With your first session of your new game underway, I figured we could put that series to rest and move on to other things. Lately, in several online venues, I've seen a lot of discussion about Railroading, what it is, and whether or not it is a good or bad thing. Today, I wanted to break down my view on it, explain why, and perhaps open up the discussion on whether railroading is a trouble sign, or just another tactic and tool in the good GM's repertoire.
What Is Railroading?
Railroading, at its most simple, is any time when the plot or sequence of events in a game goes from Point A to Point B with no ability on the player's behalf to change the outcome. It is called Railroading because the plot is "on rails" and thus can only go in one direction.
Why Is Railroading Bad?
Railroading is said to be bad because it removes player agency in a game. Since the players can't do anything to change the outcome of a railroaded string of events - those against railroading say - there is no point in it being part of the game. Ultimately, the idea is that things that remove choice are bad, and things that improve choice are good.
Railroading Sounds Boring
This is often a tied on claim. However, I would point out that a railroaded plot is not necessarily unfun. Roller Coasters are also on rails, and can be quite exhilerating. Bioware has made several series of very popular and beloved games where the plot is on rails, but they obfuscate those rails so well and tell such a good story with those rails that everyone loves it. Don't believe me? Play Mass Effect and try to run as contrary to the game as you can. No matter what you do, say, or choose, Shepard will move forward through the plot. Your only choice to stop that is to simply not play or to only engage in the limited amount of side content there which is not particularly well developed and also just as linear.
Trouble or Tactic?
I'd like to posit that I don't think Railroading is a bad or troublesome thing in and of itself. I know several GMs who run very linear type games, and they have player groups that not only have a blast in those games but have actually gone to extreme lengths in real life to keep the game going. If the group is having fun, then the game is going well. That said, many players chafe when their agency is removed and rightly so. RPGs are supposed to be a collaborative thing and when the ability for a player to impact the game is removed, well, you can have problems.
In this regard, I would say that excessive railroading is bad, but you can use it to actually enhance your game.
When Is Railroading Good?
There are two places where Railroading is almost always an ok thing to have in your game.
The first point is in the beginning of the game. When you are getting the group together, getting them on track, and geting them on their first quest a little railroading is perfectly fine. The idea here is to get the game going so that the players can do their thing, but for that to happen the game has to be going.
The second point is any time the players choose to step into a metaphorical rail cart. This one is trickier, but sometimes your players will set up situations where there really is only one way for things to play out. If the PCs have spent months belittling, insulting, and endangering a king there likely isn't much they can do to dissuade that king from going to war shy of killing him...at which point the kingdom will likely go to war even harder to avenge their ruler and not appear weak.
When Is Railroading Bad?
Railroading is not bad in a situation to situation sense. Like I said above, sometimes there really is only one way things can break down. However, when you go long stretches of time/plot devices where the PCs have no ability to change things then you have a problem. RPGs are about the PCs remember, and as the main characters they should have agency. The world should be reacting to them just as much, if not more so, as they react to the world.
A little railroading here and there isn't a problem. Sometimes crap happens, and as long as you're open about it with your players they won't mind. However, there needs to be times when they can make a difference and change things.
How Do I Let My Players Know The Consequences?
The best way to let your players see when they had agency is to show them how things relate. This can be done easily through discussion either at the table or about the game. For example, in my L5R game I've referenced some big actions my PCs did "recently" when explaining NPC reactions. It shows them that their choice, what they did, and how they played out that scenario matters. Sometimes it has helped them. In other places it has hindered them. They've definitely begun to feel the cross hairs on their backs because of it.
Letting your players know why things happen - especially when they're the reason why - can be a great way to show the agency they've had, which in turn will help them see how their choices matter going forward.