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  • Writer's pictureAaron K

Campaigns: Railroad or Sandbox?

Hey Reader!

So, I have a new campaign I'm working on (it's a Viking Campaign - more on that in a future post), and a friend asked me if, since it's a module I'm planning on releasing in the future in the Zurn store, whether it's a "railroad" or "sandbox" campaign. And I told her that I wasn't sure, as I was just beginning to put the ideas to paper.

So I had the age-old debate in my head of which methodology to use, and as I got to thinking I realized I wanted a different option. What follows is a quick synopsis of the terms I'm using, followed by how I weighed the two and came to the conclusion that what I needed wasn't a railroad or a sandbox. I needed a swimming pool.

I. Different Types of Campaigns

To start off we should define what we mean by a "railroad" campaign and a "sandbox" campaign, so that we can see how they differ from the "swimming pool" campaign at the end. These terms mean different things to different people, so for our purposes a railroad campaign is when the progression of the campaign follows a set of actions that must be completed, typically in a specific order, and a sandbox campaign is an open-ended plot: things exist in the world, and the party can engage with elements of the world as they wish in whatever order they wish.

Railroad campaigns thrive around plots with a natural linear progression: escorting a princess to her uncle's castle, rescuing a captured mage, or slaying a local dragon. In these situations the goals are laid out at the outset, allowing the party to see the progress they are making. Some might say that Tolkien's The Hobbit is a "railroad" campaign, traveling to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their ancient gold.

Sandbox campaigns may or may not have an overarching plot, and the party may or may not engage with those overarching themes. Session content is tied to the story arcs of the players, and thus almost anything is possible and available to the players based on what they bring to the table and latch onto during the campaign.

This has led, as you can imagine, to a pretty unfair treatment of railroad campaigns online, as they tend to be portrayed as "removing player agency" and "forcing them toward a specific course of action." We'll address that in a future post, but the short answer is that railroad campaigns have their uses: they are good for simple plots that test specific virtues of a character. When they go wrong, that's a game master issue, not a methodology issue (in most cases using a tool incorrectly).

But the big thing for this post is that neither is useful for what I wanted to make: a heavily themed campaign that drives character creation and their goals.

II. Why Won't a Railroad or Sandbox Work?

The campaign I'm designing casts the party as vikings: explorers for a village that raid the various factions in the region, bringing home plunder, and provide for the village against the various threats that surround them. When all of the needs are met and their halls are filled with treasure, the campaign ends.

The party can build all kinds of characters: craftsmen warriors, wardsmiths who are also wizards, fishermen navigators, all kinds of things. But they should all share one central tenet: they are built to also go "viking" (aka, "exploring/raiding").

And while the places they go to are limited in number (as there are only so many places in the region), they are not set in a specific order, so a railroad campaign will not work. Similarly, though, it's not a sandbox: if the party chose to just farm and build their way to security, that would also fail to incorporate the concept of the campaign, so a sandbox won't work.

And what I realized was, I wanted a space for the party to work in, but that over time would lead them to tire of a specific task and move on to another one, progressing the protection of the village naturally without railroading them into prioritizing specific tasks. And that got me thinking about swimming pools, of all things.

III. The Third Path: A Swimming Pool Campaign

Growing up, we'd go to the pool (as every kid in Hawaii learns to swim, and pretty quickly too). When you go to the pool, you first wade/jump in, swim around a little, and maybe do laps (just to remind yourself how to do the various strokes and kicks).

Then comes the "game time" where you and your friends play water polo, or water basketball, or tag, or something, and then that leads to another game (typically a chase game), which leads to a splash war, which leads to a massive game of hide and seek around other people in the pool, which leads to your parents shouting for you to not bother other people. Which is understandable.

This then leads to a slightly calmer activity - typically laps again - before everyone says, "This has been fun - we should check to see if the hot tub is open." So you go to the hot tub, sit in there for a bit, and then dry off and pull out a deck of cards or a board game or whatever people brought.

(Or at least that's what we did at the pool - your experience may be different)

And that is the feeling I was looking for: lots of options, the ability to switch between activities as you feel led, and the natural energy and interactions you have drive you to the next set of actions. It's open-ended: no one is telling you to move to tag after playing water polo, but it naturally happens because as you tire of one activity you want to do something a little different.

And so you move to the next task, and then the next, and the next, still maintaining the theme of the campaign - going viking. So it's not a sandbox: you are "limited" to the theme of exploring and raiding. But it's also not a railroad: if you want to raid the necromancer's castle first to get protective wards for the village, you can do that! You'll probably die, but you are free to do that. If you'd like to work your way up by raiding the nymphs for food and the satyrs for wooden tools, you can do that instead.

So you keep lots of options in the pool for them to play with, empowering the players to have agency in where they explore and what they choose to raid. But it's curtailed by the theme of the campaign: we are here to raid, and that means your characters should be doing that (albeit alongside other trades or activities like defending the village from attack to keep it from getting stale).


"Swimming Pool" campaigns are a great way to do themed adventures. Perhaps your players really want to build demonhunters, or vampire hunters, or vikings, or Jedi, or pirates, or homicide/paranormal investigators, or whatever, and you want to build a campaign that will be tailored to that theme (so a sandbox won't work), but you also don't want a "connect the dots" campaign (so a railroad won't work). If you find yourself in this situation, consider using a swimming pool.

Until next time,



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