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Railroading and Sandboxing: The Linear-Open World

    By definition the concept of railroading is a style of Game Mastering where the GM tends to deny players from having any opportunity to affect change in an adventure or campaign through their character's actions or decisions (though to some players it means any attempt by the GM to introduce a plot or some-how influence the story); whereas Sandboxing is a style of gaming where there is little to no limitations placed on the player and her character, allowing the player character to roam and change the world around them at will, which will often result in player option paralysis. Neither of which is good for any role-playing experience and both of which will die out quickly due to boredom, frustration or arguments. Both are extremes and should be avoid at all costs.

    However, if you and your players prefer moving directly from Point A to Point B with little interaction with the world, other than to sell treasure, purchase healing or learning spells, then "railroading" or rather a strict-linear style of play would be perfect for you; or if you are able to and can easily improvise the world around the player characters with enough background filled with NPCs, locations, rumors, side-treks, "find the fun style" and perhaps a main over-reaching plot arc, then perhaps the open-world is perfect for you and your group.

    A better middle ground could be described as linear-open world. A linear-open world style of play requires you, the GM, to present the players with options concerning the story in such a way that the players never feel as though you are pushing or carrying them through the adventure or scenario. This requires some work on your part. You must prepare a number of pathways, some that might lead back to the original story either through a number of other minor encounters created by your players, while others will be a direct route back to the plot line; through a list of rumors that might be used to redirect the PCs back to the path of the scenario. One of the best ways to create a linear-open world is through the use of various timelines, a schedule of events over the course of the campaign where the PCs will learn of the events as they occur, or if they happen to be in the right spot at the right time to learn about them before they occur giving the PCs a chance to intervene.

    Players, despite their need to feel a sense of freedom, need to have a sense of structure as well, which means that a game should conform to a strong story pace and most players will, either directly or indirectly, choose a goal and once a goal is chosen the open world blends seamlessly into a linear progression. So long as you are not blatantly driving the players, they will likely never figure out that the path they are on is actually a part of the scenario.

    Be prepared for the players to go left when the story progression needs them to go right. When this occurs, keep the following in mind: Be Patient (let the players explore and deal with the consequences), Relax (as long as you do not let them see you panic they will likely not even know that they stepped off the chosen path), and place subtle signposts to help guide the lost back toward the desired goals of the campaign. When players feel that they have choices, they are likely to not ruin the campaign. Most players want the structure of a linear story line, whether they know it or not.

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