Mostly inspired by Donny the DM’s posts, namely this and this, the first of which was shared by Jonathan Jacobs of forthcoming Nevermet press on Google Reader.
Donny somewhat mischaracerises the extremes of sandbox play, also misuses GNS and makes a number of assumptions, but I thought it would be nice to engage his actual point, too.
I hope I am not misrepresenting Donny too severely. By my understanding Donny’s point is, to steal a term from another field, ecumenical. Donny wants to say that old school and 4e play are not that different after all. Donny’s argument is that since ridiculously extreme sandbox play and ridiculously extreme railroading don’t really work, everyone must actually play in the middle ground and hence in pretty similar way.
There is a number of weaknesses on the argument in addition to misrepresenting railroading. Donny is pretty focused on D&D and it shows. D&D assumes lots of combat. Donny’s argument also assumes lots of combat. Further, not all ways of playing map meaningfully to the railroading-sandbox axis. My normal style of game mastering is story-focused but I don’t plan ahead and hence can’t railroad; there is no point in mapping this to the railroad-sandbox axis. This is not a big problem as one can fabricate a ridiculously extreme version of my style, too, and use argument similar to what Donny used. I will assume that this applies to all possible ways of playing.
The key claim remains: Since all extremes are implausible, all styles of play must be pretty close to each other and fundamentally similar. My perspective is that the claim is too ecumenical, but still has a kernel of truth hidden in it.
First the true part: Certainly, all of roleplaying shares many similarities. Certainly different play traditions have much to learn from each other. I mix and match techniques from old school play and indie games. Philippe, a 4e afficiando if there ever was one, experiments with random encounters. 4e with the focus on encounters has something to teach if one is willing to look carefully, but they really ought to read and play some indie games so as to get a handle of skill challenges, which are a pretty blunt instrument. More importantly: It is possible to enjoy playing in styles that are not one’s favourite, as long as one is willing to approach them with open mind. (Also, having less edition wars would be nice.)
Nevertheless, people play in different ways. I hear some even like railroading and pre-plotted adventures! Hard to accept, but true. The differences are real. Some styles of play demand very much a different perspective for them to be enjoyed. Donny himself illustrates this by the following comments:
As to gathering information. <snip> You either railroad them (just have someone spill their guts as to where you want them to go), or you sandbox them (roll on the random rumor table and they go in the direction the dice tell them to – stomping off blindly indeed :)
No, you do neither of those. You give them the information that they could gather, maybe influenced by dice rolls. Maybe it guides to some interesting adventurous location that you have designed and placed somewhere, but not because you want the player characters to go there, but because you want to present going there as an option. When designing the sandbox, you place a bunch of interesting locations there and create a bunch of interesting random encounters, because you want to know what the players will do to them. In play you don’t guide them around; their characters are an adventurous bunch or so involved in the situation that they will certainly undertake some interesting project or stumble upon something interesting.
That is; instead of director who has a story to tell or encounters to guide the players through, the GM thinks of himself (or herself) as an arbitrator who can’t wait to see what the players do with his sandbox. A different frame of mind. Certainly one can mix and match, for example by creating a sandbox with very strong theme or by creating an adventure with many genuine choices that take it to different directions. Regardless, the extreme but playable cases are pretty far from each other.
As a conclusion I say that those weirdos over there do play in genuinely different way, but once you accept that the difference exists, you just might be able to enjoy their activity, too. Or maybe not. But at the very least you would be likely to learn a bit and get a new experience. Celebrate the difference.