On the Superiority of the Railroad Method Over Sandboxes

Oh, you read that correctly loyal readers.

Man, do sandboxes suck. Oh, What's that, you don't agree with me?

Then why are there so many threads about BBEG*'s? Why is there so much focus on 'My Precious Encounter' adventure design? Why are tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people running railroaded games where there's a plot to be followed, leaving just us few hundred people fighting the good fight.

Maybe you've sold one or several on your friends on running a sandbox game. Did it not live up to expectations? Did the game for some reason get boring after the constant questioning of "What are you doing this week?"

Clearly this is because sandboxes suck! Or wait, maybe that isn't it.

Maybe it's because people are lazy and shallow and don't wish to exert themselves. Perhaps it the players who are responsible for making a sandbox fun! Maybe that's why they just aren't working. Sure - the players create the adventure, and it's their fault each session after lackluster session ends up in covering the same ground, killing the same monsters on the same random encounter table, with nothing exciting happening.

Oh, you were a player in one of those games? Well if it's not the DM, and it's not the Players, what is it?

An incomplete adventure design.

Aren't we looking for how to make this thing work? Here's how.

Step One:
The Passive Campaign: Why U Haz One?
The Passive campaign: Don't have one.

Go ahead, give your players total freedom and watch them do nothing.

Option Paralysis is a real quality in human beings, so avoid it. Do not assume because you have a map and hexes and dungeons that going 'here's a dungeon, have fun' is enough to create an engaging campaign.

You want an engaging campaign - every week engage the players as if you were running a railroad.

Give up the desire to locate me,
your suffering will end.
Step Two:
Your Aspirations, Literary or Otherwise: Give them up.

But if you're running the campaign like a railroad - what if they don't do what you want?

Give up what you want.

Yes, you need to engage the players with linear adventure in the form of quest-lines and dungeons, mystery plots and character arcs.

But, you have to accept failed and ignored quests and dungeons, mysteries left unsolved and death and misfortune preventing the end of development arcs, suddenly.

Yes, you need to engage the players with space structure by creating interesting sites and places to go, detailing towns, castles, dungeons, and camps.

But you have to accept ignored towns and people being dismissed, and long forgotten tombs and ruins remaining distant memories.

Yes, you need to create a dynamic world with time structure, including random encounters, plans that engage and happen if the players fail to intervene, dungeons that restock, and events that move regardless if the players are their or not.

But you have to accept that they will miss some of these events arriving late or early, fail to recognize when some are happening, and engage in events in orders that will change your carefully structured plans.

Yes, make each of your scenes as if it was a 'my precious encounter'

But have plenty of 'empty' rooms and allow them to miss or bypass as many of your precious encounters as they can manage.

Yes, you need to create a great power structure, with many influential forces and NPC's with plots and plans that influence the players and the world.

But you need to stop passing judgement on what is right and what is wrong, and let the players make their own choices and align themselves with however they feel is best. Get rid of the big bad evil guys and good heroes and make the plotters, movers, and shakers a little more complex and dynamic characters, rather then just 'evil because'.

Buddha says: Create game in railroad style, let go of railroad desire. Railroad desire is the root of all suffering.

*BBEG is Big Bad Evil Guy


  1. Other things you need for Sandbox:

    Fire under the ass: There has to be a motivating reason to get players to start going out in the first place.

    Having a proper system that forces you to be pro-active is a big plus. Entropic forces are one thing, but they often force people into a different path, building a sustainable hideout.

    Something where people need to seek out adventure is best. Levelling is OK, but in a sandbox, you don't really need to level (unless something too powerful is barrelling down upon you.

  2. Here's a question: which of the following do you feel makes for a better sandbox? A "fractal" , where the setting is unconstrained and the DM adds detail to whichever bits the players decide to focus on, and parts outside of the immediate environment stay vague so that stuff can be added as needed, or a "toybox" where there's a well-defined environment with a small enough number of moving parts that the players can get a handle on all of them and their relationships to each other (sort of like a dungeon writ large)? Obviously either approach is necessarily going to have elements of the other but where is the best balance struck?

  3. In what way does a BBEG inherently imply railroading?

    Somebody has to be behind the evil plot, after all. Even if the players don't track him or her down.

  4. It's often used synonymously with "campaign villain" which implies all sorts of railroading. As opposed to just "NPC with plans".

  5. Great post!
    One thing I have learned as DM in a sandbox, nothing EVER goes according to plan, my plan that is. Keeps me on my toes, it does!

  6. @LS
    The fact that you've decided the plot is Evil is the worst railroad sin of all!

  7. I like to give my group the illusion of choice wherein i have an incomplete sandbox housing a bunch of setpieces and no matter what they do or where they go, it's where i want them to be. So they can't see the rails but they're more or less on the railroad

  8. I don't always see eye-to-eye with your posts, but this one is a real winner.

  9. @Justin

    If you think they can't, you're fooling yourself.

  10. This is a great post.

    There was a quote in an RPG.net thread years ago that stuck with me. "Players don't actually mind the railroad, so long as they get to sit in the engine and blow the whistle."

    I think you managed to nail some of the biggest problems with sandbox play. It requires both highly proactive players (well, at least one) and a GM who is very good at improv play.

    My preferred mode these days to use a railroad, but let the players lay the tracks. Use techniques like FATE's character creation template, DFRPG's city creation template, and the 5x5 system to get some connections and goals out of the players at the outset of the campaign. Add a couple NPCs to fuel the engine, and let it go. Done really well, the campaign practically writes itself. Even done poorly, you at least get a minimum degree of investment in the plot out of the party.

  11. @Marshall The definition of a railroad is a game where the players' choices don't matter. No matter how invested the players are, that's always going to make a less satisfying game and a worse story than one in which the players are calling the shots.

    I think those are more excuses than problems. I don't think I'm a very good improv DM, and none of my players have been particularly proactive. All a sandbox takes compared to a railroad takes is more work, and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone.

    For all that better DMs than I expound on the best ways to run a sandbox, the key to just avoiding a railroad I think is very simple. Don't plan out what the players are going to do. If you have the makings of a railroad plot, you can still fill out all the same elements - the hooks, the NPCs and their motivations, the important locations, the macguffins - just don't try to plan how the PCs will interact with those elements. If you have all the important stuff down it should be hard to roll with whatever actions the players decide to take. Once in a while they'll turn the whole set-up down flat, but when that happens you just swallow and bear it.

  12. "The fact that you've decided the plot is Evil is the worst railroad sin of all!"

    I normally agree with most of what you write, but not sure I'm all aboard on this one. There is evil in my campaign world. They have plots. Sometimes the players choose to get involved in them (such as when the Cult of the Devourer ravaged Kobold Korner with a horde of undead). Other times, they choose to ignore them (when the Black Masks had taken over the abandoned wizard tower and used it for nefarious purposes) or choose the wrong side (helping the Red Mage catch the thief that had stolen his pouch containing sensitive information).

    That's the point. The (fake) world moves on and the characters have the choice to get involved in what they want. There are evil plots. That's not a railroad.

  13. @Gregory

    You're correct. It's a poor argument for a game with absolute morality. I don't suppose there is anything wrong with big bad evil dudes, but there's a lot that can go wrong with the implementation.

  14. Why do people run railroad games?

    Here's my analysis based on my very subjective experiencies:

    In the minds of many roleplayers I know, who were 'brought up' into the hobby during the 90's and early 00's, roleplaying = storytelling. That is to say, interactive theater. A good gamemaster = a good storyteller. A good roleplayer = a good actor.

    Paradoxically, I think that when those people hear 'railroading', D&D is one of the first things that come to their minds. Most of them would agree that railroading is essentially a bad and boring thing, but they don't perceive their own style of play as such. It's just that they consider their 'agency' as it were to take place outside of the game itself, on a sort of meta-level, when they and the GM agree on what kind of campaign would be interesting to play, what their characters' backgrounds and motivations are, and during downtime when the GM asks 'where would you like this campaign/this story to go from here'?

    Hope I stayed on topic. Good post, as usual.

  15. Excellent post, this is exactly what I try to do.

    How much of your prep do you keep behind the curtain, as it were? Is it truly a sandbox if the players know that one location is much less fleshed out than another location? That is, do you think the knowledge by the players that the referee will have to improvise inherently changes the exploration incentives?


    I think your analysis of 90s roleplaying is spot on (that's when I started, with Second Edition). White Wolf and the Storyteller system loomed large.

  16. "I don't suppose there is anything wrong with big bad evil dudes, but there's a lot that can go wrong with the implementation."

    You know, I was re-reading this...

    There is a big difference in the following two gaming events that are worded almost exactly the same.

    1) There is a big bad guy with an evil plot.
    2) Stopping the big bad guy is the game's plot.

  17. I can't tell if you are for / against sandbox. Things like this

    > But you need to stop passing judgement on what is right and what is wrong,

    I can't tell if you're being sarcastic, or if you're so oblivious to write a extremely judgmental post in which you admonish readers to not judge.

    If against, then you really don't know what sandbox play is. What you described as "Railroading done right" is sandbox to a 'T'. Give up what you want (btw literary aspirations are what story writing railroaders have, sandboxers play a game. Another, confusing statement are you being sarcastic?). Create the sandbox space/time/scenes/structure, accept much of it will be ignored.

    Makes the correct point that Sandboxes aren't plotless, they aren't characterless, they aren't goaless.

    Sanbox is improv.

    Storybased (derog Railroad) is preplanned.

    I really like your magic items and traps btw.

    1. You might get a better idea of what I am for and against by taking a look around the blog - or perhaps my posts on adventure design or game theory.

  18. Recently did a basic pit stop in a fairly linear campaign: Get through this forest quickly. You can take the trail, but it's a meandering mess, or you can use the druid's familiarity with the area to hexcrawl which might lead somewhere dangerous but is definitely faster.

    They chose to take the trail.


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