D&D 5E Railroading - Building a common definition

Stalker0

Legend
Having recently debated whether railroads are "good" or "bad", inevitably the issue becomes that people don't have a common definition of what a railroad actually is. So...lets see what we can do about that.

In this thread, I am going to try to define a railroad, and then based on feedback, refine it to a rigorous point. Note that I am NOT defining railroad in a way that is necessarily "bad" in all cases, just that have a suitable definition from which to debate.

To define a scenario as a Railroad, it has the following properties:

Railroad Definition 1: Invalidation of Player Choice
  • The Dungeon Master (DM) has presented their players with a choice. This choice is:
    • Explicit: there is some specific mechanical change to the story that will result from this choice.
    • Impactful: that the mechanical change to the story has an impact or at least the potential of impact as to how the story unfolds.
  • Regardless of what the player's choose, the explicit consequences or Impact (outlined in point 1) is determined by the DM's decision instead of the player's choice.
  • The player's knowledge of the DM's determination is inconsequential to the definition.
Railroad Definition 2: Denial of Character Mechanics
  • The DM presents a scenario that only works by ignoring or adjusting character abilities outside of the story context, without the player's knowledge or consent.
  • This definition applies even in the event that a random roll was required, but the DM predetermines the result of that roll.
Railroad Definition 3: Unjustified Change in DM Adjudication
  • The DM provides a consistent method of adjudication on a particular topic, to the point where that style become a player expectation.
  • The style is then changed outside of story context, to enforce a predetermined condition.
Railroad Definition 4: Invalidation of PC motivation
  • The DM provides story conditions that are anathema to the motivations of a PC, to the point where the PC could not justify going along with those story conditions.
  • The DM and PC are unable to reconcile the issue in story, and the DM requires the PCs cooperation to continue the story.
  • This definition is invalid over story conditions imposed in Session 0, aka if a PC creates motivations anathema to what the DM has defined in session 0, this definition does not apply.

So from this definition, we can look at certain scenarios and defined whether they are a railroad or not.

Scenario 1
A character picks out a random NPC to talk to, hoping to get some information. Regardless of what the PC says or rolls, the NPC is unable to provide them this information.

R/NR: Not a Railroad. The DM at no point implied that the NPC had mechanic impact to the story, and so there is no story weight to the PCs choice. The choice never had a mechanical consequence to begin with, and so not a railroad.

Scenario 2
The players are presented with two doors, and through description believe one of them is a safe path, while the other one is a nasty trap. Regardless of which door the players choose, the DM decides not to hit them with a trap.

R/NR: Railroad. Because the players were under the belief that they had been presented a choice of consequence, and that specifically the consequence was finding or avoid danger, than the DM self-determination that no trap existed was a form of railroading.

Scenario 3
The DM provides the players two paths to follow. They note that the second path is twice the length of the first one (and their mission is on a time crunch), and that there are rumors of bandit raids on the first path. The DM has a bandit raid planned for whichever way the players go, and depending on how much time is spent on the path, the DM will adjust certain encounters later in the adventure.

R/NR: Not a railroad. Ultimately the only explicit consequence to the player's choice was the time it would take for the player's to get to the next section. While there was some an implicit presentation that the second path might be safer, this was never guaranteed based on the player's knowledge. However, the explicit and impactful consequence of the time taken is respected by the DMs actions later in the scenario.

Scenario 4
The DM mentions that there are two towns, one to the east and one to the south. The players have no real knowledge of anything about the towns or the path to get there, and their various knowledge checks fail to provide them any real insight.

R/NR: Not a railroad (Definition 1). Though the players have been presented a choice, there are no explicit consequences provided to this choice. The players have no expectation that they are really choosing anything, because there is no explicit or impactful consequence for them to measure against. The only thing they are choosing "for sure" is that they are heading east or south, and as long as that is held to be true, there is no railroad.

Possible Railroad (Definition 2): In the event that the player's skill checks and current equipment (such as detailed maps) provide no knowledge because the DM does not want to have to create a meaningful choice, rather than for in story reasons, than this would be a railroad by definition 2. However, if the players are denied knowledge because they would have no story reason to have any knowledge of the area, then no railroad has occurred.

Scenario 5
During a monster fight, the DM decides to create a monster in the far hallway that now moves into the battle. The PCs had no knowledge of this hallway.

R/NR: Not a railroad. At no point would the players choices have allowed them to fight or not fight this monster or interact with it in any way other than what unfolded. There was no choice violated here.

Possible Railroad (Definition 2): It could be argued that by adjusting the challenge of the fight midway, the DM is not allowing the players to use their character mechanics to have impact on the story. In other words, no matter how well the PCs do, the DM can adjust the challenge midfight to invalidate their success, which could be a railroad under definition 2.

Scenario 6
During a monster fight, the DM decides to say that a monster was hiding in the shadows in the room and now ambushes the party. This monster was created midway in the fight and did not exist when the players entered the room.

R/NR: Railroad, based on definition 2. In this case, the DM denied the players the ability to spot the monster using their passive perception. Even though the DM could say that the monster rolled a 20 on their stealth check and beat the players' passive perceptions, this is by definition 2 still considered a railroad.

Scenario 7
The DM creates a special monster that is immune to blindsight, and uses it to ambush a PC that has blindsight.

R/NR: Not a railroad. Definition 2 requires that a DM deny a character's ability "outside of story context". In this case, the DM has allowed in the story the abilities of this monster, and so this is non-railroad use of the DM's power to create the story.

Scenario 8
A DM runs a style a game where they normally roll for random encounters every day when the Players are traveling through the wilderness. The DM has done this over the course of many adventurers. After one particularly grueling encounter where the players lose all of their magic items and resources, the DM decides not to roll random encounters for the week until the players get to their destination.

R/NR: Railroad, based on definition 3. The DM use of random encounters is consistent enough that the players have come to expect it as an expectation. The DM then suddenly changing that style to ensure a specific outcome is a railroad.

Scenario 9
A DM runs a style a game where they normally roll for random encounters every day when the Players are traveling through the wilderness. The DM has done this over the course of many adventurers. The players find themselves in an open plain that the DM has defined as an extremely peaceful and nonhostile area. The DM decides not to roll random encounters for the week until the players get to their destination.

R/NR: Not a railroad. Definition 3 requires that the DM changes their adjudication style "outside of story context". In this case, the DM has forgone their normal random encounter rolls because the story has noted a peaceful area where encounters don't normally occur.

Scenario 10
An adventure starts with the PCs performing a mission for their "boss". The general adventure and mission parameters are predefined, with no input from the PCs.

R/NR: No railroad. Ultimately there was no choice presented to the PCs, the DM has simply defined the story for this adventure. While the PCs can decide what to do within the context of the story provided, there is no choice that was invalidated, and therefore no railroad.

Possible Railroad (Definition 4): If the mission imposed is completely anathema to a PCs motivations (such a paladin expected to murder an orphanage of children) and the PC has not been given the opportunity to protest or alter the mission in character, than this could would be a railroad under definition 4.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Having recently debated whether railroads are "good" or "bad", inevitably the issue becomes that people don't have a common definition of what a railroad actually is. So...lets see what we can do about that.

In this thread, I am going to try to define a railroad, and then based on feedback, refine it to a rigorous point. Note that I am NOT defining railroad in a way that is necessarily "bad" in all cases, just that have a suitable definition from which to debate.

To define a scenario as a Railroad, it has the following properties:

Railroad Definition 1: Invalidation of Player Choice
  • The Dungeon Master (DM) has presented their players with a choice. This choice is:
    • Explicit: there is some specific mechanical change to the story that will result from this choice.
    • Impactful: that the mechanical change to the story has an impact or at least the potential of impact as to how the story unfolds.
  • Regardless of what the player's choose, the explicit consequences or Impact (outlined in point 1) is determined by the DM's decision instead of the player's choice.
  • The player's knowledge of the DM's determination is inconsequential to the definition.
Railroad Definition 2: Denial of Character Mechanics
  • The DM presents a scenario that only works by ignoring or adjusting character abilities outside of the story context, without the player's knowledge or consent.
  • This definition applies even in the event that a random roll was required, but the DM predetermines the result of that roll.
Railroad Definition 3: Unjustified Change in DM Adjudication
  • The DM provides a consistent method of adjudication on a particular topic, to the point where that style become a player expectation.
  • The style is then changed outside of story context, to enforce a predetermined condition.
Railroad Definition 4: Invalidation of PC motivation
  • The DM provides story conditions that are anathema to the motivations of a PC, to the point where the PC could not justify going along with those story conditions.
  • The DM and PC are unable to reconcile the issue in story, and the DM requires the PCs cooperation to continue the story.
  • This definition is invalid over story conditions imposed in Session 0, aka if a PC creates motivations anathema to what the DM has defined in session 0, this definition does not apply.

So from this definition, we can look at certain scenarios and defined whether they are a railroad or not.
You've missed the most common one IME:

Railroad Definition 5 (or 1a, perhaps): Where the Players Are Given No Choice At All.

This covers situations where the PCs are forced into a situation without they or their players having any choice or say about it - an example might be where the PCs are doing whatever and suddenly find themselves teleported to somewhere dangerous as they have become someone else's divine intervention.
Scenario 3
The DM provides the players two paths to follow. They note that the second path is twice the length of the first one (and their mission is on a time crunch), and that there are rumors of bandit raids on the first path. The DM has a bandit raid planned for whichever way the players go, and depending on how much time is spent on the path, the DM will adjust certain encounters later in the adventure.

R/NR: Not a railroad. Ultimately the only explicit consequence to the player's choice was the time it would take for the player's to get to the next section. While there was some an implicit presentation that the second path might be safer, this was never guaranteed based on the player's knowledge. However, the explicit and impactful consequence of the time taken is respected by the DMs actions later in the scenario.
To me this one is a railroad; in that if their choice is made based on the perceived relative safety of each route yet it's predetermined they'll meet the same danger no matter which way they go, their choice is made irrelevant.
Scenario 5
During a monster fight, the DM decides to create a monster in the far hallway that now moves into the battle. The PCs had no knowledge of this hallway.

Scenario 6
During a monster fight, the DM decides to say that a monster was hiding in the shadows in the room and now ambushes the party. This monster was created midway in the fight and did not exist when the players entered the room.
Railroad or not, these are IMO both examples of bad DMing.
Scenario 10
An adventure starts with the PCs performing a mission for their "boss". The general adventure and mission parameters are predefined, with no input from the PCs.

R/NR: No railroad. Ultimately there was no choice presented to the PCs, the DM has simply defined the story for this adventure. While the PCs can decide what to do within the context of the story provided, there is no choice that was invalidated, and therefore no railroad.
No railroad, in that the PC in character can in theory always decline outright to participate in the mission (and on the meta-level, the player brings in a replacement or leaves the game for a while). If this declining of the mission is somehow not allowed then yes, railroad.

I wish you luck with this project...you're gonna need it... :)
 

With all due respect to the effort, I think if you want to define something in a way useful for anybody other than yourself you need a digestible definition of a sentence or two that anyone can quickly grasp rather than an extended commentary.
 


Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
The Provisional Glossary at the Forge (indie-rpgs.com) has this definition of Railroading:
Control of a player-character's decisions, or opportunities for decisions, by another person (not the player of the character) in any way which breaks the Social Contract for that group, in the eyes of the character's player. The term describes an interpretation of a social and creative outcome rather than any specific Technique.​
 


I think you're trying to fit a lot of situations in where a simple definition would suffice. Railroading is the limit/removal of player choice/agency (within the confines of the rules). It is not a binary situation, as you can have very small amounts of railroading that limit choices, or you can completely remove choice. Most players accept some level of railroading (we're exploring these caves, instead of sailing east), but primarily object to major removal or invalidation of choices.
Railroad Definition 1: Invalidation of Player Choice
  • The Dungeon Master (DM) has presented their players with a choice. This choice is:
    • Explicit: there is some specific mechanical change to the story that will result from this choice.
    • Impactful: that the mechanical change to the story has an impact or at least the potential of impact as to how the story unfolds.
  • Regardless of what the player's choose, the explicit consequences or Impact (outlined in point 1) is determined by the DM's decision instead of the player's choice.
  • The player's knowledge of the DM's determination is inconsequential to the definition.
The is a complete railroad, as player choice is completely irrelevant.
Railroad Definition 2: Denial of Character Mechanics
  • The DM presents a scenario that only works by ignoring or adjusting character abilities outside of the story context, without the player's knowledge or consent.
  • This definition applies even in the event that a random roll was required, but the DM predetermines the result of that roll.
This isn't technically a railroad, since it's not necessarily invalidating a player's choice, but in general this is mostly just bad DMing. A DM could remove a paladin's ability for failing to live up to their oath, as part of a setup to allow them to become an oathbreaker, or to setup a redemption possibility. In this case, the DM is opening up more player choices, rather than invalidating them. The second part would also fall under the classification of "fudging," which is a different issue.
Railroad Definition 3: Unjustified Change in DM Adjudication
  • The DM provides a consistent method of adjudication on a particular topic, to the point where that style become a player expectation.
  • The style is then changed outside of story context, to enforce a predetermined condition.
This isn't railroading in itself, but can be used as a justification for railroading.
Railroad Definition 4: Invalidation of PC motivation
  • The DM provides story conditions that are anathema to the motivations of a PC, to the point where the PC could not justify going along with those story conditions.
  • The DM and PC are unable to reconcile the issue in story, and the DM requires the PCs cooperation to continue the story.
  • This definition is invalid over story conditions imposed in Session 0, aka if a PC creates motivations anathema to what the DM has defined in session 0, this definition does not apply.
Like 3, this isn't necessarily railroading, but is definitely bad DMing. You can occasionally pull a switcheroo on a regular group to achieve a specific result, but it's much more likely to be a failure than a success. I've managed it once, and will never try it again.
You've missed the most common one IME:

Railroad Definition 5 (or 1a, perhaps): Where the Players Are Given No Choice At All.

This covers situations where the PCs are forced into a situation without they or their players having any choice or say about it - an example might be where the PCs are doing whatever and suddenly find themselves teleported to somewhere dangerous as they have become someone else's divine intervention.
This is a primary definition IMO, along with illusionism.
 


I just want to state my opinion that the word "consent" should not be used to define (or discuss) railroading.

Consent in gaming is a serious issue. Navel gazing about game design and jargon is fun, but it's simply not a discussion of the same gravity or timbre. Appropriating the terminology in this way is ultimately unproductive for both topics.
 

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