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5E What does "Railroading" actually mean!? Discount Code on Page 8

kieran_of_the_dark_peaks

Explorer
Publisher
So, as we've worked on the BLIZZARD OF AXE AND SWORD, I've been musing on what we mean by "Railroading". I've come across a definitionally tricky problem: what does Railroading actually mean?

Players say 'Oh, we were railroaded into this' but what does that mean? How do you define it? Does it mean that the encounters were in a predictable pattern? Or does it mean that each beat of the story was pre-decided? Or does it mean that the final confrontation - the story objective - was set at the beginning? Or does it mean that the beats of the plot already existed. Like chapters in a novel, do the players write the individual text but the story structure is decided by the GM?

Putting this in context, in this adventure book the objective is to slay Jarl Torrfin the Bleak. That's fairly set, and honestly negotiation isn't going to work on this particular Frost Giant. Does that mean the players have been railroaded into this confrontation?

But on the other hand, the chapter which build up to it are based on environments and exploration - how much you discover is based on the places you go in each chapter's environment. One is a lake, one is a mine, one is a glacier climb.You can even choose which environments you want to engage with, and that excludes other environments which could have been chosen. So does that avoid this cardinal sin of 'railroading'?

You tell me? What does railroading mean to you as a player, or as a DM?

The BLIZZARD OF AXE AND SWORD is available tomorrow through the Dungeon Master's Guild!

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Coroc

Hero
Some people feel railroaded if you start your campaign with one of the best starter vignettes ever:

DM: You are naked in a dungeon, find your way out ....

Then your modern players, not used to such scenarios: where is my starting gear / spell book / holy symbol thieves tools.
DM (raising his eyebrows): Well your captors have stripped you of your belongings.

Players: But wait, didn't we fight back, we did not even roll for that combat, we could have fled, escaped etc. You are railroading us into that situation.
DM (slightly enervated) : Well ok, so you got your starting gear and sitting in a tavern, roll for initiative, because some heavily armed guys enter to take you in. They are accompanied by some casters.

(After the fight) DM: You are naked in a dungeon, at - HP. make your deathsaves, everyone who survives can try to find a way out.
Player A does not make it.
DM: ok roll up a new char, you others wait a bit and get the benefit of a short rest.
Player A has finished his new char.
DM: Ok you other guys hear a cell door opening somebody is tossed into the room. Player A erase all your belongings from your sheet, the captors have held you in the streets and stripped you of your belongings. What? Did I hear railroad? You want to roll for that encounter?

:p


Nah seriously, railroading is a bit different than that. Railroading is to have every minor goal resolved as per script, one way or another. But even the best campaign has its key milestones. A good DM tries to hide and camouflage them as best as he can if he has to wing it, so these are met. Very good adventures make it by design, that PCs will almost certainly decide to meet these milestones themselves without feeling railroaded.
 

Hussar

Legend
I think the best definition of railroading is one I saw here some time ago:

Railroading is when the choices of the players are being constrained by the DM for reasons that have nothing to do with the scenario and everything to do with the DM having a preferred outcome.​

So, there are all sorts of scenarios where the actions of the players are constrained. If you are on a ship, traveling from A to B, there's a significant limit to how far you can walk before you start swimming. But, that's okay, because, well, that's an understandable limitation. You're on a boat. You can't decide to suddenly leave. (Well, barring magic and a few other things, but, you get the point)

The problem generally comes when people conflate linear with railroad. They are not the same thing. There's nothing wrong with a linear adventure. Sometimes it makes perfect sense that an adventure is linear.
 

That just looks like a railroad with three tracks to me!

A railroad is any situation where players don't have any choice about what to do next.

The thing is, there is nothing wrong with a railroad if the players can't see the rails. Quite often a situation will arise where there is only one sensible "next move". Railroading becomes a problem when the players see the rails, usually because they try to do something different or unforeseen, and something forces them back onto the original path.
 

ccs

40th lv DM
Years ago I was in a game where every single encounter was its own mandatory thing. It didn't matter what type of character you made, how you played, what you tried to do, & you couldn't leave the programmed encounter. Every encounter also only had 1 & only 1 answer & was of such low difficulty that you almost couldn't even die. And you had to play through all the encounters, in order.
But to rub salt in the wounds? The DM LOVED to describe all sorts of things. Just, none of it mattered as you weren't actually allowed to interact with any of it beyond the actual encounter. If you tried? After about 5 minutes the DM would become irritated & cut it off, shunting you back to the task at hand. Wich was generally trivially easy. At the end of each session you'd gain enough xp to gain 1 lv.
All this was so that we'd be sure & make it to the end, facing his BBEG & discovering the story of said BBEG along the way.

This DM actually got mad at us (a bunch of, even then, veteran & way creative gamers) for not having fun & not taking the game seriously.
Well I couldn't DO anything, including fail. So how seriously was I supposed to have taken it?
 

Coroc

Hero
Years ago I was in a game where every single encounter was its own mandatory thing. It didn't matter what type of character you made, how you played, what you tried to do, & you couldn't leave the programmed encounter. Every encounter also only had 1 & only 1 answer & was of such low difficulty that you almost couldn't even die. And you had to play through all the encounters, in order.
But to rub salt in the wounds? The DM LOVED to describe all sorts of things. Just, none of it mattered as you weren't actually allowed to interact with any of it beyond the actual encounter. If you tried? After about 5 minutes the DM would become irritated & cut it off, shunting you back to the task at hand. Wich was generally trivially easy. At the end of each session you'd gain enough xp to gain 1 lv.
All this was so that we'd be sure & make it to the end, facing his BBEG & discovering the story of said BBEG along the way.

This DM actually got mad at us (a bunch of, even then, veteran & way creative gamers) for not having fun & not taking the game seriously.
Well I couldn't DO anything, including fail. So how seriously was I supposed to have taken it?
I might be reading to much into this, but it seems like this idea could be fun, but the DM botched his good idea by overdoing it, or not taking into account that PCs might concentrate to much on his "filler" -stuff.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
A railroad is a set track that only allows trains to follow its specific, predetermined path. An adventure is often said to be “a railroad” (or “on rails”) when the players feel they lack agency. The plot forces them to do something they don’t want to do, or doesn’t allow them to do something they do want to do. A DM is often said to be “railroading” when the perception is that they are doing the same. When the DM contrives reasons not to allow certain actions or to force others, or if they create an illusion of choice (i.e. presenting multiple options that secretly all lead to the same outcome) and the players see through the illusion. But all of these are subjective. One group’s railroad is another group’s well-crafted narrative. It’s all about perception. As long as the players feel like they have agency, they arent likely to cry railroad even if that agency is in reality quite limited. On the other hand, if they feel like they lack agency, they are likely to consider themselves to have been “ralroaded,” even if they did actually have the ability to affect the outcome.
 

I define railroading as any limitation set by the DM on player action, where the limitation is not implemented as a result of concrete, real-world ethics discussed with the players before the game begins*.

In a non-railroad game, the DM creates and describes a situation. The PCs describe how they react. If a gang of bugbears are kidnapping villagers as slaves, the PC have many choices: 1) defend the villagers, 2) launch a counterattack, 3) help the bugbears, 4) murder the bugbears and start their own slave trade, 5) go somewhere else in the world, 6) anything else the PCs can image.

In my mind, a story with many paths is still a railroad. A railroad, after all, can have many destinations.




* Telling a player not to rape an NPC, is not railroading.
 

A railroad is a set track that only allows trains to follow its specific, predetermined path. An adventure is often said to be “a railroad” (or “on rails”) when the players feel they lack agency. The plot forces them to do something they don’t want to do, or doesn’t allow them to do something they do want to do. A DM is often said to be “railroading” when the perception is that they are doing the same. When the DM contrives reasons not to allow certain actions or to force others, or if they create an illusion of choice (i.e. presenting multiple options that secretly all lead to the same outcome) and the players see through the illusion. But all of these are subjective. One group’s railroad is another group’s well-crafted narrative. It’s all about perception. As long as the players feel like they have agency, they arent likely to cry railroad even if that agency is in reality quite limited. On the other hand, if they feel like they lack agency, they are likely to consider themselves to have been “ralroaded,” even if they did actually have the ability to affect the outcome.
I don't call that railroading. I call it fraud
 

railroading is the lack of player /character agency. You can have a very linear campaign-style that's not and you can have a sandbox that is 100% railroading. Meaningful choices and consequences are really all that are needed to prevent railroading.
 



jgsugden

Legend
You're on a track. It may be the DM saying to the player that their character can't decide to do something. It may be circumstances set up in the game that take away player agency. Whatever the mechanism, the PCs lack choice.

As a DM, I prepare settings and give the PCs a number of ways to approach the situation, but expect that they'll do the unexpected. As such, my mentality is that I'm creating the environment for them to play within, and they're directing he direction the environment needs to grow. In a railroad game, the DM defines the environment the players will play in and then directs how it will evolve as well by limiting their options.
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
Specifically referencing the OP’s outlined adventure, I don’t think I would call it a railroad, and since there are choices that allow a group to avoid parts and they should KNOW that, it isnt even completely linear. The railroad would come in during the actual game sessions. Can the PCs leave the plot and go elsewhere? Can they subvert the plot and join the villain? Could they decide halfway along that instead of killing the villain, they want to capture him and put him on trial? Is there enough flex in the written material that the DM can handle at least some of thse options without panicking? Because, really, railroading is done by DMs who feel threatened or overwhelmed...
 





Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I don't call that railroading. I call it fraud
It’s a pretty common game design technique. Accounting for all variables is impossible, especially in a game like D&D, so the illusion of choice can be a powerful tool for delivering a well-curated experience while still allowing the player to make decisions that feel meaningful. Like all tools, it has its proper uses but is not appropriate in all situations. And when used poorly it has the opposite of it’s intended effect, making the players feel like their choices don’t matter.
 

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