I played D&D for a while before I ever heard mention of Sandbox versus railroad. And, I’m very thankful for that. It was also a time when D&D had much less exposure on the internet. It was a time when I just enjoyed the game and was thankful for the time and energy my Dungeon Masters and fellow players put into creating fun adventures for our mutual enjoyment. But, time passes, and the internet can be a very terrible and fun-sucking place. The Sandbox versus railroad issue is one such topic leading the non-productive charge for people to judge online if you’re having fun the right way with D&D. But, when I first heard about the argument, I didn’t understand it.
Honestly, I still don’t. Because, here’s the reality, it’s not an argument. No one is arguing for Railroading. Let me illustrate it with an example using video game developers. Does Rockstar make better video games than Naughty Dog because Rockstar games have open game worlds (Sandbox)? If review scores, critical analysis, popularity, and awards are any indication, no. Is the Grand Theft Auto series better than Uncharted? Is The Last of Us worse than Red Dead Redemption? They’re different, and I think most people prefer one type of game over the other, but empirically better? I don’t think so. When most players dig into Uncharted, they don’t lament how much it “railroads” the player.
But, what if I used an example like Minecraft versus Telltale Games. That’s the Sandbox versus railroad reality check. You probably have a much stronger opinion and more thoughtful reasoning about which you think is the better style of game. That is where the dichotomy lay initially. But, the common usage has meandered from the intentional definition. So let’s get back to basics.
Sandbox versus Railroad, Common Usage and the Intentional Definition
Once I could frame the dichotomy as Minecraft versus TTG and not Rockstar versus Naughty Dog, the scales fell from my eyes, and the argument actually made sense. The problem was, online, it didn’t seem like people WERE making sense. They were making a comparison of Rockstar versus TTG, and that doesn’t, in my mind, work because it compares apples to oranges. So, let’s define what we’re comparing and how things have gone off the rails (Railroading pun, I know, I had to).
Defining The D&D Sandbox
The common usage for the D&D Sandbox is a world where the player characters can go anywhere and do anything. Adventures are waiting for them wherever they go. AAA open-world video games very much color this idea of a sandbox. The problem is those games aren’t fully open worlds. Whether that is the invisible boundaries of a mission once you start it or a sidequest you complete before actually receiving the quest, there is still structure to the game.
Red Dead Redemption I & II and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild still have a main game narrative, and the game has a definite endpoint once you conclude that story. Neither is a character (player) driven experience. As a player, you don’t have a choice in fighting Ganon or seeking revenge. You are the main character in a pre-determined story, not the writer of your own story. Which to me, flies in the face of everything the Sandbox is at its core.
The original and intentional definition is much closer to Minecraft, or a West Marches D&D campaign. The game only proceeds based on the players’ actions; they make the story of their characters. The intended idea for the Sandbox is very much a suite of DM-created toys the players use to create their own fun. The same part of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim that brings players back for a brand new 50+ hour playthrough where they completely ignore the main quest because… Elder Scrolls. You can skip the Dragonborn’s destiny in Skyrim and have a very fulfilling game experience. Your experience may vary, but that’s not something I can say about the open worlds of series like Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto (singleplayer), or Breath of the Wild.
For a sandbox D&D game, you can have a looming danger that the PCs can ignore. It will always be a threat and likely grow to the point where it is so inconvenient that they can’t ignore it. But, players get to those if and when they deal with the challenges and threats presented in the world. For example, instead of fighting the approaching army, a party decides to build a mountain stronghold to protect themselves and parlay for non-aggression. Using the intentional sandbox definition, gameplay would be just as valid and fulfilling for the players as conducting guerrilla warfare against the encroaching horde. A proper Sandbox D&D campaign doesn’t push the players in any direction or end.
Defining the Railroad
While the D&D Sandbox definition variance does have some niggles, the divergence on the side of the D&D Railroad definition is the real issue. Because in common usage, it’s just a catch-all for being a bad Dungeon Master. Because Railroading commonly stands for a DM not letting players choose how to approach a situation. Or, offering meaningless choices that don’t impact the game. Also, DMs who shut down any players’ attempts to deviate from their preconceived resolution to a situation. That last point is why I spend so much time banging the drum of emphasizing challenges that need to be overcome by your players and not creating equations with a single solution.
Those familiar with the Telltale Games Formula understand that those games function on the illusion of choice. The first time you play a Telltale game, you probably had a great experience. But, if you play more than one game or go back for a new playthrough with different choices, you quickly notice how little the choices you make impact the narrative. That’s the common usage definition for a D&D Railroad. But you probably don’t feel railroaded by games like Uncharted, The Last of Us, or Hitman, even though they’re actually Railroad games. Why is that?
The intended definition of a D&D Railroad is simply linear campaign design. You know, the opposite of an open-world campaign design. Those two things offer an apples-to-apples comparison and function as endpoints of a slider that makes way more sense than the common usage. You quickly realize most open-world video games are sandboxes punctuated with linear questlines. They function somewhere in the 65% sandbox, 35% railroad area of the slider.
A linear campaign Railroad doesn’t push the players to run all around the world to find the adventure and drive their campaign. Instead, a Railroad campaign is a curated series of integrated adventures that build off one another to equal more than the sum of its parts. You’ve likely realized that’s 99% of published adventure paths. Currently, my group is playing through the opening chapter of Rise of the Runelords. After the inciting incident, you have to follow up on the clues to keep the adventure going. The adventure path immediately falls apart if the PCs (realistically) decided Sandpoint is a dangerous place for level one PCs and departed for the nearest city before things worsen.
The only published adventures that offer more Sandbox-style play are location-based adventure compilations. Ghosts of Salt Marsh allows players to pick and choose disparate adventures in a small area they’d like to explore. But, it’s up to the players to create a compelling character-driven plot for their campaign. They have to provide the reasoning for their adventures. And therein lies the interesting dilemma for D&D Sandbox versus Railroad.
Sandbox versus Railroad: The Dilemma
Spend five minutes online looking up Sandbox versus railroad discussions. Reddit and RPG forum posts, players, and Dungeon Masters state how much they hate Railroading. I would hope so. According to the common usage, it’s just in a game with a bad Dungeon Master. But then they often bang on how the Sandbox is the only D&D experience worth playing. Now, everyone’s experience is different, but I’ve never played, run, or witnessed a raw sandbox campaign that was very good. Most attempts crash and burn, often quickly. Like, within a few sessions quickly.
Even when campaigns get off the ground, the RPG forums are full of DMs grumbling about how the players aren’t engaging with their campaign/world. Whereas players feel lost and without direction in their games. The dilemma is a severe disconnect between players and Dungeon Masters about the scales of effort being put into the game. For most Sandbox campaigns, you have a situation where the DM is putting in exponentially more effort to make the game run than the players. Or, less often, you have players who feel like the DM is just phoning in the game and not taking their role as Dungeon Master seriously.
Sandbox Dilemma Reality Check
For a sandbox campaign to function, the DM has to put in a ton of work upfront. Followed by a significant amount of work throughout the campaign. Creating and running an effective Sandbox for players takes a considerable amount of prep work, especially if you’re trying to homebrew it. When the players can ask about and travel to anywhere in the world, you have to create a world to fill that void. The extremely high effort required of the DM to prep and run a quality sandbox game chews through a DM’s initial energy surge of having an idea for a campaign. Because it’s just work, a lot of work, and you won’t be done until the campaign’s over.
If you’re not a disciplined, professional creative who has the experience and diligence to grind it out and keep your creative fire stoked, you will burn out. Running a D&D Sandbox campaign is the fastest track to Dungeon Master burnout.
That feeling of DM stress and creative exhaustion is only magnified when a Dungeon Master feels the disconnect between their effort and player appreciation. That’s what is often meant when we talk about players not “engaging” with the world. They’re not appreciating the world correspondent to the amount of energy you are expending to create the game for them. You expect they will be curious and search every nook and cranny of your world, dig into the lore, and build strong adventure hooks for you to flesh out. But, the truth is the vast majority of players don’t want to expend that energy. They don’t want to spend the time and effort required to create and coordinate a 2-year, level 1-20 campaign epic full of personal development and a JRPG-levels-ridiculous plot that ends in killing God.
Most players want to show up to the table, hang with their friends, roll some dice, and have fun playing a *GASP* game. They’re busy people with jobs already; they don’t want a D&D non-profit side hustle. If they did, they’d be running the game instead. Players want to play cool characters that kick monster butt, defeat evil villains, and get awesome loot that makes them more powerful.
Creating A Working Sandbox Campaign
If you’re dead set on running a legitimate sandbox campaign, there are some steps you can take to improve your chances. First, there are some unicorn players out there, and you will need to bring them to your table. For a true Sandbox campaign to have a chance at being successful, you need high effort players that want to collaborate with the Dungeon Master to tell a more engaging story and develop your world. Look for players that fit the Actor, Explorer, Instigator, and Storyteller player archetypes. These archetypes have character goals, uncover the world, create action, and help you tell the story. These high-effort, collaborative players can take the reins and drive a campaign without blinking. They will think and plan about the campaign in between sessions as well.
Dungeon Masters, this is your official warning. Listen closely. If you want to run a Sandbox campaign and don’t have high-effort collaborators as players, you have to find creative fulfillment from the worldbuilding process. You will not get appreciation or satisfaction from your players that corresponds to the effort you put into creating the Sandbox. If not, you will be miserable. Keep in mind, your players would be as (or even more pleased) playing a published module set in the Forgotten Realms. You’ve been warned. I love them, but your Power Gamer, Slayer, Thinker, and Watcher players aren’t going to give you what you need to run a successful Sandbox campaign. They are game consumers, not game collaborators. You can drop these players in a mega-dungeon and call it a day.
Even with an optimized table of players, your Sandbox can still run into trouble. Because anything is possible in the world, your players can fall victim to analysis paralysis or the peanut butter conundrum. How do you decide the best course of action when you have to review every potential course of action you can conjure? Much less when you have more than one person that has to agree on the course of action. Which can dangerously lead Dungeon Masters to prep pieces in every potential direction the players can pursue. In comparison, a Dungeon Master can spend their creative energy in a much more efficient way running a linear (Railroad) campaign.
Creating a Working Railroad Campaign
I’m going to go out on a limb because of the Sandbox versus Railroad vitriol and assume most Dungeon Masters do not intentionally create Railroad campaigns. If you’re one of the DMs who feels your players aren’t engaging with your campaign, you need to realize that creating a different, grandiose Sandbox campaign isn’t going to resolve the issue. Instead of waiting for your players to meet your campaign expectations, you need to step down your expectations and meet your players where they are now. Or, you can run a series of one-shots and short adventures for many different players to find and recruit the type of players you need to make a Sandbox campaign successful.
If what we’ve been going over is resonating with you, running a linear D&D campaign is worth a try. A Railroad campaign isn’t necessarily easier, but it is more simple than creating a Sandbox campaign. And if you’re a new Dungeon Master, this is where I would recommend you start. DON’T follow the terrible layout of the 5e Dungeon Masters Guide and immediately begin building a world. To run a successful Railroad campaign, you only need to lay down the tracks in front of you and ensure a little flexibility. For example, if you’re prepping an adventure, you may want to know something about the closest town in case the players want to gear up for a dungeon delve. There’s no need to world build different continents if you don’t plan for your players to visit them.
The first tip for running a Railroad campaign is defining the scope. There’s nothing that says your D&D campaign has to go from level one to level 20. A short campaign with a successful end your table experiences is worth way more than a dozen unfinished, forgettable epic campaigns. Get in and get out with your campaign. You can always revisit the campaign with a prequel, sequel, or side story if your players really enjoyed it.
The second tip is to create a series of adventures and develop links between them to create your campaign. The 5×5 Adventure Method from Critical Hits is an excellent place to start. Creating those crucial plot links of people, places, objects, and ideas between your adventures is the mortar that cements unique adventures together to create a cohesive whole. Especially if you’re able to show the effect of the PCs’ actions reflected in other adventures, but there’s nothing that says you can’t use a published adventure in this formula. Using one or more short published adventures with some minor revisions can significantly cut down your prep time.
The third tip is to spend your session prep delivering ways for your players to get the gameplay juice they want. Make sure you have combat for your slayers, some mystery for your thinkers to uncover, etc. Spending prep focus on this element is what brings players back to your table. Try to get every player a little spotlight in each session.
D&D Sandbox versus Railroad: What Do I Use?
Talk’s cheap, and the hypotheticals are nice, but you also want a real person’s experience and explanation of what works for them. For me, running a 1-20 campaign is a unicorn. I’ve never even thought to give it an honest attempt. Even hardcore perma-DMs only accomplish a full campaign a few times in decades of running. As discussed, most players just aren’t into it. I quickly realized that if players asked about campaign setting details only to determine things like cleric domains and what feats they could use, they didn’t care about my world. I came to terms with that. Even though I like worldbuilding, heck, I’m writing a blog series on worldbuilding from scratch. As a busy adult, it’s more important I spend my limited free time prepping for things that will come up in the next session.
Plus, because I know the players aren’t really into uncovering the setting and driving the campaign, I can throw whatever I want at them, whenever I want. That’s fantastic freedom as Dungeon Master. If I get a fantastic idea, I can drop it into the next session. If I’m feeling a hag adventure, I can drop in a haunted woods a day’s travel to the West without spending time to make sure it fits the world. And, as the game continues going, I just focus on additive worldbuilding. Adventure by adventure and session by session, the world gets a little larger and a little more detailed. I only need to focus just beyond the horizon in case they decide to travel in that direction.
The truth is Railroading is incredible, and it’s way easier to run than a Sandbox campaign. It allows the Dungeon Master to focus on being a good DM and running a great game for your players. You simply need to offer meaningful choices and create challenges with a reasonable openness to how the players can overcome the challenge. aAnd, if you have a player that does want to explore their backstory or character’s goals, provide them opportunities to do so in your adventures. If you focus on empowering your players in this way, you can run linear campaigns for the rest of your life and never have a frustrated player refer to you or your game as a Railroad.