Asking Why: How to Put PCs In a Tight Spot Without A Railroad

“Railroad” is a dirty word for many people who play roleplaying games.

From a wide-angle view its use probably just means that the person running the game and the player making the complaint haven’t been on the same page about what makes the game fun. It could be everything from the players rebelling against their controlling frustrated-novelist DM to a single player who balks at the fact that he can’t bail on the adventure that everyone sat down to play, and it wouldn’t have gotten to that point if everyone was on the same page.

A clash of expectations, then, and something that in many cases can be avoided with communication between or experience with the members of a group.

Specifically, though? It refers to the player experience of discovering that the world their character inhabits has hard, sometimes arbitrary-seeming, boundaries that they’re unable to overcome.

“The sword-fighter knows that there is no way he can win this fight.”

“You find yourself chained to the oar of a slave galley.”

“This prison has been your home for three months.”

“You can’t leave the city, the ways south are blocked.”

I can’t tell you how to get rid of railroading in your games, because what one group considers a wide open adventure might look like a straightjacket to the group that often ends up building strong relationships with random – previously unnamed – NPCs.

But I can share one trick that helps mitigate what I think is a major source of the “Railroad” accusation.

Choose Your Own Executioner

In the Elder Scrolls videogames the viewpoint character is repeatedly introduced, throughout the series, as a prisoner who is completely at the mercy of their captors. Eventually they might be cut loose in a dangerous land, surprised by a visit from the Emperor, or saved from the chopping block by a dragon attack, but they all begin in dire straits.

But, aside from those who think it is repetitive, no one complains.

The difference between this and the tabletop roleplaying experience probably comes down to two factors:

1) The game is starting you off fresh, so even if you have an idea of the type of character you might want to play there is unlikely to be the sort of investment in their initial circumstances that you find when someone has built a character for a game before the campaign begins (or has already been playing for a while before the start of this adventure), and

2) The game doesn’t tell the player why a character is jailed, or how they got that way. This allows the player to either ignore that detail if they’re uninterested, or come up with circumstances that fit their vision of the character. Someone setting out to create a merchant who dabbles in magic might imagine that their character was caught cooking the books or poisoning a rival, while the player of living tank can imagine that it took thirty opponents to subdue that character.

It gives the player a choice, if they want one, and that’s what a GM needs to do if they are concerned their players won’t just accept a particular turn of circumstances or an in media res beginning to a session.

Because many players are totally fine with a character falling out of a plane with no parachute as long as either they’re confident the character can get themselves out of that situation, or they feel like they put the character there.

A Different Sort of Freedom

A lack of choices can be frustrating whether someone plays RPGs to be part of a good story, goof around with friends, or use their character as an avatar in an unfamiliar world. When there doesn’t appear to be anything you – the player – can do because your character’s every option seems closed off, even if you know it’s temporary, it can take the fun out of just about any game.

This is why it’s important that, if you’re concerned players might react poorly to in-game events like those discussed above, it’s important to give with one hand even as you take away with the other. If the character is the player’s primary mode of expression, then give the player another one.

Ask them why.

“You’re in a dank prison cell, your wrists are bruised, around you sits a number of dangerous and odd looking characters. Let’s start with Sam’s paladin: Why is he here?”

“The party stands on the outskirts of Tumble Hollow, everyone covered in soot, and watches as their home village burns. Why did they do it?”

“People murmur as Gavaresh passes, and he hears someone call him a coward. Everyone was shocked when the sword-master backed out of his duel with the wicked prince, but they have no place to judge him. Gavaresh isn’t a coward, so why did he refuse to draw steel at the last moment?”

Obviously some of these examples press the issue more than others, or presume more about the characters, but that’s just an outgrowth of how different groups will have different lines. The point is that when you allow a player to fit these scenarios more seamlessly into the image they have of their character, or to take a hand in the story even as their character’s actions have been limited, it gives them a different sort of freedom that takes away some of the sting that might otherwise mess with their engagement in the game.

A canny DM may even include variations on this for when they wish to skip forward in time, or over certain events, by simply asking how certain tasks were accomplished or who was responsible for certain actions that were out of the character’s hands but aren’t integral to the DM’s plans.

It’s not the solution to every problem, by far, but hopefully it will help.