the sandbox encourages them to give in to paralysis.

Getting the players moving again is not a matter of changing their gaming preferences, nor is it a matter of locking them into a railroad. Instead, the sandbox needs to change so that players are incentivized to act. The railroad isn’t needed, but the rails are, because they tell players what they’ll be rewarded for doing.

Think about, for example, Red Faction: Guerilla. RF:G tasks players with replaying the American Revolution, with Martian colonists standing in for the Americans and Earth as the exploitative, mercantilist power. Think that building up support among the colonists is most important? Prefer instead to steal industrial equipment? Feel that it’s time to take the fight to the Earth forces? Want to just plain drive fast in low gravity? Players can do any or all of those, and more besides. RF:G is a great sandbox experience, with lots of things for players to do or ignore as they choose.

Yet, although RF:G has freedom, it also has guidance. Players are introduced to the rebellion-against-Earth plotline early, and it’s made clear that in the game world participating in the rebellion will be viewed as a morally good act. They’re also rewarded for participating in the first few missions with new equipment. At that point the player is cut loose to do as he or she will, but missions on behalf of the rebellion are clearly marked on the player’s map, available whenever the player is interested.

By putting players in a sandbox but giving them some initial goals, RF:G avoids the problem of the cautious player. I’ve never heard of anyone who responded to RF:G’s sandbox by doing nothing. Players are incentivized to act by the plot, and have enough information to feel comfortable taking advantage of the additional opportunities available.

Other successful sandbox games follow this freedom-with-guidance model. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has a plotline about stopping cultists from summoning monsters that incidentally helps players become acclimated to the game world; players can stop the cultists or not, but they at least know what kinds of things are available to do. Infamous puts the player in the shoes of a superhero, and lets him or her know the game world’s citizens will be grateful if he or she saves the city before opening the game up. Even Lego sets come with instructions. Incentives to do something are provided along with the option to do otherwise, and thus the player is given both freedom and some forward momentum.

Making a good sandbox, then, doesn’t involve completely dismantling the railroad. It instead requires designers to provide both open-ended choices and some direction to encourage players to engage with them. Run some rails through the sandbox, even though the players will be permitted to leave them. If they do nothing else, those rails will help players understand what they can do. The fun of the game will take it from there.

Something Completely Different: Making Competing Players Powerful – Rules

How can a two-player competitive game reinforce both players’ feelings of might and prowess, where the game is played synchronously in the real world?

There aren’t a lot of competitive games that are designed so that all of the players feel good at the same time. Usually it’s exactly the opposite: at any given moment someone is losing, knows it, and feels lousy. Miniatures games are no exception; since everything is (usually) right there on the table, it’s easy to see when you have taken greater losses than your opponent or are further away from an objective.

Since minis games weren’t helping me find rules germane to the issue, I ranged around a bit. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Players should “fail forward.”

This one comes from role-playing games. In essence, it says that failure should not mean that the player’s turn just ends in defeat. Instead, something interesting should happen.

Knowing a little role-playing game history might help clarify how this rule works in practice. (It’s also interesting in its own right.) Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the first major role-playing game as we’ve come to think of the term, was designed by wargamers. Those designers modeled D&D’s combat on the wargames they were familiar with: dice were used to model the uncertainties of combat, with a good result meaning you succeeded in hitting the target and a poor result meaning failure. This system is used even by game designers with military experience, so I assume that it’s at least a reasonable way to model people fighting.

Over time, however, problems revealed themselves. When playing a wargame, one normally controls many pieces. A single piece’s bad roll is just one part of a larger turn, so even when the dice go against you it’s still possible to have a satisfying turn overall. By contrast, in role-playing games the player usually controls a single character who makes a single roll in a turn. If that roll comes up snake eyes, that’s it–the turn ends on a down note.

Failing forward is one solution to that issue. (It also relates to other role-playing game design issues, to say nothing of the term’s use in self-help books and other arenas; I’m focusing on this particular application of the idea.) In essence, it says that failure should make things more interesting instead of just being a stopping point. The player doesn’t get what he or she wanted, but does get something else: plot advancement.

So, for example, in D&D (or at least, some versions of D&D) a player might try to swing a sword at a monster in order to slay it. If the player fails to slay the monster, that’s it; the player’s turn is over. By contrast, in a fail-forward model the player might fail to slay the monster–and be carried back to the monster’s lair. That means a whole new set of opportunities and options: maybe the player will have another go at fighting the monster, or sneak away, or find out that the monster’s lair is full of the monster’s artwork and the monster is actually a sentient being. Instead of the player’s turn just crashing to a halt with failure, the player is left with new possibilities to consider while waiting for his or her next chance to act.

Failing forward doesn’t mean failure is impossible or that players are choosing between a menu of good options. It just takes some of the sting out. The player missed the mark this time, but something interesting still happened and so the player can focus on that instead of stewing over the failure.

2. The game should involve building something the player can take pride in.

Agricola is a controversial game, which is surprising for a farming simulation with tried-and-true mechanics. A lot of people find the theme dull, or don’t like the “Euro” design sensibility wherein much of the game boils down to constructing an economic engine. I can’t say those criticisms are unfair–I’m not, I have to admit, all that interested in agriculture myself–but Agricola is nevertheless one of my favorite games. That’s for one simple reason: each and every time I play, I get a sense of accomplishment from building my little farm even if I lose.

I see the same dynamic play out in the Civilization series of video games, Minecraft, even building toys like lego. It’s fun to make something. Creating is enjoyable even if you lose, or even if the game is such that winning and losing aren’t meaningful concepts. Seeing something neat that’s new in the world, and being able to say “I did that,” is for many people compelling regardless of the context in which it occurs.

Building doesn’t have to be linear or unopposed; Civilization, Minecraft, and many other games involve building in an environment of challenge with the possibility of setbacks. Overcoming those obstacles can be another part of the fun, and can even give character to one’s result. The key is the sense of accomplishment; players need to be able to take pride in the results of their efforts, even if those efforts don’t result in winning.

That last sentence deserves a little more emphasis. It’s critical that the players end up with something they can take pride in. Agricola’s building is fun because your farm is a nice, productive spot even if it doesn’t earn the most points. Games where the building is just another way to keep score–where one can end the game with a useless half-constructed building, or a spaceship that could never fly–don’t provide this kind of satisfaction.

So what does all this mean?

I’ll be honest: I’m not quite sure yet how rules from role-playing games and a farming simulation apply to a miniatures wargame. However, I feel like these rules are already pushing in interesting directions. This game is supposed to play out a story, and failing forward involves plot advancement; doesn’t that suggest a very different kind of minis game? One where success is measured, not in the number of opposing units destroyed, but in telling a story? Where does that story come from? How does the building factor in? What are the players building? A thing? Character competence? The story themselves? How is the building handled so that players can enjoy the result even when they lose?

At the risk of being unfair, I’m going to leave those questions hanging for a little while: on Friday I’ll have the results for the latest round of Over the Next Dune’s playtesting.