Say the word “railroad” to any dozen players of RPGs, and you’re likely to get a dozen slightly different answers. A generic definition is a game in which the players feel as though their choices don’t matter. The party will go from Palace A to Dark and Creepy Dungeon B to Extraplanar Hall of Doom C, and while they’re free to interact with the local wildlife in a manner of their choosing, it won’t change the destinations. I think there are some misconceptions buried in the way we conceptualize adventurers as railroads, along with some choices GMs can make to improve feelings of player agency.
I think it’s first important to realize that most games with any sort of plot only have X number of locations where the plot takes place. Some GMs and some games encourage the players to go anywhere and interact with anything, but that level of high improvisation takes a GM very light on her feet, and the narrative of such a story, very often, is only viewed in the aftermath – it’s a “story chasing” experience, as I talked about in my last blog. Games that grant more narrative privilege to the players try to get around this problem by sharing the burden of narrative creation with the players. For those of us who appreciate literary devices like foreshadowing, however, these sorts of discovering the plot as you go adventures are usually unsatisfying.
Equally unsatisfying to a whole raft of players is the game in which they feel as though their players have little to no agency. This is usually the result of a barebones plot combined with a GM who is uninterested in thinking on their feet. The mysterious stranger in the bar is here to hand out two paragraphs of box text exposition and then the party will head out. If the PCs ask for clarifying information, they get met with silence. If the PCs attempt to talk their way around a dragon, the dragon inexplicably attacks. These are, in my experience, usually the signs of an inexperienced GM. The problem here is that denying the players the chance to react creatively is taking away one of the only comparative advantages tabletop RPGs have over their video game counterparts – the absolute freedom to try something off the wall.
Conversely, players who react to a vast panoply of choices with “kick in the door, kill the monster, take its stuff” can be mightily frustrating to a GM who developed a variety of options for his players. Sometimes, this is the result of a lack of experience (or at least a lack of non-D&D experience) on the part of the players, but sometimes it’s an expression of what the players are looking for in their game. Not every player wants to have a magnificent narrative arc for his character, and it’s the GM’s job to balance that player’s wishes against those of the player who wants the full range of story options. Thankless as that may be sometimes, it’s worth noting that allowing for such a balancing act is the responsibility of the players – if the paladin next to you wants a romantic subplot and you just want to bash orcs, both of you will need to compromise a bit for the sake of the other. Not doing so makes the GM’s job impossible and forgets that this is a collaborative enterprise.
As a GM who likes giving my players lots of choices – often a menu of “which road to ruin do you choose?” (I run a lot of Call of Cthulhu), I usually start my games by explicitly listing the choices the players can make, so they realize that their options are broad. After a while, they figure out that the first answer is almost never the only answer. Rhetorically, this becomes a powerful exercise for the players that forces them to engage with their fellow players on a deeper level that witty banter. Learning to build consensus and weigh options, my games hopefully make more thoughtful gamers and give those gamers a richer experience in return.
There’s still, however, the point of limited options. Not every game can be as sandbox-y as Masks of Nyarlathotep, and Pathfinder’s CR system is a reminder to the GM to be careful about which choices you make available to players at particular levels. In these cases, it’s important to try and broaden the options of how the players resolve each encounter – sure, it’s a fantasy adventure game and most of them will end in violence, but making it clear to the players that violence is not always the optimal solution will help you get them thinking creatively. You’ll probably also find that at least one or two of your players get on board far more readily than others – these are the ones who wanted more creative solutions, but were going along with their murdering buddies.
Encouraging proactive play at whatever level your game allows is an excellent first step. Learning to manage it within the constraints of your game of choice is part of why they call that person a Game Master.