Friday, October 20, 2017

On RPGs: Sandboxing vs. Railroading

Matthew Colville’s spectacular video guide to becoming a Game Master is a resource that every RPG-lover will thoroughly enjoy. As I watched this video specifically, I began to see the similarities between running an RPG and writing a novel:

For those of you who don’t have 15 minutes to watch his video right now (because you NEED to watch it at some point), Colville introduces two terms:
  • Sandboxing: Allowing characters to run the story and allowing yourself (as the GM) to be surprised at new developments in the story, but learning to roll with the changes. Characters get to explore the sandbox and take the story into their own hands.
  • Railroading: Having such a strong idea of where the story needs to go that you beat your characters into submission by forcing them to do what you originally intended. Characters are railroaded into your planned story.

Colville explains that, for RPG players, having a GM who sandboxes is far more enjoyable and often leads to a more rewarding and enjoyable story. As I watched his video, I realized that this sort of thing happens to writers all the time.
A few years ago, I was writing a NaNoWriMo story about a girl who ran away to join some space pirates. I had some big plans for her and I was so excited to see how she would develop and lead the story.
You can imagine my surprise when her little sister started leading the story with the drama back home and when my dear space piratess became a blood-thirsty and mad murderer.
At first, I was pretty shocked when these changes began to happen. It felt a little like the story was writing itself and like I wasn’t truly in control of it anymore. I resisted at first, trying to steer the story back on track. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that the story worked much better with this dark twist and that having my original MC kill a bunch of people actually worked fairly well for the character I’d built. So I let the story move along in a direction I never could have forseen and I was shocked (and somewhat delighted) by the results. This whole experience affected me so much that my next NaNoWriMo was about an author who tries way too hard to whip his characters into shape and who eventually learns to let the story go in an unplanned direction.
Colville’s video hit me hard as I remembered my own experiences in writing (and even some of my RPG-playing) when I had tried far too hard to make the story go in a certain direction instead of sitting back and seeing what would happen. And Colville’s right - in an RPG, your characters have much more fun if you let them run the story. So why are we often so resistant to allowing the characters in our stories to do just this?
I’m learning to sandbox more instead of railroading my characters. For me, this works much better. But I’m curious - do you sandbox more? Or railroad more? What do you see as the pros and cons of each style? And why do you write like you do?

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