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