Railroading has a bad reputation, but does it mean that the game world’s narrative can never play out without player input?
Railroading is when a game master forces an RPG down a predetermined story path that they’ve already decided the outcome or main beats of – and, as such, it cannot be changed regardless of what the players do.Dicebreaker.com
When most roleplayers think of ‘railroading’, they imagine games they’ve been in or maybe even ran before, and they inwardly recoil in disgust. They remember being taken out of the game as choices they have made have no effect on the world or story they are a part of; or as a GM they recall the sweaty nerves as the published adventure says that something is definitely going to happen, and they are forced to tell their players that ‘no, you couldn’t have stopped this from happening’.
Due to the above, railroading has earned its place on the list of roleplaying mistakes to avoid as you go through your early experiences in the hobby. However, the opposite of railroading is pure simulation – which in itself can be a fun game for the right group – but some players and GMs will also recoil when they think of games that were too open, and the players were left floundering, any forward momentum drained from the campaign. The players stop engaging and the GM is left scratching their head. They were as far from railroading as possible.
Today, I’m going to take a look at railroading as narrative. The narrative is the living world that makes up the adventure setting, which every GM strives for. They want their players’ choices and actions to resonate in the world, but what if the opposite is true – the world’s narrative starts to resonate with the players? The hypothesis of this article is thus: Does the railroading of the world and the narrative, mean the same as the railroading of the characters? Can the game world be on a predetermined path?
Is this Railroading or is this Narrative?
Let us start with a real example from one of my recent sessions, the one that started the landslide of thoughts that culminated into this blog. The players were tasked with gathering a delegation of people to represent the city they were in, in order to venture out and begin peace talks with an external force. Blood had been shed on both sides, tensions were high. Once at the delegation, a faction who are hellbent on bringing about war commit an act that guaranteed the external force would no longer consider peace as an option. The players learn of this act as the rest of the camp do, and must deal with the fallout, and the almost inescapable coming conflict.
The players were split into 3 groups. The first group were dismayed, and felt quite cheated at this. To them, the story was steaming ahead and gave the heroes no chance to circumvent this tragic event from happening – they felt it also undid the work they had accomplished that session (gathering the delegates). This was a predetermined story being laid out with minimal player participation.
The second group really enjoyed the tragic drama of this ‘Red Wedding’ moment in the narrative, and got a kick out of the twist, forcing their characters to adapt to the situation. This was the narrative letting them know that plodding along, ticking all the boxes, and completing the quests was not a guarantee that the world would be all well at all times. There are forces beyond their control that can throw a spanner in the works and catch them off guard. Yes it was predetermined, but how were they supposed to stop it if they didn’t know it was happening?
This is very on theme for a Warhammer campaign, and was genuinely nice to have my expectations subverted and to feel some strong emotions from a RPG, something I haven’t experienced before, which is to be congratulated in itself. Terrific writing.Anonymous second group player
The third group was split – they enjoyed the drama of the situation but also felt a bit cheated too. They saw the event as a ‘fail state’ to the quest, one they could not avoid. If they play and roll well, they should save the day and do what they set out to do. The game forcing a loss onto them for the sake of the story it wants to tell is classic railroading behaviour.
So the group was split: about half the party thought it was too railroad-y, the other half thought the drama it introduced was worth the lack of agency.
Player Agency vs Drama
This is where we come to the crux of the issue: the players who were upset at the lack of agency thought of this event as railroading, because they had no choice in the matter – therefore it is automatically railroading and bad. But, when I thought about how I could avoid this feels-bad moment, what would the alternative look like? In a game that features no railroading, would this mean that the players could never be caught by surprise? That factions couldn’t act out their wills without first having a confrontation with the party? That every move (or Move if you speak PbtA) should be thwartable at some point?
If I were building my own adventure, then it would make sense that cults and organisations with evil intent do keep things as secret as possible, but I would lay some breadcrumbs for players to uncover this with some extra effort. In my game design I like to create mechanics that are fair and indisputable – a ticking clock that results in ever deadly events that the players must race against. This is not railroading because the power is with the players to play well and get the results they deserve. Skipping ahead to the worst case scenario uncoupled from player action wouldn’t be something I’d do, and opens the door to cries of bullshit from the players. But perhaps the fear of railroading is cutting off a section of adventure design that needn’t be.
At the end of the day, I can’t wholly condemn unstoppable events in games. The players must learn that they cannot have eyes on every moving part, and villains will wait patiently for them to be around to stop them. As an aside – and this is a top tip for players from a GM – if you tell or show the GM that your character is really trying to achieve or prevent wrongdoing, they will be much more open to considering that you could lessen any evil that would be going on. This doesn’t mean you are rolling to perceive crime like the fantasy Neighbourhood Watch at all times, but if you have spent valuable game time recruiting delegates for an important peace summit, you could use your not inconsiderable power to play security.
It’s easy to say in hindsight, but it’s a case of thinking ‘what would my character be doing’ rather than waiting for the story to happen to you. The fallacy of railroading is: players will enjoy the ride most of the time, they just don’t like it when the important stuff happens without their inclusion. This is the part of the game that your character sheet can’t help you with – you the player needs to be assessing the situation and making decisions. It’s a lot easier to slip into railroading when the party is just going with the flow, so if you want to be on top of every situation, you should probably play like it.
So which is it?
There is no real right or wrong answer, as every group is different. Each group may have different views on this as my group does – and I’m looking forward to their thoughts on this! I have noticed that players who want to have the dice rolling and beers experience of killing what’s in front of them, completing the tasks which are set, and the heroic victory to be all but assured, are the same players who are uncomfortable with the narrative being uncoupled from their actions. The players who get excited by the possibility of anything happening – including player death – enjoyed the curveball and placed a fire in their collective bellies as their characters reacted to this pivotal moment.
Ultimately my personal feeling is that the world should revolve and there should be factions at work who are not lining up like video game bosses, waiting to be felled by the mighty players. I also feel that, the stronger the players are, the more the GM will have to play against other weaknesses such as, ‘the party can only do so much/be in so many places’, when defeat in battle is unlikely. If the players feel that this is unfair, that is justified but maybe these players would be more suited to adventuring in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage, rather than a more open adventure with multiple moving parts. It seems tautologist to say an open adventure could be more susceptible to railroading, but in the case of the game world, it will absolutely act without player’s input.
To call this type of game event railroading here is, I believe, false. The narrative is not ignoring the player actions and choices; it is instead not opening the door to input on something that is beyond their control. The silver bullet to defeat railroad-calling would be to show how the party failed to stop this due to their decisions (or indecisions), something I will be keen to bake into any future adventures I write. And if they’re still unhappy with taking a loss at all, well the unfortunate reality of a satisfying narrative is that sometimes, the heroes have to lose.
If you’ve gotten to the end, thank you for reading! If you’re interested in similar articles, my failing forward article has more on how player failure can generate more drama in your games.