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Angry Rants: Railroading

You know what really pisses me off? The phrase “railroading.” Holy s$&% is this phrase overused. It seems like it’s become a generic insult for a DM. The word has lost all meaning. Accusing a DM of railroading has become the equivalent of saying “you’re a big ole bed-wetting doody head!”

Now, I want to be absolutely clear that I don’t like actual railroading. Actual railroading is s$&% DMing. Any DM who railroads the players is completely missing the f$&%ing point of role-playing games. The problem is that most people don’t know what railroading really is anymore and they don’t understand that there are different types of freedom.

All Aboard the Plot Railroad

SO, what is railroading? Really? For the uninitiated, people generally use railroading to refer to a DM refusing to allow the players to deviate from the planned course of action. Suppose, for example, the DM plans out an adventure wherein the party has to confront Awesome Jack, the Most Awesome Villain ever. In the first encounter, the DM plans for the party to be ambushed by Awesome Jack, nearly killed, and forced to allow Jack to escape. Now, the clever party suspects they are walking into an ambush and takes some pretty good precautions. The DM decides these precautions have no chance of working because he has already decided the party must walk into an ambush. The party is ambushed. Later on, they realize Jack is going to escape and they manage to cut off his escape with a powerful spell. The DM decides the spell fails or Jack can dispel the spell. Why? Because Jack must get away. That’s the plan. And that’s railroading.

In that situation, it’s pretty easy to see what railroading is. The player’s choices have NO impact on the game. Nothing they decide, nothing they plan can alter the course of the events that the DM has set down. For all intents and purposes, it’s as if the players are stuck on a train, following the tracks the DM has already laid down. And it’s pretty obvious why that’s a problem. I’ve said it before, and now I’m saying it again, and I’m going to keep saying it until it penetrates your thick cranium: a role-playing game is about making decisions. It’s about choices. Take away the choices, you’ve taken away the point.

The trouble is, over time, the definition of railroading has gotten very broad. And I see it most often flung at one DM by another DM. A DM might describe an adventure they ran in which the party had to do A, B, and C to defeat an ancient evil and another DM screams that he’s railroading his players because he dared to plan out the three things that would spell the defeat of the ancient evil. I, myself, have been accused of railroading because I’ve run a number of mystery adventures in which I knew the solution to the mystery and the players had no power to change the actual answer. And most toxic of all, I’ve seen DMs use railroading to explain why their personal style of game prep or improvisation or whatever is the only right way. “If you run a dungeon crawl, you’re railroading!” “A linear adventure is just a railroad!” “If you plan anything before the adventure starts, you’re railroading!” “Anything other than a sandbox is a railroad!” And this s$&% has to stop.

The Many Faces of Freedom

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Even the best frequently get confused about this whole railroading thing.

Railroading is actually far, far, FAR more uncommon than the shrieking ninnies of the internet gaming community would have you believe. And part of the reason for that is that railroading is actually subjective. You can’t identify railroading unless you’re playing the game. Because railroading is a matter of perception. Railroading occurs when the players feel that they don’t have any power to impact the game. That is, they feel trapped and unable to make decisions. But just because a game is linear in nature, that doesn’t make it a railroad.

The reason is that freedom of choice comes in a number of flavors and different people function well with different types of freedom. For example, some people are happy enough with the cherry flavored freedom that comes with deciding how to engage a problem. This is the sort of freedom that you have when you are presented with an obstacle and your choices determine whether you circumvent the obstacle and how well you do. For example, when a fight breaks out, you get to pick your own tactics and strategies, and the quality of the strategy you choose determines whether you win and how many hit points and spells and healing potions you have left when you’re done.

A further example of the same type of freedom is when you have to confront an obstacle that can be dealt with a number of different ways. For example, you could beat up the bouncer at the club, you could trick him, you could bribe him, you could get him fired, you could get him arrested, you could create a distraction and sneak past him, and so on. Each one of those approaches carries its own risks and consequences. By choosing an approach, you are affecting the game.

Now, you can build an adventure that is nothing more than a string of those sorts of encounters, an obstacle course, and you’re still not building a railroad because the players’ choices still affect the outcome.

Of course, there are other types of freedom. For example, if there are multiple paths to a goal, you have the refreshing, lemon-lime flavor of choosing your battles, so to speak. You decide what problems to engage with. You choose your path to the goal. And then there’s also the, grapity purple flavor of choosing your own goals. Maybe you could explore that ancient temple for treasure or you could go to the oddly misnamed Tower of the Goblins and kill the lizardfolk who have been harrying the local farmers. Or you could just up and leave and head for some other city. Or you could just pick a direction on the map and wander and see what’s there. And that’s where you find your sandboxes and your hex crawls and all your other stupid jargon that refers to games in which the players choose the goals from a big, open world.

None of these styles of gameplay is inherently superior. They appeal to different player types and different DMing styles because they are fundamentally different to run and play. Some groups are fans of what I call the “d$&^ing around game” where there really isn’t any sort of defined goal, but rather the players just sort of d$^k around and get up to mischief and the DM just responds to whatever they do.

Agency: How Much is Enough

Ultimately, when we talk about player freedom, what we’re really referring to is “agency.” That is to say, how much power over the course of the game do the player’s decisions actually have. But, the thing is, every role-playing game needs at least a minimum level of player agency. You can’t take it all away. That’s where railroading actually happens. But once you’ve granted a minimum level of agency, there is no optimal amount. It’s always going to vary. And, while some DMs err on the side of giving “as much agency as they possibly can because more freedom is always better,” that’s as dangerous as giving too little agency.

To some extent, agency is actually a detriment to the game. I know this is a controversial statement, but it’s only controversial because it’s true. A game in which the players have complete and total agency is one in which absolutely nothing is planned. The players decide everything, what goals to pursue, where and how they pursue them, and so on. The DM is completely unprepared and completely reactionary. And that is a remarkably hard game to play and to run. While a very small number of players thrive in such an open-ended environment, most just feel lost and goalless. And most DMs, in that environment, function in sort of a constant state of low-level panic knowing they have to improvise absolutely everything and make it good.

Like so many things, agency is a spectrum. Either extreme is no good. The best answer is somewhere in the middle and it lies at a different middle point for every group. And the DM and the players both have needs that tug them in different directions along the spectrum. SO, ultimately, finding the right level of agency is a matter of finding a fine balance.

Because the resulting answer to the question of “how much agency should the players have” is always going to be “exactly as much agency as they need to feel like they have agency.” Again, people will disagree, but people always disagree with me and that doesn’t change the fact that I’m right.

Finding the Right Middle Ground

Actually, given that answer, it is impossible to figure out the proper level of agency for your game to include. It’s not even the sort of thing you can really discuss because people are bad at knowing what game they actually want until they are playing it. So, I’m going to give you the best advice I can give you about railroading. If railroading is a thing that worries you, and I know it worries a lot of DMs, if it worries you: stop worrying about it. Seriously. Stop. Just don’t worry about it.

Run the game you are comfortable running with the style of play you are comfortable with and the level of preparation and planning that makes you feel the most at ease. And then just ask your players if they are having fun every couple of weeks. Ask if they are enjoying things. If they are going along with what you do and they are coming back every week and they are having a good time, you’re not railroading. You’ve probably found the sweet spot. But, if they start to rebel, if they start to d%^k around and mess with you and it seems like they are just trying to break things, they probably need a little more freedom. Give them some more choices to make. Ask them what goals their characters would like to be pursuing.

And never, ever, EVER accuse another DM of railroading unless you’ve actually sat at that table and played that game. Otherwise you deserve to be beaten unconscious with a first edition copy of The Three Railway Engines by Reverend Wilbert Awdry and left tied to a track on the Isle of Sodor. Seriously. I will find you and do it myself.

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  1. […] called “On Railroading” The justice it deserves. At best, it would be a parroting of Angry DM’s Angry Rant: Railroading. And, honestly, if you care enough, just go read it yourself. It’s […]

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