Rant: On Railroads (or Plot != Railroad)

Between blogs, twitter, forums and podcasts I consume, on an average week, a considerable quantity of RPG material (it’s one of the few bonuses of having two hours of commuting per day). One of the topics that keeps coming up time and time again is that of railroading and how it is a bad thing under most circumstances. Which I agree with. It’s just the definition of railroad that gets to me, as I regularly see posts (or hear episodes) that insinuate if the GM comes to a session with any plot / plans then they are railroading the game. So let me just get my opinion out there,

Having plot is NOT railroading.

Simple as. It’s only a railroad when the GM forces the players onto that plot and forces them to follow it in the manner the GM expects. If I, as GM, come to the table with plans for the game then unless it’s the start of a new game it will be based on the actions of the previous session. I might have expectations on where the game will go and will plan accordingly, that doesn’t mean I am railroading the players, merely that I am planning ahead based on the direction the game has already taken. No, it may not be a truly sandbox game but even if I were planning a sandbox game I would still expect to come to the table with some plans on where the session might go, the only difference is that the initial plot hook would have come from the PCs as opposed to me dangling it in front of them as an option. They’re free to ignore that hook, go off and do something else instead. Hell one of the most enjoyable Demon Hunters adventures I’ve ever run was triggered by one of the players seeing a plot hook in what I’d intended as a mere background description. That was five minutes into the session and resulted in me throwing out my entire plot, calling a beer break so I could come up with a new plot (based around the aspect that had grabbed the players attention) then continuing in the new direction.

So I still had a plot. And I still wasn’t railroading. What I’m saying is that it’s only a railroad if I force the players onto a particular path and shut down their options when they deviate from my plan. Having a plot, that’s just saying to the players that “hey, there’s something interesting over here if you want to take a look.”

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2 thoughts on “Rant: On Railroads (or Plot != Railroad)”

  1. Exactly true. Plans and plot are not cages, just resources for the GM. Railroading happens when the players are denied a chance to choose the path for their characters.

  2. For me at least the difference between good game mastering and bad is a good GM provides an appropriate conflict/obstacle based on the shared narrative, the bad GM limits how the group reacts to said conflict.

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