Railroading is bad. Railroading is boring. Railroading is counter to the purpose of roleplaying. Railroading is necessary sometimes. All of these statements are true, in my opinion. Railroading is a poison that will result in the death of a group or a campaign if taken too liberally or too frequently. Railroading is essentially high proof alcohol, great for the GM; but devastating to the overall experience if you get a bit too loose with it. At the same time, without railroading some, parties can flounder about trying to find a purpose. Pretty much every session ever run has had some railroading in it. Great times to railroad the group:
Starting an adventure
The party members don’t know each other, there isn’t any in character reason for them to seek out a mission, and origin stories are boring. I have come to hate “You all meet in a bar, the bartender/beautiful waitress/shifty patron in the corner/robed figure near the fire/etc gives you a quest” beginning, as it doesn’t answer many of the first session questions:
- Why are you teamed up?
- While a mission (Money/etc) is a fair reason, it doesn’t give the GM anything to work with beyond greed (which he can usually take for granted)
- The reason for teaming up in the first place can resonate through every session this party runs. Does one character owe the other his life? Did one character betray the others when the quest was ending? Did someone discover a mysterious item? Was the party cursed? etc etc etc
- What is your character’s surface motivation?
- If I was an acquaintance of your character, what would I get for you assuming I could get you anything?
- If I were torturing you, what would I do to upset you the most (money, power, sexual appeal, family, friends, an item…)
- Why are you going to stay in the group?
- This one gets tough as people love playing “the bad ass lone wolf” characters
- Ideally, one of the other characters or an NPC reveals they know how to get the character’s mcguffin
Lost in the woods
Has the party lost all sense of direction? Is your open world game falling apart as the party finds little reason to move on? Write up a mini adventure and hit your players with a story train. this adventure should be unavoidable and provide a blatently obvious story hook important near the end of the adventure (bbeg escapes, major artifact of evil is lost, pc is kidnapped/imprisoned). Note that it’s important that the hook comes at a point when there is no reason for the party not to follow it. This will ensure that they actually go do that instead of forgetting.
Phasing out PC’s
Some players have problems retiring characters. If they won’t listen to out of character recomendations (or you’re passive aggressive), feel free to hit them with a train. Hopefully a little more subtle than an actual train, but hey; yay for metaphors if you use an actual train.
During a mission
Creating a fully featured, living world can be distracting for the players, which leads to a lot of good role playing. When they are on an important mission, it’s best if you don’t let them go pick the flower field you just described. The best way to do this is the Video Game method. Lead them the right way with an NPC that’s really annoying when they get distracted. If you really want to be a dick, make it a non-combat npc and have them escort it through a combat zone. And make sure it doesn’t follow the players.
there are other times to railroad, but I’m not going to talk about all of them. In general, if you’re on the train more than once a session you’re doing it wrong.