How to Avoid Railroading

Railroading – taking away the players’ freedom of choice

Railroading means pushing the players in a certain direction of the story. This kind of DMing is frowned upon, as it takes away the players’ freedom of decision and thereby takes away a lot of their fun. In this article, we will take a look at how Railroading happens in pen & paper RPGs and how to avoid it. We will also talk about the distinction between Railroading and linear plots, which can actually be very entertaining.
Please note that our definition of “Railroading” in this article reflects our own view only. So far there is no single true definition of “Railroading” out there, which is probably the reason for many heated debates among GMs.

Impact: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Difficulty: Intermediate

Time to read: 12 min

Railroading in tabletop RPGs – a definition

If the players have multiple options on how to act in a certain situation, but the DM pushes them towards a decision preferred by the DM, then this is what we call Railroading. The DM either makes it more difficult or outright impossible to pursue other decisions by using their authority and narration rights. They do so to move the plot into the direction they deem the best.

With Railroading, the DM doesn’t just decide WHAT the players do in the story, but also HOW they do it. Having taken away their freedom of choice is super frustrating for the players. After all, the multitude of choices is one of the core elements of tabletop RPGs.

Some GM guides use the term “Railroading” as a synonym for linear plots, which isn’t entirely correct. Linear plots only predetermine WHAT the players can do in a story, e.g. look for cluses, then travel to a foreign place and fight an enemy. But it’s left to the players HOW to go about the story and its challenges.

railroading plot on rails game master

An example case of Railroading

Here is an example of Railroading. Imagine a Cthulhu setting in the 1920s. The player characters are in a bank, inside one of the offices, negotiating the terms of a loan. Meanwhile, a group of criminals violently rob the bank while taking hostages. The DM would like the players to sneak past the robbers and out of the bank.

Player 1: I try climbing out of the window.
DM: The windows are barred.
Player 2: Can we break them open?
DM: No, you don’t have the right tools.
Player 1: Could we maybe light a fire to distract the robbers?
DM: There is nothing burnable here, the walls are made from flame-resistant materials.
Player 2: Could me maybe make some noise to attract one of the robbers and overpower them?
DM: There are no good hiding spots in this room, you would be spotted immediately.

And so on. At some point, the players come up with the idea of sneaking past the NPCs. But even while reading this, you’re probably seeing how tedious this whole scene must be for the players.

Here’s why Railroading is frustrating for the players

Tabletop RPGs are a cooperative way of story telling. The GM creates a starting situation with exciting problems and conflicts. And the players work together on a solution. They can get creative while doing this, discuss ideas and make intricate plans. This immense freedom of decision is a core element of pen & paper RPGs. No other game offers so much room for creativity.

If there is only one way to resolve a situation within the story, however, then the players no longer have this freedom. The cooperative storytelling turns into a boring guessing game until someone finds the solution. The players get the feeling of being trapped inside a predetermined story, which they cannot influence at all. That is the frustrating part about Railroading.

tabletop rpg railroading plot

Comparing Railroading, linear plots and Sandboxing

Depending on how much the players can influence the plot with their ideas and decisions, you differentiate between various plot structures in RPGs. Here is an overview of multiple structures.

tabletop rpg railroading plot structure

Railroading

Predetermined path for all scenes, the DM decides WHAT happens and HOW the players resolve their conflicts and overcome their dangers. The players can only passively be a part of the adventure (and perhaps roll some dice).

tabletop rpg linear plot structure

Linear Plot

Predetermined path for all scenes, GM decides WHAT happens, players decide HOW they resolve situations. Most plots in old school fantasy RPGs are linear plots.

tabletop rpg modular plot structure

Modular Plot

Beginning and end are predetermined, but the players decide when they want to tackle which part of the story in between. They decide WHAT they do and HOW they do it. Modular plots are often found in investigative scenarios.

tabletop rpg sandbox plot structure

Sandbox

The beginning is predetermined – the GM gives their players plot hooks and entries to different adventures or quests. The players decide which plot hook to follow (the WHAT) and HOW to go about it. Many indie systems and story telling games, but also hex crawls in old school fantasy RPGs use the sandbox structure.

tabletop rpg improvisation plot structure

Fully improvised plot

There is no predetermined path and no plot hooks to start with. The story is completely improvised from start to finish. The lack of plot impulses, pre-sets and momentum can lead to a boring game without suspense and dramaturgy.

How does Railroading happen?

Most DMs have been in this situation before – you have prepared the perfect scene. A surprising twist, the resolution of a big mystery or an epic battle. But suddenly, the players take a different path or can’t find the last missing clue. In that case, it should be okay to push them a little in the right direction, shouldn’t it? Otherwise they’d miss the best part. Or maybe they’re occupying themselves with a section of the plot you never planned to expand upon? Not only would all of your preparation have been for nothing, but now you suddenly find yourself having to improvise huge parts of the game. That sounds incredibly exhausting and bumpy.

These are the two main reasons for Railroading. 1. You want your beautifully crafted plot to unfold. 2. Not every DM likes to improvise.
Two completely understandable and acceptable reasons. It’s okay to make players aware of storylines. But once the players stop going for your plot hooks and impulses, you, as a DM, should be more open towards their alternative ideas. After all, you want to tell the story together with your players, and it should be fun for everyone. In the following paragraphs, you will find some tips on how you might reconcile a well-prepared plot and players who just aren’t going for it.

tabletop rpg advice for gamemasters
Well-prepared, linear plots are often super exciting and entertaining for the players. But the decisions on how to deal with dangers and conflicts should always lie with the players and should not be predetermined. That way, the game remains cooperative.

Tips to avoid railroading

Here are six helpful tips for DMs to avoid unintentional Railroading. These tips are mainly targeted at linear adventures. Open scenarios with multiple storylines have a smaller chance of Railroading.

1. Manage your players’ expectations

If you don’t want your players to act in a certain way in a scene, then don’t offer them alternatives that you don’t want to see in your story. If you want them to run into an ambush by bandits, then don’t tell them about the alternate route they could take to avoid the ambush. This way, you won’t feel the need to push them in a certain direction. Linear parts of a plot are completely okay. You don’t always have to offer your players multiple storylines and quests so that they are entertained. Most of the time, a single predetermined storyline in which the players decide about HOW they do things rather than WHAT they do is enough. So don’t make the mistake of showing them a menu with 100 dishes on it, if all you have in stock is pizza. It’s better to tell them about that pizza instead, and why it’s irresistibly good.

2. Anticipate your players’ ideas

The vast freedom of decision is one of the core elements of RPGs. That’s why players will always surprise you with creative ideas during your campaign. If you’re not big on improvising, then think about the most likely ways your players will interact with your story during your preparations. That way, you can easily prepare some alternative storylines as a plan B.

Do you want your players to steal a specific book of spells from the rich merchant’s mansion? The obvious solution would be to break in at night. But they might as well pretend to be wealthy merchants themselves and try to steal it from the merchant that way. Or they might bribe on of the watchmen at the gate to get the key to the servants’ entrance. Go through some of these scenarios beforehand, and you will be well-prepared.

3. Offer explicit choices within your story

Instead of hoping that your players will do that one specific thing you as a DM would like them to do, offer them multiple alternatives that would all be okay for you, too. That way, you proactively create more freedom of action for the group, all while still being prepared. It would mean a bit more work for you, but your players will thank you for it. And in case your players still come up with a different idea, you will be a bit more flexible now, thanks to your preparation, and it will be easier to improvise.

4. Discuss your adventure with another DM before play

Before the game, get some feedback from other GMs or discuss your adventure with people in a Facebook group or a forum. Usually, all you need is a rough summary of the story. You don’t need to write down the whole adventure in detail. But definitely leave out the parts that describe how the players solve their problems and conflicts. After all, you want to find out how other people would go about the situation. People from the community are often very helpful when it comes to these kinds of things. And in exchange, they get a new plot idea for their own group.

5. End the session early to buy yourself time

Have your players just derailed your plot with an unexpected idea? Then you might be able to end the session early to buy some time to plan the rest of the story. That way, you can think of a solution for the situation between sessions. Of course, this only works if you’ve already been playing for a while and you don’t want to finish the story in one evening.

6. Tell your players which story you want to play

Sometimes, a story will move in a direction that throws you completely off the tracks, despite all efforts. If you’re not feeling good about improvising this part of the plot and would much rather play the cool story that you prepared specially for this evening, then it’s best to just talk to your group. Quickly pause the session and ask the players if it would be okay to follow your prepared plot instead. RPGs are about cooperation. The players will surely accommodate you so that you can also have fun as a GM. And this one short out of game conversation is a lot better than trying to push players in a certain direction within the game.

choices in tabletop rpg plots

Illusion of Choice

In connection with Railroading, feigned choices offered by the DM are often mentioned. This matter is called “Illusion of Choice”. This means the DM offers the players multiple choices in a scene, which appear to have different consequences, but actually all have the same outcome. Imagine your players enter a forest and get to a fork in the path. The players can decide which path to follow. But no matter which one they choose, they will always reach a troll cave in the next scene, because the GM planned it that way.

The question is, is it Railroading if the players don’t notice anything? After all, they had the feeling that the choice was theirs, right? This topic has the community split in two groups. Both sides raise good points on whether fake choices are Railroading or not.

The problem, however, lies somewhere else. If, at the time of deciding, the players don’t know how their choice will affect the rest of the story, then there isn’t any real choice to begin with. It’s more of a guessing game. Our tip is: If you give your players multiple choices in a scene, then give them an idea of what the consequences for each choice may be. Only then will they really get the feeling that the rest of the story lies in their hands. You don’t have to reveal everything, but the players should at least have an inkling. And if you want the scene to play out in a certain way, then it’s best to just predetermine it, instead of tricking your players with a fake selection of options.

What other GMs think about Railroading

dnd with me peter ttrpg youtube

„I remember the first ever game I played when I experienced railroading. Of course, I didn’t know at the time what it was, but I just remember being told “no” until what I wanted to do aligned with what they wanted me to do. When it came time for me to run my own game I quickly noticed I was heading down the same route. That’s when I realized if you want the players to do what you only had in mind, write a book. The best way to go about avoiding railroading is to have a beginning and an end, the rest, you and the players fill in. The joy of TTRPGs is the collaborative storytelling with the people at the table.“

Peter Polito
Veteran D&D DM | Youtuber
Follow him on YoutubeTwitterTwitchInstagram

Further Reading

Check out these websites and videos for additional information and advice on how to avoid Railroading in your RPG sessions.

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dicebreaker aimee hart on railroading
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Tatyana Vogt gives some great advice on how to combine linear plots with narrative agenda for the players to both have a compelling story and different options for the players to choose from.

Check out her amazing Youtube channel theGMwitch or follow her on Twitter @theGMwitch.

Aimee Hart, deputy editor of Gayming Magazine, wrote this intriguing article about Railroading on dicebreaker.com. Her take is that Railroading is not as bad as its reputation and when used the right way, it can help to get things going and to create momentum in a plot.

Follow her on Twitter @aimemerights.

DM Peter from DNDwithme shares some insights on how he sometimes used to railroad his group and which tricks he now applies to avoid Railroading.

Check out his Youtube channel D&D with Me with some great tips on DMing and playing D&D or follow him on Twitter @DnDwMe.

Summary: Railroading sucks, linear plots are totally fine

Being able to shape the story together is one of the most important parts of tabletop RPGs. All players enjoy influencing the story which they are telling together. Without this shared narrative agenda, roleplaying would just mean passively listening to a story. In practice, real Railroading (according to our definition) is rare. Most adventures follow a linear storyline where the sequence of scenes is predetermined, but it’s still up to the players how they travel from scene to scene and overcome challenges. How open and flexible a plot should be so that everyone can have fun, is mainly down to the DMs style and the players’ preferences.

railroading story plotlines in rpgs

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Comments (4)

I’m pretty new to DnD, but I have a question/scenario so I can maybe temper my expectations a bit OR find a way to talk to my DM about what I’m worried may be a consistent issue:

The initial scenario:
My group had just finished the “first act” of the DM’s story. We’d had a few encounters, beaten the boss, gotten the magical item and been rewarded. In the process, one of our encounters was a brief battle against the commerce/government ships and beating a few of the soldiers – we were essentially pirates. It was a low level encounter that basically ended when the soldiers died and the ship sailed away. A session or two later, once the “first act” was over — we were harbored at an island for the obvious purpose of setting spurring Act 2. We are told that the ship we had encountered had just harbored at the other end of the port.
I’d just leveled up to a 4th level druid and had aquatic wildshape. So I got the idea that i’d go screw with the boat. – not in any massive way – more just a “shenanigans” way. Also, the arrival of the boat was done in a way to seemingly create some urgency for our party, and insinuate that a chase or second encounter may be coming if we don’t hustle.
I ask the group about swimming out to temporarily disable the ship in secret. I get mixed opinions, but i decide to try.
I swim out:
My first idea is to sabotage the rudder. I get to the boat and come up to the rudder, and Im immediately shot at. I took some damage (more than I expected), but I was “ok”. I didnt feel being shot at was even possible, since there shouldn’t be a line of sight to the rudder from the deck. I was also told, there was no metal at all involved to cast heat metal and damage the rudder. Since i was apparently able to be shot, i dove under the boat.
My second idea was to swim underneath the boat and try and burn a small hole in the boat’s hull. I had flame sword (which works under water), i cast it. I was told it would not work. (no roll) I was first told something about the tar preventing the wood from burning. I was later told “the boat was not made out of wood”. I was also later told that in order to do what I wished I would have had to deplete the entire ship’s HP – a game dynamic that I didn’t know or agree with. Upon clarification of that rule, i was told that its applied at the DMs discretion.
My third idea was to climb the side of the boat quickly cast lightning breath (dragonborn) on the sail, then jump and submerge before being damaged too severely. In the singular turn of climbing, I was shot with multiple arrows (dealing way more damage than i presumed possible)… and popped by an end-boss necromancer for massive damage. Died on the spot.

As it turns out – this ship, innocuous an encounter as it was at the beginning, was the late-story element that we would be encountering many sessions later — I had basically kicked a hornets nest, without knowing it.

But what I felt discouraged by was that there did not seem to be any consideration for creativity. Just “no” cant do that responses and explanations. It all struck me as ODD, and we had some real arguments about it after the session. Having now learned of the term “railroading” i felt that aptly described what was going on…. but also felt a bit entrapped by being told the ship was there in the first place. THOUGHTS??

I’ve since created a new character – and I’m doing a short solo session as I get incorporated into the party. I’m currently trapped in a single chest treasure room by a magical, but non-damaging barrier that covers the entry way (the only one that had a trap of some kind, that i could detect, but not investigate or perceive to prevent). I even slid my axe along the floor to the chest to see if it would set the trap off. It didn’t. Soooo i took a running leap to the chest; feet hit the ground and the trap springs. I was annoyed by the fact that the trap was sensitive to the floor, but unaffected by my axe. But i can let that go — there is a big weight difference at play.
Into my problem solving mind I go, and I come out with NUMEROUS ideas:
1. transform into a nyxborn lynx — and see if its magical resistance counters the magical barrier (that’s gonna be a DM discretion thing)
2. see if the magical barrier permits inanimate material to pass (such as water). Ultimately imagining a create + shape (freeze) water that builds up at the bottom of the barrier and creates a new boundary for the magical barrier that I can crawl under. I tested the idea by spitting at the barrier – Was told that my spit hit the boundary as if solid. So no go.
3. burrow under the existing floor as a badger
dependent upon the nature of the floor: Im told its thick and immaculately masoned stone
no worries, i can cast enlarge/reduce to make one such tile shrink and give me access to teh ground below
OR cast earth tremor to maybe break the stone into pieces
OR create water into the cracks between the stones, freeze it and cause the stones to crack/separate
4. OR see if their are any tiny gaps that i can squeeze through as a spider (though I’d have to leave the treasure behind)

I havent explored all of these ideas yet with the DM, but ive already been told that “im over thinking it” and that the solution is simple. I feel again like its railroading, that this is my DM forcing me to “figure his puzzle out” instead of permitting the players to problem solve the puzzle with other solutions.
THOUGHTS? should i maybe discuss the gameplay issue if it does indeed play out that way?

Thanks for listening

Hey Joe, thanks for sharing these great examples of gameplay.

Short answer:
Talk to your GM about it in private. Tell them what you like about their scenarios, and which part you did not like some much. Prepare some ideas about what they could change. Work out together, what’s fun for both of you.

Long answer:

I’d consider both situations railroading by the GM, but they differ in a few aspects. Let’s start with the easy one – no. 2-

THE TREASURE ROOM
This is pure railroading. The magical barrier is one of the strongest signals out there for a railroad-y scene. The players are forced to stay in a place and deal with what’s happening there. That itself is totally ok. It can be very interesting to limit the geographic space the story takes place in. I GM’ed scenarios that played in an elevator only, and they were fantastic. It’s just that magical barriers are usually impossible to tear down without knowing what causes them. No locks, no security hatch, not generator to turn off. Without knowing how to escape, finding out what to do boils down to tedious trial and error.
There are hundreds of adventures relying on magical barriers to trap the PCs in a place. But there would me so many better alternatives: A dear NPC who is unable to leave the place, a building or heavy item that cannot be moved (e.g. statue), and so one.
Alternatively, the GM could tell you that the scenario she/he prepared is to take place in a confined area. That’s ok, too. Then the players know that leaving the room or town is not the priority, instead it’s about solving a mystery or intrigue plot.
On to no. 1.

THE UNSINKABLE SHIP
Sounds like your GM prepared the ship and the crew as an ongoing menace for the campaign. Actually that’s a clever idea – to use this ship to put pressure on your group to move along in the story. From what I read it they indicated how dangerous this enemy was. Looking back on the story, would you agree?
Still I think it’s cool that you tried to sabotage the ship. Maybe just to slow them down a bit. As a GM I would have rewarded your ideas and have you somewhat damage the ship. This would have come at a cost though (e.g. physical harm, splitting the party for a while). Both damaging the rudder or the sails sounds possible to me. But cutting a hole into a ship’s hull really is kind of impossible with a sword.
This whole situation could have been avoided, if you talked to the GM before acting. If you had asked, “Hey, I want to sabotage this ship, what can I do?”, then it’s the GMs turn to present you with some options. Additionally they could have told you in advance, how risky the whole endeavor was. If they said, “looks like the ship is well armed, you even glimpse the robe of a necromancer on deck”, you might have thought twice about this.
In total, I don’t think that this was railroading. It simply sounds like the odds were stacked against you, because the enemy was too strong. As a GM I would have told you in advance that “messing with this ship can cost you your character’s life”. Then you might have reconsidered your plans.

TIPS FOR PLAYERS

A) Take a timeout and talk to your GM
If you’re stuck in such a scene, I’d ask the GM for a quick timeout to talk to them in private without the other players listening. Tell them that you’re not enjoying this situation in the game and that you feel stuck, because all your ideas lead nowhere. Most GMs will usually give you a hint on how to solve the puzzle. Nobody wants their players to have a bad time.
I’ve been in this situation as a player multiple times in the past and I often made the mistake of waiting too long before asking the GM for a bit of out-of-game help. My group was unable to proceed with the story for one or even two hours. We felt drained and by the time we solved the puzzle or found the one vital clue, we we’re pretty much done for the whole game session.

B) Support your GM’s plot
To cut your GM some slack: In my early GM years I would have been overwhelmed by such a player equipped with so many spells, too. Back then I thought, “why is this player giving me such a hard time? Why can’t they just stick with the plot I spent so many hours for them to prepare?”. Remember that GMs are also players at table who want to have fun. So if they want you to go down a certain road in the story, every now and then it would be nice to follow their lead. They probably prepared a fantastic plot for you and just need you to quickly transition to the next scene.
Hope this helps 

EXCELLENT ADVICE all around! Thank you!
No, there really wasn’t any big deal at all made about the ship during the planned encounter. It struck me as merely a “means of setting up a battle”, nothing more. If I had had any notion of the danger that lurked, I’d never have bothered with shenanigans. The problem was that archers shooting at me wasn’t enough of a deterrent to make me not try for the sail (all ships have archers, so nothing about that stuck out to me). Sadly, I didn’t have time to see the necromancer and reconsider my decisions…before the necromancer obliterated me. haha

Ultimately, we’re all past it – and I like my new character way more than my dead character anyway. hahahaha We were only 3 sessions into the campaign. Probably also helped my DM to know that how my brain works at the table. I wont always see “threats” as threats…but opportunities for sly behavior…within the spirit of the game itself.

Just to let you know how it all played out:
Ultimately, I never got to attempt any of my ideas for escaping the magical barrier. Before going down the rabbit hole on each escape plan the DM had a voice in my head speak to me from an equally trapped NPC deity. The chest in the room contained the item I was searching for, along with a talisman that my DM had ultimately created to give me a deity to follow along with some battle perks. The deal was essentially I give fealty to the deity in exchange for the perks and the deity’s assistance in removing the magical barrier.
My questioning made it CLEAR… i was NOT getting out of that room without the deity’s help.

WITHOUT QUESTION my DM is fantastic when it comes to the thematic content. But in the vein of our discussions, I think what would have been the better approach would be to entertain the ideas for escape in someway if impressed by the creativity in scheming them. I mean, Im obviously not going to leave the room without at least opening the treasure chest I came in for, so the deity would have his chance to speak up regardless. Then the scenario becomes more about CHOICE: I can 1) magnanimously help the deity escape with no desire for reward, 2) help the deity escape AND pledge fealty for the perks, or 3) act callously and leave the deity behind (why on earth would anyone do that, but it is still a “choice”). Framing the event in that way avoids the linear approach that yall discuss, maintains player freedom, and rewards a player who really puts his noggin into the game. Without a doubt it is the open gameplay and problem solving that I like most about DnD — I was giddy with excitement to try and get out of that room by using my brain. And if I do end up discussing things with him it will be to let him know that free will and ingenuity are what draw me to the game and that I’d hope to see those elements in the future.
BUT…. MOST IMPORTANTLY, I can’t be upset at all about anything under the circumstances.
A DM nice enough to create a side quest just to help incorporate a player’s new character is a heck of a nice guy and a fully invested DM. As a player, I gotta know when and where to pick my battles – and THIS solo quest would NEVER have been the moment. What im glad to know is that it isn’t wrong to hope for the kind of freedom I described, and can certainly discuss the matter later if I feel I should.

SO I will definitely play on…. and if I see the same issue pop up again later, I’ll take your advice on discussing away from the group. Thanks guys!

You’re welcome! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these scenarios.
Sounds like you’re in good hands with your GM, if they design some lengths of the story just for your character 🙂

It’s not always as easy as black or white, railroading yes or no. Often you nudge the players along for a while just to get to the next scene, where they have more freedom of choice again.

And in some situations, when a player tries to go down a different path while you’ve planned for something else, just tell them out-of-game what you had in mind for them.
Don’t have them fail every roll. This will sometimes just make them try harder. Instead do a short timeout and discuss your plans with them, then get back into the story.

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