Railroading vs Sandbox: The DM’s Dilemna

One of the hardest tasks of being a DM is the act of keeping the players on course. Most players don’t want to feel railroaded, and some play tabletop RPGs (TTRPG) because of the go-anywhere and do-anything feeling they get from the game. But a DM who has worked hard coming up with a homebrew campaign or dished out hard-earned dollars on an official D&D campaign doesn’t want the story to go completely off the rails. So what’s the solution of railroading versus sandboxing?


A common misconception about balance is the idea that it means equality. Balance is actually about symbiotic proportion. It’s about adding enough sandboxing to let the players think they are in complete control while adding enough railroading to ensure they (eventually!) proceed along with the story. But in order to achieve this balance, you need to be prepared.

How to Be Prepared for the Open World Sandbox

Your best friends for sandboxing D&D or other TTRPGs are maps and random tables. You should always be prepared to spin a quick one-off in almost any setting in the spur of the moment. But don’t let that overwhelm you. The need for maps doesn’t mean you need to sit around drawing up various adventures on graph paper. There are plenty of resources you can use to quick start an adventure.

A Random Cave for D&D

Random Map Creators. I designed the Endless RPG random map generator in part for players who didn’t have a DM, but it also works great for DMs who want to quickly generate an adventure. It shines in allowing you to choose a specific enemy to fight (orcs, goblins, undead, cultists, etc.) and different environments like a cave, ruins or a dungeon. I’m also a big fan of the random generators at donjon. Along with map creation, you will want a tool to come up with random encounters and random treasure.

Downloaded Maps. An alternative to randomly generating a dungeon is to simply download some already-produced maps. The DM’s Guild is a great resource for buying all types of tools for your adventure including some nice maps. Many map designers offer a free pack, so you can sample different designers before making a purchase.

Random Tables. In addition to maps, encounters and treasures, you will want to round out your adventure with traps, room descriptions and even villains. The Donjon site linked above has a ton of different generators that can help fill in the gaps. You can also come up with your own tables to give your one-off some unique flavor.

Preparing to Railroad in D&D and TTRPGs

Believe it or not, railroading is actually more difficult to achieve than sandboxing. In creating an open world atmosphere, the dungeon master has a number of different tools like random map generators to help them out. The same can’t be said for railroading a party of adventurers in a way that it doesn’t seem too obvious that they are being railroaded.

A Sci-Fi Train

While sandboxing takes some general preparation in terms of buying maps, settling on random generators and familiarizing yourself with the process, railroading requires preparing ideas and plot points specific to your adventure.

Many people believe that coming up with story ideas is the hardest part of preparing a hombrew. But coming up with a basic story can be easy if you know where to look. The hard part comes when filling in the details, and some of the most important details to think about is how to deal with players who want to avoid the story.

In my article on where to get story ideas, I came up with a basic adventure that starts with a wizard’s agent approaching the party at a tavern with a request to meet with his master and a promise of gold for just attending the meeting. But what happens when the party wants to stay in the tavern and drink a bunch of ale?

An entire D&D session spent in a tavern isn’t uncommon. D&D is about roleplaying, not just roll playing. But we can’t stay in that tavern forever, so it is important to plan how to deal with the beginning of the story going off the rails.

In the scenario, we can prepare for the adventurers turning down the agent’s request by getting them out of the tavern where we can present a new opportunity for them to say yes. Perhaps a brawl breaks out and the town guard clears everyone out. Maybe there’s a raging fire in the kitchen. Perhaps a hulking warrior is accusing an elf wizard of cheating at cards and demands a duel to the death, which prompts fellow customers to start taking bets on the winner.

Once outside, the party can be presented with that new opportunity by spotting the agent across the street and overhearing some nearby mercenaries talking about him. “That fellow over there is handy one to know. His master is a wizard. Paid us for clearing some trolls out of a mine he’d bought. But not with gold. I got an enchanted short sword out of the deal.”

This sort of hint is far better than having the wizard teleport the characters to his tower and entrap them into listening to his mission requrest.

And what if the players still won’t listen? Perhaps after exploring the nearby forest, one of them gets poisoned by a plant and guess who has the cure? Or a local townswoman comes to the adventurers with a plea to rescue her merchant husband who has been taken by bandits. In finding out where the bandits are located, the adventurers are lead to the wizard, who offers to deal with the bandits if they’ll take up his quest.

Know When to Say Yes to Sandboxing

That part about balancing the railroad vs sandbox equation? This is where it comes into play. In mapping out a story for an adventure, it is important to understand the various points in the story where the adventure can go off the rails. When the agent propositions the party. After the magician explains his quest. When the adventurers get to the location and decide maybe to do something else.

Dice being rolled on a map

Part of preparation is having a few ideas on how to get the part back on track. Such as a forest giant chasing them into the dungeon. Creatures vastly more powerful than the party can be a great railroading tour.

But also know when to say yes. If the party has turned down the agent at the tavern, ignored the fellow adventurers boasting about the wizard’s reward and decided that they don’t need a mage telling them how to find bandits when they have a ranger in the party, then let them have their one-off adventure!

And that forest giant waiting among the trees to chase the adventurer? Maybe don’t even use it. If the party has made it that far and suddenly has a whim to go off on their own, let them. Sometimes your job as the DM is to let things go off the rails without any attempt to put things right. This can mean an entire session spent in a bar, an event that often ends when you get out the pummeling tables to see who wins a fistfight, or it can mean reaching into that bad of random maps for a quick adventure.

Headline Image by Alison Walker on Flickr