Railroading. What a term. It hovers like a spectre over the hobby. Players dread the railroading GM who is ready to steal their agency and force them on a predetermined path. No other way, no options. Just the story the GM wants to tell.
We fear this type of game, where we can’t wander as we see fit, can’t choose our own future. We demand that GMs don’t decide where the plot is going ahead of time and that we can affect and change things with our actions.
But then we all go play Adventurer’s League and walk through the same pre-published modules. And we love it.
Some of the best games are ones with a clear narrative arc, too. The games that peter out tend to be those that lose focus where no one is sure what they are supposed to be doing. So remind me again why we all hate the railroad?
When looking at the survey results, railroading was the joint-most recognised term, with 95% of participants identifying it as either an adventurer or GM style that forces players down a particular path of play with little to no agency about changing the story. It’s the closest to an agreed-upon term we’ve had so far.
Except. Except some people had some stuff to say about railroad that I want to look at.
Getting Railed And Liking It
It seems like we are beginning to think about railroad in a way that is just used to critique a game where you can see the way a story is going to go or has elements you find prosaic.
In reality, some of the comfort of certain games comes from their predictability.
In D&D no one thinks of the idea the story is about getting more powerful and gaining levels as a railroad but often as GM, I feel constricted by it as a design choice. All stories naturally must increase in scale to accommodate the PC power level increase, or I must artificially limit level growth and risk disappointing players looking for rewards.
Cthulhu is built in the opposite direction – to spiral downwards. Players go to games looking for these experiences and enjoy it. So should we be looking to curate a game experience towards a certain goal/narrative structure, or is that railroading? Well, given that the first year and a half of this column was based entirely about tinkering to create an experience, my answer would be clear.
One survey participant said that railroads are sometimes justified when a GM has put together a plot and the players keep going off on tangents for several sessions.
I sort of agree with this, we have all had plans for an evening, and they’ve gone awry. Just last night, I had what I thought would be a climactic arc-ending battle detoured by players messing about with a magical hat. I just ran with it, but I can see how occasionally it would grate if it was a constant thing.
Another player suggested that they prefer some level of railroad because then they can simply focus on character over story. Not having to make big choices about where it is all going but focusing on the relationships, and inter-party dynamics within the bigger tale made them feel like the tale was more intimate. So rather than just badmouth the railroad, maybe we should view moments of restricted choice as a tool.
When we decide as a GM that the action is moving in a certain direction, sometimes we are simply realising that the consequences of a player’s actions have closed enough doors that the outcome of their actions is now fixed. They can be resourceful in getting out of it, but it is going to take effort. Forcing this lack of choice when the players have previously had all of it can be quite an effective space to create a feeling of claustrophobia.
In fact good adventure structure sort of works like this. An open board of possibilities that slowly whittles down to an endpoint.
Many people misunderstand this when running sandboxes or open adventures. There still needs to occasionally be moments where the path forward is a clear choice – players have moved events to there being only one or desirable way to do things.
That might sound like railroading, but actually, it’s giving the game a sense of direction. Players who engage with that moment and decide to go with the obvious course are a goldmine. Especially early in a campaign, players are prepared to go along with whatever you give them until they feel like the structure fits.
Three years ago, I opened one campaign by surprising players with an army of undead laying siege to a location the players were trapped in. I forced them to deal with the immediate chaos and then set up a world-destroying threat from level one. It sounds like the worst idea ever, totally against everything they tell you to do as a GM. But the game is still going; the players have deep connections and character arcs for growth. The players love the story. But it is sort of railroady.
So why does that work? Well, I was open about it. If you are going to hand players a big epic storyline, you have to let them know that is happening.
Then given the bad guys an agenda that will go ahead if the players do nothing about it. So while they don’t feel like they are being forced to do things, the world they live in becomes a more terrible place if they don’t do something. Really what you are doing is placing the world itself is on rails and letting the players move around within that structure. Technically they probably have time to spend a session messing about with a hat, but if they ignore the climactic battle and go do something else, that bad guy is going to destroy a city, narrowing the resources going forward.
I think the takeaway is that while railroading is bad if it destroys agency, that doesn’t mean we should junk the idea of structure or restricted choice as a bad thing.
In works of art, a rule can create a piece of work. Limiting choice within an RPG can really create a memorable moment, such as when players are faced with two bad choices and no way out of it. Letting them think their way around the problem should be difficult and still have cost.
Next, we are going to completely flip the script and look at the sandbox. And how it’s often as much of a trap as any other format.
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