All Aboard the Railroad Express!

Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about encounter design versus railroading.

I like to think that I offer some pretty good advice here at Everyman Gaming, but there are always going to be haters. Not that anyone has ever attacked my blog, but there are a few comments that I hear over and over again when the topic of my advice is brought up and it goes a little something like this, “Oh, that’s nice, but I’m not really into railroading my PCs into doing something.”

 I hate when people say that.

Today on Everyman Gaming, we’ll be discussing what railroading is and why you can be prepared without railroading your players.

What is Railroading?

I don’t usually do this, but Urban Dictionary has a usable definition for railroading, which reads as follows: the process of forcing the PCs in a roleplaying game to complete a certain task before continuing the adventure. Railroading is generally considered to be one of the hallmarks of a poor GM because it signals a GM who either A) is not flexible or prepared enough to allow his PCs to make their own choices or B) refuses to allow the players to take part in what he considers to be HIS story. It is a GM tactic in which the participating PCs feel that they have no control over the GM’s world. As a result, roleplaying-focused PCs tend to dislike the railroading GM’s tactics. Interestingly enough, another place where railroading is common is in video games. Here’s an example from my own experience:

Elder Scrolls: Skyrim was promoted as one of the most open RPGs ever created when it was first released and I was excited to play it. The game is set against a period of social unrest that threatens to break into civil war, and I personally wanted nothing to do with that storyline. That said, I was interested in being a hero and rescuing a man who was unlawfully imprisoned by a group of elves called the Thalamor after being falsely accused of a crime. After travelling to their keep, I expected to barter with them for the prisoner’s safety but the game had no option for this: if I wanted to free the prisoner, I had to kill all of the elves. Granted, these elves are the villains, but I had absolutely no choice in the matter: my choice was to slaughter them all or fail to complete the quest with no alternatives. I wasn’t even allowed to sneak in and recuse the prisoner when no one was looking!

The Argument

In a nutshell, the argument that I see constantly is that if a GM designs any challenge with the intent of pitting his PCs up against it, he’s railroading them. Such folk (who are often GMs themselves in my experience) claim that the only way to run a truly free, organic campaign is to either do everything spontaneously or be as thoroughly prepared as a computer console so that whatever your PCs do, you have a unique outcome planned for it. As you might have guessed, I think this entire argument is a load of baloney, but hey, I tried to be fair to the other said. That counts for something, I think.

The Difference Between Preparation and Railroading

Let’s talk about why spending time planning for your PCs to take a specific route and even guiding them towards that specific route isn’t a bad thing.

  1. Your PCs do not know what they want. Let’s face it; no one truly knows what one wants. It’s a lot easier to identify something you don’t like than something you do, hence the popular euphemism, “Everyone’s a critic.” Often times the thing that players want most is surprise. A large part of the game’s draw comes from that feeling of threat and helplessness that comes from not knowing what’s going to happen in the rounds to come. It’s why encounters that are mathematically trivial can be stress-inducing exercises in suppressing panic attacks for even the most skilled player. If you as a GM design something cool, your players might end up loving it even though you didn’t give them much of a choice to experience it.
  2. Your players do not have the ability to write a campaign-stretching story for themselves. Campaigns with nothing tying them together have no story: they are independent events connected by like characters and nothing more. If your GM isn’t given the authority to connect those dots then it diminishes the scope of the things that the PCs are accomplishing. Instead of saving the world from an ancient evil, you’re just knocking down liches in random dungeons with no context, which is much less cool.
  3. It is possible to direct the players somewhere without railroading them. The most important line in the definition of railroading is this one, “the players feel as though their actions have no consequence on the gaming world.” A GM whose players willingly board the train isn’t railroading them, especially if the PCs don’t realize that they’re boarding a train at all.

Manipulating the Party

Next, here are some tips to direct the PCs to where you need them to be without making them feel railroaded.

  1. Give your players choices. Instead of designing just one super dungeon, design two or three smaller locations and give your players the choice of where to go to first. More likely then not, your players will pick up all of your plot threads at some point, and if they ignore a particular thread, maybe it wasn’t particularly engaging to your group. You can either save it for a rainy date or find a way to sneak it back into the plot later.
  2. Give the party a good reason to go somewhere. Railroading is defined by “landmine design,” the idea that if the PCs don’t do what the GM wants they suffer. Flip that around and instead reward the PCs for doing as you asked: give them incentives to go where you want them to be. Drop hints of powerful magic items that they are interested in or leave noticeable trails that the PCs won’t be able to resist following.  Instead of building railroads, blaze trails that your PCs are interested in following.
  3. Ask your party to follow your breadcrumbs. People don’t like feeling tricked or deceived, so often just asking your players to roll with something will get them to be cooperative. Explain that you didn’t have time to finish your big preparations so your adventure this week is going to be a bit of a detour. Your players will sympathize with honesty because without you, the game doesn’t happen at all. 

“Railroading Done Right”

For all the flack that people give railroading, nobody ever talks about scenarios where railroading is done right. Here is an example that one of my friends pulled on me.

 Our party was hard at working building up our kingdom and it had been a few weeks since we saw any combat. Our GM had been writing grand plans, but after three weeks he wasn’t entirely ready to unveil them. So on this, the third week, he told my brother and I that we would be railroaded a little bit because he didn’t have time to finish planning: we, of course, were thrilled to simply be playing so we were down with it. Almost immediately at the start of the game, a dragon flies into our capital city that we had been building, trashes a few buildings, and kills one of our named NPCs violently before flying away after our magus scored a good spellstrike. We had a rouge idea of where the dragon’s lair was from the moment we made landfall in the area, so we quickly got our supplies together and marched our party of PCs and cohorts out to deal with the dragon while he was weakened. When we got there, we killed the dragon and took his stuff.

 Later our GM told us that the “railroading” was getting us to fight the dragon, but let’s face it: we weren’t railroaded at all. Both my brother and I chose to retaliate against the dragon. We made that decision and we were 125% motivated to march into its home and slaughter it mercilessly. Although the dragon’s death wasn’t integral to the story’s plot, it did ultimately shed some light about other things that were going on into the area, but more importantly it was fun! We had a blast slaying the dragon and even though it was explained to us that we were going to be railroaded, we never even noticed it. We wanted to be there. You’re not being railroaded when the track you’re riding is a rollercoaster.

 And that’s all that I have to say on the topic of railroading this week! What did you think? Does railroading bother you as a player or are you always down for whatever your GM plans? Do you railroad your players as a GM or are you the type that tries to achieve perfect spontaneity? Did I miss any important notes in my discussion? Leave your comments and answers below and I look forward to seeing you for the next GM Guide.

 Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune dragonslayer, and his favorite RPG memory is critically hitting said dragon on a surprise charge while shouting, “Hail to the king, b^%#@!”.  


5 thoughts on “All Aboard the Railroad Express!

  1. Great post as all ways! I find it interesting that the concept of railroading gets all this negative flak but railroading is something of a staple in the storytelling field. So long as your story has an ending in mind you could be considered railroading your PC’s to that ending even though you allow their actions to affect that ending it is still an ending.

    • Railroading definitely gets more negativity than it deserves despite being a staple storytelling tool. As I mentioned in the article, one of the best ways to railroad without your PCs ever being any wiser about it is to provide multiple tracks for them to follow and just represent unused tracks later on. Instead of calling it “railroading,” they’ll call it “consistency” and if they’re invested emotionally in whatever story hooks you provide, they’ll call it “wrapping up loose ends” instead. 😉

  2. Stories have beginnings middles and ends. Just about everything in a novel has some impact that propels the actual story arc or just individual character development forward. Most of the time if a GM plans accordingly the player’s never feel like they are being “railroaded.” One of the other great tricks for character’s getting where they’re going in the games story is, the players choose which “direction” they want to go, but where they end up is the destination they GM needs them to be. The players don’t know what you have planned, they have no clue that your dungeon was supposed to be in the east instead of the west. They didn’t know the NPC they were supposed to meet in the tavern in city A is now in the tavern of city B because that’s where they decided to go.

    Personally I usually have a beginning and end and some salient things that need to be gotten to when I think of the game I want to run. Then once character creation is done I make minor adjustments to make encounters more relevant to players and then even add some sub stories based on what characters are made. In the long run my players still make it to the end that I devised and still meet all the plot points I need met. But they very rarely feel like I’m forcing them to do anything.

    On the whole I hate the term “railroading” and I think its usually used by GMs who are playing in other people games and just want to say they think they could have done a better job instead of enjoying the game.

  3. Honestly, I’ve never minded railroads as long as they aren’t oppressive, as in, “If you don’t go here first, the world ends and everyone dies.” Because I know that, as a player, it’s ultimately is the GM’s story to tell, and we are the main characters. Some of the best selling RPG video games are rail roads, like Mass Effect. For all the personal choice you have in the story, the plots of every mission almost always end up the same. One of the biggest failures I think the series had was that all of the choices the players made, ultimately, had very little effect on the over-all story, represented as a few +1s here and there on the Galactic Readiness.

    But no one has complained that the Mass Effect series was a bad game (apart from the ending of ME3) despite the entire series being an investment $200+ (games + DLC), several weeks of gameplay and tons of emotional attachment and ultimately is one giant railroad.

    Some of the best fantasy books of all time are railroads even. It was explained by Gandalf (a GMPC and source of information) that you could break the Ring, dragon fire couldn’t melt the Ring, you couldn’t hide the Ring, the only thing you could was throw it into Mt. Doom. No exceptions. The whole plot behind Lord of the Rings is, essentially, a giant railroad. However, it’s a little different because the Companions are able to ‘jump track’ so-to-speak and take multiple different trains to the same destination.

  4. The only kind of railroading that I have an issue with is the kind that forces your characters to act against type. If the group is a bunch of crusading knights on the path of righteousness one should not assume they will act as pirates just because you bought an adventure that assumes they do so.

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