Are there any modules that are either too linear or too sandboxy? Or is it all just a matter of presentation by the game master? Here are a few tips on becoming a better game master.
Every now and then I hear and read game master lament and criticize modules for being too linear. That the narrative of some modules are simply a railroad and are therefore bad by default. I have to admit I find this kind of thinking strange. Why, you ask?
Well, because all published modules are by default linear and there’s no thing as being too linear, just as there is no way a thing can be too sandboxy. A linear narrative follows plot points in a chronological order and even sandbox narratives follow that structure as well. In fact, splitting modules into these two categories based on linear/sandbox parameters is in my opinion simply bad for the hobby and makes no sense in terms of everything we know about narratives and storytelling.
A linear narrative, in roleplaying game terms, is a narrative that moves onwards despite the player characters‘ actions, while the plot in sandbox modules is reactive to the player characters‘ actions. As I mentioned above, almost all published modules I’ve read are linear narratives. Whether you look at The Keep on the Borderlands or the latest D&D module, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, these are linear modules. Even modules that are hailed as sandbox modules, like Out of the Abyss, are in every meaning of the words, linear modules.
It’s a matter of presentation
The main problem with writing and designing modules is how to make sure that the players always feel in control of the narrative. This is hard, especially since you need to convey a narrative with all its hooks, npcs and encounters. To move the narrative from one encounter to the next, one event to the next, you need to have a clear picture of the choices that the available to the player characters within the narrative. Foreseeing all the possibilities is nigh impossible and therefore most module designers, I assume, stick to the most logical ones.
In most cases the presentation of these choices are left to the game master. It is her job to make sure that the player characters are aware of the plot points that enable her to move the narrative forward. The pesentation of these plot points are crucial to how players experience the narrative. If you present these as my 6 year old did the other day (“You can either go investigate the pyramid or go wander about in the desert, which is awfully boring”) of course your players will feel pushed along a certain path and that the narrative lacks points where they can have any real effect.
The illusion of choice
Lately I’ve been running one of my favourite D&D campaigns, Night Below, updated for 5th edition. The player characters have explored Harlan Shire and have discovered where the bandits are hiding in Broken Spire Keep, deep in Thornwood. The choices they’ve made are fully represented in the module, yet I ask the players time and a time again: What are your plans? What are you going to do? Where are you headed next? When do you plan to rest?
By asking your players all these questions, by constantly making the game about their choices, you can make even complete railroads feel like that the narrative is completely under the players’ control. Of course, if you never ask these questions or assume the players’ choices, no matter what kind of sandbox you are running, they will feel railroaded.
However, you need to make sure that the player characters do not stand before unlimited number of choices, because then you might end up with having them choose nothing at all, grinding the narrative to a disappointing halt. You have to ensure that the player characters have maybe two or three options to choose from.
In the old dungeon crawl modules the choice you had as a player was to choose between door A or door B. Simple as that. In newer modules you can choose where to go or what encounter to explore first, e.g. in the Dragon of Icespire Peak the player characters can choose from three different assignments in the beginning, in Out of the Abyss the player characters can choose where to go in the Underdark and in Descent into Avernus the player characters can choose if they wish to take out all the Duke’s sons or not.
These are of course illusory choices, since they only represent door A or door B, so to speak. No matter what choice the player characters make, the linear narrative continues. Due to the unwritten agreement between players and game master, leaving the narrative is truly never an option. Because that would cause a major problem at the table and even ruin the fun for the other participants.
Is it me or is it the module?
When I game master a published module and my players dislike the narrative, I ask myself, is it me or the module? What could I have done better? Were there any plot points that I missed or was the module not written well enough. After being a game master for over 25 years, I’m still learning and I know that there are parts of storytelling and game mastering where I can improve.
Today when I read through a module I look for four main things:
- Are the plot points clear enough to move the narrative from A to B?
- Is the overarching story interesting and compelling?
- Are the NPCs interesting, diverse and fun?
- Is the book easy to browse and all information readily available?
Whether the plot is linear or a sandbox, I believe, is up to how I present to narrative.
Proactive, story-based or linear modules
I think it is impossible to create a published module that isn’t story-based, with a proactive plot and a linear narrative. Simply because exploring the possibilities of the sandbox would take too much time and so much of that work would go to waste. In Storm King’s Thunder, once the player characters have chosen what kind of giants they are going to pay a friendly visit, the other parts (with the other types of giants) goes unused, if the module is played as written.
In my opinion the best modules that have been published for D&D by WoTC are those who don’t stray away from the narrative, who keep to the plot and don’t involve all 20 levels. Plots that spend too much time on plot non-related events (like in Tomb of Annihilation) are in my opinion not that great. Simply because they take away from the main plot and often undermine them. Just as seeing a film side-trek for half an hour with something unrelated to the main plot.
Or in short, print only what matters, kill your darlings and leave the rest to the game masters.
The story is what you make of it
I don’t know many game masters that run every module they buy as written. Most of them use the modules as source material just as much as they add to the narrative their own ideas. They add details, NPCs and even events and encounters that help the player to feel invested in the narrative, to make sure their player characters matter and make a difference in the story. In order to make sure that everyone at the table is having fun.
And that is most of important of all. Even narratives that are railroad through and through can be fun, if the game master makes it so and has the players onboard. And in my opinion, that’s the difference between a good game master and a great game master.