Talking D&D: Railroading

One of the greatest things I’ve come to enjoy about Dungeons & Dragons is the otherwise completely open world of exploring it has to offer. Not only that, you’re completely free to do as you will (within the confines of your PC that is), acting out and expressing yourself in the world as you come to learn and grow with it. Granted, this isn’t the only way if can be played, because it’s a completely customizable game capable of almost anything. And I would be a fool to say just D&D, because this is the attraction I have with tabletop gaming in general. The cooperative storytelling between the players and the DM/GM is what keeps me coming back.

During my time with gaming, however, I’ve discovered a curse word that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth: Railroading. In gaming terms, this is when the DM expects you to follow a certain path of actions in order to progress the game. Your input and creativity are ignored, and you will be stopped on every turn when you try to go your own path. This is downright ugly, and every DM should be warned to keep from playing a game like that, because your players will more than likely never let you DM again. A little extreme, I know, but it’s big deal when you tell a player they can’t break down a non-magical wooden locked door if they don’t have the key. I mean, really?

What’s really bizarre is I never really heard this word uttered until He Who Is An Ass said I was doing it in a previous game. Sure I had heard of the term and understood it a little, but I’ve never really looked into the finer details of what it meant until the game was called off and I researched my logic and that shared with me (though it was more like screamed than shared). And after all that, I still scratch my head at how such a conclusion could be drawn.

The way I see it, Railroading comes around when the DM tells you, “no, you can’t have that,” when there is no good reason why such an option isn’t available to the PC. In my own circumstance, the PCs were given many different options available to them, or simply didn’t bother to explore all the freedom they had possible. Granted, I could have explained these options better or even given them more, but I can’t be accused of forcing the PCs down a single path. Hell, He Who Is An Ass literally stopped gaming and participating, not even bothering to discover a means to go along the Quest given him or even remove it. I can’t be put to blame for a PCs unwillingness to participate.

After a lot of research and discussions, I’ve come to the conclusion that Railroading is nothing but a curse word to get under the skin of a DM, given by the angry and disgruntled player. In my case example, it’s a given the player had plenty of horrid gaming experiences in the past, and therefore judged every gaming challenge with those standards. That and he was a bitter, rotten bastard who had no control of his unending hatred. This is not to say there is no such thing as Railroading, because there is, and you should call on it if it’s really there. The problem is that every good game has some facet of the Railroad, but it’s given in the illusion of choices.

I’ve long since accepted what game is played and where it goes is mostly on the shoulders of the DM, because it’s through them and what they are willing to tackle that decides what the PCs and the players through them envision. Yes, the players also have the power to decide what they want to play and where they go, and I fight for the player’s right to control what they experience. However, the player will always come under the DM in regards to what story and world is presented, because they are the ones trying to give the experience to the lot. The DM is the difference between immersing in something truly fantastical and the PC getting exactly what they want and jerking off to it.

For that reason, I understand that Railroading will always be a part of tabletop gaming, if only because the PCs will never get what they want…and that’s a good thing. This doesn’t mean the DM has free reign to do what they want. Let’s go with example: you’re presented with going into the Temple of Doom and you should refrain for any reason, the Lich will destroy the land you hold dear. Going there is the only choice in preventing certain irreversible consequences, regardless of what the PC feels.

Now this scenario, even though it’s a fairly generic fantasy adventure, should really only be implemented with PCs who are willing to go through such a risk, because if they want to play a different type of game it will be illustrated through their unwillingness to play. As such, the DM needs to customize to the PC desires, not just giving hooks to the DMs presented path, but other options to give freedom for PCs to breathe. Winging it is a constant in the world of tabletop gaming, all for the sake of giving the illusion of choice to the PC. Again, this doesn’t mean the PC has limited choices from the DM, but unlimited choices to be fueled to the DM in creating an amazing experience for them. You’re only held back by your imagination…at least in a good game that is. And I’ve played in bad games.

I once played in a LARP, and the pull was very strong to me because it not only had the same potential of tabletop I found appealing, but added a whole new complexity to the style with real life interaction. As I continued to play in the system I was provided, however, I discovered a lot of it held more to D&D 4th Edition with emphasis on fighting, was becoming more complex than it was meant to be, and had too many games which kept you from going and doing anything other than what the writer wanted you to do. Railroading was never more real to me than when I began to fully realize this.

Granted, I could simply point to improper game writing and design (especially from He Who Is An Ass), or I was looking for something in a game that just didn’t provide what I was looking for. I had planned to write some games for the LARP to try and make changes and show a vision not being presented, but I’ve sadly left the game completely late last year for entirely different reasons. It was a good experience though, and has taught me on what to and not do in order to make an enjoyable game. May go back into LARP with my ideas at some point, but I’m comfortable with where I’m going on tabletop in the now.

There were also games where certain things had to pass, such as the continued life of the PCs or needing to say a certain thing or do a certain action (even if there was no way the PCs could know), or else the game would come to a screeching halt. When presented with such things, the DM would Railroad in a certain action to keep the game going. In the worst cases I’ve ever seen, battles we were going to die in were wiped away so we wouldn’t have to deal with the obvious fail ahead of us. This takes me away from the experience of the game, because the idea of a threat is completely destroyed, and the idea of learning from failure, one of the core principles of gaming, becomes moot.

The strangest thing I’ve come to learn about Railroading is how easy it is to fall into it and enjoy on some fashion. Besides, a JRPG is nothing but a Railroad, and I have enjoyed plenty of those games in my youth (early Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games own me). And no matter how complex they get, they still limited what you did and what you could do through the commands and options available. Sure, you could customize your character in a means to be more powerful than what the game expects you to be, but that’s not true role-playing. And yet I enjoyed these games all the same, and while I have some gripes about them now as a more refined player, I still enjoy them now and then.

Simply put, Railroading is a very easy and fun tool to use to get a game going…used in the right fashion that is. It can be as ugly as the ugly people would want to make you to believe, but it doesn’t have to be and it really isn’t. Keeping the game on certain Rails limits what a party can do, yes, but for a party of new PCs that may be a good thing. Giving complete freedom to a PC is a dangerous and scary thing, and D&D and other tabletop games give that in spades, and sometimes the PC doesn’t know what to do with it. And for the PC that does…well, you as the DM need to make the call, all in the vein of giving the most amount of fun to everyone at the table. And you as the player need to understand there are no roads: just paths the DM is waiting to present to you. Find them, and if the DM is worth their salt you will not be disappointed.


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6 thoughts on “Talking D&D: Railroading

  1. […] you, rather than ignoring it and deciding what happens. That would be considered another version of Railroading, and nothing kills a game faster than deeming certain rolls are deemed pointless (for good or ill). […]

  2. John June 27, 2011 at 9:31 am Reply

    This was a helpful read, thanks Joe!

  3. 2011 In Review | Joe's Ranting Place January 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm Reply

    […] off, my most popular post of the year was Talking D&D: Railroading, and in a strange coincidence the day it was posted was also the most my blog was viewed. I could […]

  4. Tom June 6, 2014 at 12:11 am Reply

    I know I’m pretty late to this post but I really found this helpful. Im a new DM with new players so I have been watching a lot of videos online about how to run games.The term railroading really scared me from preparing too much and got to the table and felt under prepared. It’s good to know its not such a dirty thing.

  5. Dan Wolters June 15, 2014 at 12:43 am Reply

    There is good and bad railroading.

    If a DM uses Railroading (let’s face it, some level of RR is inevitable if there is any kind of plot arch to a campaign), they need to do it with no small amount of subtlety and ALWAYS in a way that enhances the gaming experience for the players. If the DM has planned a really epic event and the players unwittingly bypass it through their actions, I see nothing wrong with the DM simply moving the event to another place or changing its context just so that the players PCs can experience it, harvest the spoils as well as the consequences for an eventual fuck-up during the event. In other words, RR is ok as long as it doesn’t feel like RR. Bottom line, the DM has to really know what he’s doing.

    Then there is bad RR. The prime example of which is when the DM is too zealous. He makes lightning quick, albeit rash adjustments, micromanages to every single situation. Worst of all, when he hinders, or even punishes player inventiveness and creativity, twisting every word or action by the players to cause a predetermined outcome.

    I had a DM do that a couple of months ago. Basically, whenever we as players declared our actions, he nitpicked spoken wording, treating almost every situation as if we were wording a Wish. The problem was that he saw all our actions through his RR filter, and thus jumped to faulty conclusions as to what our actions were. The result was always that he too hastily divulged information what the consequences of those misinterpreted actions were – making it painfully obvious that the outcomes were already predetermined.


    We were standing in front of a doorway beyond which is a pitch dark room. The DM thought nobody can see what lurked in the darkness, not considering the possibility that one party member had 60ft of dark vision. When PC (w/o dark vision) standing in front of the doorway makes way for the PC with dark vision, (player announces that he looks into the room) the DM jumps to the conclusion that the player enters the room. The consequence is that the PC gets attacked. The player then protests that he never said he entered the room. Then the DM says that something grabs him and yanks him into the room. The player protests again and wonders why the monster didn’t grab the first PC standing in front of the door.

    The DM heard what he wanted to hear, jumped to the wrong conclusion, and divulged a hidden threat. However, instead of cutting his losses and simply saying “ok, you see a creature lurking in there…” the DM railroads the situation because he really really wanted this ambush to happen. He didn’t even roll any dice to determine the outcome of the monster’s action, it was just automatically successful. The player then protests again that he should at least be granted a chance to avoid the assault since he saw the monster coming – making the ambush… into not an ambush at all but instead a head-on assault. The DM first denies the request, then conceded a DEX check with a ridiculous penalty that most certainly guaranteed a failed roll.

    Sadly, this type of bad RR happens too often

  6. Indelisio April 14, 2017 at 1:22 pm Reply

    I agree with most of it. However, I’m not an advocate of ‘all rails = no fun.’ Some people don’t like sandboxes and I’m one of them. As a player, I expect something at least relatively linear. If my character or other characters suffer grave consequences in-game simply because I’m dumb IRL, that’s not a good game. I don’t see any problem with tabletops being run like jrpgs and I prefer to play in one of those, personally. Many players hate that but you can’t say it’s ‘bad’, when that’s literally just a matter of perspective. Clearly, the very fact that there’s at least one person (myself) that actually likes railroads proves it’s not ‘bad’. Thanks for the read.

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