Just my standard caveat that gaming is a big tent with lots of people of lots of different experiences huddled together against the rain and lightning storms of the outside world, so YMMV on any of this.
One issue that comes up frequently in GMing circles–by which I mean it’s a never-ending crusade with no clear winner, only a lot of destruction–is the debate between “sandbox” games and “railroad” games.
There is a clear difference, of course, but no game in the history of tabletop gaming has been entirely one or the other, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.
All aboard the adventure train!
But first, some definitions.
When applied to a game, “railroad” and “sandbox” are pretty general terms, open to interpretation, but generally:
In its purest form, a sandbox has no set plot or goals—the players can have their characters go anywhere and do anything, and the DM is entirely reactive to the players while the players are the ones making things happen.
The principal strength of a sandbox game is giving the players a sense of agency and freedom, where they can explore whatever and wherever they want, but it frequently leads to two main problems: 1) there’s a lot of pressure on the GM to be able to react to anything at a moment’s notice, often requiring a vast knowledge of the setting, and 2) players can feel overwhelmed or lost in the face of so many options.
“Aw jeez, so many choices…”
By contrast, a railroad is entirely laid out and scripted for players—the plot, NPCs, threats, all of it is planned and executed exactly to plan, and the players are entirely reactive while the DM is the proactive motivating force.
The primary strengths of a railroad game are 1) its ability to give players a strong, cinematic experience, where focus allows you to convey something very specific, and 2) there’s less improvisation needed on the part of the GM, since you’ve got all the answers to the questions that could be asked.
On the other hand, these games have two major weaknesses, which are 1) if something unexpected happens, the game’s inflexibility can mean it’s harder to adapt on the fly, and 2) players can feel stifled, as though they have no real choice in how they proceed.
“What do you mean, what’s my favorite color?” ~ Mass Effect 3, BioWare/EA
Time for Examples
A railroad game might be something like Wolfenstein or Doom: you have a specific goal that requires you to achieve specific goals and milestones. How exactly you do that varies—which weapons you use, whether you’re a little more stealthy or just go guns blazing. And the more these games evolve, the more options they start having. Think of Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider, which allow a fairly wide range of experimentation and customization.
(In the video game industry, “open world” is sort of equivalent to the term “sandbox,” though of course no video game can achieve quite the same level of improvisation you can get at a tabletop game, where your experience is limited only by your imagination, rather than data storage.)
The next level is the Mass Effect series, which is widely seen as a sandbox sort of game. There are lots of things you can do, and your choices make big changes to the way the story unfolds. Though at the same time, there is a particular end goal, and you ARE moving along a path… it’s just how you go along that path that matters.
The most sandboxy game might be something like Minecraft, Animal Crossing, or Fortnite, where the game unfolds entirely without a specific plan, and is entirely up to the players to produce their own story. But those games don’t really have a strong story—as I said, their content is entirely up to the players.
The Spectrum of Gaming
Gaming is like gender–it’s real, but only because we make it real… wait, no, it’s like gender in that it’s on a spectrum.
Whew. Nailed it.
(Y’all knew it was going to come down to “it depends” and “it’s a spectrum,” right?)
As you can tell, “railroad” and “sandbox” are two points on a spectrum of playstyles. Every D&D game is somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes, and it typically has to do with player agency.
Consider: how much of the story is a result of the PCs’ actions as opposed to the GM’s plans?
This is why I say no tabletop game has ever been, nor will ever be, entirely a sandbox or a railroad.
No matter how railroady your game, you as the GM will never be able to plan out exactly what your players will say, do, or otherwise react in any given situation. You might be able to make good guesses, but unless you’re just telling a story without audience participation, the players are going to push on the narrative a bit.
By a similar token, no matter how sandboxy your game, there will always be some planning or at least concepts you’ll have to put in, otherwise odds are nothing will feel like it has any weight to it, and your players will feel as though there’s no real goal to organize the story around.
“Hold up… you do WHAT to the king?”
Wait a second–biased, much?
If you’ve detected a hint of bias, you’re absolutely correct. I tend to lean more sandbox with my games than railroad, and it obscures the drawbacks in my head.
I’m more adept at recognizing the signs of players feeling lost and craving direction in a sandbox game, and so I’ve developed ways to deal with it. I’m also quite happy to just have players vamp for a while, and have entire game sessions where they’re just snarking with each other. That can be real fun.
But eventually, they’re gonna need some goals, and that involves some planning and imposing structure. It might not be recognizably railroady, sure, but giving them a little nudge in the direction you want is something a GM just has to do sometimes.
So what’s the Ideal Balance?
There’s that dang “it depends” thing again. The best TTRPG campaigns find a balance between player action and GM plans that works for and serves the interests of everyone at the table.
I myself prefer my games to be about 70% sandbox, 30% railroad, where the rails are buried in the sand just enough that the players either don’t see them or sometimes catch a glimpse and say “ah, the DM was planning for this!”
Typically when I plan games, I do it week to week based on what the PCs do, but also have potential end goals and big scenes in mind that I’d like to hit as we go. I often play with players who are very sensitive to feeling railroaded, and their tendency is to rebel against the perceived plans, either because they want to preserve their agency or they just want to mess me up… and that can produce fun gaming experiences. It can also derail and mess up a campaign, so that’s a risk you’ve got to be aware of.
Ultimately, the kind of game you should play is the one that works for your table. That might not be clear at first, even if you have a session zero (and you definitely should) to discuss it, but will emerge over time.
And that’s ok. You don’t have to get it perfect straight out of the gate.
Embrace failure and learn from it to make your game better.
Solicit player feedback and incorporate it.
Don’t be afraid to take risks, and be happy if things don’t go quite right–failure is, after all, the best teacher.
You’ll find the balance that works for everyone. Just keep playing.