Sandbox gaming vs. adventure paths: in defense of highly narrative adventures

Looking back at the many adventure modules published for D&D through the decades, a distinction between two types of published adventure becomes evident.

On one side are what you might call “sandbox” or “old school” adventure modules, which sketch out a slew of locations and adventure opportunities in a particular geographic area. It is assumed that the PCs will engage the adventure at the points and pace that appeal them, based on their own motivations. This type of module is well represented by Keep on the Borderlands, which describes a “home base” surrounded by dangerous wilderness, and expects the PCs to carve out their own adventures within that very broad frame.

On the other side are “plot point” or “adventure path” modules, which cropped up a bit later in D&D’s history but continue to be popular. These are more focused adventures that expect the PCs to adhere to a pre-ordained plotline, moving through the module’s challenges in a particular order that shuttles them from beginning to end. The DL-series of Dragonlance modules is the most famous example of this type of adventure (and Paizo’s Pathfinder adventure paths are the modern incarnation).

(Of course, the distinction isn’t always black-and-white; there are many modules both old and new that combine elements of both the “sandbox” and “adventure path” extremes. But for the sake of discussion, I’ll define them as two sharply distinct adventure types.)

It is held by many gamers, particularly those of the “old school renaissance” crowd, that D&D at its best can be found in sandbox adventures, and that adventure paths marked a step away from what made D&D so good. Adventure paths are restrictive, limit player choice, and replace the open-ended nature of roleplaying with a canned narrative that players must follow in order to complete the module.

While there’s of course some truth in that assessment, I want to step forward in defense of the adventure path. This is partly because my introduction to D&D was through those railroad-y, narrative-heavy Dragonlance modules. But also because I see the development of the adventure path as an effort to correct an imbalance in the D&D game itself.

To oversimplify things a bit, D&D draws heavily from at least two very different strands of fantasy literature: the grim and sometimes savage world of “swords and sorcery” (think Conan); and epic, heavily plotted, highly moral high fantasy (think Tolkien). The influence of Conan-esque swords and sorcery can be seen in many core elements of D&D: dungeons to explore; treasure and money as a prime motivation for adventuring; the heavy representation of rogue-ish classes like the Thief, Bard, Assassin, and Illusionist; a very deadly world; and more. The influence of Tolkien-esque fantasy can be seen in many other elements: the character races available for play; lots of strange and interesting magic weapons and items; parties of adventurers who all work together; and countless “classic” monsters.

But imagine for a moment that you are a Tolkien-obsessed teenager in the early 80s (and at that time there were more teenage boys obsessed with Tolkien than with Howard, I would venture to say.) You’ve picked up a cool new game called D&D because the game’s art, language, and contents promise Tolkien-esque awesomeness: dwarves and hobbits! Rangers! Orcs! Magic swords! But scouring the available adventure modules published for the game, what do you find? Lots and lots of modules that pit you against very localized, non-epic, Conan-esque challenges: bandit attacks. Bands of slavers. Tribes of goblins. Tombs with traps.

Even the most epic of these modules generally kept the action fairly local in nature. You might save a town from a gang of bandits or take out an evil wizard or foil a demon’s plan, but you never saved the world, fulfilled an ancient prophecy, travelled across a continent to rescue a princess, or anything like what the heroes of Narnia or Middle-Earth get to do. D&D did a great job of letting you be Conan, raiding tombs for loot and collecting the bounty on kobold heads. At very high levels (which the general lethality of the game made difficult to attain), you might aspire to save a city-state or become the ruler of a kingdom.

But sometimes, if you were a Tolkien-obsessed teenage boy, you wanted to be Frodo or Legolas or Aragorn, doing something Really Important with the fate of the entire world resting on your shoulders.

And the “adventure path” type of module, starting with the Dragonlance series, aims to do exactly that. You’re not an unknown adventurer who might one day hit level 5 if he kills enough goblins. You’re an unknown adventurer who is going to change the entire world. Your quest will send you on a whirlwind tour of the whole wide world, rather than requiring you to spend months delving deeper and deeper, level by level, into the depths of a single dungeon underneath a ruin in the middle of nowhere. The price you pay for this epic narrative is relinquishing a certain amount of player control; you have to follow where the plot leads, trusting that the narrative payoff will be sufficiently epic to make it worthwhile. In a true sandbox game environment, with its emphasis on random encounters and total player freedom, it’s very difficult for a game group to put together a Tolkien-style epic fantasy story. Even the well-regarded G-D-Q-series of modules, which ended on an epic note, felt more like a loosely-connected series of dungeon campaigns than a Lord of the Rings-style saga.

In a podcast interview two years ago, Margaret Weis (co-author of those Dragonlance modules I keep mentioning) described the thinking that prompted TSR to take a chance on a narrative-heavy, epic adventure path:

[Dragonlance co-author] Tracy [Hickman] envisioned Dragonlance as a story arc that expanded over twelve different modules. He was really opposed to what was happening at the time with modules, which he kind of said was like “Find the dragon, kill the dragon, steal the dragon’s treasure, and then next month you find the dragon, kill the dragon, steal the dragon’s treasure.” His idea was that the heroes would have a nobler purpose and goal in mind, and that to achieve this they would launch out on an adventure would get more complicated and more dangerous from one module to the next.

I don’t think D&D needed fixing, exactly, but as Weis hints here, something like a creative rut had developed in the way people approached D&D modules. Sandbox adventuring was and is great. But I think there was a creative gap in the world of D&D gaming; here was a game that drew heavily from Tolkien and his successors but which made it difficult to actually play out the very things everyone loved about Tolkien’s stories. Before we condemn narrative-heavy story-modules like Dragonlance or Ravenloft or Pathfinder, consider that they’re trying to put D&D back in touch with the other half of its roots.

What does this mean today? Well, adventure paths are alive and well, as Paizo’s success demonstrates; and the “old school renaissance” has demonstrated that sandbox adventuring is as fun and viable as ever. Some of the best old-school gaming blogs (like Grognardia) have been praising old-school products and fan material that moves classic D&D in new and interesting directions without sacrificing the old-school vibe—as opposed to endlessly republishing variants of Keep on the Borderlands or Tomb of Horrors. What, I wonder, would be the result if today’s old-school designers took on the challenge of the adventure path? Learn from the mistakes made in the Dragonlance modules, of course; and take hints from the understated but intriguing narrative arcs of the A- and D-series of modules… but with the goal of giving that Tolkien-obsessed teenager with a copy of Labyrinth Lord something to get excited about? I’d love to see what might result!

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  1. […] post on doing “save the world” fantasy in a sandbox setting in response to my own post on the subject. He argues that it can be done, and lays out how to do it. Go give it a […]

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