I think a lot of the fear of railroading goes to the stereotype of the antagonistic DM. There’s this archetype in which the DM is the enemy of the players, a vengeful entity who creates fiendish challenges and nail-biting encounters just to watch them suffer. I’m not saying this type of DM doesn’t exist—I’ve been in such a campaign at least once—but I think its prevalence is overblown. Most DMs just want to create a situation in which everybody is having fun. They aren’t villains, even if they do control villains, and they don’t enjoy player suffering, even if they design challenges that cause suffering. The DM-versus-player dynamic is an outlier that shouldn’t really enter into the conversation.
As such, railroading isn’t usually the hallmark of a DM who wants to rip power away from the players and hurt them despite their best attempts. It’s more often used by an inexperienced, underprepared, or focused DM who feels she needs to nudge (or shove) the game in a specific direction to achieve a specific goal. Railroading isn’t actually a problem. Railroading is one solution to several problems DMs face all the time.
That’s not how it’s viewed at large, of course. When players see a DM railroad them, or when they think they do, they’re quick to assume she’s intentionally limiting or ignoring their agency to serve some selfish end, like going through her perfect plot or giving her precious villain screen time. Because railroading limits what players can do, and anything that prevents the players from succeeding must be antagonistic, and because the DM is the instigator of this antagonism, the DM must be intentionally trying to antagonize the players. Thus the DM is hostile and bad, and railroading is the sign of a hostile and bad DM, and good DMs should avoid it at all costs lest the players consider them hostile and bad.
Most often that’s not what’s happening, but because players expect it, that’s what they see. I think of it as a version of Grey’s Law:
Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.
DMs, by and large, are not hostile. They are trying to have fun as much as anybody else, and the onus of making sure everyone has fun also falls on them more than it does on any other player. This is stressful. A DM has to juggle a lot to make any given session work: moving the plot forward within the limits of what the characters do and know, keeping the rules straight for combat and other encounters, acting well enough to play every NPC, and managing the mood at the table, among other responsibilities. Then add all the time it takes her to create the session in the first place, like building monsters or NPCs. If she’s responsible for the gaming space, add stress. If she’s responsible for managing game assets (character sheets, miniatures, maps, gaming software, etc.), add stress. It’s fun, and she wouldn’t do it if the rewards didn’t exceed the work involved, but the work isn’t trivial.
It’s entirely reasonable for a DM to not be competent to perform all of her tasks at all times. This isn’t a judgment or indictment, and it’s not indicative of a bad or failed DM. It’s a pragmatic acknowledgement that DMing is hard and DMs are human. If she fails to point out a penalty that would have caused her monster to miss with an attack, it’s more likely that she simply forgot about the penalty than that she intentionally omitted it for a mechanical advantage. If she uses the same orc miniature to represent two different creatures, it’s more likely that she didn’t have the perfect miniatures than that she wanted to confuse the players. Nobody can succeed at everything all the time, and DMs are no exception. Sometimes we fail.
DMs do want to succeed, however, and when we see failure coming we try to route around it. A DM may realize she keeps forgetting penalties and use an index card to keep track of what’s afflicting each monster. She may realize her miniatures can get mixed up and change the encounter or use something to differentiate them. And if she knows she hasn’t has time to prepare for all the different directions the party can go, or she isn’t ready for the characters to visit a specific dungeon, or if she wants a specific player to take the lead in a given session, she may use railroading to bring things back under control. She isn’t trying to hurt the players; she’s trying to help the game.
This goes both ways. While DMs like to talk about players as agents of entropy who delight in seeing what the DM values most highly and taking it away, that’s not really accurate. Players are trying to have fun. Part of that fun is the ability to make decisions and see results, and sometimes that puts players at odds with what the DM expects. But they don’t see what the DM is doing, figure out what she values, and actively try to destroy it. They don’t delight in causing frustration for the sake of frustration. They’re only trying to play the game, just as much as the DM is but in a different way. Here the players’ incompetence isn’t that they’re incompetent at D&D, or even gaming. They’re not competent to know what the DM’s plans are, and this is built into the system. Players can’t be blamed for subverting the DM’s plans if they don’t know what they’re subverting in the first place.
A DM’s attempts to keep the game on track are neither good nor bad. A player’s attempts to jump the rails are neither good nor bad. It’s more the intention behind their actions, and the best way to make intentions clear to say them.
A DM should be comfortable enough with her players to say “I know you really want to hide in a window, buff yourselves to the gills, and one-shot the queen with an arrow as she rides through the town. But that’s really not what I saw happening in this campaign. I was picturing you all chipping away at her evil, underground empire from the shadows culminating in a huge battle after you reveal her treachery to the citizenry. Killing her now would work, but then it would be more of a campaign where you’re on the run, and her empire would be in chaos and you’d have to deal with that, and that’s really just not the game I wanted to run.” Yes, this is the DM trying to railroad the players. Yes, it gives away certain plot elements of the campaign she might have wanted to keep secret. But it also puts her intentions out, clearly and honestly, for the players to consider. There’s no implication of malice and no power grab, just a person trying to come to an agreement with other people to keep their cooperative game running.
And the players should be comfortable enough with the DM to say “We’re starting to get frustrated with this wizard villain. He’s always one step ahead of us no matter what we do. He has all these illusions that subvert what we’re doing, and he always has the perfect escape plan no matter what we prepare, and he knows every step we take almost before we do. We know it’s possible he has some sort of high-level divinations or a mole helping him, but right now it feels like we’re walking blithely through his plans without any ability to affect them. We need some success to let us know our actions are having an effect on him.” Yes, this is the players trying explicitly to buck the DM’s plot. But it also tells her that the players aren’t having fun with the villain and they feel something needs to change. Again, it’s clear they’re not trying to subvert her or the game, just trying to come to an agreement.
DMs and players aren’t trying to hurt each other. Pretending that they are, and thus that railroading is either a DM’s ham-fisted attempt to exert control or a necessary evil to fight against spiteful players, is wrong and it hurts both a campaign and the hobby at large. The key, as I’ve said time and time again, is communication. Talk to your players. Understand what they want. Tell them what you want. Make concessions and compromises. Figure out what communication works best for you—some groups like knowing the broad strokes of a campaign before they get started so they can work toward specific goals, and some prefer only sharing the bare minimum necessary to keep the game going so they can react to events in the moment. There’s no communication checklist that works for every group. You have to figure it out on your own, but once everybody knows there’s no malice intended in your decisions as a DM, those decisions go much more smoothly.
And if you ever do find a DM or player who does act with malice, who honestly and truly wants to frustrate other players or disrupt the game, drop them. There’s no place for that here.