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Blog Carnival: Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails?

This is my response to the blog carnival topic started on Twitter by @ThadeousC.  Here are the rules:

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. If you wish to participate in this blog carnival, please post a comment saying so and you will have 24 hours to write and post your response (if you don’t have a blog of your own to post on, email me at DMSamuel AT IronNeuronEnterprises DOT com and I can give you a contributor spot here to post your article).

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

4. Be respectful.  No name calling.

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This question is very interesting to me and I appreciate the breadth of answers that have already been written for the blog carnival.

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Why Did This Question Come Up?

In 4e it is very easy for the DM to scale monsters and encounters to fit the party level.  It is the first edition where I have had an extremely easy time doing so, and I can even rate the encounters easy, medium, or hard based on what I am throwing at the players.   This ease-of-encounter-building ensures that making encounters that are the matched to the level of the party seems like the right thing for the DM to do. But is it good for your players to assume that every encounter is beatable?  Does it lead to arrogance?  Does it lead to erroneous assumptions? Does it lead players to take more chances since they know they will survive?  Or does it lead players to make fewer creative moves because they know they will win in battle?


Realism in the Game Setting

I have mixed feelings about this question.  I feel it is important that the players are adventuring in a world that lives and breathes around them.  This should includes the fact of larger and more powerful enemies, of a much higher level existing around them.  In my 4e games I find it so easy to scale that I don’t have a tendency to send unscaled encounters at my players, and certainly haven’t done it on purpose.  Because of this topic I have begun thinking about this a great deal, wondering if it is a problem and if I should do anything to change it.

On one hand, it seems that 4e is tailor made to be this way… the PCs are heroic from the get-go and are expected to best most bad guys they come across.  On the other hand, I do want the world to have a sense of realism, even in the face of playing a fantasy game.  I want the players to feel challenged and triumphant when they finish an encounter.


I’m Saying One Thing and Running Encounters A Different Way

Upon reflection I realize that I am saying one thing (that I like to make it more realistic with monsters of higher levels existing) and then running encounters a different way (always scaling to the party’s abilities).  So, I started thinking about older editions of the game and how I used to run them.  I was unafraid to give the players an encounter that they may not be able to defeat and I expected them to flee if they could.  It was understood about my DMing style that this would happen sometimes.  I was thinking especially of Basic D&D/OD&D (easy to do since I am a member of the Fellowship of the Tweet game run by newbiedm).  I started playing around with the idea of random encounter tables.  Since I run games in my own homebrew setting, I could tailor these encounters to the location or area and not to player level.  The problem with this is that I don’t think it’s fair to throw an overpowered encounter at my players without giving them a warning about certain areas or types of terrain (e.g. swamps are dangerous), or at least planting the seeds and clues that let them know there are dangerous areas.

So, no reason to do a random encounter table – I can just drop those hints when needed.   Maybe planting seeds is the right way to do it for my campaign.  I do think that a living world has to have those more dangerous creatures.  So now the question is: Do you throw those creatures at your players? The answer: only if they insist upon it after fair warning and enough clues/seeds have been planted. This will bring my 4e game closer to the way I used to run OD&D and 1st edition AD&D.

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Sandbox vs Rails: The False Dichotomy

I think 4e has opened up the possibility that running on “rails” has a different definition, or at least a different connotation, than it did in previous editions (at least for me).  As a long-time DM and player, I used to consider “railroading” a bad thing, but I think maybe the rails aren’t such a detrimental attribute to include in a campaign, as long as they are mixed with the illusion of a sandbox. How does a DM accomplish that illusion?

3 ways to give this illusion: 1) provide several adventure hooks to the players at all times.  They can feel free to pick up whichever thread they want and follow it.  I already do this for the most part, so it will be no big deal to accomplish this part.  2) Give ample hints of a bigger enemy in several different places in the world.  I don’t mean a larger conspiracy organization or anything like that (though it would be valid), I just mean to drop hints about where overpowered monsters are found. The way to bring this together? 3) Make one of the hooks lead to a place where the encounter is overpowered – as long as the players (PCs) know the area is dangerous, it is their choice to enter that area chasing that hook.

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So that method meshes the rails and sandbox together, making the terms meaningless in 4e.  Maybe that is why the designers added the skill challenge as a true game mechanic, rather than leaving it just to the “role-playing.” Maybe that’s why Wizards of the Coast created the system with such ease of scaling and re-skinning monsters.  4e Really is a DM’s boon, and the system makes it so that the rails can sit squarely in the sandbox and no-one misses either type of game because everyone gets both.


To read the other posts in this blog carnival, click the links below:

First Post by ThadeousC: mydndgame.net

Second Post by WolfSamurai: Phelanar’s Den

Third Post by Obsidian Crane: The Daily Encounter

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: You just read it!

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

Twelfth Post by Colmarr: The Astral Sea

Thirteenth Post by Azaroth: Turning It Up To 21 Sided

Fourteenth Post by Ryven Cedrylle: At Will

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Hope you are enjoying this Blog Carnival!

Until next time, I wish you good gaming.

~DM Samuel

Sand image subject to creative commons attribution, was taken off of Flickr on 6/23/2010 and is property of mikebaird

Dual tracks image subject to creative commons attribution, was take off of Flickr on 6/23/2010 and is property of laffy4k

Desert Tracks image subject to creative commons attribution, was taken off of Flickr on 6/23/2010 and is property of Nesher Guy


DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

11 Responses to “Blog Carnival: Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails?”

  • Excellent post :) surely a great addition to an already great compilation of post in this blog carnival, i feel tempted to write one myself (you have talked about several points i had thought reading the other posts, like realism Vs the game setting) nevertheless i dont want to take the responsibility before i write the post XD so ill try to write something and may be get into it after the next contributor :)

  • […] Blog Carnival: Deliberately Overpowered Encounters by Brian Engard As the World Scales by NewbieDM Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM […]

  • […] Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM Samuel […]

  • Meshing railroading and the illusion of a sandbox together isn’t the same thing as meshing railroading and a sandbox together because the sandbox isn’t real. You can mesh all sorts of real and imaginary things together such as fire and imaginary ice, but it still doesn’t mean you can mesh the real things together. All you are doing here is throwing the sandbox under the bus by claiming that an illusion of a sandbox is as good as the real thing, making the term “meaningless”.

  • The way that 4e allows the DM to prep for encounters makes BOTH terms meaningless. This is because you can give the illusion of the sandbox or give the illusion of the rails, or you could give real sandbox or real rails, all depending on how you prep the STORY part of your game. In other words, if you are a ready, willing, and able DM that wants to offer both to your players, the ease of encounter building in 4e makes it possible to do so.

    If we define sandbox as completely freeform storytelling where the players can do anything they want withing the game-world, then the DM has to generate encounters on the spot. 4e actually makes this possible, but much more stressful for the DM. So.. the compromise is prepping some encounters and giving ideas about what may be found in other areas (which is what I suggest in my post). If the players go totally off the rails and into spontaneous encounter generation, then they may run into something more powerful than they thought – is that an illusion of sandbox or a true sandbox? Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word illusion in my post? Either way, the point of my post is still valid. 4e lets you mesh both, so it is a false dichotomy; in 4e the rails and the sandbox are no longer diametrically opposed in a single game, 4e makes the meshing of the two methods possible in a single campaign.

  • Yes, you can split the difference between a railroad and a sandbox and run something that’s a bit of both, but at some sacrifice to either or both. And while the players may sometimes believe that a planned encounter is spontaneous (the illusion of spontaneity), true “planned spontaneity” remains an oxymoron. The problem lies in the assumption that the players won’t be able to tell the difference through the illusion. While that may be true for quite a few players, the players who care the most about true spontaneity can eventually tell the difference because a truly spontaneous game does not behave the same way that a planned game does.

    I suggest watching two movies that do a good job of illustrating how a player, through their character, can see through the illusion: Last Action Hero (e.g., this scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfBfgIEeiB0) and The Truman Show (trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDlnhGNTRvI). The latter, in particular, does a wonderful job of illustrating why “planned spontaneity” of the sort GMs usually engage in never quite feels truly “spontaneous” because, after all, the point of planning is to file the sharp edges off of spontaneity.

    And while I have no real problem with creating an illusion of spontaneity if the players are having fun with it, I think it’s a mistake to assume that the players can’t tell the difference and won’t mind, especially if true spontaneity matters a great deal to them, because an illusion is never as robust as the real thing.

  • All true and all good points. What it comes down to is the type of game that the DM and players have agreed upon. If everyone agrees to have a full-on sandbox game and the DM preps all the encounters ahead of time, then it isn’t truly sandbox and the players would have cause to complain. If the DM and players all agree to play a rail-y game with the DM leading the players to where they “need” to go for the story and then the DM tries to run a completely sandbox/spontaneous game, the players will have cause to complain.

    Anytime the players or DM break the social contract in the gaming group, then the other party has cause to complain. As long as everyone agrees to the style of game and everyone tries to stay true to that style of play, then everyone is happy.

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