If railroading is bad, then leaving things wide open must be good, right? After all, the reason that railroading is considered a bad thing is because it removes player agency and denies the players a chance to have an impact on the game and its story. Unfortunately, this isn't as black and white a situation as it first appears to be. Today, I want to talk about that.
Choice Without Guidelines
Ever have someone ask you what you want to do for dinner only to find your mind is a blank slate? For most people that I know this happens fairly regularly. If someone asks what the other wants for dinner, the usual answer is "I don't know." However, if the question is "Do you want Pork or Chicken for dinner?" the answer is more likely to be one of those things. Sometimes the answer is neither, but even then that is an answer of a sorts, right?
The reason for this is because free from any boundaries people can have a hard time settling on an option. This is something that commercials, television, videogames, and the web capitalize on. They offer easy to do time absorbing things that kind of lull you into a vegetative state until you realize that you not only didn't do any of the things you needed to do, but it is 4 am.
Paths of Least Resistance
The human animal is inherently a lazy creature. Left to our own devices we take the path of least resistance. Ever eat cold pizza? Congratulations, you've taken the path of least resistance to do something. The people who said no very likely don't enjoy cold pizza. It's not that they're less inclined to take the easy path, but that the problem of re-heating the pizza is actually easier to resolve than eating something they don't like.
What does this have to do about freedom of choice in RPGs? In most games the expectation is that the GM provides the situation, the player reacts to the situation, and you go from there. This puts the burden of work onto the GM. They have to provide the world, the setting, the bad guys, etc. However, when you put no boundaries on the players you put this burden on them. Now they have to decide where they are going to go, what they are going to do, and how they are going to get started on the game. Faced with that choice, and inclined to paths of least resistance as we are, this can make for trying experiences in games where the PCs avoid interactoin with people, do random things, and generally give trouble a wide berth.
Take Charge Players Required
In short, what I am trying to say with this post is not that open choice is a bad thing for your game, but that you need to understand what it can do. Some people freeze up when given a choice without boundaries, the limitless options just kind of overwhelms them. Others simply don't want to be responsible for the direction a game goes in, or want the call to adventure to be a little more insistent about you opening the door.
On the other hand, if you have a more take charge group of players this can be amazing. If your players know what they want to do, where they want to go, and what they want to confront you won't have much problem doing this. You can just plop them down in the town square and watch as they gear up then head off on whatever quest they have in mind.
For less take charge players, you may need a little bit more urging and some waypoint signs.