The term ‘railroading’ usually sends a shiver down the spine of any tabletop RPG player because of the negative implications that come along with it. To be honest, most DMs dislike the term as well and railroading is generally referred to as a problem with an RPG. The implications are that the DM has already planned everything that happens and the players are simply along for the ride. There are certainly players out there who don’t mind being railroaded or even prefer it, simply enjoying the act of playing the game with no real concern for the magnitude of impact their decisions have on the story. On the other hand, many RPG players want to feel as if their characters are a part of a living world and that the decisions they make will have a real effect on that world.
The negative association given to railroading leads to the knee-jerk reaction from most DMs and players of avoiding it completely. I imagine most of you have played in an adventure or two where it was clear things had gone off course or even worse in a direction that led absolutely nowhere. If we try to avoid all aspects of railroading it can work, but it requires a DM who can think on their feet and is comfortable running a game with an uncertain future and resolution. If you have a good DM, good characters, and an intricate world to play in then having no rails at all can certainly be a rewarding and extremely fun prospect. However, I would bet that no matter how good it is every now and then an important plot line dangles unresolved or an adventure simply falls flat due to a lack of direction and overall guidance.
As with most things, there is a happy middle ground that can work with the advantages to both sides of the railroading concept. The basic principle is exactly the same as the railroading that you know and avoid, but it comes with mediation and a group of track layers rather than one conductor and a set of passengers. I’ve developed this idea after looking at some of my own adventures where I attempted to leave the plot more open, free-form, and sandbox-y to give the players control over their own destinies. What sometimes happens is the players simply do not know where to go or what to do, and unlike in real life where it is easy to simply pick a direction and walk; the imagined world of tabletop RPGs often leaves players with too little information.
The root of the concept is that once the players have chosen a direction that they want explore, the DM should not be afraid to introduce a set of rails that direction leads down. Often you will find that the players naturally follow that path once they have made the initial decision of where to go. The key to avoiding the “bad” type of railroading while still providing adequate direction for the players is to give them a clear path to follow when it is apparent they do not know where to go. If your players have decided that they want to solve the mystery in town and reveal the hidden killer, it’s not very much fun for them to wander around town and investigate every single possible lead when only a handful of them actually lead to the killer.
Once they have made the decision to go that direction, it is the DM’s job to make sure the party can advance in that general path and make a good amount of progress before the end of the adventure. If you are attempting to run an adventure without any rails whatsoever, though it can work out, it can also lead to lots of wasted time, second guessing, and dead ends. If the party is unclear of where to go next at every single turn it can result in a lot more work for everyone involved.
One of the best ways I’ve found to railroad in a good way is to have a path that an adventure will progress along but have a variety of lead in events or decisions that set up the trail. Depending on what decisions are made early in the adventure the path will change or new obstacles may come up, but in the end I know the general path things are going to take. One happy accident of this method is that often I am not entirely sure what the conclusion of that path will be, but part of that uncertain conclusion can lead into the decisions being made at the beginning of the next adventure.
If I can’t have an early event or decision that sets up the path, I try to include a lynchpin moment where the path of the adventure is clearly up to the party to choose. However, as I mentioned earlier, once a decision has been made I attempt to provide as clear a path as possible so that the party feels as if they are accomplishing something and progressing the story of the game. I believe much of the negative connotation to the concept comes from the idea of a DM preventing a player’s actions. This will always be an issue, but if you’ve allowed the party to make an initial set of decisions then I believe you will find the majority of the time they will not follow directions which lead them off of the small set of rails you’ve provided them. If they do, then I fully encourage you to improvise or change your plans to make the game fun and engaging. I feel that a judicious use of railroading can lead to an easier time for both the DM and the players.
It is my hope that in the future, if I say that I am a fan of railroading in tabletop RPGs that it does not sound like a bad thing. Instead I want people to think of the times that they have made crazy decisions and the DM has still presented them with a compelling and interesting plot developed from those decisions that took little effort for the party to progress along. I also recommend you read Robin Laws’ blog post on the same topic, discussing hand-waiving the less important scenes of an adventure so that things do not get bogged down unnecessarily.
Also I encourage you to check out my guest blog post over at Obsidian Portal on a similar topic about how to save a campaign that has gone off course.