Transitioning from railroad to sandbox

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Lord Karick
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Transitioning from railroad to sandbox

#1 Postby Lord Karick » Thu Feb 13, 2014 7:56 am

Ok, the title is overstating the issue. A bit. But it's probably a good representation of the my problem. I GM a mixed group of adults and kids, with the latter being relatively mature 12-year olds and all having approx. five years gaming experience under the belt. Understandably we started at the spoon-feeding end of the GMing spectrum but as my own experience has grown I've been trying to improvise more in order to give them more player agency. I'm not the most spontaneous person and tend to over-prepare most things.
The next section of the long-running campaign takes place in a foreign city that the PCs are not familiar with. The job in hand is to determine the whereabouts of an ancient orb and then procure the same.
My question is what tips do you guys have for making this sort of transition in GM style? How do I encourage the players to come up with their own solutions? I need to do at least some prep so that I don't spend too much time umming and ahhing at the table when we play, but want to keep it fairly loose.
Thanks

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#2 Postby The One » Thu Feb 13, 2014 8:19 am

I've been experimenting with an approach to writing adventures as a series of possible challenges that the characters face, in a rough order, and let the players chose the order in which they transition between them.

For example, my current game is a sterotypical fantasy game, to the point where adventuring parties and guilds have the right to loot enshrined in law, in return for having to be hired to undertake dangerous jobs

Their most recent adventure starts out with them being hired to track someone down, from accepting the job, the challenges were written to be "Investigate the disappearance", "Survive the dangers of the forest", "Navigate some ancient ruins" (which offers the chance to pad out some mini-dungeons), and finally "Confront the bad guy"

Whilst the adventure has a natural flow, there's always the opportunity to mix things up, for example if they immediately head out into the ruins, then one of the encounters there may be the same as in the forest, or perhaps the clues that could be found at the camp site are scattered through the first dungeon. Also, by having the option to include side sections, if I come up with a great idea mid-week, or one the players goes "well at least we didn't have to deal with xxxx", then it can be included without derailing the original plot.
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#3 Postby Bloodwork » Thu Feb 13, 2014 9:05 am

The One wrote:I've been experimenting with an approach to writing adventures as a series of possible challenges that the characters face, in a rough order, and let the players chose the order in which they transition between them.

For example, my current game is a sterotypical fantasy game, to the point where adventuring parties and guilds have the right to loot enshrined in law, in return for having to be hired to undertake dangerous jobs

Their most recent adventure starts out with them being hired to track someone down, from accepting the job, the challenges were written to be "Investigate the disappearance", "Survive the dangers of the forest", "Navigate some ancient ruins" (which offers the chance to pad out some mini-dungeons), and finally "Confront the bad guy"

Whilst the adventure has a natural flow, there's always the opportunity to mix things up, for example if they immediately head out into the ruins, then one of the encounters there may be the same as in the forest, or perhaps the clues that could be found at the camp site are scattered through the first dungeon. Also, by having the option to include side sections, if I come up with a great idea mid-week, or one the players goes "well at least we didn't have to deal with xxxx", then it can be included without derailing the original plot.


This is a good approach. I find that any advice on "prep-lite" also lends itself to improvisation. Check out Gnome Stew and especially the 3-3-3 approach. For more here http://www.gnomestew.com/tag/prep-lite/ and http://www.gnomestew.com/tag/prep/.

I have started using tags in my notes for people and things instead of full paragraphs. The tags remind me of what is interesting/important about the person/location/encounter and prevents me reading from a script when describing it.
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Re: Transitioning from railroad to sandbox

#4 Postby UmbraLux » Thu Feb 13, 2014 9:58 am

Lord Karick wrote:My question is what tips do you guys have for making this sort of transition in GM style?
Change your long term planning from what happens to why...in other words, plan NPC goals and resources rather than events and encounters.

When you know an NPC's goals and the resources they have to accomplish said goals you can easily choose between reactive and proactive scenes.

When the PCs seem at a loss:
- What is the NPC doing? How will that affect the PCs?
- How much closer to his goal will the NPC get?
- Is the NPC aware of the PCs? Are they at odds yet? What is the NPC going to do about it?
- How will the PCs hear about the NPC's actions?
- How will the NPC's actions intersect with the PCs?

When the PCs surprise you:
- The NPC's goals haven't changed, how will they react?
- If the NPC's resources have been damaged / changed, how will they recover?
- In essence, the NPC needs to come up with a new way to reach his goal.

How do I encourage the players to come up with their own solutions?
Make their solutions / attempts at a solution matter when they do come up with one. A success is an opportunity to highlight a character or idea - create that cool moment of "I did X!". Even a failed attempt should make a noticeable change in the resulting story. Whatever you do, don't ignore or pass over something you want to encourage.
Last edited by UmbraLux on Thu Feb 13, 2014 10:05 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Transitioning from railroad to sandbox

#5 Postby ValhallaGH » Thu Feb 13, 2014 10:01 am

Lord Karick wrote:My question is what tips do you guys have for making this sort of transition in GM style? How do I encourage the players to come up with their own solutions? I need to do at least some prep so that I don't spend too much time umming and ahhing at the table when we play, but want to keep it fairly loose.

First step, accept that your players will be dictating the pacing of the adventure. This is the hardest step, but the most important for effective sandbox-style play. They may wander through the market for three hours of the session or they may focus on their goal with laser-like intensity. But that is their choice and you have to roll with it.
Second step, make sure to react to what they do. The city watch should treat them like any other visitor, until they stop acting like other visitors. The thieves should be prepared to commit crime, and to run away when they realize how dangerous the party is. The priests should be trying to get converts, donations, or both. And politicians should be looking to turn these powerful individuals into either assets or someone else's problem.
Third step, make it absolutely clear to your players that how they handle this is entirely up to them. "Here is your problem and here is the city. What do you do?"

Preparation: Know the layout of the city, where the power groups are, and where certain investigative paths are likely to lead (or mislead in the case of critical failures). Know key personalities, and have a list of names (either specific NPCs or random names) for the city of characters they may interact with.
You need to know this stuff because it might all become relevant. Your players do not need to know this stuff unless it becomes relevant, so don't bog them down with it.

Good luck!
Last edited by ValhallaGH on Thu Feb 13, 2014 12:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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#6 Postby Rune » Thu Feb 13, 2014 11:25 am

I second the NPC goals as described by UmbraLux. Good stuff!

If you're at a point where you're um'ing and ah'ing, don't be afraid to take a break for 10-15 minutes to gather your thoughts and brainstorm. Also, "random" encounters are your friend. Have a list of a few likely encounters that the group may run into in the area you're in. If you get into a spot, you can run one of those encounters.

Stall for time to think! Or maybe for the end of the session to really plan. Afterward, they might be wondering aloud if this encounter has anything to do with various plotlines they are following. Have a pad ready to scribble down their thoughts. They might be quite good. Perhaps things you haven't thought of, which you can then incorporate in the near future (or right then and there) as if you'd planned it all along.

It's also a way to drop hints you want them to find out anyway. A seemingly random encounter can be a plot hint delivery vehicle.

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#7 Postby SavageGamerGirl » Thu Feb 13, 2014 11:56 am

Also, if they bog down in details or start to flounder, it's perfectly find to remind them that the Streetwise skill is used for asking around, talking to people, looking into rumors, and so on, and it can be used untrained. Even with my experienced players, I sometimes find myself suggesting that they try a Streetwise roll. Investigation is also useful for looking through newspaper archives, computer records, and libraries (if any such things exist in your setting).
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#8 Postby Zadmar » Thu Feb 13, 2014 12:07 pm

One technique I found useful for my sandbox games was to plan several possible events (just a few sentences each) that I could throw at the players if/when the story started running out of steam. You can use the events to push or pull the players towards a particular goal, but the main thing is that there's always something happening, even if the players run out of ideas.

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#9 Postby ogbendog » Thu Feb 13, 2014 12:21 pm

The Warhammer Fantasy "Enemy Within" campain was an interesting railroad/sandbox mix

for the most part, the Strategic plot was railroad. "First you are here, then you go to that city, then you go to that city"

But each location was very sandboxy. There was a mystery or whatever, and it was very open how to solve.

IN your case, you could have several city sections, and maybe map out or railroad when they visit each one, but have multiple plots for each one.

the other, is to give each PC a clue or hook. One guy has a rumor at the docks, the other a message from an old friend in the lumber yard, etc.
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#10 Postby Lord Karick » Fri Feb 14, 2014 3:06 am

Thanks everyone, that's a lot of great sounding advice. The NPC goals concept has particularly got my cogs turning.

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#11 Postby Jux » Fri Feb 14, 2014 8:59 am

I have not run a sandbox game before, but I have read about it and this style really fascinates me.

As one of the problem at first is to get players encouraged to take initiative, the key solution to that is that the GM must constantly give feedback to player actions. Anything a PC does or does not do, must be reflected in the game world and must be communicated back to the players. When this does to happen, PCs will soon get it.

At least this is what I think.

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#12 Postby Darq666 » Fri Feb 14, 2014 9:28 am

Prep individual encounters, not chains of events. Include several random encounters along with encounters you know will happen, even if you didn't use the ones from last session - That way you will end up with a dictionary of encounters prepared and be able to be more flexible.

Example: You know a rival group is also searching for the orb, have all their stats created and noted down so that should they come to blows you are prepared. Where / when the encounter happens is really immaterial. Then think about who they are likely to encounter: a street thief, a beggar, a shop keeper, ALWAYS have an encounter with the local authorities prepared (City watch, Captain / Sergeant of the guard).

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#13 Postby Bobble » Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:56 am

You might check out this post at RPG.net: http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?517 ... emastering The OP couches it as "lazy GMing" but it's really about doing minimal prep which is critical for a sandbox.

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#14 Postby Darq666 » Fri Feb 14, 2014 12:10 pm

Bobble wrote:You might check out this post at RPG.net: http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?517 ... emastering The OP couches it as "lazy GMing" but it's really about doing minimal prep which is critical for a sandbox.

I will respectfully disagree - I think sandbox DM'ing actually requires more preparation, you have to be prepared for any contingency. It means you have to be flexible and be prepared to take the characters, whatever direction they go. Perhaps on a "per session" basis, that might be true - once you have a library built up, it takes the pressure off.

You would prepare less of a story line, but in the way of NPC's and random type encounters, you would need to be able to support a lot more than in a game where you know where they will go, who they will talk to and what will happen.

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#15 Postby Fairman Rogers » Fri Feb 14, 2014 12:23 pm

It is important to have a number of world stories in mind. (Apocalypse World uses the unfortunate term "front" to describe this concept.) Keep throwing out little clues about the big picture in the daily interactions that the heroes face. They may begin to notice the patterns and wonder what's going on.

This way they choose the arcs with which they want to engage. If they pursue one, let the others fall by the wayside, unless you think they might eventually want to do those others as well. Then you just build them more slowly while the characters investigate their first choice.
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#16 Postby Bobble » Fri Feb 14, 2014 12:28 pm

Darq666 wrote:
Bobble wrote:You might check out this post at RPG.net: http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?517 ... emastering The OP couches it as "lazy GMing" but it's really about doing minimal prep which is critical for a sandbox.

I will respectfully disagree - I think sandbox DM'ing actually requires more preparation, you have to be prepared for any contingency. It means you have to be flexible and be prepared to take the characters, whatever direction they go. Perhaps on a "per session" basis, that might be true - once you have a library built up, it takes the pressure off.

You would prepare less of a story line, but in the way of NPC's and random type encounters, you would need to be able to support a lot more than in a game where you know where they will go, who they will talk to and what will happen.


I guess it depends on what you mean by preparation. You have to be flexible, I agree. But when the PCs come to rescue the princess and blow their stealth roll, you can't always predict that their next move will be to blast their way into the garbage chute to try to escape. Were you supposed to have a garbage serpent monster already statted up?

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#17 Postby Lord Karick » Fri Feb 14, 2014 12:30 pm

I suspect that one of the issues here is how spontaneous you can be as a GM. Some find it easier than others, I know that I find it difficult to make stuff up on the fly. I'm more of a preparer, but I can see how it might work with the set pieces.

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#18 Postby Bobble » Fri Feb 14, 2014 12:48 pm

Lord Karick wrote:I suspect that one of the issues here is how spontaneous you can be as a GM. Some find it easier than others, I know that I find it difficult to make stuff up on the fly. I'm more of a preparer, but I can see how it might work with the set pieces.


I've read that post that I referenced a number of times. What I get out of it is that you aren't really making stuff up out of nothing. You have already thought about your adversaries and their capabilities. You don't spend any time trying to predict what the PCs will do. You just spend your time in the mindset of your adversary NPCs, using their resources to either react to the PCs or progress along with their nefarious plans.

There's also a very big theme of trust yourself. I bet you're better at improvising than you think. Especially if it's within the framework of the adversary NPCs that you know better than anyone.

Regardless, I hope it helps you some.

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#19 Postby ValhallaGH » Fri Feb 14, 2014 4:16 pm

Bobble wrote:What I get out of it is that you aren't really making stuff up out of nothing. You have already thought about your adversaries and their capabilities. You don't spend any time trying to predict what the PCs will do. You just spend your time in the mindset of your adversary NPCs, using their resources to either react to the PCs or progress along with their nefarious plans.

There's also a very big theme of trust yourself. I bet you're better at improvising than you think. Especially if it's within the framework of the adversary NPCs that you know better than anyone.

Very well said.


As the GM, you've created the sandbox. You know who is in it, what they want, and what toys are there to play with. Your players can wander all over the place with no rhyme or reason, but since you know what is in the box, you know what they can encounter, who they will encounter, and how those personalities will react to the players' actions.
You know all of this because you created the sandbox (or at least thoroughly read the description of the sandbox you're playing in, for existing settings).
Just remember who these personalities are, what they want, and what resources they have and you'll do a pretty good job of simulating how they react to what the players do and how they react to what the players do not do. As a successful GM, you've already done a fair bit of this over the years - players always surprise us with their moments of brilliance, idiocy, and bumbling luck. You've learned how to roll with those moments, so you can figure out how to roll with the challenges of 'sandbox' games.

If it helps, think of the game like you're on the production staff for an 'open' computer RPG (something from the Elder Scrolls or Fallout franchises, as an example). There is a huge playground of people, groups, goals, loot, and monsters that your players have wandered into. You get to watch what they do and react to it. Some of those reactions are obvious (defend self from PC attack), some are a bit more subtle (thank PCs for rescue), and some take a bit of thought to realize (post bounty for PCs, and send teams of hunters after them, because they wiped out one of your allies), but they all are reactions to the choices and actions of the player characters.
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#20 Postby Bobble » Fri Feb 14, 2014 4:34 pm

Not to belabor the point but a quote from that thread I referenced caught my interest.

I'm an immersive player, so when I GM, I use that immersive skill to climb inside my NPCs and see what they're thinking.


I think that "Lazy GMing" is shifting from orchestrating set pieces for your PCs to roleplaying with/against them as the opposition NPCs. Sounds like more fun to me than setting up a scene and hoping it plays out like you expect.


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