Roads, Not Railroads

Ken Hite recently ruffled a few feathers by declaring at a seminar that “Railroading is a pejorative term for a game in which something is accomplished.”

It’s an easy point to argue (as the nice people at have demonstrated) but doing so rather misses the point. The purpose of a generalization like that is not to be true, but rather, to be useful. I have spent no small amount of time talking about how to avoid railroading in games, both as a GM and as an adventure designer, but there’s an important point that runs through all those warnings: there are very good reasons that people railroad.

Now, yes, there are also bad reasons. The nightmare scenario is the adventure which consists pretty much entirely of watching the GM do a puppet show of the story which is totally going to be the basis of that novel which is going to make him famous when he gets around to writing it. Nobody wants that, and when it’s the adventure designer who writes the puppet show, that’s even worse because it just encourages that sort of behavior.

There is also a somewhat more dull sort of railroading that occurs when the player’s stray from the GM’s notes. The classic example of this is the unfinished dungeon map, where the characters are steered away from the parts that haven’t been filled in yet. This example sticks in the mind because a lot of us have experience with it (from our own days of vast dungeons scratched out in pencil on graph paper) but I think it’s a less important one, if only because it’s a hallmark of inexperience, not a true technique. That is to say, more experienced GMs don’t have this problem because they have taught themselves how to wing it in those situations, or they have learned not to use incomplete dungeons.

But the main reason good GMs railroad is, to come back to Ken, to make things happen. The railroad is the through-line of the adventure, the sequence of events that makes it all make sense. It’s not something every game needs to work – it can be equally effective (if more work) to craft a compelling, dynamic situation and insert the characters – but having a through-line helps insure a satisfying conclusion. This is especially true in adventures that have a clearly procedural bent, where the first action leads to the second action and so on (you see this a lot in police mysteries and revenge stories). For these games, that process is a bit of a necessity – skipping over bits tends to either be impossible (because key information is missing or because key steps are left undone – like missing a target or failing to get proper evidence for a conviction).

It’s easy to characterize that sort of game as railroading, but the reality is it’s just a good match for the game in question. The problem comes when that same model is misapplied, either to adventures where it’s a mismatch (such as objective based ones) or handled poorly.

For an objective based game (rescue the princess, steal the widget), players can easily get frustrated if there is only one path to the objective (especially if that path is kind of stupid). One of the joys of fiction and play is unexpected solutions to sticky problems, and given a clear goal, you can expect players to pursue those unexpected solutions with great vigor. Designing such a game with only one path to success invites frustration, especially if that path is easily circumvented (as in the case of an adventure where players can skip large parts of the middle by flying rather than walking).

That frustration tends to lead to the reason railroading is a pejorative – the bad GMing techniques that emerge when players go off the tracks. When players deviate from the script, the GM can choose to roll with it and see where it goes, but she might also choose to try to force the players back onto the right track by force and trickery. Maybe it’ll be subtle enough to feel organic, but it can escalate pretty easily. The GM’s gentle nudge fails, so it becomes a hint, which becomes a push, which becomes a blatant abuse of authority and things end up feeling crappy for everyone.[1]

Obviously, that’s something to avoid, but that’s not hard – it’s a failure of technique more than anything else. Realizing that you’re setting up a railroad for a situation that is a poor match can save you a ton of hassles down the line and by extension, recognizing the same in published games can save you similar hassles.

In the end, I would advise most GMs to think in terms of roads rather than railroads. Feel free to build in those plot threads and through-lines and have them go interesting places. You and your players will probably find it rewording, and if done well, your players will stick to the roads more often than not. But unlike railroads, there’s no disaster when someone swings off a road in an unexpected direction. The trip may be a bit bumpier, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go someplace cool.

1 – This can happen even when the GM doesn’t have a plot of through-line in mind, and is instead merely thrown off by the players circumventing his brilliant encounters. This is even more petty, and there tends to be a streak of vindictiveness to it as the GM seeks to punish the players for “outsmarting” him. This is not a technique, it’s just being a douche, but enough people have seen it in action that it’s left long scars across the hobby.

9 thoughts on “Roads, Not Railroads

  1. Big Rob

    I see this in the games I run…the novelization of the game..not that I intend on actually writing one, because I don’t have the diligence to do so, but bacause what I’ve dreamed up is really cool in my head and the only way for it to play out “correctly” is to railroad. Sometimes it works, but as you can already guess, many times it doesn’t. And we’ve lost the drive to meet regularly with excitement.

    Recently, my group has moved to SotC in an attempt to break free of the rut we’ve been in for years, but I’ve found myself at a loss for what to do to provide a game they will enjoy playing with the new additional story powers they have.

    Until you mentioned gaming models (mystery, revenge, objective, etc). Do you have a list of these models? Or is there one on a forum or blog you know of?

    I’m not new to gaming, but I’ve never placed games into these definitions and it may be the key to helping my group regain some lost cohesion and excitement. If I can identify the model of game they are looking for, I can better match my planning for it! But without good operational definitions, I’m floundering.

  2. Cam_Banks

    Classic railroad example used by many is Dragonlance, especially the first published module (DL1 Dragons of Despair). Now, most of the module is actually storyline setup and these days isn’t that bad compared to some of the heavyhanded nonsense at the tail end of AD&D 2nd, but one section gets constant mention.

    If you decide to head north on the map, in the direction of the (approaching) Dragonarmies, the module instructs the DM to drop increasingly large numbers of draconian units onto the PCs. They defeat one, and the next group is 2 dracs larger, and so forth. Eventually, the idea is for them to get the hint that they’re walking into a freaking army full of bad guys and should probably turn around and get back to doing what they should be doing.

    To be honest, this is one of those occasions where as strong-armed an approach as this is, I am fairly comfortable with its inclusion in that adventure. It’s no as if it says “you can’t go here,” it’s “are you sure you want to keep pushing at this until you get trampled?” YMMV, but this is an instance where I don’t care how much you like sandboxes.

    I have actually heard of people who let their players go right off the rails in DL adventures, and I even did it myself. But that to me is more of a challenge to a clever DM and not a failure of design.

  3. ZeroGain

    I certainly railroaded in years past, and I’ve experienced it as well. After one particularly harsh experience I came to revise my opinion on dungeons and staged encounters.

    Ready for this? The map is a waste of time.

    What is important is the fun of everyone at the table. If it is critical that the players experience something in your adventure, then put it in front of them. Move it to get in the way.

    Now granted sometimes this is a little difficult, especially if you have something as detailed as those Dragonlance “adventures” (I say with a shudder… I hated those things), but by and large it will work.

    Unfinished dungeons are a thing of the past, set your “rooms” up complete, but have them as replaceable blocks that you can shift in and out.

  4. Codrus

    Good post. I tend to fall into Ken’s camp on this discussion, but then I’m not a fan of directionless sandbox play. Adventures have to have story to put meat on the bones.

    It is definitely possible to take things too far, and over the years I’ve learned a number of techniques and approaches to avoid that. I’m always learning new ones. Off the top of my head:

    1. ‘Railroad’ the situation, but not the result. Ensure that the players can influence the result; this should not be pass/fail.
    2. Talk to the players before “betting big”, to gauge their interest in the story.
    3. Communicate to the players what kind of game they are playing (set expectation).

    From recent game sessions:
    1. The players were expected to crown a new king (with one of 3 magic crowns they’d been given months before). Which crown they used and which candidate they picked were up to them; I explicitly metagamed part of that moment, saying I would change the campaign direction based on their choice.

    More generally, my multisession war plot was less about who would win or lose (both were possible outcomes) but more about who lived, who died, and what happened. Essentially, how the war was fought affects future stories. So the war was there, and some story elements were somewhat fixed, but the players had a lot of room to influence things and to pick story elements that appealed to them.

    2. “The war” was a big plot, with lots of sessions and stories around it, it also could be seen as a big railroad. So while I presented the situation, I also talked with the players above game to make sure they were actually interested in going down this route. If they didn’t want to fight in the war, I’d have moved the war into the background as backdrop for other adventures.

    3. This is really about making sure the players and GM are on the same page about the kind of game they are playing. If I’m running a game that is explicitly high heroic fantasy, ignoring the “save the princess” plot so that you can “rob the merchant” is going in the wrong direction. 🙂 When I have the time to write then, I love pitching the “series bible” — a short document that sets expectations about the campaign. My current game is explicitly in the “high heroic fantasy” model, and everyone buys into that. The characters with less than pure motives end up as “tragic heroes”, rather than “assholes”. 🙂

    One thing that always bugs me about the railroading discussions is that they are completely focused on the GM; in those discussions, it is always the GM’s fault when railroading occurs. Except, bad players are often at fault too! A particularly common and not terribly fun example is the player who actively avoids all possible stories. They go out of their way to spoil a session, to be antagonistic towards the GM and even the other players. They try to make sure their characters have no hooks to ply them with. Every session becomes a fight to get them to actually commit to anything. Uncooperative players are just as frustrating as ramming plots down the players’ throats.

    Overall, my feeling is that bad players and bad GMs breed more of each. A bad GM pushes players to avoid GM plotting/storytelling or to avoid doing anything that can be punished excessively by the GM. A bad player pushes GMs to force the plots down players throats.

    Players and GMs need to build trust that the other isn’t out to screw them over; they are both there for a fun story and great scenes and roleplaying. SOTC’s concessions mechanic really drove that point home for me years ago; a player can offer a concession that comes with just enough narrative control that the game stays very collaborative. (“I’m captured but the villain monologues his plan”). It gives players direct permission to state where they want the story to go.

  5. Codrus

    Oh, I’ve already written too much, but I’d had one point I meant to make.

    Some game systems are relatively easy to run “off the cuff”, with improvised stats and mechanics that encourage such things (e.g. Aspects).

    Other systems require a lot more work to ‘balance’ out challenges to the capabilities of the PCs, because the mechanics are more precise. In D&D 4e, there’s a pretty big difference between an “off the cuff” encounter with improvised monsters and a carefully choreographed set-piece encounter with terrain, interesting NPCs, and story. An organized group of players tears through improvised opposition.

    So I ask: How do the play mechanics affect how likely it is for a GM to railroad a plot? In particular, this is mostly about GM prep time. If it takes a few hours to prepare 2 great encounters and an hour to spell out an interesting NPC in mechanical detail, am I going to push a little harder to make sure those things get used? Sure.

  6. Loyd Diggus

    The major thing I HATE about railroading is in multiple senses it keeps me from PLAYING GAMES!

    Most games involve a randomizer, which is a big source of the fun as it creates the unexpected. Inflexible plots put you directly at odds with this key ingredient of gameness. Guts the spirit of dice rolling.

    Second sense, if I join a new group with a railing GM, I stomach it until I can guest GM. Players once removed from the rails and given freedom, not the illusion of it, don’t want to go back. Now I’ve got to run everytime by group demand. A double edged gratification.

    Two solutions to this MUST be impressed upon the future generations of GMs:

    1. Developing improvizational skills. When developed one can re-skin a circumvented encounter into another achieve the player’s will and fulfilling the GM’s imagination.

    2. Player buy in. I learned this from my first reading of SotC. If players and GM communicate on what they want from a game it makes railroading impossible since the plot conforms to player desire and the GM’s setting is well understood.

    These are the stuff of awesome games.

  7. Troy_Costisick

    Excellent, excellent post, Rob. Robbin and Ken have had to defend GUMSHOE from charges of Railroading ever since it was released. I believe this is for two reasons.

    1) It was presented as a solution to the traditional problems of myster-based games. They intended that to mean the elimination of the “whiff factor.” But, in my experience, most people identify the traditional problem of mystery games as Railroading. GUMSHOE does nothing to address that with its mechanics and, in fact, encourages it.

    2) But actually it doesn’t. GUMSHOE encourages Partisipationism. If your not familiar, that’s an instance where the players know the GM has plotted out a story and are happy to play out that story according to his vision to see where it goes. There’s no force, no manipulation. That’s a very functional type of roleplaying. Unfortunately, Ken and Robbin don’t use that terminology. They keep talking about Railroading, and Ken’s comments just obfuscate the issue even more.




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