Railroading: Plot & Player Agency

We’ve all heard it before. In fact, many of us have even said it before: Railroading is the worst. But here’s the thing, have you actually stopped to think about what Railroading is, who does it, and most importantly how to avoid it? Well, you probably have, TV Tropes even has an article on it, but I’m here to say there’s more to this story.

Whether you’re here to stop riding the rails in your campaign, or to observe one of the most notorious terms in all of tabletop RPG’s, we’re going to explore Railroading and its ramifications. Are you ready? Because this train is leaving the station. All Aboard!

Plot and Player Agency

Before we take a look at the crux of the problem, first we have to take a look at two points of any campaign. The first is the plot. The plot is an important point of many RPG games, and storytelling in general, it’s the narrative journey that your group goes on to find riches, glory, and perhaps to save the world! But more importantly, it’s typically linear. Think of movies, TV shows, and books, all of these have a linear story line that makes up the plot of the medium. Even in Tabletop RPG’s a linear plot is not necessarily a bad thing.

Player Agency, however, is always important in RPG’s This is the effect that the players’ characters can have on the world around them, and more important for the plot. It’s important for these characters to impact the plot for one reason: it’s their story. They are the protagonists of the plot that the Game Master is creating, so tell their story. The plot is meant to serve the players, not to use them.

Players are here to drive the story, not just to exist within it.

The Problem

At the core, the problem is when the plot overtakes player agency. If your players can see opportunities to make a decision and to try to act, they should be able to. More importantly, it should have the potential to make a difference in the world around them. Railroading, in essence, removes the player agency from the equation. The plot advances in spite of the players as opposed to with, or better yet, because of the characters.

The problem ultimately lies with the players being unable to make any decision that can make any impact whatsoever. Players are there to drive the story, not to just take place in it. “Of course!” you say. Many of us already realize this duality, but many don’t think of the culprits that can cause this behavior! And, let me say it’s quite a twist, as half of the culprits are players!

Next Steps

In our next article, we’re going to discuss the 4 types of railroads, and we don’t mean those ones from Monopoly! So get your ticket early because we’re filling up fast!