Stop Railroading: Avoiding the Pitfalls

Finally, Part 3! In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2. No longer are we tying the PC’s to the tracks for the plot to run them over. The Game Master conductors know that the railroad switches need to be hit. Everyone hop on board as we look at how to stop Railroading. Woo woo!

The Balance

One thing to remember from our first article is Plot vs Player Agency. In reality, even when these seem diametrically opposed, they also aren’t. Players drive the plot, but the plot can also drive the players, especially if you integrate player ideas with the plot. I would like you to consider podcasts like The Adventure Zone. This podcast is incredibly plot-heavy, sometimes restricting players actions more than most regular tabletop sessions, but it’s in order to keep the listener’s attention (which all podcasters are familiar with).

But even though the plot plays a heavy role in their gameplay, their Game Master Griffin McElroy provides excellent opportunities for the players to still come up with creative solutions, and drive the story in between sessions. In the end, Plot and Player Agency can be a balancing act, and when done correctly it will completely stop railroading in it’s tracks!

Providing Tracks

When you consider, most Game Masters have some sort of story arc planned from an early stage, how can players consider their actions important if the plot is predetermined? Keeping with the train analogies, Game Masters should provide your players with their own tracks. This means that Players have to provide the path that they wish to forge in their campaign.

The best Game Masters, are masters of improv, coming up with amazing ideas off the cuff. (If you’re stuck and need a little bit of inspiration, you can always use our Generator) However, most Game Masters find ways of making it appear as if they are improving, even though they aren’t. Instead of creating full linear stories, GM’s become masters of taking pre-planned events and letting the characters lay the tracks for them.

Gromit desperately creating a Track for a train
Game Masters must learn to react to their players, pulling out a segment of “Track” wherever the players steered the train.

The GM creates the tracks, these are the little events. Meeting a tavern owner, shopping at the black market, taking the road less traveled. These are tracks that players choose, and the Game Master needs to be ready for all of them.  This is where modular planning comes into play. GM’s can think of situations that can apply to many circumstances, and create situations around them, adding them in depending on the player’s situations.

Defining the Stops

Moving forward with the story, however, there are scenes that the Game Master has likely been planning for quite a while. These are the train-stops that are unavoidable one way or another. Stops are plot forwarding situations that players may inadvertently. If you’re planning for a game-changing dragon attack in the city of Boringtown, what if your players decide, that town sounds dull and wish to avoid it indefinitely? As a GM, move the event where your players want to go. Sure, it can feel like railroading, but players like to advance the plot, just like how the Game Master likes to. In this case, you’re letting your character’s choices move where the story goes, as opposed to moving them where you want them to go.

Alternatively, what if your players know that the dragon attack is going to Boringtown before they decide to travel elsewhere? Let their decision carry weight! Just because the players have full run of the story, doesn’t mean that their actions don’t have consequences. The world continues regardless of their action as well. Boringtown might be destroyed because the players decided on a different path. Although it may not seem like it, this also advances the plot. If they knowingly pass up on a plot point, make it matter in some way.

Player Investment

Now, if your players are constantly passing up the stops, that’s when you may need to step back. This is when you should talk with your players to see if they are actually interested in the story, or if they want it to go in a different direction. Without player investment into the story itself, the plot becomes a chore. It becomes the dreaded Railroading. However, with investment, it’s furthering their own story. Investment is the key difference between something that the players have been looking forward to doing, or shoehorning them in where they don’t want to be.

Gromit laying tracks for a model train
Player vs GM is never a good place to be.

An honest out of character talk is usually enough to fix most problems. Sometimes, a player will want to switch characters to fit the feel of the campaign. Let them. Sometimes, the GM needs to focus more on one storyline than another. Or occasionally, you can rope a few players more invested in the further plot in some way.

Usually, when players avoid plot lines it’s due to being unaware that its a plot point or they are engaged by the story. The first is usually fairly easy to resolve, the second, however, comes down to talking to the players to see what they want in the campaign.

Have you ever been Railroaded in game, or been the one Railroading? Let us know your tips and tricks to avoid it below!