Railroading – taking away the players’ freedom of choice
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: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Time to read: 12min
Railroading in tabletop RPGs – a definition
An example case of Railroading
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.
Here’s why Railroading is frustrating for the players
Comparing Railroading, linear plots and Sandboxing
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
4 thoughts on “How to Avoid Railroading in Tabletop RPGs”
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.
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.
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.