Home > DM Theory > Sandbox vs Safety Rails

Sandbox vs Safety Rails

Note: this blog has moved to http://dailyencounter.net where you can find this article still just fine right here.

A couple of days ago ThadeousC posted a seemingly innocent tweet that asked the following: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?”. The ensuing discussion was spirited and occasionally intense. I wanted to get involved, but 140 characters was far, far too limiting for a topic such as this. So as part of a blog carnival, here’s my own feelings on the subject.

Here’s your blog carnival rules.

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)

3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.

4. No name calling.

Having read the prior two articles they both come from the perspective of sandbox being a predetermined world where the PCs can go anywhere and encounter anything while safety rails is assumed to be DM guided so the only things you can encounter are “level appropriate”. Personally I think this is the main flaw with the core question, the situation isn’t so black and white.

In establishing a campaign I think it is a good idea to establish areas where some things might well be found. Powerful monsters make more sense when they have known locations and you have a rough understanding of how they interact with the setting. For example in my campaign setting I have a place called Griffon Pass, you can guess what is found there, so while PCs of any level could go there both I and the players can tell what the risk is in braving the pass. I have other areas where I know the general type of monster, giants in mountains, orcs in the outer regions of a forest, undead in its heart and so on. All of this lets me theme encounters to an area should I need to because the players decide wander off the campaign’s path.

Then there is my campaign, Heroic tier is the story of the PCs struggle against a growing orc army and their ultimate confrontation with the army and its commander. As a result there are a lot of encounters with orcs. At low levels it was orcs and goblins, at higher levels it is orcs with trolls, and ogres (and soon giants). It is readily apparent that there is a lot of scope for the safety rails approach to running this game.

So now there is both “sandbox” and “safety rails” in my campaign.

But the safety rails are not always safe. The thing is that you don’t have to always have to have encounters that are appropriate to the character’s level in the game. In fact it is best to have encounters that are below, above and at the appropriate level. If you want to challenge the party with something they must run away from there is nothing to stop you doing it inside the constraints of your campaign’s plot. In fact that is the best way to do it, as part of your plot. It even makes a great way to introduce a villain! This is one of the reasons ThadeusC and Wolfsamurai have supported “sandboxing”, but it works even better if the players have a reason to want to go back and beat something that directly matters to the plot, rather than something they “just bumped into”.

So the goal, I think, should be to have a sandbox in which your campaign unfolds. Then in the plot you should use a range of encounters to create appropriate tension. This is exactly the sort of thing WolfSamurai talks about in his example of infiltrating a city to rescue people and kill the cult leader. From the player’s perspective the city was a death trap, from the DM’s it was easily a series of at level encounters. The city is the sandbox, the actual encounters happen in the safety rails.

The trick is convincing the players there are no safety rails, which is easiest done by using a range of encounter levels.

First Post by ThadeousC: mydndgame.net

Second Post by WolfSamurai: Phelanar’s Den

Third Post by Obsidian Crane: (You’re Reading It!)

Fourth Post by dkarr: dkarr’s LoreMaster Page

Fifth Post by Adam Dray: adamdray’s LiveJournal

Sixth Post by Tracy H.: SarahDarkmagic.com

Seventh Post by Deadorcs: Init or What?

Eighth Post by Brian Engard: Gamecrafter’s Guild

Ninth Post by NewbieDm: NewbieDM.com

Tenth Post by DMSamuel: Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails?

Eleventh Post by TheAngryDM: D&D 4e Advice with Attitude

Twelfth Post by Colmarr: The Astral Sea

Categories: DM Theory
  1. Vic
    June 21, 2010 at 3:56 am

    Good Article.

    Since I’m responding here I’ll place a link to my expanded response.


  2. June 23, 2010 at 7:39 am

    It’s true that I probably did phrase my article in an all-or-nothing safety vs. sandbox decision. You’re right though that it rarely works out so cut and dry for one or the other, however. In my games I have rails that I want players to follow, but I won’t restrict the players if they want to go elsewhere. Depending on the needs of the story and the desires of the group, I may take that open sandbox and start laying down some trails for the PCs to follow, in essence turning it from one type into the other.

    • June 23, 2010 at 5:52 pm

      Very much the sort of thing I was talking about.

      Though I was additionally saying that even inside the rails of a campaign there is nothing wrong with taking the kid gloves off and putting the PCs up against something they should run away from so that when it returns later in the campaign they can triumph over it with extra glee.

  3. June 24, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Latest post in this blog carnival: http://www.rpgmusings.com/2010/06/blog-carnival-overpowered-sandboxes-and-just-right-rails/

    It’s the 10th one, full links to all of the first nine can be found at the end of my post.


  4. September 5, 2012 at 1:39 am

    eVry curious topic


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