Sandbox vs. Railroad: Some Thoughts on World Building

I’ve been a world builder for about thirty years now. I started when I was around nine or ten. I’m not exactly sure. My first worlds were populated by gods and monsters and two-dimensional heroes. Quite often, they all did not get along.

Nerds and geeks know what I’m talking about. Role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons specifically.

I was born a few years after D&D was first released and on a Christmas Eve in Winthrop, Massachusetts, I received the first edition boxed expert set with the dragon rising up over a horse-borne warrior(my older brother received the basic set that same day). Back then I didn’t know what D&D was, but the artwork on the box had me before I even opened it.

I see articles nowadays on world building. On the internet. In magazines. You can buy innumerable books and eBooks on the subject on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Some of them look great. Some of them maybe not so much. Either way, I’ve never been tempted to make a purchase. And I’ve bought books on virtually every aspect of writing. I have a problem. But it’s never occurred to me to do so with world building because that’s something that was ingrained in me at a young age through D&D(#Iwasnotcool).

You see, I had the luck to be one of those kids that enjoyed being a dungeon master, or DM for short. For those of you who don’t know what a DM is, it makes you as valuable to nerds as a kid who likes to play goalie is to a hockey team. Which is to say quite (but still not cool).

The ultimate goal of any good DM, or guy who runs the game, is to run a string of adventures together into a campaign and tell an awesome story in the process. Characters live. They breathe. They triumph. And sometimes they die. Just like in books.

In fact, the process of writing a campaign is very much like writing a book. The only difference is that in D&D the overall story is ultimately a collaborative effort that can be occasionally derailed, often hilariously, by the roll of dice or the mad antics of your insane friends who just wanted to see what would happen if they summoned an earth elemental in the middle of a tavern. But I digress.

Now here is the crux of the title of this blog: are you a sandbox writer or a railroader?

When writing a story, do you provide a sandbox, or enclosed realm, for your characters to explore? This is an immersive experience that requires you to flesh out an entire world, including but not limited to: geography, sociology, races, river systems, trade agreements, wars, history, level of technology, existence of magic, etc…

Or, do you railroad them along a story that creates a path through your world that’s fleshed out just enough so that the characters don’t see that the buildings in town are merely facades?

Both are viable options.

But which is the more effective method? The answer to the question is, anticlimactically: it depends.

It depends mainly on how much time and effort you have and are willing to invest in the process. Generally speaking, sandboxing is more work up front. A lot more. You’re fleshing out cities and continents and places characters may never go, which means a lot of potentially wasted effort. The upside is it also means that you now have a treasure trove of story ideas for present and future use, which pays dividends. (I often find that when I encounter ‘writer’s block’ it’s that I haven’t fleshed out some aspect of my world enough to move past the ‘block.’)

Railroading seems like the easier method, it’s more streamlined with seemingly less wasted work, and depending on you as a writer, it may be. I have a friend who writes by the seat of his pants, and he writes damn fine books. He doesn’t outline or world build, he just goes and sees where it takes him.

Me? I’m a sandboxer (albeit a lazy one). And while I don’t outline, I find that I do need the rules and history and geography of a structured world to have the freedom to write uninhibited.

But as I said, I’m lazy.

So, my little trick is to set my fantasy/sci-fi in the real world and then just tweak it enough to satisfy my story needs. I read history for ideas and settings. Then I set rules for levels of technology and magic and create alternate histories, but only when and where needed. Then I railroad the hell out of my characters and build only the cities and places they go.

Kevin Wright

-Amazon Author Page

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