If you prefer to consume Podcasts, check out our podcast episode: Sandboxing Vs Railroading.
It is typical of our time to choose sides. However, few feuds have as clear an underdog as Railroad Vs Sandbox. Redditors, Youtube personalities, and authors alike disparage the Railroad. They slander it as the tool of choice of the tyrannical Dungeon Master and celebrate the Sandbox as the pinnacle of D&D excellence.
In this described utopia, the players and Dungeon Master discover the adventure together. In the Sandbox, collaborative improvisation reveals the “best” adventure at the table.
The Railroad straps in powerless passengers, to the DM’s predetermined stories. Players jump from the Railroad at their own peril struck down by the ire of the DM who has had their story ruined. This advice is misguided and harmful.
While we all should strive to give allow for as much player agency as possible, the greatest stories of our generation were not written on an improve stage. Authors will spend decades writing novels before sharing them with the public.
Furthermore, just as freestyle rappers often re-use rhymes developed during hours of practice, Sandbox DMs will often make use of story elements that they have witnessed in fantasy literature, anime, and film. To ignore that it takes many years of practice to be able to call on these stories in the moment and seamlessly adapt them to the current story and RPG system, is irresponsible.
We should all strive for the Sandbox, but it requires an incredible amount of responsibility and experience on the part of the players and the DM. When the ship starts to go down after a failed Sandbox session, there is nothing wrong with revealing a Railroad track below your players' feet.
After an hour of going door to door failing to discover an adventure together, your players will thank you when Orcs attack the village. In doing so you take away the player agency. They must deal with the Orcs, but you send up a signal flare that declares “The Adventure Is Over Here!”
We all have endless alternatives for how we might spend our time rather than playing in a D&D group, and that includes other different D&D groups. Time is valuable; no one wants to spend an entire session reveling in the authentic boredom of a realistic Sandbox.
Always prepare a railroad. If the players quickly discover a more fun adventure, save your prepared adventure for the time in the future where they do not. You will be thankful you did.