“Railroading” is a dirty word in many Dungeons & Dragons circles, as well as other tabletop games. In D&D, “railroading” generally means reducing the options of the characters to a handful (or one). Rather than having the freedom of a deep-water sailing ship, the players have the freedom of a freight train—they can move forward, or they can stop. The term is an accusation to be thrown at a Dungeon Master who tells their own story at the expense of the players. If your DM railroads you, some people on the internet will insist, you need to find a new DM.
Concern over the evils of railroading seems to be universal in internet discussions of D&D. One of the more thoughtful commentators, the Angry GM, has laid out a pretty good discussion of railroading, particularly what it is not: it is not just having a linear adventure with a clear series of goals. Rather, it is removing most or all player choice about how to achieve those goals.
D&D at its best is a collaborative storytelling experience and railroading can remove the “collaborative” part of that equation if done poorly. The role of the DM is to provide a world and a loose plot structure while the players control the characters in the world. After every session, the DM should adjust the loose plot structure, reacting to the characters’ actions. Together, the whole group should tell their own story.
That being said, railroading can prevent the players from feeling as though their characters have any options, which can really sap the fun out of trying to tell a story together. Feeling choiceless is one of the most confining, frustrating feelings we experience in everyday life and is generally not something we look for in D&D. And sometimes feeling choiceless is precisely how your characters should feel. Below are a couple of reasons to implement more railroading in your campaign and not feel like a bad DM for doing so.
New Players Often Need More Structure
Let’s get this one out of the way at the beginning: D&D can be overwhelming when you’re just starting out. Trying to keep track of all of your character’s abilities and powers, the numbers that govern them, the dice you use for them, and where you find it all on the character sheet. Then you have the character’s personality, which is entirely up to you. If you’re not used to that kind of improv, having no structure for your acting can be daunting.
There are a dozen other layers of complication to keep track of in your first adventure. This is perfectly fine if there are only one or two new players in the party, but in a party of entirely new players, it can be helpful to provide more structure while the players get used to the idea of…playing.
Some new players just want structure, others can feel so overwhelmed that they want the full-on railroad experience. It’s up to you to figure how much they want and to give it to them. If your players seem to be ignoring every plot hook you throw at them but also aren’t moving in their own direction, consider being more direct in how you move the plot forward. Consider putting the story on rails for a while until everyone gets their feet under them. When they get more comfortable with the game, they’ll tell you when they want to start taking more control of the story.
Railroading Can Be A Tool to Generate the Right Atmosphere
Readers of some of my other content might be starting to pick up a theme here: I am really into having the right campaign atmosphere. A horror campaign should be horrifying, dark, and oppressive. Some campaigns aim at a feeling of epic struggles to conquer the world or stop the conquerors. Others aim for even grander scales with gods fighting over the very souls of the world.
Sometimes an open world full of options is just the thing to generate the right feeling of possibilities and the power to affect them. Other times, the party might be under the thumb of a powerful king or literal god with strong opinions on what exactly they want the party to do it. Both are perfectly reasonable ways to set tone, as long as your players are on board.
My preference is to use railroading as a too, following the example of the Dune series’ God-Emperor Leto II Atreides. He spent nearly 4000 years brutally oppressing all human urges for freedom, exploration, and self-determination so that when he died, these urges would be supercharged. The people hated him, but his influence caused them to truly value the newly rediscovered liberty.
There’s more to it in the books, but this is the key point here. As a DM, you can railroad the story for a time, creating a bottleneck in player options, to make the party feel trapped and powerless for a time. You can do this to make them hate the one trapping them or to simply enhance the feeling of triumph when they finally break free of their shackles.
Railroading strips your players of options and forces them to be reactive to what is happening to them, rather than proactively shaping the world. You probably don’t want to railroad your entire campaign but having some on-the-rails sections can be very useful for generating specific feelings. If you want your players and their characters to really hate a villain, have him cut off all their options. If you want them to really appreciate an open world’s options, give them a few sessions with no options at all.
Railroading can be just the kick your campaign needs, but, like a habanero or tough love, should be used sparingly. Don’t let every dish in your meal be habanero-based and don’t railroad your whole campaign. Keep an open dialogue with your players about their feelings and desires so you don’t go overboard. Remember, we’re all playing to have a good time.