Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Interstate Model of Campaigning


While was plotting the route for my summer migration, I was reminded of a realization I had during a previous move.  It occurred to me that the optimal structure for a modernish narrative-style campaign is not that of a railroad, but rather of an interstate.

When you're planning a trip via interstate, you figure out where you are, where you want to end up, and any particular sites you want to stop at along the way.  You get out on the road, and find things aren't quite as you hoped; there are traffic jams, police, road work, and detours.  Not all of these interactions are negative, though - sometimes you get behind an 18-wheeler who knows exactly what's up with the traffic and is good at pushing people out of the way, and you can draft off of him for a while.  Eventually, you realize there's something you need in order to keep going; gas, food, sleep, or bodily relief.  Then you get into the interesting decision-making; this stop looks really sketchy, but the next one isn't for another 30 miles...  will I run out of gas before I get there?  Do I want to take the risks inherent in this stop, or the risks inherent in continuing without stopping?  What if the next station is closed?  Most of the time, we choose well enough, get what we need (maybe for a higher price than we'd hoped), and we eventually make it to our destination.

Contrast with the railroad experience.  You get on the train, and it goes wherever it's going.  You don't worry about getting resources, or making good time despite obstacles; you sit back, relax, and just let it roll.  Eventually maybe you have to change trains, but that's fairly straightforward most of the time.  Sometimes the train slows down and stops mysteriously, which is frustrating, but there's nothing you can do about it.

We've all seen campaigns that run like railroads, and many of us have seen sandboxes too...  but I don't know that I've ever seen an interstate campaign compromise between the two.  The real point there is to give the PCs some agency - you need a +n widget to fight the dragon.  There are a couple ways you could go about getting a +n widget; there's rumored to be one in the Tomb of Terrors (risky, but probably workable), or you could try to get the dwarves to make you one (safe, but expensive), or you could try to steal the Lord of Argros' +n widget (dangerous, but gives the social and thiefy classes a good time).  Let the PCs choose how they handle the rest stops, and how they circumvent obstacles.  And maybe it turns out that the path they chose isn't viable; the rest stop is closed, the Lord of Argros' widget is a fake, and you're suddenly in trouble for trying to steal it.  This stuff happens.  Choices and actions have consequences...  they can delay your arrival at the destination, and maybe imperil the trip as a whole.  But likewise, a good choice may speed things up or make the end goal more likely ("Hey, we found a thing that may be useful for the final objective in the Tomb!  Awesome!").

So next time you're thinking about running a railroad, look at what the PCs may need along the way, and try to provide them with a couple ways to get it; one risky, one expensive, and one really risky but quick and cheap.

As a personal aside and retrospective, it's kind of amazing how to me how far I've come since I had this idea.  That was less than two years ago, and now I basically run and play in sandboxes as a matter of course, with little planned plot and lots of player agency.  I think this may have been one of the first steps on my path towards sandboxing...


  1. I love the analogy and your coined phrase "Interstate." Evocative and appropos. The only thing I would add is that sometimes, you have to cut your trip short or turn around and call the whole thing off. Or go back because you forgot something. That's part of the sandbox nature of things -- the road leads to Destination X, but it's up to you whether to stay on the path or even get there at all.

    Not possible on a railroad, as you show.

    I think the Interstate (or the appearance of it, anyway) is illustrated aptly in the LotR trilogy. The hobbits, then the Fellowship, then Frodo/Sam and the Three Hunters made their own way along their branching roads. Even, as Bilbo noted, that the very road out of Bag End led to the Lonely Mountain ...

    1. That's fair. Mechanical failure can end either kind of trip, though; I suppose that equates most accurately to the DM giving up in an RPG metaphor.

      It's hard to say with literary works, since railroad vs sandbox vs interstate is really more of a question of how much freedom your players have. In a novel, there are no players, so there can be no agency... Also, I recommend to you DM of the Rings, for a humorous and railroady take on it.

    2. Really I feel that the interstate model fits what most people actually get in a sandbox game. You get to a point and there is a cross-roads, and then another, and you can even find your way back home. I keep a whiteboard or file on larger games to keep track of the player's current 'map' and the intricacies if need be, and then go from there. I love the usage as you present it here, however, and thank you for joining my blog :).



    3. That's probably true; it matches my experience playing Traveller fairly well. Whiteboards are also excellent; I picked up a 4'x4' one from a graduating senior, and it has frequently been covered in campaign notes. Not so useful when one's roommate is also a player in one's game, though...

      And with a name like "The Good Gaming Blog", how could I not? :P So no problem!