The sandbox. That iconic ideal we all strive for. The idea that the party should make their own decisions, and interact within an organic medium that reacts with their every action and choice. Let me tell you folks, it is over-rated as hell. Let me explain why.
First off, what is the antithesis of the sandbox? That's right, the railroad. That, to the uninitiated, is the literal "railroading" of the party to move along a pre-set course that the DM has charted out. This is prevalent in published modules and adventures that are usually light on any content not directly relating to the current adventure.
I am not aware of any other methods, if any of you would like to comment and point them out, I will edit or post a new article with them included.
First off, to quote a fellow blogger, "there is no spoon." We like to try and categorize ourselves like there are prizes awarded for most quirky, most old school, most new school, whatever. This is silly, and unfortunately very typical human behavior. GNS theory is a good example of this as well.
Truth is, no matter how much we try and pidgeonhole ourselves, we are so alike that any seppuku would serve only to take us all down. Back to the original topic!
The Simulationist Sandbox
Sandbox gaming is as far on the simulationist extreme as is possible to easily go. You are a member of a group of heroes(?) exploring an unknown area, interacting with it's inhabitants, and doing whatever in the hell they wish to do.
Where this really chaps my ass, is when the map or grid or whatever is being populated, the DM has to assume that a party that survives will "level up" and gain in power. Therefore, the encounters have to be truly random, spread out all over the place at all levels of play. This is effectively a double blind as the DM has no idea where the party will go, and the party has no idea what the DM has thrown down.
This fails in a couple of ways. The most obvious is the party encountering something that could de-flesh them with a mere thought. Does the party run away? - The dragon lazily flies over and nukes you from orbit. The giants are faster than you, etc. So the random direction you picked just killed you. How fun.
To those who would say, "but Donny, the dragon is full from eating a merchant caravan, and is willing to parley." I call Railroading! You have just metagamed yourself out of the sandbox. Unless that encounter was specifically designed around a dragon lounging on a bed of loot and skeletons - who just happend to be in a converational mood - you have failed. You had to change the parameters of the encounter to suit the story, commonly known as railroading.
The alternative to this is even worse. What do you get when you cross a "typical" 7th level party with a pack of kobolds? An extremely lackluster encounter. The kind of encounter where the highlight is the one rat that took TWO swings to drop. Yay, how awesome.
Randomness is just that, random. It is nobody's friend. It is nobody's mistress. It is a voluntary inclusion of chaos into a game defined by it's rules. It works, but too much randomness creates an incoherent game. For example, the party (3rd level we'll assume) moves north from the village.
Hex #c5 says, "A band of 2-12 orcs is terrorizing a farmhouse, it's residents still inside. The farmer has a magic sword, but doesn't know how to use it." The party has a tough time, but prevails.
Moving east, to hex #D5 says, "A pack of d4+1 dire weasels are eating berries off of a bush - the bush has 2D10 berries that will cure d4 HP each. The party manages to survive here as well.
Continuing on, they travel north again. Hex #D6 says, "Three hill giants are eating a woodsman they caught. They would love more meat." Guess what, the party dies. Wow, that was sure fun. Time for new characters.
Am I missing something? Are there actually people out there that LIKE this kind of game? Where you never know what is going on until you are suddenly dead? Here we had a total lose scenario - The giants are not only massively more powerful than the party, but also are faster than the party. What about an ochre jelly? It's mindless, it'll just keep following. A vampire? Another toasted party. How is this fun? Seriously, somebody let me know - I am at a loss.
It's not even about dying. THAT happens in D&D with clockwork regularity, it's a part of the game. However, a well designed encounter will ALWAYS have a way for the players to win. Before you start foaming at the mouth about the word win, I ask you who plays to lose? Any commenter who want to admit that they have secretly always played just to brag they've died or lost in every conceivable way will be trapped, tagged, and released with pity.
In my humble opinion. The sandbox fails because the very randomness it relys on to exist, is antithetical to an enjoyable game experience. This is not to say that randomness has no place by any means. Just that using randomness as a fudamental building block for a campaign is like playing russian roulette with your loved ones for giggles. "Gee dad, I thought this game was fun?" Thank you random troll pack encounter.
The Narrative Railroad
Railroad style gaming is Narrativism taken to the same ludicrous extreme. In this style, the DM reserves the right to do whatever it takes to "guide" you along a predetermined path to a specific event. Most game modules are good examples of this. They contain only information pertinent to the chain of events and encounters that lead from point A to point Z.
This is the method that currently gets all of the badmouthing. It's gonna get some more today. Railroading your party is a good way to have your party do stupid, silly, and otherwise idiotic behaviors - i.e. "Let's burn down the tavern!" or "I pick everyones pockets." They do this as a test of their boundaries. They know that the cage has bars, but cannot often see them. As such, they play with resignation.
This is why it is a BAD idea to allow a character in the party that is essential to the endgame of the campaign. Without them, the campaign collapses - and they will broom-handle you relentlessly once they figure that out!
As if that wasn't bad enough, when the party asks the DM where they should go - the DM is not doing their job. Either A. The information was not passed on properly. Or B. They honestly have no idea where your next set-piece event takes place, and don't want to piss you off.
The Gamist compromise
This is the game most of us actually play. Where the two circles come together into some common ground. This is where we can have a dragon encounter at level 5, and use it to further a story without the party feeling like well armed care bears. This is the game with an established plot line, random encounters, an A a Z and all points in between determined as needed. We get it ALL here. This is the game where your character is something other than a snack to a badly(?) placed encounter, or a wooden puppet marching to the last page of the module.
This is the game that gives you the tools to WIN! To accomplish the goals said character has set. This is the game where everyone is having fun. This is where the hex simply says, "Party level +2 encounter. Captive nymph in bad mood. May strip out of spite. No treasure." Is this old school? Is this new school? Does it matter? It's actually both. A winnable encounter, with a basic framework that (to me anyway) provides everything I need to have some good roleplaying as well! Is the nymph part of the encounter? Is it a trap? Does she kill the party out of annoyance? Who has her? All of these can be pencilled in on the fly, within the framework of an EL+2 encounter!
In my humble opinion, a lot of the "controversy" surrounding this leg of GNS theory has been the whole "win" thing. In fact, 4E was recipient to a lot of identical criticisms - lots of noise about every character winning everything or somesuch. I am not here to tell you how to game. Maybe your players are mongoloids that need to be herded. Maybe your group has a long standing bet relating to the total number of character deaths. I say that if you aren't in it to "win", what ARE you in it for? beer and pretzels? Funny looking dice? All the hot chicks? To die in an epically thematic way at the feet of the villain your party has spend the last 2 years of real world time trying to get to? To LOSE?
In my opinion, the biggest flaw in GNS is that the three exist in opposition to each other. Going in one direction distances you from the others. In my mind, they are all mishmashed together in a pile of nearly useless letters - until you form a group. At that point, you need to fish out the bits that will fit the group as a whole. A game "tailored" to 3 power gamers, one method actor, and two folks allergic to dice will look differently than, well...any other group on the planet - but I digress.
In summation, there is no one true way. The artificial divide between the "schools" of gaming thought is just that - artificial. We choose to build these walls around our narrow interpretations of the most subjective game on the planet. We choose to dig the moat, and how deep. We even choose when to fill it with water - and when to fill it with flaming trolls.
As to game design itself. Sometimes when you codify every minute detail into easily digested, modular little bites, you lose a little bit of perspective. D&D is not chess. D&D is not snakes and ladders. We get so pre-occupied with using formulae and rules that we forget there is likely not a single game ever published that is played RAW.
We all have different ideas as to how is "should" be. One person's Xanadu is another's steaming pile of poop. This summarizes the edition wars, Gaming theory and design, ans well as the silliness of the old school / new school movements. This is also the reason we have such a vibrant gaming community. Do we really need to build walls to feel better about our personal choices?
Long live gaming! And all of it's silly players.