Ken Hite recently ruffled a few feathers by declaring at a seminar that “Railroading is a pejorative term for a game in which something is accomplished.”
It’s an easy point to argue (as the nice people at rpg.net have demonstrated) but doing so rather misses the point. The purpose of a generalization like that is not to be true, but rather, to be useful. I have spent no small amount of time talking about how to avoid railroading in games, both as a GM and as an adventure designer, but there’s an important point that runs through all those warnings: there are very good reasons that people railroad.
Now, yes, there are also bad reasons. The nightmare scenario is the adventure which consists pretty much entirely of watching the GM do a puppet show of the story which is totally going to be the basis of that novel which is going to make him famous when he gets around to writing it. Nobody wants that, and when it’s the adventure designer who writes the puppet show, that’s even worse because it just encourages that sort of behavior.
There is also a somewhat more dull sort of railroading that occurs when the player’s stray from the GM’s notes. The classic example of this is the unfinished dungeon map, where the characters are steered away from the parts that haven’t been filled in yet. This example sticks in the mind because a lot of us have experience with it (from our own days of vast dungeons scratched out in pencil on graph paper) but I think it’s a less important one, if only because it’s a hallmark of inexperience, not a true technique. That is to say, more experienced GMs don’t have this problem because they have taught themselves how to wing it in those situations, or they have learned not to use incomplete dungeons.
But the main reason good GMs railroad is, to come back to Ken, to make things happen. The railroad is the through-line of the adventure, the sequence of events that makes it all make sense. It’s not something every game needs to work - it can be equally effective (if more work) to craft a compelling, dynamic situation and insert the characters - but having a through-line helps insure a satisfying conclusion. This is especially true in adventures that have a clearly procedural bent, where the first action leads to the second action and so on (you see this a lot in police mysteries and revenge stories). For these games, that process is a bit of a necessity - skipping over bits tends to either be impossible (because key information is missing or because key steps are left undone - like missing a target or failing to get proper evidence for a conviction).
It’s easy to characterize that sort of game as railroading, but the reality is it’s just a good match for the game in question. The problem comes when that same model is misapplied, either to adventures where it’s a mismatch (such as objective based ones) or handled poorly.
For an objective based game (rescue the princess, steal the widget), players can easily get frustrated if there is only one path to the objective (especially if that path is kind of stupid). One of the joys of fiction and play is unexpected solutions to sticky problems, and given a clear goal, you can expect players to pursue those unexpected solutions with great vigor. Designing such a game with only one path to success invites frustration, especially if that path is easily circumvented (as in the case of an adventure where players can skip large parts of the middle by flying rather than walking).
That frustration tends to lead to the reason railroading is a pejorative - the bad GMing techniques that emerge when players go off the tracks. When players deviate from the script, the GM can choose to roll with it and see where it goes, but she might also choose to try to force the players back onto the right track by force and trickery. Maybe it’ll be subtle enough to feel organic, but it can escalate pretty easily. The GM’s gentle nudge fails, so it becomes a hint, which becomes a push, which becomes a blatant abuse of authority and things end up feeling crappy for everyone.
Obviously, that’s something to avoid, but that’s not hard - it’s a failure of technique more than anything else. Realizing that you’re setting up a railroad for a situation that is a poor match can save you a ton of hassles down the line and by extension, recognizing the same in published games can save you similar hassles.
In the end, I would advise most GMs to think in terms of roads rather than railroads. Feel free to build in those plot threads and through-lines and have them go interesting places. You and your players will probably find it rewording, and if done well, your players will stick to the roads more often than not. But unlike railroads, there’s no disaster when someone swings off a road in an unexpected direction. The trip may be a bit bumpier, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go someplace cool.
1 - This can happen even when the GM doesn’t have a plot of through-line in mind, and is instead merely thrown off by the players circumventing his brilliant encounters. This is even more petty, and there tends to be a streak of vindictiveness to it as the GM seeks to punish the players for “outsmarting” him. This is not a technique, it’s just being a douche, but enough people have seen it in action that it’s left long scars across the hobby.