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.
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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.