I Took The Railroad To The Sandbox And Told A Great Story

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 22, 2010

At its core Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game. When you put aside all the mechanics, character classes and dice rolling the game is about the story. The story is usually narrated by the DM who explains what transpires. The DM is literally responsible for everything the PCs experience. The DM is also responsible for shaping the direction of the story. From planning encounters, designing skill challenges and writing the adventures the DM fills some pretty big shoes.

One of the most important decisions a DM makes is choosing which mode of storytelling they want to adopt for a particular campaign. Do you use existing adventures from Dungeon magazine or Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) modules? Do you create your own adventures and storyline. How much choice will you allow the PCs to have? Will you railroad the PCs down the path you want the adventure to progress in or will you allow the PCs any choice they wish and run a sandbox campaign? Why not a little bit of both?

Having your PCs participate in the story’s direction, shaping it as much as you do is a rewarding experience. It doesn’t always work though. If your PCs don’t buy into a sandbox campaign or would rather be railroaded, the experience can quickly move from rewarding to frustrating. The other side of a sandbox campaign, is that it’s a lot of work for the DM. You never know where the PCs are going to take the direction of the campaign. There is a compromise that can be considered and that is having the PCs and the DM collaborate on the storytelling.

There are multiple ways to accomplish this. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses and may not be ideal for every group.

Provide Options

After each major encounter or plot point the DM provides the PCs with a series of options. These are the logical choices that will propel the the story forward. However, each option that the DM provides will lead the story in a different direction. This still allows the DM to have some idea of where the story is going and therefore he can be prepared. It also allows the PCs to direct the action and take ownership of the plot line.

For example if the PCs have just captured a major villain the DM would provide the following choices:

  1. Surrender the villain to the local magistrate where he will be punished for his crimes.
  2. Interrogate the villain themselves to learn more and then turn him over.
  3. Bind the villain up for someone else to find, the PCs need to hunt down the various henchmen that have escaped.

The true beauty in allowing the PCs several options is that they can all lead to the same place. Certainly you are railroading the PCs towards a certain outcome, but it is disguised in role-playing and by providing the PCs with a series of options. Depending upon which option the PCs take they might learn additional information or rewards. Using our examples from above:

  1. The magistrate rewards the PCs for their service through public recognition and a sizable monetary rewards. The PCs are then tasked with clearing out the rest of the villains henchmen.
  2. The PCs learn that the villain is only a minor servant of a much larger foe. Though they don’t learn who or what this individual is, they do learn where the henchmen are fleeing.
  3. The PCs are able to track down the henchman, but unknown to them the villain escapes to face the PCs another day.

In all cases the PCs are lead to the next encounter, which is clearing out the henchman so they can’t cause further harm. However, each option provides the PCs with something different. Rewards, information or a foe to face again.

Tag, Your It or Collaborative Storytelling

This is a concept I’ve adapted from Cyberpunk V3.0. After each encounter determine if the PCs completed the required objective. Did they successfully complete the skill challenge or combat encounter? If the answer is yes the PCs are it (or in control), if the answer is no the DM is it. We will use the example above, the PCs have just captured a major villain.

The elements at play in this type of shared storytelling are:

  1. Decision
  2. Location
  3. Encounter Type

Let’s take a deeper look at each of the three elements.


This is fairly straight forward. Whoever has control of the encounter is able to decide what they would like to do next. If the DM has provided the PCs with several options they select one that matches with their goals. If the DM has control he propels the story forward by making the decision on what direction the story will move.

Clearly whoever starts with control of the encounter has a larger say on which direction the game will move. In most cases it will be the PCs who have control, which puts a large burden on them to make decisions and propel the story forward. For this reason you may want to combine this storytelling element with the option of choices to make the decision easier. It will also enable the DM to already have a rough idea of what is coming next.


While selecting the location of the encounter might seem like a simple choice to make it is actually a little more complex given that there is shared storytelling occurring. If we continue with our example, if the PCs decide to turn the villain in to the magistrate the DM can make the next encounter occur at the town hall or the DM can simply provide the PCs with the information they would have gained and declare the location is where the henchmen have retreated to, an old fort in the hills. Another option is to have the next encounter occur on route to the town hall, which opens up further options for story development.

Encounter Type

With 4e D&D our two options are combat or a skill challenge. If we follow our example from above the PCs had initial control and elect to turn the villain in. The DM determines the location will be the town hall. The PCs decide they’d rather have another combat encounter as they haven’t expended all of their daily powers yet and are itching for another fight. The DM determines the henchmen didn’t run away, but regrouped and are now going to try to spring their leader from custody.

Giving the PCs control of the type of encounter to be played gives them the perception of a lot of power. It also forces the DM to be very creative and open to anything. While the PCs may be selecting the encounter type, the DM still controls what will happen in that encounter. Who will the PCs fight, what will be the purpose of the skill challenge. If the DM is providing options in the decision phase then it is very easy for him to control what happens next even if the PCs make a less than obvious choice somewhere else along the way. The DM simply modifies exactly how or where things will occur, but the overall story is allowed to continue unhindered.

Useful Tools

Using this type of shared storytelling requires the DM to think quickly and prepare quickly in order to minimize the amount of down time between encounters. Have your dungeon tiles handy and a laptop with the Encounter Builder (DDI subscription required) will help speed things up.

As a DM if you elect to incorporate these elements into your game you need to be prepared for the game to move in unexpected directions. However, if you are prepared and know where the story can go, using these two elements allows the PCs to take part in how the story is told.

What experience do you have with different ways of telling the story? What method of running a campaign do you prefer?

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!

Share this:
1 skallawag March 22, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I love a great story and I think it should be the main focus of any campaign, but I often find that the problem tends to be in how the story is told. I think the greatest challenge for a DM is the ability to tell the big overall story of the campaign (the season), and keep the players engaged and participating in each session (the episode).

Railroading and limited options are great tools for keeping the party on track and moving in the right direction as well as progression in the overall story, what I personally don’t think works is having a campaign so open that players go off on various tangents and the true story gets lost as a result.

A key storytelling technique is for the DM to review the overall progress through the story as well as a recap of what happened last gaming session. I find that DMs often tell players to discuss amongst themselves what happened the week before, especially if a player has missed a session, but what this really ends up being is a game of broken telephone. Blogs and emails can possibly be used to tell the story, but sometimes players don’t want to read the blogs or emails before showing up at a gaming session (I know I don’t). 5-10 minutes for a DM to provide a story recap is worth its weight in gold and will also enrich the story.

What I also prefer is no longer than 2.5 gaming sessions in one setting to keep players interested in the story. 10 to 12 encounters in a dungeon is not a story, it’s a dungeon crawl or delve and after the 12th encounter, you’ll often hear the PC’s say, “What are we doing in this dungeon again? Why are we here?”

2 Rook March 22, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Currently, I am running a sandbox campaign and it is working out great. I started the PCs in a generic situation and set then on their path. The only preconceived notions I had were that they were in my homebrew world, most of which still only exists in my head. I’ve left the players to their own designs and decisions about what they want to pursue and I’m making the plot up as I go. I’ve taken the practically random and mostly generic NPCs, and even some of the monsters, that they have encountered and developed them into actual characters in the plot. It has a very organic feel to it and my players think that most everything they run into is all part of my mad plan (plot). This method does take a great deal of imagination and time to figure out how everything fits (or doesn’t) into the story, but it’s a labor of love, so I don’t mind at all.

@ Skallawag; I agree. Taking “5-10 minutes for a DM to provide a story recap is worth its weight in gold and will also enrich the story” really is invaluable. I first get everyone to start throwing out what they remember from last session and I fill in the gaps they miss. As DM though, I have to be careful not to give out too much information or correct any misassumptions.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..To Fudge or not to Fudge? =-.

3 inkpenavenger March 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm

For me, the key to railroading without the players noticing is to set up situations in which there’s only one way forward overall, but several ways to head in that direction. That way, the PCs think they’re in a sandbox when in fact, that sandbox is on wheels running down the tracks to exactly where I want it to go.

4 Wimwick March 23, 2010 at 10:13 pm

@ Skallawag
You make a great point about running a campaign like a season of a TV show.

@ Rook
Agreed, a lot of creativity is required for a sandbox campaign. It really does require a lot from the DM, but it can be a very rewarding exeperience.

@ inkpenavenger
Great quote, and for sure the best way for the DM to retain control is to give the appearance of control to the PCs. If done right it is a very effective way of running a campaign.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: