As we discussed last time, all campaigns have some sort of railroading and all DMs use it. There’s always some sort of “this is the game we’re playing” restriction. It’s so commonplace, it’s hard to see it as railroading until you think about it, but it is a form of denying agency to the players, specifically the agency to play something other than the game on which they agreed. The difference between that and scene-by-scene or action-by-action railroading isn’t a difference in terms. It’s a difference in scale.
When we talk about scale, we usually differentiate between the macro-level and the micro-level. Macro scale is top-down, looking at the broad picture, and micro scale is bottom-up, looking at specific actors. For example, macroeconomics considers the economy at large, like how the government affects the market or how inflation grows, and microeconomics considers how a specific person or company within the economy manages money, including making purchases as a result of changes in price. A complete picture of anything with scale has to include macro-level, micro-level, and everything in between, and railroading is no exception.
Macro-level railroading is campaign-wide. At the very highest level, it’s the DM telling the players that the campaign is a high-fantasy game set in Greyhawk. At slightly lower levels, the DM dictates some key elements of the plot. She may decide who the big bad final boss will be, or decide that the party’s mentor is going to die around the end of the first act, or build up to a dramatic mass-combat set piece in which the elf army meets the orc army. Technically these are all things the players could affect in play, but the DM fully intends to tweak things so they work according to her plans.
Micro-level railroading is event-specific. At the very lowest level, it’s the DM telling a player that his character would or would not perform some action, effectively taking control of the character for a specific decision. At slightly higher levels she dictates more general actions, like saying the party is too tired to travel beyond the ruins where she has an encounter planned, or deciding a character knows nothing about a common monster because she wants the party to ask the grizzled hunter about it. This is railroading at its most stark, as the DM clearly and actively blocks the players from taking actions or denies their consequences. It’s also significantly less common than macro-level railroading, but it has an outsize impact when it does occur.
Most railroading takes place somewhere in between. A quantum ogre, an encounter the DM gives the players regardless of their attempts to avoid it, falls on the micro-level side, but it’s more macro than a specific action. Giving the final boss a weakness that can only be found in a specific dungeon is a macro-level plot decision, but it’s only one point on the overarching plot of the campaign. Some instances of railroading can even exist at multiple levels; a DM may force the party into an encounter with bandits (micro) so they can find the note on the bandit leader’s corpse pointing them to a demonic cult (macro). All of a DM’s decisions happen somewhere on this scale, thinking about how the players are affecting the campaign both long-term and right now, and every point on the scale is an opportunity for her to make a unilateral decision.
Understanding the scale is necessary for understanding why a DM wants to railroad in the first place. Any time a DM takes agency away from the players, there must be a reason. Sometimes that reason is as straightforward as “I only had time to plan one dungeon this week, so if you want to go dungeon-delving, this is it,” but often it occurs on a broader level. If the DM makes the players fight a specific enemy so they see a specific amulet, she’s doing that because it’s important for the overall storyline. If the players don’t encounter that amulet, they won’t know they should be looking for others, or they won’t look into who crafted it, or it won’t have the same impact when another enemy has the same amulet in future adventures. “The players first see the amulet” is a specific action that occurs for one moment in one session, but it’s a macro-level decision to make a more satisfying story, not a micro-level decision to force an item into the party’s inventory.
This matters because a DM can often make up for a lack of agency at one point on the scale by granting agency at another point. That is, if you intend to railroad your players at a macro-level, give them agency in a related decision at the micro-level, and vice-versa.
Say a DM has decided who the campaign villains are. The players are going to fight a sorcerer and his four henchmen, and the DM wants them to fight the four henchmen in their own lairs before meeting the sorcerer in his. This is a very macro-scale decision, regarding the entire campaign plot, and she could let the players choose the order in which they fight the henchmen. But that means she has to design four full plot lines, knowing the players will pick only one and she’ll have to significantly alter the others based on how the first turns out. She can instead put up some sort of barrier, physical or narrative, that forces the party into fighting one henchman before the others. Even if the party thinks dealing with Henchman B first is a good idea, the DM has railroaded them into dealing with Henchman A.
This is macro-level railroading, so she should give the players micro-level agency. She should give them information about Henchman A and let them come up with the exact method of approach. They could try sneaking into Henchman A’s lair, or disguising themselves and walking through the front door, or even investigating Henchman A’s finances and cutting off his income so he loses most of his minions. The party considers their options and chooses the route with the highest chance of success (or, as with some parties, the route that causes the most unnecessary chaos). Because there was no One True Way to handle Henchman A, they can approach it however they want, and the DM can let them do it knowing they’re still working only on this one villain and they’re not going to throw everything off by wandering away.
Or, say the DM has decided to curse one of the players. There’s a specific monster she wants to use and that monster uses curses, or she’s thought of a curse mechanic that would be fun to implement, or some other reason. This is a micro-level decision affecting one encounter in one session. No matter how well the party wards themselves or how high their saving throws are, she’s going to curse them during that encounter, even if she’s going to have the monster cast a spell with its dying breath and curse a PC at random. She’s also not going to let the players wipe it out with a simple remove curse. This spell is going to have a lasting effect, and the players are going to deal with it instead of buying a solution at the local temple.
This is micro-level railroading, so she should give the players macro-level agency. She should come up with a few ways the party might break the curse and be prepared for the party to follow any and all of them. The bard could know a story about a hag who can erase magical effects for a terrible price, or the druid’s circle has a cleansing spring they only make available to the most accomplished among them, or a merchant had a potion that could cure any ailment but he just sold the last vial to a rich man who left town yesterday. The players can also come up with their own leads, and that’s great. In fact, it’s preferable. But whatever method they choose, as long as it makes some sense, it should eventually be correct. The party effectively decides what solution they will find, and thus what adventure they want to have, based on the seed the DM inflicted on them, and the DM can build that quest into future sessions secure in the knowledge that her party is fully invested in it.
Note that the players’ agency at one level must be related to their lack of agency at another level. “I forced the players into the duke’s birthday celebration against their wishes this session, but next session I’m going to let them decide how to defend the farmland from ogres” isn’t a valid compromise. The party will still feel, rightly, that they were pushed into an encounter they didn’t want and may have actively tried to avoid. They need some agency connected to the celebration, like getting several plot hooks at the party and deciding which to follow, or getting the option to sneak off and have an adventure in the duke’s basement, or even picking an antagonistic nobleman to prank.
The goal is to reduce railroading to a narrow aspect of the campaign instead of a large swath of it. Think about what the players can’t do in terms of interrogative words and give them options using other interrogative words. That is, if they can’t decide what to do, let them decide how to do it. If they can’t decide when a fight takes place, let them decide where it happens. Consider the entire question of agency as a “no, but”; no, the players don’t get to decide this specific thing about the campaign, but they have other freedoms that let them affect or color that thing. They don’t have full and complete decision-making power over everything they do, nor are they just meandering through the DM’s story. D&D is cooperative, and that means both sides have to make decisions on some level.