The greatest false dilemma in roleplaying games: the railroad vs. the sandbox. While you may discover that your style is more narrative or improvisational, this is not a choice you need to make as a Dungeon Master.
The Railroad. The “railroad” is a pejorative term that insinuates the DM has sacrificed player agency to push the party through their own desired narrative.
The Sandbox. The “sandbox” is a game where the story is hostage to the unchecked whims of the player characters.
Every game lies somewhere in the middle. The best game worlds are populated with characters and factions driven by their own motivations. Without the player characters, their goals would achieve their natural end. The player characters have the opportunity to intervene and change fate. This is how they write a story of their own.
Pure “railroad” and “sandbox” games suffer from the same issue: a lack of dynamic opposing motivations. If there’s just one bad guy, they players can feel like they’re sucked into the vortex of the DM’s plot. Having no bad guys does not present meaningful choice. Note: a totally randomized campaign can be fun for its own reasons, but suffers from leaning too heavily on listed alignments over narrative intent.
Telling the Story
A well-crafted campaign develops the story as the players interact with the world. However, the story is not beholden to the players any more than other factions. The defeat of one faction could just as easily support the rise of the others.
Grossly Oversimplified Example. Some newly-minted adventurers can take out the cultists or the orcs. Unbeknownst to the party, the cultists and orcs have been working against each other. Cultists have warded the area around the village so they can safely forage for sacrificial reagents. Orcs still roam the ruins housing the artifact the cult needs to summon their evil master.
- Staying in town to investigate the cult’s activity enables the orcs to grow in number. Perhaps the orcs find a way past the wards or their shaman arrives to dispel the wards. After clearing the wards, the shaman may discover that the artifact summons an evil master.
- Leaving town to dispatch the orcs allows the cultists to insinuate themselves further into the village. If the party defeats the orcs, the cultists can retrieve the artifact that they need to summon their evil master.
See how the same climax can result from different avenues? The key is not to write a story, but to build the elements of your world so that a story flows from them.
As a DM, this makes your job a lot easier. If you know how the things in your world behave, you don’t have to worry about what rail your players are on (or off). If I know how orcs act, and I know the cult’s motivation, and I know what the artifact does, that creates a natural tension that will react to whatever the players do. There’s a power balance that is necessarily tipped by their interaction with the system.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
Every action the PCs take to fix a problem should send something else horribly awry. Since playing D&D is basically time traveling, it should have the similar effects on the story. If you get stuck divining these results as a DM, just think about how the other factions would respond to the power vacuum the players leave in their wake.
Pushing the Narrative
How you assign behavior to different elements of your game world will influence how the story unfolds. At this point, it becomes important to distinguish the story (what the players tell) from the narrative (what the DM tells).
Story. The story is what you create at the table. Really, this story is never told until after the events unfold at the table, when the players are regaling each other with their mutual exploits.
Narrative. The narrative is the underlying plot that the DM wants to expose. Narrative is important because it allows to DM to inject tension and moral quandaries that give the story weight.
Beyond crafting how the things in your setting behave, there are tools you can use to drive the underlying narrative.
Clues. Tip the players to where you want them to go. Since you can’t expect the players to think as you do, make sure to scatter clues wide. One of the best articles you can read on this is Justin Alexander’s Three Clue Rule, which dictates:
“For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.”
Inevitability. A villain with proper planning can establish a “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario (i.e. Morton’s Fork). In TV tropes, this is known as the Xanatos Gambit. While this kind of plan can center around one villain, it may involve multiple factions under their control. Building other factions into the plan of the BBEG can provide meaningful story choices while still following the narrative the DM wants to tell.
“The key to strategy… is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.”
Time Pressure. Applying urgency to helps the DM highlight the narrative elements they want to push. For example, the party has the chance to attack one of the factions vying for the MacGuffin that will open the floodgates to the Abyss. They have the freedom of story to attack any of the factions they want. However, the faction that is most intimately tied to the narrative will more aggressively pursue the MacGuffin. The party can ignore the escalating actions of that faction, but it will only result in a more difficult fight down the line. If you make the narrative faction a bigger threat, the players are more likely to “railroad” themselves down that path, without you having compromised their agency.
“Time is on my side, yes it is.”