Friday, September 21, 2012

The Airship Jumper Test

In my series on the DMG, I've commented a few times about Gary's very adversarial approach to refereeing and how it would be totally inappropriate of me to bring that into the games I run with the players I run them for. I don't begrudge Gary his adversarial style (only his apparent belief that all games should be played this way) since it seemed to work well with his players, who are reputed to have been shameless power-gamers; after all, they kept coming back to play, which I hold to be the first test to see whether a referee is doing a "good enough" job.

Part of the reason why I try not to be hard on Gary on this point is that, while I've never had players who engaged in or initiated adversarial play styles in my games, I've talked to players who do look at D&D as primarily a contest of wits and will between players and referees, so I know they exist. When dealing with these kinds of players, Gary's adversarial DM advice starts to make sense!

I bring this up because the recent OSR definitions posts going around include the terms "railroad" and "sandbox," and that reminded me of a conversation I once had with a friend who definitely falls into the "adversarial player" category. For some reason we were talking about airships in D&D and my friend told me that I wouldn't want him in my D&D campaign because he would "mess it up."

I asked him how he thought he would be able to do that and he replied that, while flying in an airship, he would have his PC jump out of the airship, without a parachute or any other velocity retardant, just to watch me scramble to save his PC so that the plot could continue. He didn't seem able to fathom my explanation that, in that scenario, I'd just let his PC die; I went on to explain how I didn't consider myself responsible for writing a plot or ensuring that the plot was actually carried out, but I'm not sure whether he got that or not. I'm actually interested in running a game or two with my friend as a player, just to see how many PCs he'd kill before realizing that I wasn't going to save any of them; I think I'd find that very entertaining.

My point, though, is that our difference in play style and assumptions about plot and the preservation of PCs became clear in the differences between the reaction he expected a DM to take and the action I would take. I think this is actually a pretty good litmus test for whether a campaign is a "railroad" or a "sandbox."

(Keep in mind that litmus tests are helpful, but also pretty crude, devoid of nuance and can result in inaccurate results; to mix metaphors, another way to look at what I'm proposing is that it is a "rule of thumb," a generalization, not a "one size fits all" definition that takes every possible way to run a campaign into consideration.)

If a player in a game (willingly or unwittingly) makes the PC do something that will result in death (or perhaps just merely will result in a result other than that expected by the referee) how does the referee respond? If the referee allows the PC to die without interfering, the game is probably a sandbox game. If the referee scrambles to return the PC back to the referee's expected plot line, the game is probably a railroad game.

Or, to put it more succinctly:

If you save a PC that just jumped to certain doom because you want to save the plot, it's probably a railroad. If you let the PC die, it's probably a sandbox.

Now, I think it's important to remember that the issue of "sandbox vs. railroad" isn't binary but is instead something that can be plotted on a spectrum between the two poles of "sandbox" and "railroad." All the same, this test, I think, provides an easy, quick, if crude, way to determine which pole of the spectrum a campaign or play style is closer to.



  1. I've gone out of my once to save someone in a sandbox style game. Worst decision of my gaming career.

  2. I think a very fascinating article could be had by collecting accounts of in-character player revolts against bad DMing.

    In the days when I was a much worse DM (high school, playing by the 1st edition book) one of my players rebelled against the boredom by repeatedly saying "Asmodeus" and watching me roll that 5% chance every time. And of course when the Prince of Hell did arrive I couldn't have him TPK the party so some suitably lame manifestation of his power occurred.

  3. This is interesting, but I find it hard to believe that any DM worth their salt would somehow save a PC that just did something as stupid as jump from a great height without any appropriate safety measures. Or rather, I guess I want to believe that there really aren't DMs out there that would do that sort of thing! ;-) Call me an idealist, I guess. Seriously, I've never encountered a game where a player made their character do something so dangerous and and the DM went out of their way to save said character. But that's just my limited personal experience talking. Even the most "story game"-loving DMs, I hope, would make that character go splat.

  4. Yeah, let him die when he jumps.

    But I'm not sure I'd let that kind of player play in certain types of games. If I'm running a game that is centered on, say, politics or social maneuvering and he's the type to attack the guards or insult the queen, it's going to be less fun for the other folks who bought into the game concept.

    I'd only let the guy play, and jump from the airship, in the type of game where his PC's death doesn't reduce the fun of the other players. Some people don't so much as jump out of the airship, as they do crash the airship full of PCs into the mountain. We had a guy like that more than once - group of PCs carefully negotiates with the NPCs, then bored guy attacks them and derails the accomplishment. It was a memorable session, for sure, but it wasn't a fun one. I had to intervene and basically let the NPCs understand the rest of the group weren't jerks and punish the one PC, not to "save the plot" but to keep one player from ruining everyone's fun.