Sunday, February 5, 2012

Oh, the Horrors of Railroading

I am continually amazed that one of the most popular topics to discuss on RPG message boards is the subject or "railroading". Railroading is a pejorative term used to describe a style of running a game in which the sequence of events which the characters face and the results of those events are to various degrees controlled by the Game Master. That is for example, if a GM decides that he doesn't want the PCs to be able to kill a bad guy at their current stage of the adventure, and so makes doing so impossible, it is considered a railroad by some. If a GM designed an encounter and eliminates all options for the PCs to avoid it, it is considered a railroad by some.

The degree and range of what players consider railroads varies widely. I've seen players describe impassable topography as "railroading". What is perfectly acceptable underground... corridors and locked doors that limit options... above ground (impassible mountains, lakes of lava) become railroads. Dragonlance is derided as the pinnacle of railroading.

Frankly, I find it all a bit bewildering. Not so much that this poster or that on an online forum have their opinions. I mean geez, we are a peculiar lot, and probably give WAY more thought into the complexities of playing tabletop RPGs than 90 percent of players you will actually ever meet at a table. But it is like if you choose to be in the least bit a "story driven" GM, that somehow you are not only maligning the reputation of the entire hobby, but that your contagion might make it way over to their very table, and destroy their ability to ever enjoy the game again.

People like their "mega-dungeons". They like their "emergent stories". And for every descriptor you can give a game, there is a wide array of individual instances and exceptions to what people actually mean when they use these terms. For me as a player, I tend to hate it when there isn't a clear goal for a party to undertake. I don't like wandering around in game worlds looking for something to do, and am given two or three options, all of which equally don't have anything to do with my character and his personal motivations.

I like a big red sign that says "THIS WAY TO YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE!".

And I like to have a reason for adventuring besides "killing stuff and getting gold".

As a GM, I play as much for my own enjoyment as for the camaraderie around the table. I like running adventures the way I like running adventures. I've always been lucky to find players that liked my GM style. But I'd rather not GM, than GM in a way that is fun for others, but boring for myself. I am not a public servant.

So to all the GMs out there, whatever your style; don't be apologetic. Don't let anyone tell you you are doing it wrong. Hopefully, you will find players that dig your style. Maybe you don't even know what your style is, and will experiment with a variety of approaches... from "railroad" to "sandbox" to "rules as written" to flying by the seat of your pants. And hopefully, you will find players who appreciate your particular brand of zaniness. Because no matter what, we have a zany hobby. And no amount of rationalization can deny THAT!


  1. I think it's often difficult to discuss these issues as people feel strongly about it based on personal experiences and those personal experiences differ. I would say most games I've played in contained incidents or elements I've heard decried on the internet as funcrushing railroading, but I didn't experience them that way at all. By contrast, I've heard people describe game experiences that sound horribly unfun as they were forced to suffer through a gm's novelistic pretensions.

    I suspect really strict guidelines on what's acceptable and what's not is more important when playing with strangers. Friends have already sort of internalizes each other's playstyles and seem more forgiving.

  2. Nicco - I agree 100% with your post. I feel the same way. It just comes down to what people enjoy. I don't mind feeling "railroaded" if it means there's a purpose, a plot, and a story. Frankly, I don't consider "story" a bad word.

    Also, if that same DM who decries railroading spends many hours putting together a "COOL MEGADUNGEON," how's he going to feel if the players say "nah, I don't want to go there." Life is busy. We all have responsibilities. Nobody wants to spend 20 hours designing something that won't be used and enjoyed. I think we're all guilty to an extent of pushing the direction of the campaign in certain ways.

    With that being said, as long as everyone is having fun then the game is beyond reproach.

    Trey - I agree with your comments. My friends have never said "Hey, dude. Quit railroading us." They're just psyched that I put a dungeon together. :)

  3. I would say that railroading actually doesn't have anything to do with story as such. Instead, it has to do with whether player choice matters. And it doesn't even have to matter all the time for an adventure to not be a railroad. It just has to matter some of the time. Example: two forks in the road, both lead to the same clearing with the same ogre. Clearly a railroad (maybe not a problem even for those obsessed with player agency as long as it doesn't happen all the time). And not a problem at all if everyone is having fun. But the dimension of time is important here. Most players I know are fine with doing what the referee wants some or most of the time. As you say, it's awesome enough that someone took the time to put together a dungeon. But they would get irritated if nothing they did had any impact on the overall direction of the campaign or setting.

    Another example: PCs are being tracked by an assassin. The assassin is going to choose the time of the confrontation baring some crazy paranoid player planning. Railroad? I don't think so. Unless the party does nothing but confront assassins that decide when and where they are going to strike.

    There is obviously a spectrum here. Some players want all their choices to be meaningful. That may not be realistic based on the skill and prep time a referee has available. From my point of view, the important thing to note here is not that there is right or wrong way to play, but that D&D has certain capabilities that other media do not. For example, books and movies are linear. Video games must plan exact possibilities. Only tabletop RPGs have such potential freedom. You can have fun playing tabletop RPGs without using all their capabilities (and sometimes it is practical to do so), but why limit yourself artificially? That is why I try to avoid railroading.