Ah yes, the classic railroad vs sandbox debate. If you aren't familiar with the terms "railroad campaign" and "sandbox campaign," check out this video from Matt Colville. If you want to skip the video, essentially there are two schools of thought in running a Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TTRPG) campaign. In a railroad campaign, the game master (GM) has a story they want to tell and by hell or highwater, they are going to tell him and the players are going play along. Railroad campaigns offer very little, if any, ways for the players to engage meaningfully with the story. They play the parts of the heroes but they don't usually get to make choices that have a significant impact on the story. Meanwhile, in a sandbox campaign, the players explore a completely open world without any direction from the GM. So, how do you lead the characters toward an epic story while giving them complete free reign over what they do? Let's take a look.
Before you do anything else, make sure you know what kind of a campaign you players want. This, right here, is EXACTLY why "railroad campaigns" get a bad reputation. Too often, GMs have a story to tell and they're determined to tell it regardless of what the players want. Do you players want a completely open world to explore and aren't really interested in any central, epic conflict. If that's the case, respect that. If that's not the type of campaign you feel you could run, make sure to communicate that as well. If they all want a similar theme like a nautical campaign or zombie apocalypse, those are things you can use to guide your campaign planning. There's also a pretty good chance that your players, especially if they are new to the game, might not know what they want. In that case, pay extra close attention to this next step.
If I could ensure that you follow one suggestion in this article, this would probably be it. Give your players the space to explore and exert their own agency right from the beginning of your campaign. If it were me, I would begin the game with the party on an adventure, close to the action. To be even more specific, I might start with Matt Colville's adventure from this video. Give them guidance for this first session but after that, let the party return to town, claim their reward, and explore. Watch what they do. See what they engage with. Do they go to the tavern to meet some NPCs and listen for gossip? Do they try to get an audience with the settlement leader? Do they look for a quest board to see what other adventures they could go on?
Instead of devoting your game prep to coming up with a villain, and a massive world, and an epic story with dozens of adventures, instead focus on this one town. Find a map, come up with a few NPCs they are likely to meet, come up with some gossip and some adventure hooks. Then, wait and see what the party does. When you see what parts of your world they think are cool and how they engage with it, then you can start thinking about your campaign's epic story. Even though you'll be saving time on the epic story game prep, coming up with even just one detailed town can be daunting. If you need some guidance, check out Organic Towns.
Once you have 3-5 game sessions letting your players lead the way, they will then believe and trust that you are running a truly sandbox style campaign - which you are. They will feel awesome directing the story and, at this stage, may be getting hungrier for something more.
Once you can see what your players are interested in, it's time to finally develop you campaign's Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). Going back to the previous sections, if your players really wanted to chat to the settlement leader and are into roleplaying, your BBEG should probably have political motivations and may be a lord or noble in your world. If the players really wanted to set sail on the high seas, maybe the BBEG is a cruel pirate king. If the players' favorite part of your world was a horror-themed quest where they had to delve into a monster's lair and route out some ankhegs, perhaps the Queen Mother Ankheg in the underdark is gathering her young to take over the surface world.
Once you know who the central villain will be, think about how the players will discover their existence. In a political game, perhaps they will be temporarily employed by the evil lord to help in an unsavory task. In the nautical one, a Pirate King makes for some pretty juicy tavern gossip. In the Ankheg example, the seeds have already been planted in that first quest. Now think about how to raise the stakes. Get inside the villains head and think about what they want to accomplish and how they would go about doing so.
This moment, right here, is what sets the epic sandbox campaign apart from the railroad campaign. The players have complete autonomy to do what they want - and you're going to let them. But the same goes for your villain. You're not running an epic story here, the players are determining that. You're just running an epic villain and its up to the players what they do.
Consequences (With Breathing Room)
This part is so crucial. You never want to strongarm the party into doing what you want. Namely, because you shouldn't have a vested interest in what they do (aside from being able to prep for it). You want them to have fun and to be free. However, while they're helping farmer tadpole collect toadstools in the enchanted forest, your lich king BBEG just burned down an entire village and is integrating 300 reanimated villagers into his undead army.
When presented with a hook for your BBEG, they might not bite immediately, and that's totally fine. In fact, the heroes rejecting the initial call to adventure is an essential beat in Joseph Campbell's the Hero's Journey. If they ignore the BBEG though, that doesn't mean the villain is just waiting in suspended animation. The villain will be doing villain things, and that usually isn't good for the heroes. Did Luke Skywalker immediately join Obi Wan and the fight against the Empire? No, he resisted the call to adventure and only joined after Owen and Beru were turned into briquettes.
End Sessions at the Right Point
This last point is a general piece of advice for any sandbox campaign, regardless of whether you're running an epic central villain or not. Do the best you can to end each game session with a relatively clear idea about what the players will do next time. If you don't know where the game is going, then it's exceedingly difficult to prepare for it and if you struggle with or get frustrated by improv as a GM, then you're setting yourself up to fail. If the characters don't make it clear in-game what they intend to do, it's okay to check in with the players after the session to ask what they think they'll be doing next time.
Do you have a anecdote or tip to share about running epic sandbox campaigns? Let us know in the comments below!