Common Pitfalls of Tabletop Gaming: Railroading

Of all the common pitfalls I may call into discussion, this one is, by popular opinion, the most difficult to properly address. The reason for this, as continually debated by members of the tabletop community, is because the act of directly or indirectly influencing the players' actions according to a Host's whims ("railroading") is a necessary evil, in certain situations. There are, of course, varying views on the necessity of such a technique, but this controversial storytelling device, unlike other aspects of the game, such as house rules or game moderator-controlled player characters (GMPC's), isn't susceptible to total exclusion. Depending on one's personal definition of said act, it may be possible to state that anyone running a plot-driven scenario engages in some form of 'railroading'.

What is 'Railroading'?

As previously stated, nearly any attempt to 'steer' a player's action towards a destination desired by the Host may be considered to be 'railroading' said player. This is drawn from the image of a rail-based form of transportation: it never strays from the path outlined for it; always diligently moving towards a predetermined destination. As the general arbiter for all things that occur in the fictional universe, such influence is quite the convenience, as it allows one to prepare material for the session that's directly relevant to the PC's actions. Such foresight can also enable impressive feats of storytelling, as complete management of the involved characters ensures that all participants are where they belong, doing whatever task has been asked of them. Unfortunately, many that choose to practice such influence take this already-potent technique to an extreme, leaving a number of dissatisfied players in their wake. This all-too-common lack of moderation, above all else, is what has served to give the term 'railroading' its inherently negative connotation.

Bad Railroading

Absolute power has the tendency to corrupt absolutely, a fact often experienced by those unfortunate enough to have a Host enamored with their own story. In these cases, the campaign's creator/moderator places so much pride and joy in their creation that when the time comes to play, leaving plot progression entirely in the hands of the PC's comes at too much of a risk. Unsure of their group's ability to 'correctly' navigate this magnum opus, they place them on rails, thus limiting their ability to choose their own path, if not prohibiting interaction with the environment altogether. This runaway flight of fancy is often accompanied by the intrusive arrival of a godly GMPC, who, as mentioned in my previous post, only serves at this point to steal the spotlight and progress through the adventure exactly as the Host intended. As such, the Players are left practically helpless, having only been allowed such a minor level of input unheard of since the debut of Final Fantasy XIII.


Host: (Alright, I'll have them go through the forest, enter the cave, and get ambushed by gnolls) "After an arduous trek through the forest, you approach the base of a large mountain. Your destination is on the other side. From what you can see, a cave runs through the mountain. Actions?"

Player 1: "Hm, that cave looks dangerous. I think we better go over the mountain, guys."

Host: "You can't, it's too windy and you'll fall off."

Player 2: "But I have the finger strength of a rock-climbing Bard..."

Host: "Nope, won't work."

Player 3: "Well, how about around it? It'll take a bit longer, but at least we can set up camp in the woods once more."

Host: "No, there are dragons there."

Player 3: "We can see that through the dense morning fog?"

Host: "No-, I mean, yes. Actually, you hear them. They sound tough. Better go through the cave."

Player 1: "I think I still have that scroll of Greater Telepor-"


Good Railroading

Most Hosts that employ railroading are quite forceful, often breaking the sense of immersion with some sort of boundary or restrictive ruling (outside of normal rule enforcement, of course); they see an attempt to stray from the path and are abruptly quick to get things on schedule. A truly talent storyteller, on the other hand, rolls with the punches, playing along with whatever random detour the Players may take, until (s)he gets a chance to set things back on track. The key difference here (and this is important), being that no one else ever knew that they had 'left the tracks'. As subtle as a ninja conducting neurosurgery, the plot progresses once more, preserving both the level of immersion and the illusion of choice, both of which, must be constantly maintained to preserve the overall enjoyment of the session.

Host: (Alright, I'll have them go through the forest, enter the cave, and get ambushed by gnolls) "After an arduous trek through the forest, you approach the base of a large mountain. Your destination is on the other side. From what you can see, a cave runs through the mountain. Actions?"

Player 1: "Hm, that cave looks dangerous. I think we better go over the mountain, guys."

Host: "...With your scroll of Greater Teleportation, I assume?"

Player 1: "Ah, I had forgotten I still had that. Thanks for the suggestion."

Host: "No problem" (I've been dying to make you get rid of that scroll, anyway.)

Player 1: *teleports party to top of mountain*

Host: "You're about halfway there, but you have to climb the rest of the way. Start making rolls to proceed."

Player 2: "Since I have the best ability to climb obstacles, I'll tie you guys to my waist and help you along the rest of the way.

Players 1&3: "Ok"

Player 2: *roll* "25", *roll* "29", *roll* "Crap...11"

Host: (Ah, a low result, just what I'm looking for) "Unfortunately for your party, you lose your grip, sending the lot of your tumbling down the steep mountainside.

Player 3: "Can I make a roll to grab onto a ledge, or something?"

Host: "Sure" (Let me just set the difficulty at 8,000 or so...)

Player 3: *roll* "...19?"

Host: Your reflexes have failed you. The force of your plummeting bodies breaks through a worn spot of granite, plunging you and your party into the murky darkness of the mountain's interior. Fortunately, the fall isn't enough to kill you. The Gnolls that inhabit this network of caves, on the other hand, may be quite detrimental to your health."

...And that's how you railroad your players properly.

I hope this advice serves to make your next session/campaign/etc. all the more enjoyable.


Jesse Crows said...

railroading seems like an interesting term

bb31 said...

hmm... can't say i have any experience with this

Intraman said...

haha these scenarios actually made me chuckle. railroading sounds like a really annoying practice

theWhale said...

Good railroading: PORTAL!
I rest my case ;)

theWhale said...

So give them a sense of false freedom

ChazWellington said...

hm. never heard of railroading before this. thanks for that

Wolle said...

you must be really good at this.

LaserDollars said...

Always wanted to try out tabletop gaming, your blog makes me want to go out and find some people. =]

Anonymous said...

Your blog is a place of learning.

Snoopaloop~! said...

ya back in high school days, our dm was the fucking worst railroader ever. We'd finish our quest in like 2 hours.

Jetah said...

Nice post. It can be infuriating when playing these types of games and one gets railroaded.

braumaman said...

Railroading seems like a lazy form of progression. Rather than let the character find his way to the end, you're basically forcing them somewhere on your terms not theirs.

psychpost said...

(Ah, a low result, just what I'm looking for)

what would you do here if they had gotten a decent roll?

Alpha said...


Either ask for more rolls and wait until a low one pops up or choose the lowest out of the bunch already provided.

If all else fails, just wait until another suitable opportunity for redirection presents itself.

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