Railroading

meaning and definition

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    What is railroading?

    Railroading in roleplaying games (RPGs) refers to when the game master (GM) constrains players’ choices, requiring them to follow a specific, predetermined path in the story.

    This method restricts player agency and freedom, two things considered central to the roleplaying experience.

    Although sometimes necessary to maintain narrative coherence or pace, railroading is generally viewed negatively by players who feel their characters’ decisions should significantly impact the game’s direction.

    Railroading has been a part of roleplaying games since their inception, primarily as a tool for GMs to manage complex narratives and guide players through crafted plots. It can occur in tabletop games, as well as text-based games with a strong storytelling element, such as RP MUDs and MUSHes.

    The term “railroading” reflects the idea of being on a train track—unable to deviate from the set course. It became more prominent as games evolved to emphasize player agency and narrative flexibility.


    Railroading FAQs

    What are some signs that a GM is railroading?

    Signs of railroading include the GM frequently negating player decisions, creating scenarios where only one solution is feasible, or dismissing inventive solutions offered by players that deviate from the GM’s prepared plot. A feeling of frustration among players, sensing that their choices do not matter, is a strong indicator of railroading.

    How can GMs avoid railroading in a game?

    GMs can avoid railroading by planning flexible plot points rather than fixed outcomes, encouraging player creativity, and being open to the story developing in unexpected directions. Effective communication about game expectations and incorporating elements from players’ backstories can also enhance shared narrative creation.

    See: How to be a better Game Master: 10 tips.

    Why do some GMs resort to railroading?

    Some GMs resort to railroading to ensure that the game covers certain narrative arcs or meets specific thematic goals. Particularly in story-driven campaigns or scenarios with complex plots, GMs might feel railroading is necessary to keep the game on track and ensure that all necessary story elements are explored.

    What is the difference between strong guidance and railroading?

    Strong guidance involves the GM leading players through a narrative with suggestions and prompts while still allowing their decisions to influence the outcome significantly. In contrast, railroading disregards players’ choices in favor of a predetermined outcome, with little regard for player agency.

    Can railroading ever be a positive thing?

    Occasionally, railroading can be positive, especially for new players who might feel overwhelmed by too many choices or for maintaining pace in a limited-time session. In these cases, a slight nudge towards a coherent story helps players learn the game mechanics and enjoy a satisfying narrative experience.

    Myths about railroading

    One common myth is that all forms of GM guidance are forms of railroading. Not all structured storytelling is railroading; true railroading only occurs when players’ choices are rendered meaningless.

    Another misconception is that railroading is always an outcome of poor game mastering. Sometimes, railroading can stem from a misunderstanding between players and the GM regarding the campaign’s nature.

    Railroading examples

    • In a fantasy RPG, the GM disregards a player’s clever plan to negotiate with the bandits, insisting on a pre-scripted ambush that leads to combat, regardless of the player’s decisions.
    • During a mystery-themed session, the GM ignores various clues provided by the players that could lead to different suspects, funneling them towards the only “true” perpetrator they had planned.
    • A science fiction campaign features a plot-critical planet. Despite the players’ desire to explore other locations, the GM consistently steers events to ensure landing on that specific planet.
    • In an adventure game, a player’s decision to forge an alliance with a rival faction is overlooked, with the GM narratively enforcing enmity to maintain the story’s predetermined course.

    Related terms

    • plot
    • RP hooks
    • storytelling

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    About the author

    Andruid is a writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. "Be excellent to each other."