Roleplaying Tools

GM Sandbox vs Linear Storyline

Game Management

Sandbox vs Linear Storyline

There are many ways to run a campaign, with an ongoing storyline narrative in connection with the gameplay sessions. While there are many ways of doing this, I will discuss two opposing styles that I am currently using in my games. These may not be the same for everyone, my version might be able to help players understand what it is I am trying to do as the GM for the games.

What is a Sandbox

A sandbox is a creative space where you have the freedom to create and alter the environment as you choose.

This is like where you have a literal box of sand and can scalp the sand into any shape you desire. Computer games take this in a different approach by making it mean free roaming with a non-linear storyline, while still having a single narrative throughout.

While this might seem like the same thing, a sandbox environment would allow you to create your own story. Computer games are getting close to this ideal all the time, but they are still bound by what can be put into the code.

A good sandbox model will have events happening independently of the characters with options for interaction, but not always providing means to change the outcome.

What is Linear Progression

A Linear progression is where events happen in sequences, usually with the illusion of branching storylines.

This is the standard computer games most people are used to, with lots of hints, tips and guidance to allow you to advance through the stages of the storyline. Most sandbox pc games have a linear progression storyline.

The main assumption with this model is that the storyline only progresses with interaction from the main characters and setting events are on hold while they attend to other matters.

The threat (or danger) of the story builds as the story continues.

What is a Sandbox Roleplaying Game

A sandbox role-playing game is by design in the hands of the players for choice in pacing, adventure options and final villain of the piece that concludes the campaign.

It is mostly of their choosing with the only limitations being what has been agreed with the players and games master.

The challenges should not be scaled based on character level.

When detailing what is going on in the world, it is important not to make the choices for the players, but to truly give them the freedom to succeed or fail by their own choices. This does not mean abandon them, and provide no support.

For example, they have accepted a mission to travel to a city, upon arriving and getting a little time to acclimatize to the place, you give them a brief rundown of all the major locations flavoured to what they were doing during that week. What this does is give them information on what is important to the city, and its up to them to determine what will advance their storyline.

This can make the players feel in control, can explore any storyline, have freedom to express their characters, actions and plan for the campaign future, as long as they pay attention to the storyline and the restrictions of the current task. But the bad aspects of this is the choices can seem overwhelming, can feel like they are not getting anywhere in the story, and that their actions don’t amount to anything early on.

You should expect to find that there are more quest options than you can complete, and that a fair few of them are beyond your capabilities, while others seem to be too easy.

Your actions have a major impact on the world, it might not change something straight away, but you choices all have meaning. Because you choices defines the storyline, who you will call the villain of the piece, and who will be the hero.

What is a Linear Roleplaying Game

It is a sequential series of storylines leading up to a final confrontation.

The challenges are normally bound by character level.

The options for the storyline only appear to be optional with the reality of it being how little of the storyline you want to attempt as the group.

Usually the next section of the story you need to reach is either told through a cut scene or montage.

Characters are either on board the express storyline train or they get left behind as detours maynot be possible. So instead of asking what the players would like to do, in this scenario your asking are they read to move on to the next room, section, or book of the adventure.

This is the closest of the style of games I run to a store based game like adventure league or pathfinder society as those sessions need to be tightly constrained to allow you to fit in the given adventure in the allocated time.

An example of this is you tell the players they have arrived in the city relating to the adventure they have been selected to complete, there might be hundreds of locations in the city, but you give them three relating to the storyline, and depending on their interactions, make the choice for them of which one they would be going to first.

Now this might sound a little harsh, or heavy handed, but it can be done is such a way the players thought they had many options but this was the most logical or sound thing to do, and enjoy roleplaying their way through a tight narrative.

Or they can decide to petulant about it being a linear storyline and make train noises at the games master to show their contempt for the game, the storyline, the other players and the person running the game. If you think this is far fetched, it not, and it happened regularly enough for me to drop the linear games and more to a sandbox approach.

How do I run Sandbox Games

I have two sandbox settings currently running, one set in the D&D world of Mystara in the original known world ruleset timeline. The other is set in the Pathfinder world of Golarion around the Varisian region during the years of pathfinder 1, but using the pathfinder 2 ruleset.

A sandbox game that I run is about choices, with no choice being better or worse than any other from the game master perspective. From the character perspective it can be the difference between life and death. If asked what as the games master I want the players to choose, I usually respond with what they want to do. This is not me passing the responsibility, it is making them choose their path.

As part of sandbox, characters need to investigate, explore and interact with the environment. Just because they are in a city, does not mean that every element of it will seek them out to discuss the storyline. I have been asked if this means they should speak to everyone (while being sarcastic to games master about not being handed every campaign fact for the location after the first encounter) and I simply answered you get as much as you put in, if you want to learn everything the location has to offer you need to speak to everyone.

There is no such thing as red herrings in the storyline, anything mentioned in the descriptions, narrative or conversations is something you can investigate and follow up. What ever the character (and players) focus on is the main story, no matter what they have been asked to do by sponsors (though it will have consequences). If investigating a characters background, family or hobbies become the focus of the players at the table, then that becomes the core of the games events that night.

Everything should not be done in a day. In comparison to a linear timeline where most storylines are based around the time you do things, my sandbox storylines allow more flexibility, and timing is everything. NPCs will tell you that their task is urgent and needs to be done now, because they are NPCs and that is their thing. As players how and when you do things is completely in your control. Characters who choose to act, and not take time to learn will always been reacting to events, and will miss out on opportunities. Not all options are available, so if you accept two storylines, or jobs, then choose to do one first there is a chance that the other one may disappear in that time as the world evolves as time passes. This makes timing a two edged sword, not enough research is bad, and too much research is bad.

Characters should plan downtime as part of the gameplay, if you wait until the end of the adventure to do downtime then you have missed the point of a sandbox game completely. In games like Pathfinder 2, downtime is a mechanic with specific rules, one of those is no travelling or doing other activities on the day while conducting downtime activities. So instead of rushing everywhere, choose to take time off, even plan that when you reach a city you take a day, a week, a month to do something there before returning to adventure.

An example wout be, the games master telling the players that they have just spend the last five days working a day job and they have been given two days off to do their own thing. Now what this means is you have not had a chance to do anything else during that time, not for you to turn it around and push the games master to rewrite that narrative because you would obviously find time to have done their adventure and downtime at the same time between gaming sessions and not at the gaming table. This is not really how these things work, but most of the time I don’t want to argue at the gaming table, so be aware that now you know it will unlikely happen again without risk of failing the downtime task because you were too busy with your own things to actually maintain your downtime activity.

With that I also use flashbacks as a moment in time where players can actively participate in a moment of their history. This gives them a chance to experience part of the storyline that would normally just be narrative and allow them to alter or change aspect of it to suit their character. This can lead to players trying to make it the focus of the night, push it past a moment in time, and then keep changing the backstory after the information of the outcome has come to light.

As for the final goal of the campaign, its more about survival than a specific task, the final conclusion is unknown and defined by the gameplay and can be a complete surprise to the games master compared to where the story started and was expected to go.

Characters level at set time intervals so no matter how much adventure you cram into that interval you gain the same advancement. Time will pass in the campaign world at the same time so not doing anything will also advance the campaign world. Just being involved in the events will let you know what the campaign setting is doing and gives you a chance to be involved in it. You can’t always change an event, but if your not involved you are just a witness that it happened, and that may be indirectly though another party telling you all about it.

Most tasks in the game will tell you if there is any time requirements, and if they don’t tell you, nothing stops you from asking. Not all NPCs will tell you everything you need to know, how you interact with them (and interact is the core of the game) determines the reality of how they deal with you ongoing.

As a last point to be made on sandbox games, is that player characters are not all powerful in game worlds. They have only as much political, economic or personal power as they have acquired in game, and that maybe location specific. Just because something is your hometown does not give you the right to walk into the mayor’s house and tell them what they should be doing. To get that right, you have to earn it in game sessions. Beware that politics is its own minefield in games, and not everything or everyone is as they appear, which is how it should be…

Pathfinder Option for the TRAP Campaign with the Choice of Sandbox has the following effects:

  • Political Storyline
  • Ability to see the whole story
  • Pathfinder Society Involvement
  • Links to Wednesday Campaign
  • Potentially 20 sessions per level
  • Levels happen every 6 months of ingame time
  • Downtime is part of the storyline
  • This game may take 19 more years to complete

How do I run Linear Games

When I run a Linear Storyline, I always adapt it during play to match what the group is going in the game world.

The players are given clear directions on expectations, including that little exploration off the main storyline will be available, a lot of elements in the game will be streamlined to allow the storyline to progress at a reasonable pace. No characters conflicts would be permitted during play, neither would it spend time in downtime or crafting.

Most linear storylines will have a bounded timer of when it is expected to be completed by, with level progression as set intervals (or milestones) of the storyline. No really need for foreshadowing as the title of the campaign is usually the hint as to what the game is about.

In my current games only one is still running a Linear Narrative and that is the Jade Regent Adventure Path, where the storyline is laid out for the players, their main roleplaying is between the group, the NPCs and their choices revolve around how they handle events (not if they do the events). Currently this ha the group gaining a level about every 5 sessions so they have progressed at a good pace and should completed it by the end of 2021. Currently they take about 15 sessions to complete each of the books which is fantastic from a roleplaying perspective as previous groups focused on winning the game took that long to do all six books with the average of 3 sessions a book. The older groups tended to work at roughly a session a level, and tended to skip much of that pesky roleplaying that slowed down gameplay and were not as satisfying to run.

My TRAP friday group were given the option of Sandbox or Linear as there have been many arguments over the definition of how I will run Sandbox or Linear for this group.

Pathfinder Option for the TRAP Campaign with the Choice of Linear Storyline has the following effects:

  • Political Storyline dropped
  • Only see Rise of the Runelords (6 out of 80 stories) – limiting the storyline to only one adventure path would make direction and guidance a lot simpler
  • No more Pathfinder Society Involvement – No need to venture into the Pathfinder Society intrigue.
  • No crossover with other games I am running
  • Expectation of 2-3 sessions per level
  • Levels happen every story milestone
  • Downtime is not part of the game
  • This game may take 12 months to complete

Concluding Thoughts

Even though I have two apparent opposing storyline approaches, I tend to have a bit of both in my games where possible. I prefer the freedom to allow players the power of choice so that even as the Games Master I am not sure where the storyline is going or how it will conclude with the game sessions being the guiding factor and revelation of what will happen.

I have faced many challenges just describing how my games implement sandbox and linear progression, including being told directly by players everything I do is wrong, In the end its a game, players are working together with the games master to play out a storyline as a shared experience.

I will ask my players directly what they want, and provide as much of that as possible in the bounds that I give them, that covers the group and not the individual. So if one person only wants puzzles, one wants only combat, and one wants only characterisation, then the game will be a blend of the three, how much so will depend on their actions in the game.

The core to any choices in any game should always be player interaction and investment in the shared storyline or narrative.

This discussion was required with players due to out of session arguments about what I was using these terms to mean in my games.

Content Updates

  • 2020-12-01 – Fixed incomplete sentences (a specialty of mine) and cleaned up some working.
Game Management

GM2021 in Review, Choosing a New Campaign, Downtime Uses, GM’s Luck Roll, House Rules, Running Games over Skype, Sandbox vs Linear, Story RPGs, Table Rules, Tracking Experience

Annotated Stat Blocks: Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Pathfinder 2, Star Wars FFG

Creating a Campaign: D&D Mystara Design (2022), Genesys, Pathfinder, Pathfinder 2 TRAP Design (2022), Shadowrun, Star Wars (Mandalorian, 2022)

Character Creation: Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder 2, Star Wars Beta, Star Wars FFG

Concluding a Campaign: Star Wars

NPCsTalking to NPCs, Working with NPCs.

Virtual Table Top (VTT) Software – d20Pro: Installation, Realm Works: Players and their Characters, Using for D&D, Realm Created

Library of Books

B5, d20 System, Pathfinder, SW

Main Logo

This site is currently undergoing migration to website due to needing a different set of tools that I had available to me on here.

Basic Links: Who Am I?, Home, Game Tools, Game Session Videos, My Campaigns, My Library, Site Map, Subscription Information

Game Systems: Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder 1 & 2, Shadowrun, Star Wars. Other Game Systems

Site sponsored by the author AS Hamilton (my wife) with her books available on amazon kindle.


By thedarkelf007

I am a long term gamer, I run 6 RPG's a fortnight, host board game, card game and LANs each about once a quarter and have an addiction to buying more games. Games I am currently running are Pathfinder (1st and 2nd Edition) and Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition).

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