Leaving the Railroads Behind

Railroad is one of the buzzwords that strikes up ire in most playgroups, the kind that gets players fuming and leads to GMs being reviled. Unfortunately, it’s also a technique that’s very, very easy to fall into.

For the uninitiated, railroading is forcing the characters back onto a plot when they’ve gone astray, usually in a very blatant manner. Most often, this is done by giving “choices” that all lead to the same conclusion, by making all options other than the one the players are “supposed” to take essentially useless, or by creating a situation out of nowhere that forces them back onto the path. The iconic example involves players trying to step off of a road between two points and being chased back on by a giant monster they can’t possibly handle, but not all methods are that blatant.

“What’s the problem?” you ask. “Isn’t it my story?” Yes, but this is where we come up against free will, and the idea of everyone enjoying themselves. These people aren’t here to follow a path with no chance of being able to change anything; if they want that, they’ll just play a video game, or read a book. Short version: Do. Not. Railroad.

Now, this isn’t to say that a little guidance isn’t a bad thing, on a covert level. Every now and then a group gets lost, and needs that little hint to get back on track—or worse, they’re going after a red herring far longer than they should have. The thing is, you have to make sure there’s still some sort of meaningful choice.

This can mean a lot of things. We might ad-lib something as they move farther and farther from the road, in general creating a situation that doesn’t ruin the game but bores them or inconveniences the characters sufficiently that they go back of their own accord. If they insist on not going after that beast that lairs a few miles away and occasionally eats random villagers, it does the logical thing and keeps eating random villagers, and if the players billed themselves as heroes—well, they’ll be lucky if all they get from the locals is nasty looks. If they’re considering killing someone important to the plot, particularly in a civilized area, we remind them out of character about the laws around here, and if they insist on killing the character in question anyway, we enforce them. (Note: While suddenly making the person they weren’t supposed to kill and/or the town watch way to powerful for the group is quite effective, it has a tendency to break suspension of disbelief; try to keep your reaction in keeping with how the world had worked before the group got out of line.) If they try talking to the people they’re supposed to fight, we make it very, very difficult for that strategy to succeed, but not quite impossible. The basic thing to keep in mind is that in just about any world, actions have consequences, and the object of the game is to demonstrate this in as internally consistent a manner as possible.

The next time you need to nudge your players, look at your strategy carefully, then ask yourself a few questions. First, could this reasonably happen, according to what both you and they know about the world? Can it be done within the rules? Has it been in some way set up, or implied? If not (even if so), will you be able to find and deliver a convincing explanation for it later? If your answers come up yes, you’re probably clear to implement it; if not, consider a modified or even entirely different technique.

If out of character redirection attempts don’t work, don’t be afraid to let the group know that you’re having difficulty with their decisions, either. Often, it will be possible to come up with some sort of compromise that leaves the characters true to their concepts and the story still true to your plot.  Don’t be afraid to change the story, either; oftentimes, the group stepping off the tracks will lead to a better result than the road(s) you had planned for them.

Note: These strategies are designed for reasonable players. If you have a group that avoids plot hooks for out of character reasons that sum up to “They’re plot hooks”, they’re probably not the kind of people you want to game with anyway.

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