The Alexandrian

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Railroading can take myriad of forms, but it tends to boil down into a few major methods.

ENFORCING FAILURE: The PCs cast a teleport spell to bypass the frost giants guarding the Necromancer’s inner sanctum (that’s the player choice), but you want them to meet the Frost Giant King (that’s the preconceived outcome), so you decide to add a teleport interdiction field to the inner sanctum (that’s enforcing failure). The wizard casts a finger of death on the Frost Giant King (that’s the player choice), but you need the king to escape so that he can wage war against the human kingdoms in Act III (that’s the preconceived outcome), so you fudge his saving throw to keep him alive (that’s the enforced failure).

In its extreme form, enforcing failure becomes pixelbitching: Absolutely nothing works except for the precise preconceived path that the GM envisioned for the adventure, so the PCs are left to fail and fail and fail again until they finally guess what the GM wants them to do. (The term comes from poorly designed computer adventure games where players had to guess which specific portion King's Quest V - Sierra Gamesof the screen the designer wanted them to click on.)

Enforcing failure can also crop up in adventure design, but it’s a gray area: Bank vaults are supposed to be difficult to steal from. It’s not railroading if you design a bank vault with a big heavy door and a really difficult lock. It’s not even enough to look at the intention behind those design decisions (because, of course, your intention with the big heavy door and the really difficult lock is, in fact, to prevent the PCs from accessing the vault in certain ways). You have to look at the totality of the design here: If your scenario is designed in such a way that the predesigned world is constantly funneling the PCs into a single course of action, you’ve probably got a problem.

Generally speaking, designing your scenario from the perspective of the game world (instead of from the perspective of how to control your PCs and guarantee specific outcomes) generally solves the problem.

Another gray area arises when failure is enforced on a macro-scale: If the PCs successfully take an action that should prevent a specific event from happening, but then the event happens anyway, that’s a form of enforcing failure. For example, let’s say that the PCs are serving as bodyguards for Lord Harrow. Lady Karna sends a squad of orcs to kidnap Lord Harrow and the PCs defeat them. But you really need Lord Harrow kidnapped, so you decide to add another squad of orcs who pop out and grab him. That’s railroading.

But if you’re dealing with smart, active opposition that are trying to make a specific event happen, the fact that they keep trying to make it happen even after you’ve stopped them once isn’t railroading. For example, if Lady Karna responds to the PCs defeating her orcs by sending a different kidnapping team the next day that’s not railroading.

FALSE CHOICE: “We take the corridor on the right.” “You find the Altar of Despair.” [REWIND] “We take the corridor on the left.” “You find the Altar of Despair.”

This is similar to the magician’s choice: The PCs appear to have a free choice between multiple options, but no matter which choice they make the GM forces the outcome he wanted the PCs to choose. (For example, the magician asks the spectator to choose between two cards. If the spectator chooses card A he says, “Flip that card over!” If the spectator chooses card B he says, “Okay, we put that card back in the deck. Flip the other card over.”)

Location-based false choices are quite common: No matter where you go, you end up in the same place.

Event-based false choices are also quite prevalent, although they can run into the gray area of smart opposition. (Lady Karna’s kidnapping teams finding Lord Harrow a second time is railroading if you’ve simply negated whatever security precautions the PCs have made to prevent that from happening. But Lady Karna really wants to find Lord Harrow, so it’s reasonable for her to have invested the cash in a scrying spell if the PCs have exhausted all of her mundane efforts to locate him.)

Another variant of the false choice is the timeline that doesn’t matter. In published scenarios, this seems to often show up in the form of, “No matter how long it takes the PCs to reach the Lost City of Bakkanar, the bad guys have gotten there just before them.” Here, though, you can see the gray area between enforcing failures and false choices: Is this a false choice because it doesn’t matter whether they travel by ship or horse or teleport spell? Or are you enforcing failure by claiming that their effort to use a teleport spell to outpace the bad guys automatically doesn’t work? It doesn’t really matter, of course. It’s railroading either way.

PROMPTING: Prompting is not, strictly speaking, a method of railroading, but it’s a related technique. It basically boils down to the GM making suggestions about what the PCs should be doing, either directly or indirectly. A common variant is the GM NPC who tags along with the group and either tells the PCs what to do or hints at it. GMs can also prompt in the metagame by simply telling the players what their characters are supposed to be doing.

A more complicated form of prompting is simply having negative consequences from failing to take a particular action: Something horrible happens, informing the PCs that they should have taken action to prevent it. If they still have the opportunity to undo it (or stop it from becoming worse), then that’s serving the same function as a nudge. For example, they hear a rumor that there’s a Necromancer in the forest that’s using a bane bone to create skeletons. They ignore it and a week later a group of skeletons attacks the village. They continue to ignore it and the skeletal attacks become larger and more frequent until, finally, they return from the dungeon one day to discover that the Necromancer has taken over the whole village and reared a tower of bone in the town square.

Some prompting has a generally negative effect on the game (because it tends to influence or corrupt the players’ decision-making process). Other prompting has a generally positive effect on the game. But prompting, by itself, isn’t railroading.

Where it intersects railroading, however, is when the GM is using the prompt to tell the players what the GM’s preconceived course of action is. The GM is basically saying, “You should be doing this. If you try anything else, it’s going to fail because this is the thing that you should be doing.”

MIND CONTROL: Mind control is a special case. When a PC has their mind controlled, the GM isn’t negating the outcome of a choice. Instead, they are removing the player’s agency entirely. It’s a complicated issue that deserves a dedicated discussion of its own.

As far as railroading is concerned, my opinion is that mind control is not necessarily railroading in much the same way that failing to hit an ogre with your sword isn’t. Where it becomes railroading is if the GM uses mind control in order to create a preconceived outcome. (Although here, again, there’s a legitimate gray area: It’s not unreasonable for Lady Karna to use a dominate person spell on a PC in order to have them lead her kidnapping squad to Lord Harrow’s hiding place.)

If I was looking for a litmus test here, it would be the GM’s willingness to fudge the PC’s saving throw in order to make sure the mind control happened. That’s a dead giveaway that they’re committed to their preconception.

GUARANTEEING SUCCESS: Is it railroading to guarantee that the PCs succeed at what they want to succeed at?

I don’t necessarily have a satisfactory answer to that question. For the sake of argument, let’s lay aside the issue of game mechanics that guarantee success for the moment (whether that’s universal mechanics like GUMSHOE’s automatic clue-finding or specific instances like a character who’s skill is so high that they’ll automatically succeed on a particular task) and simplify the discussion by simply talking about a GM fudging a die roll to make a PC succeed where they should have failed.

Is that railroading?

My gut says that it isn’t. There is a fundamental difference in kind between negating a player’s choice and enabling that choice.

With that being said, however, the guaranteeing of success does share a number of negative traits in common with railroading: It flattens the gaming experience by making it more predictable. It removes complexity and interest from the scenario. And it can significantly warp the decision-making process of the players.

This becomes particularly true if the GM shows favoritism towards enabling only certain types of decisions. (Which should become really obvious if you consider that one type of decision that can be selectively enabled is “decisions which lead to my preconceived outcome”.)


A categorical distinction is often drawn between visible railroads (where the players can see the tracks) and invisible railroads (where the mechanisms are hidden from them). Invisible railroads are sometimes referred to as illusionism (referring to the fact that the players only have the illusion of free choice), and the simplest example would be fudging a die roll behind the GM’s screen. In any case, the difference between a visible railroad and invisible railroad is more of a spectrum.

Invisible railroads are often invoked as another excuse for railroading:

It doesn’t matter if the players don’t know they’re being railroaded!

In practice, however, I would note a couple of things.

First, GMs tend to overestimate the degree to which their players don’t notice their railroads. Lots of players are polite enough not to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t see his feet poking out from behind the curtain.

Second, the majority of negative effects created by a railroad exist whether the players are aware of the railroad or not.

Go to Part 3: Penumbra of Problems

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12 Responses to “The Railroading Manifesto – Part 2: Methods of the Railroad”

  1. Confanity says:

    A note on “guaranteeing success”: as you say, it doesn’t feel like railroading to cheat in order to ensure that “the PCs succeed at what they want to succeed at.” But as you also gesture toward, it does become much more railroadey if the GM only ensures that success for what s/he wants them to succeed at. For example, fudging rolls to make sure the PCs win the sub-boss battle at the appointed time and place, despite them making some terrible tactical decisions.

    There’s a further step, though. Just as one method for railroading auto-failure involves the game world warping (extra enemies appearing, etc.), there’s also the world warping to facilitate railroadey auto-success. Are the PCs letting a target get away when they were supposed to capture and interrogate him? It turns out that they chased him into a town guard roadblock. Are the PCs late for their appointment with destiny? Elminster shows up and teleports them the rest of the way. Did the party miss or skip the treasure room containing the magic item they were supposed to pick up? The wizard’s raven familiar senses the shinies within and picks the lock with its beak and the door just swings open.

    TL;DR: You focus on mechanical success, which has a wide gray zone, but forcing unearned story success is also a tool some GMs (and some adventures, most likely) use, and it’s much more of a blatant railroad.

  2. Margrave says:

    In don’t see how the ‘complicated prompting’ example (the necromancer) can be related to railroading. It doesn’t negate player choice or flatten the experience – quite the opposite, in fact. The mere fact that the PC’s choices (to ignore the necromancer) come with consequences attached seems like an organic development of that story arc to me. While it can be argued the DM is trying to lure the PCs to the necromancer by placing progressively larger neon signs flashing above his head, that needn’t be true – not neccesarily. Perhaps the PCs WANT the necromancer to overrun the area. Perhaps they have made the tough choice of saving the Kingdom at the cost of allowing this town to fall? I do see what you are trying to say, but I think the example is missing the context necessary to explain where exactly it intersects with railroading techniques.

  3. Baquies says:

    I think we call it PixelHunting now.
    Otherwise, nifty breakdown.

  4. Todd says:

    On the subject of false choice via timeline manipulation, you want to be careful not to confuse railroading with what I’ll call a “dangling hook”. This is an adventure hook that is situation based and triggered by an encounter, but the encounter schedule is unrelated to the players previous storylines and they are unaware of the timing involved.
    For instance, you may have a scenario hook in a city like, “As the characters pass a tavern, a drunk stumbles out and collides with the lead character. He’s ranting about .” Despite being a false timeline (if they’re 10 min late they don’t miss the drunk), having this hook present itself whenever the characters wander down that street regardless of when they do isn’t railroading. We create flexible timelines all the time to present opportunities for scenario hooks.
    Now, if you’re manipulating events to force them to pursue that scenario (and its not warranted by the “natural” events surrounding it), or you’re making alterations to force the hook to occur in exactly the way you envisioned (for example, you force them into town when they weren’t going to stop there), then you’ve crossded the line.

  5. Todd says:

    The “complicated prompting” one is tricky. Are these different?

    1) There’s a horror building that, if left unchecked, will eventually impact the whole world, including the PCs wherever they may go.

    2) I really want the players to fight this horror, so I keep escalating it and throwing it in front of them until they engage with it.

    Assuming the GM is skilled at keeping their world deterministic and consistent (they’re not breaking there own version of physics or creating new magics for the sole purpose of countering the players actions), it seems like the only practical difference is intent. So are situations like these the railroading equivalent of Murder 1 vs Manslaughter?

  6. Jagyr says:

    I agree with Margrave @ 2 and Todd @ 4.

    I don’t think the necromancer skeleton siege is a good example of railroading because of this line: “…they return from the dungeon one day to discover that the Necromancer has taken over the whole village…”

    If they are returning from a dungeon, then it’s evident in this context that they have other options to explore – the GM hasn’t forced them to confront the necromancer, instead she has presented a game world where there are multiple interesting things to explore. In this case, there are at least two points of interest – a town under siege from skeletons, and a nearby dungeon to explore – and the PCs have chosen to ignore one in favor of the other (at their own peril it appears).

    If the PCs ignored the skeletons and were presented with no other options for playing, that would be a railroad. Out of personal experience, I picture that playing out like this:
    GM: There are rumors of a necromancer in the woods. Do you investigate?
    PCs: No, we’re not interested.
    GM: Okay, you hang around in town for a few days. Now there are a dozen skeletons attacking the farms nearest the woods. Do you investigate?
    PCs: No, we’d rather do something else.
    GM: Okay you hang around town a few more days. Now there are two score of skeletons attacking…[etc]

    Thanks for this series Justin – I greatly enjoy your stuff and look forward to the rest of it!

  7. Justin Alexander says:

    To clarify, the Necromancer example wasn’t meant to demonstrate railroading. It was still only an example of prompting. (And prompting isn’t railroading, although it can be strongly associated with railroading because railroaders will use prompting to tell you the players what the acceptable course of action is. EDIT: Jagyr, who was commenting at the same time I was, nails the distinction.)

    @Todd: Ultimately, I think it does boil down to intent. However, the intent will also tend to manifest itself very quickly unless the PCs kowtow to the railroad. To expand on the Necromancer example, here’s a couple of litmus tests:

    The PCs respond to the encroaching skeletal threat by packing their bags and leaving town. Do the Necromancer’s skeletons follow them wherever they go? That might not indicate a railroad (for the same reason that Nazi stormtroopers pursuing you to Paris in 1940 isn’t a railroad in a historical campaign), but if you find yourself doing this as a GM you might want to double-check what your motivation really is.

    (This is one of the reasons why illusionism is a lot more noticeable than a lot of railroading GMs seem to assume it is: Sure, it’s possible that the Necromancer’s skeletons pursuing us around the world is just the result of an unchecked apocalypse. But when the fifth or sixth plot hook starts relentlessly chasing us around the game world, the railroading nature of the campaign becomes clear.)

    Second litmus test: Why is no one else dealing with the skeletons? Unless you’re running a campaign where the PCs are truly unique in their extraordinary abilities (and this is very much the exception), it becomes unclear why nobody else is dealing with the pervasive and ever-growing skeletal threat.

    (This is basically a good way for the GM to check themselves and make sure that they’re ACTUALLY extrapolating consistent consequences from a deterministic world.)

  8. d47 says:

    At some point most groups count on players to follow obvious plot hooks. Frankly, if I had a plot hook like a “necromancer in the woods” and my players insisted on ignoring it completely, I might have a metagame conversation with them, saying, “Hey. This is what I got. If this really does not interest you, let me re-think for next session.” Of course, if the players want to approach the problem provided from a different angle (“We go to the churches and start digging up all the graves and burning the corpses”) that would be fine.

  9. | Alchemy, agency, and surprises says:

    […] Part 2, why railroading gargles dicks and makes GMing feel like […]

  10. Charles R says:

    I’m commenting a full year late, but…

    I agree that guaranteed success doesn’t really count as *railroading*, per se; but I also agree that it’s highly undesirable. It may be more benign than restrictive railroading, and players may accept it or even encourage it more readily – at least at first. But… in the long run, it becomes boring. After all, rewarding all actions with success is also a way of negating player input; and if success is guaranteed, that removes all suspense and excitement about the outcome.

    I’ve come to appreciate this over the past year. Since D&D 5E came out I’ve been participating in various Adventurer’s League scenarios; and I’ve also joined a homebrew game where the DM adopted his own rules (based more on 2nd Edition than anything else) because he found that 5E was nowhere near gritty enough. The AL games are fun enough; but it’s the homebrew campaign that’s really fun and exciting, because we know that our characters may fail or even die if we aren’t careful enough. (And sometimes even if we are!)

    I do sometimes think our DM has taken his views on gritty realism too far, but to date it’s been much more compelling than the relatively anodyne challenges I’ve faced in AL games.

    However, I understand and basically agree with the point behind the Gumshoe approach. If you’ve designed a scenario that includes a given clue, it’s a waste if the characters fail to obtain that clue simply because of an unlucky roll. However, I don’t think the Gumshoe approach means that success is guaranteed, not in the deeper sense. It’s important to note that simply finding the clue does not guarantee that the player characters will interpret it correctly – and in that sense, failure is still possible.

  11. Justin Alexander says:

    The term I keep coming back to is “one-dimensional”. If success is always guaranteed, then you’ve removed an entire type of experience from the game. This extreme “always succeed” form is rare, of course, even if you just have a tendency to do it the result flattens the experience (and the more you do it, the flatter the experience becomes).

    (I would say that a significant majority of the truly memorable and entertaining experiences in my games are the result of the PCs failing at something and then having to figure out how to transform that failure into a success or how to approach the problem from a completely different angle.)

    Same thing applies to GUMSHOE in its original “GM designates a core clue which is absolutely necessary to move to the next scene and the scene can’t end until the PCs have it” form. (The GUMSHOE games have gradually moved away from that paradigm.)

    Laying the player’s experience aside for a moment: As a GM, the pleasure I get from running a game is largely derived from the excitement of discovering what happens. I don’t get that when the events are predetermined (regardless of whether it’s predetermined failure or predetermined success). I prefer to set up the billiard balls (possibly even putting a few of them into motion) and then seeing what happens when the PCs go hurtling onto the pool table.

    For mystery scenarios, part of this unexpected quality is the pattern of information they obtain. Getting Clue A but not Clue B is different from getting both clues or getting Clue B but not Clue A. What do they do if they know that Freddy is being blackmailed? How does that differ from not knowing that Freddy is involved at all? Or knowing that he’s only involved because of the blackmail?

    These examples can actually get quite extreme. In my Ptolus campaign, for example, the PCs ended up inadvertently missing a clue in the first session (because they gave away a book without reading it first). 100 sessions later, that missing clue continues to have an impact on the campaign.

    Conversely, later in the campaign one of the PCs was a day away from forming an alliance with a major religious group. The PCs found one piece of obscure information that radically changed their opinion of that group, and the PC ended up swapping their allegiance to a different religious group instead. As a result the entire group found themselves at ground zero of a religious schism and became so deeply entangled in local politics that they’ve never managed to dig their way out.

    In either case, it can be argued that the opposite outcome would have been equally interesting for entirely different reasons. But I think, particularly in aggregate, there is a unique frisson that occurs when outcome isn’t predetermined. And it’s something I value not only as a player, but as a GM.

  12. Gamosopher says:

    Rereading this excellent article once again, and had a thought, so here it is!

    Your discussion of “enforcing success”, I think, shows that your definition of railroading should be modified a bit (not sure how, but here is an idea that may be a good starting point).

    To clear out a potential misunderstanding, I’ll restate the second part of your definition : for something to be railroading, the GM must do it “in order to enforce a preconceived outcome”. So the only cases of enforcing success I’ll consider are the ones where the GM does it in that spirit; the other cases may be bad for other reasons, but I think that they are not railroading (your definition is spot on on that). The cases I’m interested are the ones you allude to in the end of your paragraph : the decisions enabled are the ones “which lead to my preconceived outcome”.

    Even if I share your instinct that there is a difference between negating and enabling a choice, my guts tells me that this should count as a clear case of railroading. Maybe the the more general principle is not “negating a choice”, but “warping the world”. If a GM makes sure that whatever the player tried succeeds to enforce the preconceived outcome, they may negate a choice, but they definitely warp the world, since it’s not behaving as it should (the DC is way too low, or even irrelevant).

    That would have the added benefit of clearly showing why some other examples of railroading are railroading. Take your example of Lady Karna sending a second wave of kidnappers. Technically, is a choice being negated, here? The PCs chose to defend lord Harrow. Then another group immediately came, and they chose to defend him, but failed (or chose to hide him, but she is an evil genius who was already scrying on them, so the PC failed, or… you get the idea). The choices the players make are mostly meaningless, but not completely negated; but the GMs definitely warps the world to enforce the preconceived outcomes (which is what makes the players choices meaningless).

    Another example : making sure that approaching a situation in a way that is not consistent with the preconceived outcome is super hard and punishing. You try to get the info from a captured foe, but they know nothing of the plan; try to follow one to its hideout, but they have crazy perceptions skills and magic items to evade it; try to pick a lock, but are super complex; but when you kill the captain, you find a map on them. Are choices negated, here? Technically, the players can try all those things, so no; but it’s mostly meaningless. I’d say the reason it’s railroading is that the GM warps the world to enforce the preconceived outcome (the battle with the captain).

    One problem with my suggestion is that warping the world is not, like negating choices, necessarily a bad thing. For example, you can decide that failing, in some particular instance, does not mean that whatever was tried is unsuccessful (the door is still locked), but that a complication arrives (your tools are warped, you make noise, etc.) But then, the other criteria of your definition is not necessarily bad either. That’s why I was saying that I’m not sure that my “solution” actually improves your definition. I throw it here as food for thoughts.

    As an aside, I would say that if enforcing success is a rule, it cannot be railroading; I’d even say that if anything that count as railroading should be done according to the rules, it’s not railroading per se. To take an example from one of your more recent posts, Ten Candles forces (per the rules) a predetermined outcome : everyone dies. Yet it’s not railroading, since it’s in the game. Whether or not the game is deemed good is another topic entirely.

    Thanks, ands sorry for the long comment!

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