Railroad or sandbox?

If you've been around any form of interactive story telling for a while, whether it be tabletop RPGs, video games, or something else entirely, you've probably come across the terms sandbox and railroading before. Sandbox, the open world type of style, is usually seen as the better pick, while railroading, the more linear form of story telling, is often frowned upon. Is this really fair? Should you avoid railroading at all costs when running a tabletop RPG campaign? Not exactly, but the answer isn't as simple as "go for sandbox" or "go for railroading", nor are the ways to solve any of the issues that arise from picking either one of them.
In this guide I'll cover what railroading and sandbox are, how to avoid common issues, and much more. So let's get started.

What is sandboxing?

Just like how in a real sandbox you can create and do whatever your heart desires, so too are sandbox stories incredibly open. If you're in a town, you can go wherever you wish without having to follow a specific quest, road, or other driving force, and most, if not all, of your choices matter to some degree. Some video game examples of these are Minecraft, Garry's Mod, Skyrim, and The Sims. Within these games you can do anything you wish within the rules of each universe and within reason. You can't fly an airplane in Skyrim for example, at least not in the game you buy, mods (modifications) for pretty much everything have been created by fans.

The biggest advantage of a sandbox style of story is the vastness of it, or at least the seemingly vastness of it. It makes the world seem more real and lifelike, and could give the players a great sense of freedom, and hopefully a bigger sense of immersion. This isn't always the case though, but more on that later.

What is railroading?

On the other side of this spectrum we have railroading. A railroaded story is, like a train, stuck on a specific path, and will usually direct the players to specific circumstances that have to happen for the story to continue. Deviating from this is not an option in a railroaded story, which can sometimes cause story or immersion breaking events. The advantage, however, is that a railroaded story will have been planned more precisely, as the creator knows what to expect, which usually leads to great stories. Of course, when ignoring a quest or character isn't possible, this can ruin the fun for a lot of people.

Which one's best?

So which option is better for you and your players? Sandboxing, railroading, or a mix of both? This answer depends on, surprise surprise, you and your players. Many people like the grandness of a sandbox, but having all the choices in the world can make it difficult for players to actually pick something. Plus, it takes a lot of time to create a sandbox story, which not all GMs (Game Masters) have.
On the other hand, a railroaded story will definitely have a beginning, middle, and end, but if there's no room for sight seeing, so to speak, or if choices don't matter, you might as well just enjoy a book, right?

There's plenty of ways to mix elements of both though, which I'll delve into soon, but just keep in mind that the first step is figuring out what your players want, what you want, and how much time you all have to actually bring it to fruition. A sandbox story is great, but if you only have time to play out one story element, you might wish to stick with a more railroaded story.

How to railroad.

So, let's delve into how to railroad a story without making it look like you're railroading the story. Some solutions are arguably turning a railroaded story into something else, but let's not delve into semantics. Railroading itself isn't a bad thing when done right, and sandboxing isn't automatically a good thing, as it can be done terribly.

Illusion of choice

Probably the most common way of hiding a railroad is by pretending there isn't one through fake choices. At the basic level it's basically being given a choice between two doors, but they both secretly lead to the exact same thing. Since you can only go through one door, you'll never figure out where the other door supposedly would've gone.
Of course, if your campaign is long enough, or if players are free enough, they might be able to check door number 2 anyway. This is usually not a big deal, as you'd normally be able to create another adventure by that point, or at the very least hint at something bigger.

The illusion of choice works for many story elements, and can be as simple as the basic example above, or could be as complex as having two different journeys to the same destination. Having two different journeys is definitely the better option, even if the difference is just flavor and aesthetics. But it'll show choices matter at least to some degree.
For example, the cliche example of having a forest path split into two, where one path leads to a dark, eerie looking path, and the other to a bright, cheerful looking path, is an example of two different journeys potentially leading to the same destination. You don't even have to change anything other than the aesthetics, all the other plot points could still be the same. Need a combat encounter? On the bright path dryads might attack, while on the dark path it might be skeletal monsters. I covered aesthetic changes, as well as other changes for monsters, in the homebrewing monsters guide, but the pattern works for everything when it comes to merely changing the aesthetics of the journey, rather than the journey itself.

The illusion can be unravelled if the characters find more about the paths though, which could be through research, scouting, or any other method at their disposal. You might be tempted to simply say they don't find anything, but if they roll well, give them something. If you don't, it'll be obvious you're railroading the story. You don't have to give them everything though, and if you only have one journey planned, you can still play around with it enough to make the choices seem different.
To take the previous forest path cliche as an example, some research might give the characters things like: the eerie path is dark, but most trees are barren, and there are a lot of leaves on the ground. Moving stealthily through this area will be difficult, but there are reports of lurking creatures. The bright path is lush, full of life, and moving through it stealthily should be relatively easy. It's usually the more travelled path chosen by locals.

The two paths might seem really different, especially since the brighter path seems to hint at safety. But a more travelled path means bandits could be more common, there's more people to steal from after all. So both paths offer a chance for combat, and the characters get a choice of going for a stealthy method, a safety in numbers method, a looking for trouble method, or anything else they can think of.

Use NPCs

NPCs (Non-Player Characters) can make for subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways to move a story toward a certain direction. While the party might not always listen to NPCs, by playing on their character strengths and weaknesses you can often suggest pretty specific paths to take. A noble paladin likely won't step away from a chance to destroy some undead fiends, and a money hungry mercenary will probably take a job if the pay is good.

Of course, if the party is already well on their way, directing them in the right direction will be trickier with just NPCs. You can't have an NPC appear out of nowhere to conveniently point them in the right direction, at least not in most campaigns, but that doesn't mean they can't encounter anything. Powerful enemies could divert the party (or perhaps tempt them) a certain way, a cry for help in the distance could rush them toward that position, and so on.

Gods/Visions/Etc.

Less subtle than NPCs are gods, visions, dreams, and similar elements. They can still make for good elements in the right game and the right moment though. A character might pray as a daily ritual, at which point you can nudge them in a specific way. A vision or dream could always be used, but they can definitely come across as cheesy. Part of it is just knowing your group though, some players respond well to these kind of things, others don't.

Geography and maps

Another somewhat subtle element is to use the landscape to direct the players a certain way. A large river, a range of mountains, or perhaps a deep chasm could all make the party wish to take a more convenient route. If this isn't an option for your setting, giving half completed maps could always be an option too. An NPC might overhear the characters talking about what they want to do, and offer a map they used on their journey. It'll contain the path they took, some local points of interest, perhaps some personal notes, and everything else would be blank. The party could choose to explore the unknown parts, but many will probably follow the given path, especially if there's intriguing points of interest.
Another bonus of maps and path directing geography is that it'll make your world seem more planned out, which it is, even if it's just putting fluff around the map.

Time incentives

Time incentives are a great way to get a party to go for exactly what you'd like them to go for. At least in most cases. A murder mystery that needs to be solved before the culprit can get away, a strange package that needs to be delivered in a specific time, or perhaps a monster or event that can only be seen at a specific time of the day, week, or even year. There's usually plenty of ways to make most quests timed, but sometimes it could require a little more creativity.
Alternatively, there's plenty of other ways to add time pressure using some of the previous points. An incoming storm, a thief who might get away with an object they stole off of a character if they're not caught in time, and so on.

How to avoid railroading?

Of course, there are times when you can't or don't want to railroad. There are ways to avoid it, and to handle situations where players might deviate from your rails. They're not always for everybody, but they can always be combined with other points in this guide. So let's delve into how to avoid railroading, or how to be more sandbox-like.

Improvise

The most obvious solution is to improvise. Of course, if you're not good at it, you won't really consider this an option, but there are ways to improvise without having to improvise everything. I covered this in more depth in the improvisation guide.
But as far as avoiding railroading and improvisation goes, it's mostly just about going with the flow. If your players want to go left, let them go left. If they want to go right, let them go right. Just make sure you give them something to discover, fight, or otherwise interact with in due time. If nothing else, you could at least provide some small points of interest that will lead to the main quest point you want them to ideally go to in the first place.

Plan and recycle

If you really want to cover all your bases, plan your entire campaign map ahead of time, or at least big chunks of it. That way no matter what direction your group goes to, there's something interesting to explore. Note that there doesn't have to be something amazing in every corner, farms, forests, mountains, and other elements are all perfectly natural to have in many settings.
But you might wonder why you'd want to plan so much when half of it probably won't be used. The answer is because you can recycle whatever you don't end up using. This means the first planning session will be enormous, but after that you'll only have to create new content to replace whatever has been discovered, which is usually no more work than preparing a next session anyway.

Make choices matter

One crucial element you'll want to cover, no matter whether you're railroading or not, is to make choices matter. Yes, this might break some stories, but that's perfectly fine. If your party chooses to kill the quest giver, let them, but also make them deal with the consequences. In many cases that'd require some improvisation, but that's perfectly fine. If you don't know how to deal with any of this, the blame is more on the players for breaking your story (assuming they played against their characters). There has to be some understanding on both sides after all.
Fortunately this isn't a common thing you'll have to deal with, but you'll definitely have to deal with choices you weren't expecting, and those are perfectly fine and pretty much natural in most types of games.

Characters might (accidentally) insult NPCs, for example, at which point that NPC would be more reluctant to help the party. If this NPC happened to be crucial to the story, you can't just shoehorn them in at a later point. If the party didn't apologise, simply reinvent this character as a new one. Perhaps an NPC overheard the insults and quarrels, and they couldn't bear to let you get on with the quest without at least some guidance. Just make sure the help isn't the same the original NPC would offer.

Use their solutions

This is part of any campaign to some extent, and also ties in with improvisation, but using the solutions of the players can help make things feel less railroaded. Don't use any solution though, it still has to make sense of course. But if, for example, a character wishes to go out of their way to seek out the guards of a jail, bribe them to have a little private chat with a prisoner to find shady ways of solving a problem instead of trying to figure out a way on their own, why not let them? Sure, you'll have to invent some characters on the spot, but it'll make for a fun deviation that enriches your world, and it provides the players with a way to do things their way, rather than being strongly nudged in your planned direction. Plus, it could lead to a bunch of other quests, favors that need to be returned, new enemies that are made, and so on.

Keep it open

This point is kind of a mix of improvisation and planning. You want to plan enough so there's a few ways to go, perhaps even a few solutions to solve each quest or the main quest, but leave it open enough to add the details on the fly.
Obviously keeping things open is part of the open world aspect of a sandbox story, but you can apply it in small doses to a more railroaded story as well.

Final note

So, the easiest way of making your game less railroady, but not fully open world, is by meeting in the middle. The way you do that can vary a lot, and usually you only have to sprinkle in a few elements to really spice things up and make it seem less railroaded. But if you're still feeling anxious or otherwise unsure about going more sandbox-esque or more railroad-esque, simply talk to your players and explain how you feel. Most players are very open to accommodating a game master and their games, they get a chance to play after all. We're all in it to have fun, so open up a discussion to maximize this fun.

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