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All Aboard! Railroading in Tabletop Games

Railroading is a term used to describe instances where a group of players are put on a specific track by the Games Master (GM), where they lose a lot of the free-will and agency that their characters should have. The term comes from the idea that trains are bound to their rails and can really only move forward or backward, but never laterally. Trains have specific departures and destinations, meaning that you can’t stop wherever you want to visit the World’s Largest Ball of Yarn or the Biggest Skillet West of the Mississippi.

Now, a tabletop campaign may not be akin to a cross-country road trip, but it is important for the players to retain their ability to do whatever they want. Not without consequence, of course

However, if the players want to spend some time outfitting a fortress, starting a small business, or just venturing out to a secluded area to relax from the constant stress of battles, they should certainly be able to put the greater campaign on hold to accomplish those goals. The world isn’t going to stand still while they are out gallivanting, and the Big Bad will certainly be building up their forces, putting additional plans in motion, etc. As a GM, you should be taking care of that stuff off-screen while you estimate the time that the party is spending on their extra-curricular activities.

That being said, it is incredibly important that before starting a campaign that the group discusses what they want to get out of the game. Do they want to manage a kingdom, essentially performing accounting and forecasting for grain yields and military costs? Would they rather run a gauntlet of battles and focus on combat? Do they have an interest in character development and role-play? 

As long as the group agrees on the answers these questions before the campaign begins, everyone should get more enjoyment out of each session and the GM knows what to prepare. If you have a group that wants to hack ‘n slash until the cows come home, then the GM shouldn’t be throwing them into a campaign centered around diplomacy in the King’s court. Know your players!

dnd at dragon*con
That’s headless Clave in the background.

Building a D&D Railroad

So, how does railroading manifest in a game? Here are some common pitfalls that GMs can fall into.

Story Time

Many times, as GMs, we may have an overall story that we’re trying to tell with the players, but we can get wrapped up in the telling of that story instead of allowing the players more leeway into how the story unfolds. If the entire story is written out ahead of time, there’s no room for the players to contribute to it. 

That’s a problem. 

Instead, we can have a more general synopsis of how the story might unfold. For example, the focus of a campaign might be stopping a tyrant who is rising in power. It might start out dealing with local henchmen who are employed by the tyrant through a complex network of higher-ups. 

The goal would be to have the party work up through the ranks to learn more about the tyrant’s identity and uncover a plot or coup. However, the party could find out more about him through different events like township raids, poisoning attempts, mysterious wizards, etc. 

There should always be more than one way to reach the goal, so entice the players with multiple options using plot hooks.

A Tale of Two Paths

How many times has it happened where the party is walking along a forest highway where there are confronted with two paths? Left or right. Each path should lead to somewhere else, but it is easy for the GM to have them both lead to the same destination because the players will be none the wiser. 

Even though the players won’t know, the issue lies with giving them a choice that essentially doesn’t matter. If both paths lead to the same place, then don’t offer the choice to begin with (author’s note – if the path forks but comes back together before the destination, then that’s a different story). 

As a GM, we shouldn’t be giving choices if the decision itself doesn’t matter. Two paths should result in two scenarios.

The Disappearing Man 

In order to introduce the party to the Big Bad, GMs like to let the players experience the ‘final boss’ in the beginning of the story. There’s nothing wrong with this – it can be helpful for the players to know what they’re up against and it really grants an insight into the character pulling the strings. 

What if, however, the players get incredibly lucky and successfully land a sleep spell or trap the Big Bad? GMs need to prepare for these possibilities, and not just give the Big Bad a new ability on the spot to be immune to sleep effects. Doing this will take the thrill of success away from the players and make it seem like they can’t affect the story. 

So, what do we do if the Big Bad is captured? Surely there will be a loyal henchman who will coordinate a rescue, throwing all available resources to have their boss back home, safe and sound.  

Adventure Path Rigidity

I am a huge fan of running modules and Adventure Paths; everything is right there at your disposal – NPCs, Settings, Plot Info. It’s great! 

However, don’t forget that the adventure can be altered and changed depending on what the players do. They might skip an entire section by accident or do things ‘out of order’ (which shouldn’t really be a phrase used in campaigns). 

Pre-written campaigns tend to be more railroad-y than normal, simply because of their nature of being a self-contained story. If your players want to visit a cave before they’re ‘supposed to’ you can’t just put a big boulder blocking the path and have it mysteriously rolled away after they have satisfied some prerequisite. 

If you want to lead your players in a certain direction, that’s perfectly fine. You can give them incentive to go a certain way or peak their intrigue through use of an NPC or event. 

In a haunted dungeon? Maybe there are some rattling bones beckoning the party from a certain room. Out in the forest? Something could rustle a nearby bush. There are always ways to lead breadcrumbs without forcing the party to go a certain way.

Fear of Failure

I’m a firm believer that every dice roll should have meaning and there should be consequences for every action. If there isn’t the threat of players to fail, then the dice rolls lose their purpose. 

For example, if a player rolls an adjusted 1 on a Climb check, but you say that you just don’t get up right away without any real consequence, then the dice roll doesn’t matter to begin with. You might as well not have the roll at all

Instead, there should be a reaction – maybe the player suffers a sprained ankle and has their speed halved for the day, or some rocks come loose and fall on the player below them. 

At the same time, having a player roll a Climb check every ten feet for a 200-ft climb is a slog that severely slows down the pace at the table. Instead, maybe try incorporating the percentile dice in combination with their roll to speed up the process.

Now, this is a bit different than having a player roll for something even though you know that the result won’t matter. For example, a player may want to do a Perception check to see if they find a clue. 

You, as the GM, know that even a max roll won’t uncover anything, but you should still let the player roll because if they roll low, then they really don’t know if they missed something or not. A high roll tells them that nothing noteworthy is there. 

If players want to make a roll, let them, but the GM shouldn’t force them to make a roll if the result doesn’t matter.

Choo, Choo, Choose Your Adventure

It can be very easy to get attached to the rails, but unless it’s something that your players WANT, then we should do our best to stay off them. I’ve been a part of groups where we had limited time to game, so we preferred to play through a pre-written module and be more plot-driven so that we could experience the story. 

Our very own Clave has written another great article on the subject of railroads that you should check out to get a different perspective. We share the same belief that adventures should have a framework and not be entirely open-ended. Unless, of course, that’s the kind of game that you want to play.

If rails are what your players crave, then by all means throw some fuel into the tinder box! In any case, let the players do what they want, but react to their actions by presenting consequences, good or bad.

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