Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Sandbox and the Railroad - then and now

Been a while, huh? Well, that's life in the OSR blogosphere! It's been a pretty happy holidays here at chéz A& gaming loot for x-mas or my birthday, but that's OK.  I'm a big boy now, and I buy my own games. I'm already pretty gamed-up here.

Anyway, I picked up a mess of interesting games recently.  Too many to read, much less catalog in a single post. And that also includes a sprinkling of Steam games (you may have heard about the winter sale, no?).

Apparently, I haven't played all the games...

And from that material I draw the topic of this post i.e. comparing sandbox/railroad concepts between then and now. Specifically, I'd like to compare two very different games: Shadows Over Bögenhafen, the classic Warhammer Fantasy adventure, and The Escapists 2, a recent videogame.

Weird comparison, huh?

I went into Shadows with high expectations, since this is the first adventure of a classic series.  Dating back from 1986, I expected nothing less that pure uncut OSR goodness.  Well, perhaps I wasn't that naive, but I hadn't expected a railroad on the same level as Dragonlance.  Peep some of these passages:

From page 41:
It is important that the adventurers do not have horses and that they are unable to get any until they reach Bogenhafen. This is not much of a problem, as currently they cannot afford to buy any horses and you should make it very hard for them to get any by any other means, such as stealing. If the players seem to be contemplating any illegal activities, you might like to remind them of the risks involved (see Law in 7be Empire, page 20).
Page 56:
Adolphus does not surrender, and it is essential that he is killed in this fight - by manipulating the Critical Hits Table (WFRP, p122), it is a simple matter for him to receive a killing blow. It is vitally important that the PCs do not get the opportunity to talk to him, no matter how they handle the attack.
Page 57:
After this escapade the adventurers should be encouraged to carry on to Bogenhafen and the next adventure in the series, Shadows Over Bogenhafen. Josef still wants to sell his wine and make a profit on the deal, and the PCs should be interested enough in the inheritance to encourage them to make the journey. If the PCs show a reluctance to continue on their way, a push in the right direction might be required. This push can take the form of GM hints that Bogenhafen is a far safer place for suspected murderers, or you might like to let them discover that a group of Roadwardens have arrived in Weissbruck asking questions about them. 
And so on.  Trust me, there's a lot of this.

Nothing can take away from this kickass cover

Among it's other sins:
  • A forty-page info dump on the history, metaphysics and heraldry of the setting to start things off.
  • A lot of time spent describing an encounter when players wants to ride inside a carriage but its other occupants don't want this.
  • The entire plot hinges on the party attending a street festival and witnessing very specific things there.
  • Lots of Fellowship tests and perception checks (OSR no-nos, but I'm not dogmatic on this one)
  • Jerking the players around with a mistaken identity situation and a fake inheritance promise.
Don't worry; I haven't given up on the entire Enemy Within campaign, but this was still a bit of a let-down.

Meanwhile, I procured The Escapists 2 on Steam this month, and as disappointed as I was with Shadows Over Bögenhafen's railroading, Escapists has surprised me with compelling sandbox play in a videogame.

It doesn't hurt that it has some sweet-ass pixel art

The concept is obvious, if you think about it: escaping from prison combines crafting with stealth in a potentially dynamic environment.  It's far from strictly realistic, of course, but the game has managed to produce a lot of wonderful moments of emergent play.

An example: after many different attempts to escape a particular prison, I decided to brute-force it with a tunnel out of my cell.  This meant using my desk to cover the hole while crafting a bed dummy to conceal my absence, an effect enhanced by my illicit shrouding of my cell with blankets.

Digging the tunnel required crafted tools, which often took days to acquire the needed materials through the black market and outright theft.  At one point, I realized that my tunnel construction would benefit from the supplies I could steal from a woodworking job, so I had to engineer a way to replace the current occupant.  Instead of beating him up before his shift, I merely kept him locked in conversation till his shift was over and his job was lost.

Those guards - so refreshingly blunt

Unforeseen complications with the dig included the need to periodically build supports (hence the need for wood), and the need to dispose of the actual dirt.  I tried flushing this down the toilet and it eventually clogged as a result. However, I was able to make good use of this situation when a guard came to check the situation out; after quickly coshing him, I was able to make a copy of his key and run off to hide in a nearby locker.  Eventually, the heat died down and I was able to safely emerge.

What I just described are about a dozen different systems that drive the game interacting to create a series of dramatic events.  It feels like an emergent narrative.  Perhaps the feeling will lessen with repetition as all the systems become transparent.  But for now, it feels like a living world.

What's the lesson?  I don't know if I have one, except perhaps that both railroading and sandbox play can show up in unexpected places.  Actual old-school gaming content is not holy writ, and sometimes modern videogames can produce something transcendentally emergent.


  1. The best part of TEW is Death on the Reik. Shadows Over Bögenhafen is a railroad (although my players found it a fun railroad back in the mid 90s), but Death on the Reik, which is ultimately also planned as a trail of clues to follow, is written in a way that all but mandates getting off the beaten path. The players find themselves in the possession of a boat, and are introduced to trade and opportunistic deals along the Empire's waterways, complete with plenty of red herrings on the sides (it is very easy to come into contact with a random encounter who has all the identifying signs of a secretive mastermind). I have known three groups who have played it in some way, and none of them reached the end, while going off on wild tangents leading one group into river piracy, and another on a wild goose chase against cultists which happened to exist only in their imagination (while missing the clues leading to the real cultists).

    It is an unintentional sandbox classic! I deeply regret selling my copy in a moment of weakness.

    1. I picked up Death on the Reik but haven't had a chance to read it yet. You're not the first person to assure me that things get better, so I'm not worried. Your account sounds like a lot of fun - I love when the players dive headfirst into something totally off the wall. As for selling your old copy, I wouldn't be surprised if Cubicle7 does a POD eventually. SOB and DotR have been on the top seller lists since they came out on DriveThru.