One of the greatest sins a DM can commit is railroading. It’s the hallmark of an inexperienced, controlling, or incompetent DM. It hurts players, hurts characters, and hurts campaigns. It’s a dirty word in gaming and an incendiary accusation, and it flies in the face of the stated principles of every gaming system I can think of.
Or, at least, that’s its common interpretation. While it can be wielded like a bludgeon by an inept DM, it can also be used to enhance a campaign and the game around it. The key is in understanding how much to railroad, when, why, and in what way so it benefits both players and the DM, even when everything is stuck to rails. We have to railroad with Charisma.
Before we get too into how to make railroads interesting enough that players want to stay on the train, we need to define our terms. What is railroading, and if it’s so bad, why is it a thing at all?
Railroading is a DM’s attempt to control the progress of a campaign instead of letting the players do it. Just as a train can go nowhere except by following its track, a railroading DM will not allow the campaign to go anywhere except along the path he has planned. When the players and DM agree on what to do, usually everything is fine. Accusations of railroading only tend to occur when the DM acts against the will of the players, specifically when he denies those players the agency to make informed decisions themselves.
Consider a session in which the players must retrieve something from a warehouse. The DM wants the players to sneak in under cover of night, happen across a meeting between two crime families, get relevant plot information and see a few important NPCs, and eventually be discovered, ending in a fight with several minions. The more he enforces this specific chain of events, the more he can be accused of railroading. A stereotypically bad DM will go to great lengths to prevent any sort of clever workaround: the party can’t sneak in before the meeting because the warehouse guards are surprisingly resistant to bribery but they suspiciously disappear just in time for the plot to happen, the crime families have somebody who can see through any and all illusions the party has that might prevent them from being caught, and the warehouse has magical wards that block teleportation or phasing or any means of entering besides taking the one door that goes down the one hallway near the one meeting room. The DM has decided how the adventure will go, and the players are intended to follow the plan.
Sometimes it’s not as detailed as all this. Consider a traveling party who comes to a crossroads. They head west, enter a forest, and find a dark cave littered with bones and signs of troll habitation. If they instead head east, the path takes them among a beach, where they find a dark cave littered with bones and signs of troll habitation. Regardless of where the players go, the DM planned a troll cave, and that’s what they’re getting. This sort of railroading is called the quantum ogre, alluding to an ogre whose location is not determined until the players decide where to go (demonstrating a very specific, often incorrect understanding of the word “quantum”, but I didn’t get to pick the name). We’ll discuss it more in a little while. The point is, railroading isn’t always a ridiculous, immersion-breaking plot set in stone. It can be obvious and hackneyed, or it can be subtle, or it can even be understood.
The general impression is that railroading is a problem to be solved. It’s a method of denying the players’ agency, their ability to take the actions they want and see those actions play out in-game. D&D is about letting players make decisions, from “do you sell the artifact to the king for a handsome sum, knowing he’ll use it to start a war, or do you keep it and go on the run with the entire army searching for you?” all the way down to “do you attack the orc on the left or the orc on the right?”. Railroading removes that agency, forcing the players to take only the actions the DM wants them to take. In many cases, the results of those actions are also predetermined, as when our breaking-and-entering party gets caught no matter what precautions they take or how well they roll on Stealth. Because it works against the very concept and principle of tabletop gaming, railroading is obviously a Very Bad Thing that Very Bad DMs do in Very Bad Campaigns, against the the wishes of their wonderful players.
But this isn’t true, because all DMs railroad and all campaigns have railroading. All of them. All of them.
Wrath of the Cosmic Accountant was my first sandbox-style campaign. I gave the players the most iniquitous city in the world and I told them to fix it via whatever methods they wanted. Fight corruption in City Hall? Fine. Disrupt the slave trade? Go nuts. Take apart organized crime from the ground up, or from the top down, or by making allies within the guilds? All options were on the table, as long as the party didn’t just pack up and leave. Even if it was a perfectly reasonable response, even if it was the best chance of survival, fleeing town or staging a mass exodus was not allowed. These were the rails I put in place: this campaign is about saving the city, and I expected the players to attempt to save the city. By a strict definition I railroaded the players by denying them the agency to abandon the campaign, but that was the only way the campaign worked.
A DM doesn’t railroad only because he’s building his own story and he needs or expects the players to follow along. He does it for a variety of reasons. Maybe he didn’t have enough time this week to put together three different, interesting paths at the crossroads. Maybe he hasn’t figured out who the king’s advisors are and he’s not comfortable with building all of them on the fly, so he can’t let the players visit the king’s court. Maybe he has a plan to give a character some time in the spotlight and he doesn’t want the loudest player to inadvertently subvert it. Maybe he’s upholding the social contract by keeping the players focused on the game they said they wanted to play instead of random distractions. Even something as mundane and obvious as “no, you cannot build an airplane in this Stone Age campaign even if you roll very high on your Intelligence (Nature) check” is technically a form of railroading because it’s limiting a player’s agency to violate the campaign concept, but few players would argue that it’s an unreasonable extension of the DM’s power.
Railroading is not, in and of itself, bad. It’s a gaming tool that DMs can use badly. One of my best campaigns was almost top-to-bottom railroading. The Legend of Zelda: Shaman Gates followed the Zelda formula: explore area A, find dungeon A, get item A, defeat boss A, use item A to access area B, find dungeon B, and so on. For most of the campaign the players did not have the ability to skip an area. They always had to get an item from a dungeon. They had side quests they couldn’t complete until much later in the campaign, regardless of their creativity. But of course they did. This was a campaign based on a video game series with all the same limitations. Zelda games railroad the player, so the Zelda campaign did too. If I’d dropped them in a town and told them to go frolic, the campaign wouldn’t have had the right mood. And not once did the players feel constrained, because they knew what we were doing from minute one. Railroading wasn’t just necessary, it made the game better.
There is such a thing as too much railroading. There’s also such a thing as too little. The DM’s job is to run an entertaining game with the players. If that means he gives them full agency, that’s fine. And if he gives them very little agency, that’s fine too. As long as everybody knows, and agrees with, what’s going on, a game that stays on the tracks isn’t automatically worse than one that goes off the rails.
That said, it isn’t just the amount of railroading at play. There are also different ways to railroad in different circumstances, and we’ll talk about one of the big points of divergence next time.