Sandboxes Or Rails: Striking the Balance With Tabletop Roleplaying

There’s a degree of derision when people talk about a tabletop roleplaying game being "on rails," and rightly so.

The term came about with the advent of early arcade games, where "the gameplay locks the player character into a set path, only allowing for limited or no divergence from it, in a similar manner to a theme park dark ride (which are typically on train tracks)." (wikipedia) In a tabletop RPG, it means that your characters are forced to take a specific course of action, or a specific outcome is predetermined.

On the other end, you have "open world" or "sandbox" games, where characters are free to do whatever they might like. This has its own set of problems, and can be prone to players roaming about aimlessly, unsure what they want to do.

Striking the balance between these two is particularly difficult when you are designing or running self-contained "one-shot" adventures like I do. They’re specifically designed to take one session, usually lasting somewhere between three and four hours (although I’ve seen some scheduled for six). As the gamemaster, there really isn’t a lot of time for players to dawdle, but at the same time, you don’t want to take away their agency.

Here’s a trick, a plan, and a mechanic to help you design and run your own one-shot adventure and get the right balance:

The trick: Start your players in media res {1}, that is, with the action already started. Skip the "meet in the tavern/spaceport/bar" scene entirely. The characters have already been hired, assigned, or committed to the adventure hook. This also gives you the opportunity to ask your players why their characters have already agreed to the job/adventure, to go along with this crew, etc. Not only do you get your players invested right away, they often give you a nice bit of backstory that you can then incorporate.

The plan: Since I also like playing in one-shot adventures, I’ve noticed a common "act" structure: 1-2 "social scenes," a minor combat, another 1-2 "social scenes," and then a major combat. The problem is that these almost always run over four hours unless either the "social" scenes are as perfunctory as a cutscene in Quake II or the combat gets cut short by a special ability or thinking wildly out of the box. Typically, I’ve found that there is usually only time for 4 or 5 scenes total in a four-hour session, and combat should often count for at least two scenes. That usually gives my players enough to time for each of their characters to have a moment to shine in every scene, combat or not.

The mechanic: You need a clock. Not a physical timepiece, but a clock in the game world. For example, Monster of the Week (one of my three favorite systems) calls it a "Countdown." {2} The basic idea is that it outlines what would have happened if the adventure never occurred and the players never intervened. So instead of having your NPCs sitting around waiting to get aggroed like badly-coded video game characters, they do stuff.

A simple example: The hook is that there’s rumors of Bob The Wizard preparing for A Very Bad Spell. You decide that it will take the evil wizard 24 hours {3} to do all the preparations for the SuperDuper Spell Of Bad Things. During that time, the wizard’s minions are stealing/ obtaining/ raiding for reagents. If the players stop the minions, it slows the preparations while they search for the wizard’s location to end the spell. If they dawdle or ignore the problem, in 24 hours, the wizard frees a tarrasque {4}, and Things Happen As They Will.

Are the players supposed to fight the tarrasque? Um, no. What you hope happens is that they pay attention to the plot hook and go knock Bob upside the head. But if they decide not to, then Unpleasant Things Will Probably Happen Naturally Offstage.

It’s perfectly fair to provide copious hints that Ignoring The Adventure may lead to Very Bad Things. It’s even fair to give hints that Things Are Getting Worse.

But giving your players that choice is absolutely vital.

I run Dungeons & Dragons one-shots a few times a week over at Start Playing, and specifically cater to new, beginning, LGBTQIA+, and neurodivergent players, and post what I’m running at .

{1} Say: "in media ray", I think.
{2} A detailed discussion of the mechanic with spoilers on reddit
{3} You can even metagame it, and say "each scene gets the wizard a third of their way to their goal."
{4} Very Big, Very Bad, Near-Indestructable Monster

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