On Railroading

What is railroading?  If you’ve ever played or run an RPG, you have come into contact with railroading in one form or another.  For the purposes of this article, I will define railroading as follows: Actions taken by the GM that propel characters in a certain direction.

If you’ve heard the word before, it likely had a negative connotation.  The term “railroading” is usually used when players are being directed into a single course of action, usually against their instincts or wishes.  For example, several years ago, I was playing in a D&D game run by a friend of mine.  The party was in a mine, unable to continue forward because of a strange fungus on the floor that acted like quicksand.  We were brainstorming creative solutions to the problem at hand, but the GM rejected each one, hinting that one of our party members had a solution.  What we did not know was, when heated, the fungus hardened.  The GM intended the druid to heat the mine cart tracks, hardening the fungus, and allowing us to proceed.

Unsurprisingly, nobody thought of that.  The party was frustrated, and felt railroaded (with the negative connotation) because all the other creative solutions were rejected before they were attempted.  Whenever this comes up, I am reminded of a quote from a book called “Tunnel in the Sky,” by Robert A. Heinlein, in which he introduces a technology for traveling great distances instantaneously:

…intelligence can find solutions where there are none.  Psychologists once locked an ape in a room, for which they had arranged only four ways of escaping.  They spied on him to see which of the four he would find.
The ape escaped a fifth way.

The point of all this being, of course, that there is always another way.  Whether you are the GM or a player, there is always something you haven’t thought of, something that hasn’t occurred to you, that can solve the issue at hand.  Even if that solution is “more explosives.”

Now, if you are a GM, you know the plot of your own adventure.  You know everything going on behind the scenes, every NPC’s true motivation, every villain’s evil plot, and every enemy’s stats.  However, never, EVER presume to know your player’s minds.  You may be pushing them in a particular direction through the use of the Plot Bat, but never tell your players what to do or how to feel.  Let them worry about playing their own characters, and you worry about everything else.

Always remember the magical words “Yes, and…”.  These two words should define you as a GM.  If a player comes up with something you hadn’t planned for (and they will), roll with it.  If they want to zip-line over to the building they need to be in from an adjacent building, break out some stock security guard stats and have a shootout in the hallways, then have someone caught on camera, setting up a “run from the cops” adventure.  If an NPC turns out to have more of a personality than you thought he would, write down his name, give him stats, and bring him back in the future.

The reason the words “Yes, and…” are so important is that the draw of PnP games, apart from social interaction, is the freedom they offer; freedom that will never be matched in video games.  Because the players have a human arbiter, they won’t ever have to be slaves to the frustrating conventions of video game rpg’s.  Because there is a GM, they can blow the Yellow Door right off it’s goddamn hinges, instead of having a tedious fetch quest for the Yellow Key.  If an NPC dies during an escort quest, they don’t reload a previous save, they deal with the consequences.

It’s when a GM forces the players to find the Yellow Key, or gives the NPC Plot Armor (making the NPC unkillable), that the term “Railroading” gains it’s negative connotation.  The GM may have designed the scenario, but he is not the story’s author; the players share that role with him.  The GM may narrate the plot, but the players give it life, inject the human element, and above all, make it fun.  If you ever utter the phrase “No, you can’t do that”, unsupported by the dice, you are doing it wrong.

I talked about the Plot Bat earlier.  The Plot Bat is my term for steps the GM takes to move the story along, and yes, it is a railroading device.  I use it when the players are at risk of becoming stagnant, or getting bored.  For example, I recently ran a homebrew game of my own design, in which the players were attempting to survive the apocalypse in Downtown Manhattan. They’d already been through trains filled with madmen, subway tunnels, and a frantic run through the car-choked streets, complete with exploding gas mains, and had managed to make it to the bar one of the players owned for a breather.  Once they’d had an appropriate amount of time to get each other’s names and drink a beer, I saw that a bit more panic was called for if they were ever going to cross the bridge and meet the Latin Kings, the only small block of order in a panicked city.  So, earthquake to the rescue!  Now the bar is in danger of falling into a fissure in the earth, and the players have to escape.

Is that railroading?  Yes.  Yes it certainly is.  But nobody minded.  The difference between that and negative railroading is it’s all in-game consequences for in-game actions.  It would be natural for the players to try and hole up somewhere, but for the sake of the plot, I needed to get them moving.  I didn’t say they couldn’t go to the bar, but the Plot Bat said they couldn’t stay.  For someone watching the movie of the adventure (and I’m always watching it in my head as it progresses), spending hours in a bar with the apocalypse happening outside is boring; being pressed into semi-military service by the leader of the Latin Kings and having a shootout with the cops at Yankee stadium, now that’s interesting.

Railroading, like many other things, can be both constructive and destructive, fun and frustrating.  Always remember, we game to have fun, not to roll dice and do math, and as long as everyone is having fun, whatever the GM and players are doing is working.  If everyone is enjoying themselves, railroad away.  To quote an anonymous source:

Nobody minds railroading when the scenery is candy and the destination is awesometown.

[tags]rpg, railroading, players[/tags]

3 thoughts on “On Railroading

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  1. In my last group my Paladin tried to get out of some railroading. It ended with him being bonded with some demon insect armor… after the removal of his internal organs. I guess some DMs are more attached to their railroad than others.

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  2. Oh god, this reminds me of a DM who railroaded, but *without* the plot bat. We spent 4 *sessions* just wandering around, trying to find freaking cut scene to move the story forward. It got to the point where I was doing very stupid things to just make something happen. It didn’t have to be a good thing, just make it seem like there is some consequence to my actions. It was horrible.

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