Friday, February 24, 2023

A Defense of Railroading

If that isn't a clickbaity blog post title, I don't know what is. Them's fightin' words in these here parts.

But hear me out. You can cancel me later (there's plenty of time), but at least read a bit first. I LOVE the idea of sandbox gaming as a romantic notion. I love that I could have an entirely blank canvas to explore, and I'm limited only by the collective imagination of everyone at the table, hemmed in by a few loose frames that the rules might put in place. I feel like seeking out an underwater nation? If I ask for it, the GM will probably comply. I can decide I'm going to the world's best library (if the GM doesn't know yet, a few dice rolls will tell them), and can set off to sift through ancient manuscripts. I can then charter a boat, or build one, or commandeer one, or seek out for the dark ship the Midnight Vagrant, attempting to become its captain. Because, why not? I can do ANYTHING.

It's amazing.

As a romantic notion.

But the reality, at least in my relatively limited experience, is crickets. Pause. Shrugs. 

Because players want agency, but they often have no idea what to do with it. And I know the counter argument to this - if you give the players a rich environment with meaningful choices, they are equipped to move forward. 

Again, in my experience, it doesn't happen. I've given you a two-page write-up of the seven forces at work in the city, and you are a young thief. Do you seek to align with one of these seven, to challenge them, or to set off on your own? Which of the ten wards do you head to (you have a list with ten places of interest in each). You can go to the town square and pick pockets, or try to get in on a back-alley game of dice. There are ten interesting folk at the inn you could interact with (I gave you a one-sentence description of each one). You also have four rumors you could follow up on.

Shrug. Scratch ear. Shrug again.

I've written before about how, IMHO, VERY limited restrictions make people more creative. When I tell my eighth grade students they can write ANYTHING at all, they stare at a blank page. When I tell them to write a fantasy story, they stare at a blank page. When I tell them to write ten lines of dialogue between two characters on an elevator, and one of them is seventy, and the other is twelve, and the twelve year old loves to say duck, and the old man thinks he is saying a naughty word, they get right to work.

They want choices. But the choices they want are within a really, really, really, really tiny framework.

The adventure I'm writing has player choice. You can pick up a piece of glass or a piece of pipe to fight the rat. You can explore the console first or the door. You can turn left or right. Simple choices. Binary opposition. That's it. There are a lot of locked doors, computers you cannot access yet, and places you cannot explore. It's a huge complex, but you don't get to see most of it (yet).

Because if you can go anywhere...


  1. All this Shards talk reminded me I’d never got around to getting the POD - I corrected that (arrived today!)

  2. I’ve been on both sides of the screen on this issue and while I the phenomenon is real, I think there are two issues being confused.

    When the GM put out a lot of options for us as players, we called it the ‘shiny object’ syndrome. We could do any number of interesting things, but none of them had any particular attachment to US. So put out a lot of options, but start with a gun to the players head. A limited selection of options that are personal and immediate to the players NOW.

    A lot of options only works when there are compelling reasons to do particular things. This works better the more you know the players (and characters), so it really needs to be given to the players after the campaign has begun.

    Second, railroading isn’t having things going on in the world or having a plot. You SHOULD have both. Railroading is limiting the player’s choice about how to deal with it. Not the normal limits of the world - you can’t fly over that wall because you can’t fly - but artificial limits (ie, RAILS) that prevent the players from doing something they could conceivably do.

    An example from a game I’m working on. That shuttle’s going to crash no matter what you do. How you deal with that crash is up to you, but unless you just don’t fly it, it’s going to crash. Not a railroad. A plot. The world turning because the world turns.

    1. You raise some fair points, and I especially like how you distinguish where you are in the campaign - at the beginning, the player choice is more limited, and you pull back those limitations and open up choice as you go. It's a more nuanced argument than the one I presented :)