18 December 2017

Railroads vs. Sandboxes

In response to Alexis, here: http://tao-dnd.blogspot.ca/2017/12/everything-is-road.html

This is interesting food for thought, but I don't know that I'm sold on such a broad definition of a railroad - unless I've misunderstood, Alexis is saying any voyage with a destination is now a railroad.

In my mind, the defining features of railroads are the permanence and inflexibility of the route, the scheduled departure and arrival, and the impossibility of changing destination once en route. On a railroad voyage, you are not in control except at stations (where your only choice is to disembark or remain on board until the next station). I cannot board a train and go to my home town. The trains haven't gone there for sixty years. It is impossible. I can go to Montreal, but once I have boarded, I can get off at Kingston or a few other points, but I cannot decide to go to Barrie without disembarking and purchasing a new fare.

Contrast this with a road and a car. I get in, I can pull off the road at any point, stop at a rest stop or just on the shoulder, change destinations at will (along the road network, of course, but at any time). I am in control of the route, the schedule, the destination, and even the moment-to-moment course of the  vehicle, whereas with a train I am not.

The word railroad - emphasis on the "rail" - describes the most restrictive form of travel. Even airlines and cruises, which are superficially similar (set schedules and destinations), have more freedom than railroads. The captain can choose to change destinations at any time to anywhere within range with an airport/harbour, say, in the event of a medical or mechanical emergency, or a hijacking. 

I don't think it's coincidental that we use the most restrictive kind of travel as a metaphor for the most restrictive kind of games. An rpg railroad doesn't merely have a destination. It is controlled by an engineer. It is running on rails. Your options are to get off (and find another game group), or continue to the destination. You will visit the scheduled adventure sites in the scheduled order. Anything not on the itinerary is just so many telephone poles whipping by at sixty miles an hour.

So, at one end we have literally the most restricted form of travel. At the other, we have the sandbox - the ultimate example of self-directed, structureless play. Even more so than on the road network, I'm in control in the sandbox. I can make a hill and raze it, build a road network and have my toys run along it until I'm bored and I decide it's a river and we're rafting along it, then build a town and a forest and play at bandits.

In a game context, we can farm mustard until we get bored, then wander the roads helping travellers until we tire of that and decide to open a river freight business, or go be bandits in the woods, or anything else.

The distinction isn't between whether there is a direction/destination/goal/series of obstacles, it's who is in charge. In a railroad, the DM is the engineer, the conductor, the train, the rails, the stations, and the tycoon who planned the route, while the player is the Sunday tourist seeing the sights by rail.

In a sandbox, the player is the child and the DM is the sand.

From Alexis' conclusion:

"Choosing to set themselves on the path to find a McGuffin and obtain some clues is not how a sandbox works; it only shows a willingness for players to buy their own tickets for the destination they choose.  That's nicer than being told which train we're going to board, but it is STILL a railroad."

I don't know about that. If it's a railroad, then they can't get off, visit the stations in any order, or decide to fuck it and just set up as bandits because it turned out this MacGuffin was boring. If it's a railroad, they'll find the DM-as-conductor putting obstacles in any other path to dissuade them, or sweetening the pot, or otherwise coercing/outright forcing them back onto the rails, because in a railroad, the DM is in charge.

If it's a sandbox, they can decide they don't care about the MacGuffin at any point and make the game about being bandits in the woods, and the DM will roll with it, because the DM is the sand, and there to provide the medium of play.

8 June 2017

Dungeon Design: Shortcuts in the Souls Games

One of the things that drew me into the *Souls video games (Demon Souls, Dark Souls) was their use of shortcuts.

For those not familiar with the series, it is a punishing game where even the humblest enemies are a threat. You die and respawn a lot, and every time you do, all the enemies respawn as well. Your range from the spawn point (they are few and far between) is largely determined by your healing potion supply. It can be hard to push just that little bit farther, every encounter is sapping your strength, and you don't know how you'll be able to reach the boss at all, let alone with enough health to prevail.

However, the worlds are heavily Jacquayed. As you progress, you will find ways to open up shortcuts. This lever raises that portcullis near the spawn that seemed impenetrable, allowing you to bypass the first ten minutes of the level. Here, there's a ladder you can drop down, allowing you to climb up the tower directly instead of wending your way through the castle. After opening up a few shortcuts, you can often get from the spawn to the boss in a few minutes, instead of the hour(s) it took you to find and open all the shortcuts.

The biggest thrill in the game isn't finding a new weapon, or more armour, or another healing potion. It's finding these precious shortcuts!

I love this. I think it should be a part of every dungeon larger than half a dozen rooms.

I'd go so far as to say any megadungeon requires the presence of many such shortcuts.

Get your players looking for ways to cut down their time in the dungeon through shortcuts.