MaxLiao’s Written Response to “Sandbox Games are Bad”


This is MaxLiao writing to you between all of the other mess I need to do with regard to this move from Germany to Alabama.

During 🐲 RPG Die Gest #44 🐉, on 4 April 2021, “Heathendog” hosted a segment, along with “Duncan Idaho,” in which they claim sandbox games are bad.  You can watch it here:–yc0o2Ipo.  If you check YouTube, you’ll find a few people created reaction videos to the original video.  Chekc those out as well.  Anyway, I wish I could have been on the 4 April 2021 livestream in order to talk about this with Heathendog and Duncan Idaho, but… you know… the move.

Certainly, Heathendog’s stance is a controversial take in the TTRPG sphere, especially when there is a deep (emotional) divide between people who prefer ‘story games,’ and those who prefer more traditional role-playing games — and the animosity shown both between the two and against people who play an RPG as a story game and vice-versa.

What is the difference between a storytelling game and a role-playing game — yes, for you naysayers out there who think storytelling games and role-playing games are the same, they are not — and if the topic is about sandbox vs. railroad, why do I now transition to storytelling vs role-playing?  Because sandbox games are traditionally the purview of role-playing games and railroading is traditionally the purview of storytelling games.  I’m changing the terms for clarity.

Storytelling Game (Railroad)

Here is the Storytelling game Wiki:

“A storytelling game is a game where multiple players collaborate on telling a spontaneous story.  In contrast to improv theater, storytelling gamers describe the actions of their characters rather than acting them out, except during dialogue or, in some games, monologue.”

Role-playing Game (Sandbox)

Like above, here is the role-playing game Wiki:

“A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting, or through a process of structured decision-making regarding character development. Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.”

Storytelling Game vs. Role-playing Game

A new or novice observer may read those and see essentially the same thing.  In part, that is true.  So that I can get to the main point of this treatise sooner rather than later, let me just over simplify and say the primary difference between the two games is this.

In a storytelling game, the story takes priority over the game rules and system.  The players generally dictate the narrative and the game master (GM) reacts to what the players do.

In a role-playing game, the game world and game system take priority over any potential story.  Yes, a story comes from the result of those actions, typically through dice rolls and game master adjudication, but the game is the focus not the players or the story.  The GM generally dictates the narrative and the players react to what the game master does. 

MaxLiao’s Perspective and Preference as a Player

Personally, I do not enjoy either storytelling games (railroad) or role-playing games (sandbox) at the extremes of the definitions.  

Storytelling games leave nothing (or very little) up to chance, and allow for situations that put the player’s imagination above the cosmic laws of the world (aka: the setting).  I like to know that the world has rules, e.g. orcs are evil, and that the dice giveth and the dice taketh away.

Role-playing games have the opposite problems.  Sure, they stress playing a role within the game, for example, a thief, but outside of the numbers on the character sheet, it’s really not a character.  It’s certainly not a personality.  It’s a spreadsheet used to reference bonuses and penalties to dice rolls, and an amorphous theme (e.g thief) not a defined person.

Some in the OSR take exception to this, but I call role-playing, ‘acting without a script.’  This doesn’t mean someone has to be a thespian, use voices, or be anything close to an improv expert.  No, it simply means that with regard to the game you speak and describe the actions the character takes in the game as if it’s your character taking the actions not you.  Whether you chose to gesticulate, dress up, or use an accent is up to personal taste.

I enjoy role-playing.  I love to take on the role and personality of my character, and see my character as a living being with wants, needs and goals.  When relevant, I like to speak and interact with both player characters and non-player characters as my character.  Maybe not to every shopkeeper and candlestick maker when I just want to resupply iron rations, but certainly when negotiating a contract, confronting a corrupt sheriff, or making first contact with an alien species.

Because I assume most living creatures desire to live, I role-play my character as someone who wants to live and will look at a situation from the aspect of someone who wants to live.  Sure, adventurers are typically bold and courageous, but they don’t have to be stupid or suicidal.  Player characters are not just a piece of paper with numbers written on it.

As a player I have a responsibility to the other players at the table and to the GM.  This includes a responsibility for my character to be appropriate for the game world.  It is not the GMs job to create a world made for the character, it is the player’s job to make a character that fits the world.

It is also necessary to fit the GM’s vision because every game world has a distinct feel and certain codified (or implied) expectations.  Are orcs inherently evil in this world or are they as diverse as humans?  Is magic stable or is it wild and untrustworthy? These are things your character would know, and will color the reactions of the other player character (PC) and non-player characters (NPC).  Details such as this are needed in order to make informed decisions for the character, and most of these types of rules need to be chiseled in stone, so to speak, so that the world isn’t just pure anarchy and chaos.

I also have, in modern parlance, a social contract, or an expected decorum when playing with other people.  It is important that each player’s character meshes with the other characters at the table.  It wouldn’t be appropriate for one player’s character to be a vampire in a group of paladins and priests, and if it is somehow appropriate this should be discussed during session 0 with the players and the GM.

Finally, as a player, I have a responsibility to respect the GM’s adventure hooks or seeds.  If the GM presents the group multiple opportunities and options, it is the responsibility of the player to accept one of them.  If there’s a legitimate reason for the players to seek another course of action, the GM should accommodate to the best of his or her ability; however, if the players are simply avoiding the seeds or hooks, it’s time for an out of character (OOC) sit down with everyone to see what’s up.

In my experience as a player it’s one of two things:

  1. The players don’t see the situation the same way as the GM.  This usually stems from the GM seeing the world one way, and assuming the players see it the same or inadvertently not expressing the situation to the players with enough detail.  This is a mistake I’ve made in the past, because it was so clear in my head I could only assume it was just as clear in the players.  It wasn’t.
  2. The players are being assholes.  Whether openly or subtly they are messing with the GM.  These are bad players.  The GM puts work into the setting, the game world, and the adventure.  The least you can do as a player is respect that and go on the (or an) adventure for which the GM is prepared.

As long as the GM isn’t changing the rules mid-game and without thought or notice, I always say, “It’s the GM’s game; it’s the GM’s rules.”

To be very, very clear, while it may be the GM’s game, it certainly IS NOT JUST the GM’s story!  The game is played and shared by multiple people, each of whom create a story through the events of the game.  If the GM only has one or even two intended paths or outcomes, or directs the players to perform certain actions, that’s a bad game and a bad GM.

The GM presents certain situations and the PCs react to them.  The story is created in collaboration with the players and the dice — the players are only actors in the story, the world is brought to life by the GM. Together they react to the world, roll dice, and make the story.  Any GM who thinks the players are there to create his or her story is a bad GM.

MaxLiao’s Perspective as a Game Master

I used to put a lot of limits on adventures and even on player-characters, but as time went on I found that those limits caused more work for me as the GM.  A setting, world and adventure with absolutely no limits requires a great amount of GM skill; a great ability to ‘wing-it’ that I don’t have.  Ironically, forcing players into a single mouse hole requires just as much work.

When I create adventures I always allow for multiple solutions.  Even then, the players often surprise me with an unforeseen alternative or by missing the obvious.  Only if it breaks the continuity of the world or the mechanics do I disallow such imaginative thinking, and never do I tell them, “Maybe have someone look behind the bed in room number two.”  If they don’t find the item in that location, there will either be other ways to solve the problem, or other clues to lead them to that location.

GMs shall NOT play the players’ characters for the players, and shall NOT assume the players see the game, adventure, or map the same way the GM does.

So, what limits do I have on players (and player characters) in my games?

First, I limit players to what’s appropriate to my setting and how I want the game to work.  If I’m running a TMNT and Other Strangeness game, I don’t allow flying PCs.  Sure, there are easy remedies for flying characters, in when you’re the GM you are welcome to them, but in my games there are no flying PCs  In AD&D I only allow character races and classes from the Player’s Handbook — at least at the start of the campaign, and there are no True Seeing spells of any type in my games.

I do not allow characters who are murderously antagonistic to each other (or created just to troll another player) in any game.  It’s okay to have interpersonal conflict between characters, until it comes to harming the group or members of the group, but I draw the line at friendly competition or in-context teasing and jokes.  Remember, “This is what my character would do,” is never a valid reason to ruin the fun of the others at the table.

These limitations, among all other facts of the game, are always expressed during session 0.

So what about some in-game scenarios?  What do I limit in game?

As I just mentioned, I do not allow players to engage in player-vs-player combat.  First of all, drawing a sword on another player in a fantasy setting is the same as someone today pointing a firearm at a person.  It’s not a threat to be taken lightly.  Secondly, if party cohesion has devolved to the point where player characters are attempting to seriously harm or kill each other, something has gone seriously wrong, as we need to talk about it as players.

What about killing ‘necessary’ NPCs?

If one or more characters want to kill the wizard I set up as an important source of information, I don’t stop them.  Instead the characters will suffer the consequences of their actions.  First, they no longer have an immediate source of information, and may or may not ever have such a good source again.  If the information is absolutely vital for the adventure, a good GM will find another way to get the information to the PCs.  Personally, I’d cloud the information in doubt and suspicion, or along with some false (or missing) information as well.

Next, if people, say, the local citizenry or friends of the wizard, find out about the murder, there may be some who seek revenge, or perhaps the law will seek to bring the characters to justice.  There are many scenarios this can open up, and very few of them are beneficial to the characters.

Just know that a good GM will NOT stop the characters from the attempt!  Let them suffer for their choices.  If, as a GM, you simply cannot let that happen, 1) You’re a bad GM, and 2) there are many other tropes to prevent it.  For example, the characters are level 3 and the wizard is level 20, or the wizard was never really there (illusion), or… insert trope here.

What about PCs who completely flip the script?

Let’s say I am the DM for an AD&D setting where an evil empire is conquering the continent.  The game starts with the players on a quest to help a list of allies defend against the empire’s spies, sympathizers, and military forces.  However, as the campaign moves on, the players decide they’d rather join the empire than fight against it.

Full stop!


Yes, this can and has happened.

A bad GM gets angry.  A bad GM quits.  A bad GM blames the players for ruining the game.  No, the players may have ruined your story (Good, because it’s not yours to begin with!), but they didn’t ruin the game.  The players didn’t ruin the game, they may have just made it more interesting.

If only one PC decides to take the action to join the empire, that particular PC becomes an NPC and the player of that character creates a new character for the campaign.  If all of the players decide this is the course of action their characters wish to take, a good game master will not only allow this, but will adjust the campaign to support it.

Again, the PCs will have to suffer the consequences of their actions.  Most likely, the character’s original allies will see the PCs as traitors.  Even if the allies are not actively hunting the PCs, the allies certainly would not help the PCs anymore, and may even threaten the friends and family of the PCs.  On the other hand, the imperial forces probably will not trust the PCs.  If the PCs can change allegiance once, they certainly can do it again.  There are many, many of other seeds and hooks that can come with this choice, each has consequences.

So, would I allow this in every game and every setting?

No, not really.  As a GM in an Earthdawn game I would let the players join the Theran Empire, if they wanted to (with the set of potential issues as stated above), but I would never let them join the Invae, a Horror Cult, and etc.  Those latter options are simply against the spirit of the Earthdawn game and setting. To repeat myself, the players have an obligation to respect the setting of the game world.

What if consequences cause the characters to all die?

So be it.  A pathetic thing is the GM who fears (or enjoys!) the total party kill (TPK).  Personally, even when the PCs do something really, really stupid, I try to leave them an out.  Lord knows I’ve done some stupid things as a player.  I try to provide the PCs the opportunity to escape, or prevent the action, or talk their way out of it, or whatever.  If they don’t take this opportunity, or if the dice are against them, they get to die.  It is NOT the GM’s fault, and the GM should never feel guilty for a TPK related to bad PC choices and die rolls.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

If the players blame you, they are bad players.

What about…

Look, we can ‘what if’ this scenario this to death.  In some instances I firmly believe the players are at fault, and it’s the GM’s job to reign them in.  Especially when they are being obstinate or generally making the game less than fun for everyone.  However, in most instances I think the GM has the burden to be flexible and roll with the punches, while the players have the burden of the consequences of the actions.  

Just remember, players are the personification of the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  Better yet, “An adventure never services first contact with the players.”  If this is a concept you cannot accept, don’t be a GM.  Play a single player RPG or openly admit you’re playing a storytelling game not an RPG.

To be fair, if the GM states during session 0 that this game is a narrative driven game — where the players have certain choices, however, some things must and will happen whether the PCs like it or not — then there is nothing wrong with limiting the players.  The concept was mentioned beforehand and the players agreed to play, no harm no foul.

Final Comments

Even though Heathendog and I have differing opinions on player agency and how sandbox-y game should be, I will also say that Heathendog’s style of play is not wrong or bad, as long as he is up front with the players during session 0.  As someone who has played in his games, I can tell you they are fun.  But those were obvious storytelling games, I’m not so sure I would find it as fun in a D&D game.

I used to run railroad games.  And while I certainly do not run pure sandbox games, they are much more sandbox-y now than in my past.  I’d say I’m 70% sandbox and 30% railroad.  Specifically, I use a timeline of events, and the characters affect that timeline through their choices, successes and failures.  When the timeline reaches 0, the players ‘lose.’  When the timeline reaches infinity, the PCs ‘win.’

I believe players and GMs alike have a responsibility to know their roles (as player and GM) and to be flexible within those roles.  Players have the responsibility to respect the GM’s world, adventure hooks/seeds, and game system adjudication, while GMs have the responsibility to let players think outside of the box — (they always will anyway) — and to make choices that are both detrimental and consequential to the game.  Whether the GM likes them or not.

Ultimately, It’s not just the GM’s story.  Any GM who thinks it is needs to play alone or write a book, or just stick with being a player.  It’s the group’s story, and the group includes four parts: The GM, the players, the game system, and the dice.  Oh, those pesky and wonderful dice!

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