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When Is It Railroading?

Saturday was the “Day of Fudge [1]” and overall it was a great experience. You can check out my personal blog [2] for more details if you are interested, but I want to focus on one particular moment of my game. Maybe you can relate to it as a GM yourself.

The Setup

My game was a four hour one-shot held at my local game shop. The premise was that the players were everyday people enjoying a small town Fourth of July celebration when a flying saucer landed. Then Martians came out and disintegrated the Mayor. From there things just spun out of control into a delightful dark comedy.

After over an hour of playing the game the five PCs had not come together into a single group. There were two pairs of PCs, and the fifth PC was alone. Through a series of events this lone PC was doused with gasoline, and when I asked the player what the PC wanted to do he said “Go to his house and change into some new clothes.”

I responded with “Okay, well your home is on the other side of the high school football field. A flying saucer has landed in the field illuminating the area, and you can see the silhouette of these two PCs.” I then gestured to two of the players at the table. This was all based on events that had taken place in the game.

And that is when one of the players said…

“And you see railroad tracks leading to them!”

To which the other player responded “Tell me about it!” Now these comments were made in a friendly and joking manner, but I was a bit shocked by these remarks.

When I GM I work off of the players’ suggestions to build the scenes with, so how did this scene come into existence?

I firmly believe that what I did was not railroading. The players made choices, and I did not negate those choices. I also made it clear that I would have no problem if the PCs did not come together as a single group (they did at one point, but then separated again long before the end of the game). Railroading is when the players are forced to follow the GM’s plot, and I had no pre-determined plot.

In short – “railroading” my ass.

But what do you think?

I was obviously arranging the scene to make it awfully convenient for the PCs to come together. I would not have forced the PCs to meet and form a single group, but did the players understand this before I explained it to them? When is it railroading? Where is that line, and when is it crossed?

You know how I feel, and those of you who have interacted with me before know that I am going to defend my position in the comments section below. I want to hear what you think regardless if you agree or disagree with me. What is your definition of railroading? How can it be avoided? Should it always be avoided?

So share with all of us your analysis of the situation, and any stories you might have about railroading (or railroading accusations) in other games as well. Leave a comment below and let’s see if together we can find the point at which good GMing stops and railroading begins.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "When Is It Railroading?"

#1 Comment By MaW On June 6, 2011 @ 1:08 am

It’s a subjective thing I guess. I don’t think that’s railroading – I understand that the GM wants to bring the group together sometimes when it’s been split up, or when it’s started out split up. That doesn’t have to be railroading.

Especially since in the scenario you described he could’ve just said he walks straight past them, too intent on getting out of his gasoline-soaked clothes to worry about a pair of PCs standing in a football field, maybe offering some choicer insults if they try to interfere. For some reason I’ve got a picture in my head of this PC being a bit of a grumpy loner.

#2 Comment By Clawfoot On June 6, 2011 @ 5:08 am

I don’t think you were railroading at all. I think some players just see anything that isn’t their own original, organic idea as railroading.

I ran a Firefly campaign for my friends a few years back — it was a short-term campaign, only about four or five sessions — and we all had fun with it. The only thing that kind of bothered me was a comment one of the players made during the game.

The characters were on their ship, going from planet to planet. This, of course, takes some time. During the trip, I mentioned that their sensors picked up a distress signal from another ship, a little bit off their course, but not too much. The person playing the captain said, “Well, let’s go check out the obvious GM hook.”

And that kind of irritated me, because I really don’t know how else I could have handled that. It was an encounter I’d planned, yes, and it held some important information, but it wasn’t absolutely critical to the plot and had they ignored it, I could easily have rolled with it. It wouldn’t even have been out of character for the crew to ignore it at that point, either. I would not have railroaded them into it at all.

It also irritated me because how else do you handle encounters in space? I mean, either you run into something or you don’t. Not running into anything ever is boring, but running into something is kind of a blatant “I’m here for the campaign” sign. Maybe if it were an open-ended long-running campaign, I’d throw in trivial stuff like that, but I always thought short-term campaigns are kind of like short stories: there’s an economy of story going on that kind of requires the Chekhov’s Gun principle or the campaign gets far too unwieldy. I can’t really afford to put too many red herrings in or people will get bored and the game will go on for far too long.

It made me wonder if my campaign design was flawed and my player had a point, or if the game was fine and she was just being a jerk.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think it counts as railroading until the GM starts to deliberately counter player’s choices. If the players want to explore a cave instead of going to the castle, and the cave collapses before they can get in there, then that’s indicative of railroading.

#3 Comment By Aeon_Chronicler On June 6, 2011 @ 5:31 am

That doesn’t strike me as railroading, at all, to be honest. The characters options were still wide open, they could have breezed right on by without a glance. There is a huge difference between ‘presenting players with an opportunity’ and ‘shoehorning them into doing what you want’ Guess which one tends to be much more obvious.

I think, when it comes to it, it’s only railroading when it’s really, really obvious to everyone that the GM is doing it. As soon as it begins to feel forced is, for me, when it begins to set off the alarms.

Unfortunately, this is a pretty vague answer. It really depends on the players and GM in question, I suppose. We’ve had a GM who was much more interested in the plot than the players, and as a result some of the group began to feel like they couldn’t do anything without the GM providing a reason for why they couldn’t. If you want to run an adventure where everyone gets ambushed and knocked out and captured, some people will be cool with it, other’s will complain the minute it becomes clear they can’t win the combat. Most players though, I find, will be happy as long as they’re at least given the opportunity to react to stuff, at least a bit, so they don’t feel like they’ve been stripped of any choice in the matter.

#4 Comment By recursive.faults On June 6, 2011 @ 6:41 am

I don’t think this was railroading. You managed to weave everyone together, and you never forced anyone to do anything.

That being said, from the player side, we have all been in games where you don’t take the, “hints” of the DM with peril. We, as players, don’t have actual words for being presented with those free opportunities, so I believe the next closest word is railroading.

As a player I think we all try to manage a threshold of crazy with the GM. We manage it by not doing things too crazy, by accepting hints even if we may otherwise not want too, etc. We do it because sometimes, or often, the game will suffer if you go off into uncharted territory, and the game will feel fun and polished if you do take an interest in the distress beacon or meet up with the people in the foot-ball field.

So in short, I don’t think it was railroading, but I do think that players clamor out railroading when they are confronted by a fear of being independent and making the game suffer by feeling cobbled together.

#5 Comment By mcmanlypants On June 6, 2011 @ 7:09 am

Definitely NOT railroading. Had you said, “OK, but the only people in town with clean clothes are the other PCs,” that would be railroading. Creating opportunities for players to interact should they choose to do so is a big chunk of why the DM is there.

I also think it is incumbent upon the players to come to the table aware that they are not there to engage in competing one-on-one games. I doubt the sign said “Day of One-On-One Fudge,” and it would be silly of someone to show up to a multiplayer game and expect to have any other kind of experience.

#6 Comment By ChrowX On June 6, 2011 @ 8:23 am

Some players have some very bizarre expectations about this games they play. I’ve seen numerous stories on 4chan’s /tg/ board where players erroneously cry “RRRRRRRrrrailroading!!” or bad GMing when they aren’t given complete control of the story and everything that happens to them. As if some have amazingly forgotten that they are there to play the GM’s story and interact with their world.

“You all meet at the local malt shop and decide to make it your mission to stop the aliens by first going to a specific set of locations to have encounters, what do you do?” is railroading. Giving them no choice int he matter and seeing that your game goes exactly your way.

What you did was present a coincidental opportunity which is the nicest way of saying, “Please acknowledge the other players at the table so I can throw some of the neat ideas I have at you as a group.”

You didn’t take away any choice from the player, you didn’t make something happen regardless of his decision, you didn’t force the story over his decisions. It wasn’t railroading. It was clever GMing that went unappreciated in an insulting kind of way.

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 6, 2011 @ 8:51 am

I definitely wouldn’t call this “railroading.”

Virtually all adventures have roads built into them. Occasionally players wander off those roads, but the roads still guide them. One of those roads that’s clearly understood in most games is that the GM will create opportunities for PCs to interact and form a party and, absent huge gaffes during those scenes, players understand that they shouldn’t “resist the story” too much (yes, there is a polar opposite of railroading :)) by making such scenes difficult.

As others have said, you didn’t negate a meaningful choice (or, indeed, any choice) that the players believed was theirs to make, so the accusation of railroading is without merit.

#8 Comment By E-l337 On June 6, 2011 @ 9:37 am

If that’s railroading then I’m a four-hundred pound neckbeard who still lives in his mother’s basement. (Note: I’m nowhere even near two hundred, and I have my own apartment.)

If someone’s going to complain about railroading, then obviously they have their own ideas about things, and want to play the game in their own way, not in the way that the GM intended. While this is not entirely wrong, it is also not entirely *right* either. When you sit down at a table to play a game with other people, *you are sitting down to play a game with other people, not to play solo stories all night.*

On occasion, yes, my parties do get split during my games. It’s unavoidable, particularly when some of them do things that get them imprisoned. But I always try to do what I can to bring the group together, because guess what? Everything I have planned involves having the group brought together 95% of the time. It would be stupid to try to plan a game otherwise.

People who cry railroading when presented by opportunities are the same sort of people who watch TV and scoff at all of the ‘chance encounters’ that allow the plot to actually move forward. Yes, sometimes it is railroading. But usually, it’s also the only way the show could progress. A game is much like a show, except that the plot tracks are a little fuzzier and less defined.

Obviously, the players you had weren’t on the same page you were, and that is a shame. I’ve never had my players cry railroading, even when it may have seemed like I was railroading. That’s because in my games, the players always *always* have a choice. They just might not like their choices.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 6, 2011 @ 10:48 am

Wow! Thanks to all of you for the clear support that I did not railroad the situation.

I want to be clear though that the players were not trying to be difficult. I must admit that I was offended for a moment, but I also called “Bullshit!” at the table and that was the end of that.

The sad thing is that I believe Walt is right, and that there is a polar opposite to railroading that the players indulge in. There is no name for it, so let me attempt to name it now:

“Welching: The act of avoiding participation in a role playing game at a group level, and instead attempting to keep one’s personal involvement as independent as possible despite the social and cooperative nature of most RPGs. As if the person was to ‘welch’ on a bet or some other commitment.”

I think that I have had many welchers at the table since I began GMing, but their presence has increased more in recent years. The pendulum seems to have swung far from the railroading extreme into the welching extreme.

#10 Comment By Clawfoot On June 6, 2011 @ 11:04 am

RE: “welching”

I like that term. I’ve always thought of that as a close cousin to railroading, which I counted under the umbrella term “stonewalling.” Both players and GMs can indulge in that one.

I once had a player who stonewalled another (for no reason that I could determine, other than perhaps a power trip). Mark wanted to talk to Mary and gain her help, so he called her. Mary’s player said there was no answer. So he left a message. Which Mary didn’t check. So he came over and knocked on her door. She was in the bath, and didn’t hear him. This went on until I stepped in and ended it.

To this day, I have no idea what Mary’s player was thinking, nor do I understand people who try their hardest to avoid playing with the people they’re sitting around the table with.

#11 Comment By GiacomoArt On June 6, 2011 @ 11:05 am

Any player who (thinks he) wants an RPG experience free of convenient coincidences really wants to get out more and experience real life in the raw. Not even a computer-moderated MMORPG can begin to compete with real life for the ultimate experience in free-willed fairness. Want to jump off the roof of a skyscraper? Go for it! And when no flying man in a brilliant red cape shows up to snatch you at the last moment from certain doom, you can rejoice in the knowledge that the universe respects your personal agenda. Bonus points if your consciousness simply ceases to exist, instead of getting dragged against its will into some lame afterlife scenario.

Role-play – like all forms of storytelling – is all about the “good bits”, and it’s the job of the game master to make the good bits happen. Railroading is what you get when a GM refuses to let player choice reasonably impact the direction story. Convenient coincidence is what you get when a GM is being a GM.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 6, 2011 @ 11:24 am

[3] – Yeah, that is the kind of stuff where as a GM I just find a reason to move the story along without Mary.

[4] – That is a great point. Imagine how lame Star Wars trilogy would have been if what we saw was all of the stuff that must have taken place over the entire course of the story.

Vader meditating for hours.

Luke spending days, weeks, possibly months building his light sabre.

Han having to haggle for the lowest price on spare parts for the Millenium Falcon.

Chewie having to make it home in time for “Life Day” with his family… Oh, wait. We did get that one with the holiday special. Sort of proves my point though.


#13 Comment By Roxysteve On June 6, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

I detest the “railroad whine”. These days anything that doesn’t match an immature player’s expectation (usually that he be the best at everything) is labeled railroading.

The only term misused more and understood less is “coup de grace” (which is pronounced coo-duh-grass; a coo-duh-grah is a punch in the liver).

It doesn’t matter what anyone says anyway, railroading is in the eye of the players and once they declare it, it’s there in their perception whether you put it in or not.

Free-format sandbox games are always more likely to draw this sort of accusation than games in which the GM gives some structure and defines at least the primary goal in terms the players can understand.

Hang a lantern on the goal and it becomes a goal, not a railroad.

I run a very successful (to judge by attendance and comments) Delta Green campaign. Every single one of the episodes in it boil down to “figure out how to solve the problem and hide the evidence from public view (or the world will end)”. The part in parentheses is assumed by the players by he way, never explicit in anything I say. That part of the threat may be real, or it may be nebulous and mostly in the players’ minds.

Now they have a clear idea of what they should be doing. They can go about things however they like, but they have a goal they can see and understand and possibly be surprised to discover isn’t *the* goal after all, but that provides the structure of the game.

Hell, I ran a convention game in the DG universe that was a (to me) transparent railroad, and one of the people who played it and enjoyed it so much he joined the campaign didn’t spot the tracks until I pointed them out months later. The tracks were covered up by all the fun and a little careful preparation beforehand.

I also think that consensus RPGs (aka storytelling RPGs) are more prone to allegations of railroading than trad. arr. RPGs, but that is just an observation, not a challenge.

As I say I detest the term and, if playing, would need to be sorely tried before using it (as I have once and once only).

#14 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 6, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

[5] – Yes, some players accuse GMs of railroading like some people accuse their opposition of being racist or sexist. The charge is easily made and very difficult to disprove when unjustly applied.

Not to discuss politics, but I once was talking with a couple of co-workers at a party about life in general. Somehow affirmative action came up and I said “I hate it. It is wrong.” I was immediately accused of being sexist and racist by someone who overheard the conversation.

Now the reason that I hate affirmative action is because it treats the symptom and not the disease. The underlying problem is very real, and it takes a lot more than quotas to fix it. I also believe that its practice bakes the very things it is meant to oppose into the system.

But to that person who overheard my comments there was no way explain that. I tried, and after a little bit of frustration responded with “Well then fuck you too.” There was no point in trying to get along with that person.

#15 Comment By Furore23 On June 6, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

Well, no. You totally weren’t.

Social Contract! That’s what. PCs are meant to get together, you know it, they know it. You can make the fictional pretence that it’s all coincidence, but part of the players’ responsibility is to reasonably cooperate with the basic premises of the RPG.

TL;DR – your players were being jerks.

#16 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 6, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

[6] – I want to be clear that I felt that the comment was insulting, but the players were not being jerks. Perceptions of the same situation are not always in sync.

I do think that this comment is more of a reflection of what Roxysteve commented about. Some players are using the term railroading to describe any attempt to create a cohesive group experience that the player does not find immediately appealing.

TL;DR? There is something wrong with the world when a 610 word article is too long to read. 😉

#17 Comment By Chris On June 6, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

Railroading is when you either eliminate or counteract deliberate player choices. What you did was not railroading, it was simply a roleplaying episode that could be played out or avoided by the player easily. Did these people just want to avoid any social action at all? Why not just play a single-player RPG on the computer or console instead of wasting the other players’ and the GM’s time? Roleplaying is a social activity. Avoiding the group aspect is like…well, trying to play checkers with yourself in a room full of other people who want to play checkers. What an odd thing to do.

#18 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 6, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

[7] – Good example of why trying to be the “unique snowflake” through isolation is really counterproductive with an RPG.

The example that I put up is obviously far too cut and dry. My bad. There isn’t enough to debate here.

So let me ask the GS readers another question: How should a GM respond to this situation? I already explained that I called “Bullshit!” at the table and made it clear that I would not negate the players choices if they decided not to pursue the obvious leads. Was this the best way to handle the situation?

IMO – Yep. You as the GM are outnumbered at the table, so you have to make up for the lack of numbers with the strength of your presence. If disruptive players (and I would classify this as a disruption) see that you are going to not tolerate their tactics those players often cut it out. That has been my personal experience, but is it the best method?

#19 Comment By Thought On June 6, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

Regarding the original question of railroading, I find substitution to be a good litmus tests. In the UFO-Field-PC example, would the player have even joked about railroading if the people by the UFO were NPCs instead of PC’s? I suspect not. Consider Clawfoot’s cave example: it doesn’t matter if one substitutes a cave collapse with alien abduction, revealing it was only a mirage, or anything else, the players would still have reason to call foul. Of course, as others have noted, the reason why this player tried foul (even jokingly) is because their intent was to remain solo. A curious intent for a public game, to be sure.

#20 Comment By Lee Hanna On June 6, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

@Patrick and Clawfoot: Yeah, call them on it. “Bullshit” sounds too strong, but I’m not coming up with anything better.

I’m writing from a group (player and DM) where metagame talk like that is the norm, and I don’t like it. I can remember this exchange at least twice.
“What do you do now?”
“We go to the next station on the Plot Railroad.”
The first time, I could barely speak, the second (worded slightly differently) made me want to quit DMing that group.

It may have been meant as a joke, but if someone’s feelings are hurt, it ain’t funny. I suppose you could put down the dice and talk that out.

#21 Comment By drow On June 6, 2011 @ 11:46 pm

this whole post is railroading! we’re being forced to the next stop on the good GMing line, with no choice to go off and totally TPK the party for the hell of it. well screw that, i’m playing my game from now on. it’s a mashup of Amber Diceless and Rifts.


#22 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 7, 2011 @ 8:22 am

[8] – Blah, blah, blah! Quit welching.


#23 Comment By Roxysteve On June 7, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

Chris’s comment is interesting and provocative.

I’ve had moments when a (troublesome and badly mis-matched to the game) player said “but what’s my motivation to do [what the others had decided was needed to achieve the goal]”.

I struggled for a while, and on the third iteration decided it was time to call a spade a hand-wielded unpowered composite-construction landscaping implement and replied “your motivation is that if you don’t go with the others you won’t get to participate in the game, as I am not particularly interested in role-playing a day wandering aimlessly round 1920s Providence and I am absolutely riveted by the idea of helping the others see what, if anything, is going on at the town dump”.

The tracks are in the eye of the beholder, and any player about to Spot the Locomotive should pause and reflect that the GM is also a player and d*cking him/her about without a compelling reason is also a form of railroading.

#24 Comment By grubolsch On June 10, 2011 @ 3:33 am

Ooh cool, first post here.
Reading the blog for 2 years now: first comment. 🙂

There was a sitation in a game of me, some months ago, where a player occused me of railroading.

This was the situatie (In a game of “Das Schwarze Auge”, a german rolleplay), a low fantasy “realistic” game.

The heroes arrive in the capital (Warunk) of the black countries (evil, demonoverran domains), en sneak into the castle.
They get cought by a powerfull archmage, who tells them that he wants them to steal an item from his evil boss (an undead dragon), if the groups aggrees with this he will not sound the alarm, and also give the some vital information for the adventure. So, the mage doublecrosses his boss.
Everything fine until the point, all players roll with it.

However, the Tsa-priest (Godness of peace, children, happiness, …) doesnt want to make any deal with evil persons (because he uses demons, and ofcours priests != demons) out of principle.
The black mage tells here that if so doesnt agree, he will sound the alarm, and will kill here; the players know he singlehanded has the power to obliterate the players. The priest isn’t impressed.

I took the player in private, en told him very clear: “Look, if you keep doing this, you will die. This mage is an evil persons who slaugthers people who doesnt do what he wants, en you may roll for the fight, but you don’t stand a chance. Do you realise how serious this is”

In the end the player aggreed with the plans of the mage, so the story could continue, but the player said to me that this was a very bad form of railroading, she felt like she didn’t have any choice, that she had to agree.
In her words: “If you GM like this, You could also just read a book aloud, and didnt have a choice there”

I think that there where lots of choices to be made. She wasn’t forced to keep her word and actually perform the mission once she left, she could have tried to sneak in reinforcments, or she could die a heroic death (also an valid option). But it does have consequences when you say in the face of an evil overlord: “I will never work with you, infact I will tried to betray and kill you from the moment I leave here, because you are evil.”

What do you guys think?
How would you have handled the situation?
Was this railroading?

#25 Comment By E-l337 On June 10, 2011 @ 4:38 am


This is the sort of situation I do occasionally throw at my players, to see how they’ll react, because it’s interesting to see how different characters handle similar situations. I think that you were correct in taking your player aside and warning her – after all, sometimes players might think you’re just bluffing.

Now, with this being said, I like it when my players stick to their guns. Even if it is completely insane, if they say that they are going to commit to doing what it is their character feels they must do, then I will applaud them. Last session of my current campaign, one of the players turned himself in as one of the most wanted criminals in the wasteland – which he was – to an organization that would normally have killed him on the spot. He’d turned over a new leaf and wanted to commit himself to a mission of peace – even if it meant his death.

In this case, he was representing a mutant tribe who are best known for mindless slaughter. He turned himself in, and these people have a lot of guns. He did not resist, and eventually one of the other PCs (who were ‘turning him in’) managed to grant him an audience with the leaders, to speak on behalf of the mutants. After a very long and moving speech, he managed to convince them to call off the attacks on the mutants. He also secured his own execution the very next morning.

This was not railroading. This was just the way things went. If he had said the correct words, he could very well have walked out of that room a ‘free’ man. Instead, he chose to stick to his guns, and not change his mind – because that is what his character would do.

So, this is a long and probably roundabout way of saying this, but I think our players’ situations are quite similar. In my games, my players *always* have a choice. Some choices are just not as good as others, but at least I always give them the choice, and most importantly, I roll with it. So long as you run your games like this, that’s not railroading. That’s just making a good plan and following through.

Railroading is straight up telling the players “You can’t do that because if you do you will die, so I’m going to say you swallowed your pride.” THAT is railroading. Your player needs to stop being so butthurt that she can’t spit in the eye of someone who can actually kill her and get away with it.

#26 Comment By Skitty On July 20, 2012 @ 7:28 am

“Your player needs to stop being so butthurt that she can’t spit in the eye of someone who can actually kill her and get away with it.”

Exactly. I’ve played with people before who wanted to be able to dictate not just their actions, but the outcome of those actions, and when told that “that isn’t what would happen if you did that,” accused the GM of railroading.

It should be acknowledged that players can be just as guilty as GMs of “railroading” behavior.