RPG campaigns come in all shapes and sizes. In this GM Basics article, we’ll take a look at some of the pros and cons between standard and sandbox style games, and give you some tips on how to design your campaign arc!
Traditional or Linear Story-Building guides player characters along central narrative arcs prepared by the GM. While players will still determine the specific outcomes of their individual objectives and encounters, they will often always be moving between or towards key/major plot points – the confrontation with the politician, the battle against the behemoth, the race out of the exploding moon, etc.. Traditional Story games withhold large-scale agency from their players in exchange for providing rich, carefully crafted stories for the PCs to be a part of.
- Promotes very strong PC investment in the setting (players are directly participating in major world-events as they unfold)
- Control over the plot allows for the use of dramatic twists, cliff-hangers, betrayals, and recurring world-elements
- Players are at risk of feeling rail-roaded or forced down certain paths for the sake of the predetermined story
- Individual PC backgrounds and motivations are at risk of being overshadowed or ignored in highly plot-driven sessions
- Know your PCs: Knowing your party’s character backgrounds and motivations is essential for coming up with plot hooks that feel authentic rather than forced. Your players will always be more inclined to follow even an apparent bread-crumb trail if they feel that their characters would in fact choose to do so of their own free will.
- Spend time on your encounters: If you want to keep your players feeling empowered in a Traditional Story game, you have to provide unique, complex encounters for them to creatively roleplay through. Mixing up different types of encounters with different objectives and obstacles will allow your players to regularly exercise their agency and make meaningful decisions – even if they know they’re being led along that bread-crumb trail.
Sandbox or Radial Story games open up the entire game-world to the players and let them choose what they’re going to undertake at every step. With a strong improvisational GM, these types of games can sometimes follow major narrative arcs, but generally sessions remain more tangential or digressive. While the GM still conducts the world, the NPCs, and the enemies, in Sandbox Story games players are just as (if not more) responsible for driving the story itself.
- Maximizes player agency at all levels (players are in complete control of their PC’s adventures)
- Promotes strong player investment in the setting (encourages exploration of the whole game-world)
- Can be more difficult to GM (requires either substantial world-preparation or strong improvisational skill)
- Long-term or multiple-session “campaigns” are at risk of losing players’ interest if individual sessions are too disconnected
- Use Plots/World-Events: Come up with one or two major story arcs that will be occurring around your players at the time of their adventures. Even if their PCs don’t end up getting too involved in these plots, the presence and development of these story lines will keep the world dynamic and engaging for your players over long periods of adventuring.
- Ask Players for “Next Steps”: At the end of every session, ask your players to decide what they’re going to do next. This can allow you to prepare for your sessions more substantively ahead of time – similar to how you might prepare for a Traditional session – while still allowing players to control their story.
This type of Story-Building is the catch-all category, including anything and everything that falls between the above two models. As the pros/cons of a Combination Story will vary according to which Traditional elements and which Sandbox elements are incorporated into your game, let’s just take a look at some possible models to try:
- Traditional Story with Multiple Avenues of Approach
This is the simplest combination model, where players are still adventuring along a central narrative arc, but are given the choice to move forward along multiple different paths. For example, in order to take down the corrupt Empire, PCs could pursue a series of adventures with the rebel freedom fighters, the black-market traders, or a rival court.
- Multiple, Divergent Story Arcs
Instead of offering multiple avenues of approach along a single arc, this model provides multiple Traditional Stories to choose from. For example, each campaign will start with multiple narrative prompts/hooks for players to choose from. By the end, players will get to see the consequences of them NOT having chosen the alternative options!
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