It’s a debate that has raged on for centuries…well for a few years, which is better, sandbox games or railroad. Railroads have a stigma for being the worst type of way to run a RPG. It makes your player’s decisions meaningless, and usually the PCs just go from one stop to the other on the way down the rails. The story is in absolute control of the GM. This is railroading in its most extreme form.
Sandbox games are usually praised for the ability for letting the group do what they want, how they want, and can really change the world. The scale can be anything from a city to the whole world. It is the ultimate free form of RPGs. The players can go anywhere and do anything.
What if I told you that neither way is the best way to go and both ways have really great ideas you should steal? Some of you are probably firmly in the camp of “All railroads are evil!” but there is nothing wrong with guidance. My group has problems self starting adventures. I have to take their hands and lead them to the trouble. I railroad them to a situation. I tried a sandbox on them once. It was rough. They just kept looking to me for something to do. I needed to spoon feed them the adventure. I don’t try to sandbox things anymore, but at the same token I don’t micro manage them either. I simply lead them to trouble and let them make it worse. As the situation develops I come up with what trouble should show up next. When the players are done with the current scene I take them by the hand and lead them to the next trouble that I thought up during the last scene.
I call my technique “Reactionary Railroading”. You let the party do what they want in a scene you create, they muck around and make a few choices, you think up the next scene, and lead the players to the next scene when the previous scene has wound down. This won’t work for all groups. If you have a group that can simply move to the next scene without prompting from the GM, fantastic, you have an awesome group that probably RPs better than most and they will be happy with sandboxes in their purest form. If you have a group that looks at you blankly when nothing is trying to kill them, you need to railroad that. They are happiest when you hand them the adventure and take care of the big decisions.
The point I’m trying to get at is that there is no better or worse way to GM. There is a style that fits your group better, and that’s what you need to aim for. Know your group and know thyself. When you figure out what you and your group is looking for then you’ll have a smoother running game.