"262. When the GM forces the plot, I cannot make choo-choo noises."
Being the Game Master
of a Tabletop RPG
campaign is a difficult business: Regardless of whatever exciting Story Arcs
you've planned and worked out in advance, there's no guarantee that your human cohorts will proceed according to plan. After all, if they don't know what's going to be in store for them, how will they know to get their characters to the right place at the right time instead of, say, getting Sidetracked by the Gold Saucer
The answer is called Railroading: In short, the GM takes any measure necessary to ensure that there is only one direction the campaign may proceed — his
planned direction. This can manifest in any number of imaginable ways; some of them subtle, others ... not so much:
- Planning out connecting geographic areas in a linear fashion, to ensure that there is only one given path from town A to town E (there will simply be no sidepaths or other locations to explore);
- Adding a Broken Bridge (or three) to prevent the players from reaching a destination before the GM's plot demands it;
- Having random NPCs remind the party to Continue Your Mission, Dammit! (even if only Because Destiny Says So) if the players haven't left a town quickly enough;
- Locking the players in a Closed Circle (at least for a time) to buy time for other events to happen meanwhile;
...The list goes on and on, the exact possibilities limited only by the GM.
In practice, the use of Railroading is generally regarded as one sign of a poor GM, as forcing the players down a single predetermined path (like cars on a railroad track, hence the name) runs against to the collaborative nature of a tabletop RPG in the first place, where every player is allowed an equal voice in dictating what happens next. If players discover the Railroading and rebel against it, they are going Off the Rails
. (And if going Off the Rails
triggers a Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies
, then the something about the campaign has failed on a fundamental level
On the other hand, while complaints of Railroading are directed primarily at difficult or unimaginative GMs, there are also difficult and unimaginative players
for whom a swift kick in the caboose might be the only
way to get them to do something even as simple as leaving the tavern in the first town (or immediately coming straight back to it). A subtle GM who knows his players and makes an effort to maintain at least an illusion of free will and exploration, and really does
make stories that are That Damned Good, can probably get away with herding a few cats. (Console and PC RPGs
, which by their very nature are predetermined stories, do this all the time
And plus, maybe the story is just worth going on the railroad for. Players may not object to railroading if the story's good enough to excuse the lack of perceived freedom, or if the ride is fun enough. Tropes Are Tools
after all - it's been pointed out that you have to be somewhat linear to actually make a story work.
In a similar vein, an occasional Railroading can do wonders to kick-start the campaign should players have run out of steam and be left with absolutely no
idea how they should proceed next; a GM pointing the players down the nearest track and hoping they can play it can get the campaign moving again, to the benefit of everyone involved. Experienced GMs know when it is (and is not
) appropriate to Railroad the campaign — a good measure is that if the players are currently having fun, there's probably no need to interfere.
can also be a useful tool for a subtle GM to silently railroad players without their awareness. If the GM spent a lot of time secretly preparing a dungeon to the North of the current town, but the players suddenly decide to go South instead, the GM may be able to — surprise! — secretly decide that this dungeon was instead in the South all along, and the players reach it just as the GM planned anyway. This form of Railroading (sometimes dubbed "railschroding") can be an effective tool, as the players are the ones driving the 'train', unaware that the GM has already thrown all the switches so that it somehow ends up in the same place no matter which direction they take it.
Of course, one advantage a GM always has over a console or PC RPG is that his players probably aren't going to restart the game from the beginning and realize he was leading them by the nose the entire time. (Note that for players or GMs who treat their tabletop game exactly like a console RPG
, Railroading is 100% par for the course.)
No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom
and But Thou Must
are Video Game
Contrast Off the Rails
, an attempt by the players to escape
a GM's railroading, and Quicksand Box
, what happens when the GM gives too little
Not to be confused with the Rail Enthusiast
's favorite hobby, or Railroad Plot
open/close all folders
- Knights of the Dinner Table: B.A., the put-upon DM, engages in some blatant railroading in one strip. His players catch on after hours of failed exploration, when they sneak a peek at the map of the countryside that B.A. drew, and realize that the road to the dungeon is a straight line with impassable forests and mountains on either side. Unfortunately for B.A., his players tend to assume that he's not only a Killer Game Master, but the kind of guy who will put huge piles of treasure in the game world just to screw them out of finding it. This means they tend to interpret his ways of saying "Nothing To See Here" as a Suspiciously Specific Denial, leading to such incidents as the Portal Of Death, and the time the party managed to kill themselves with the dungeon's Garbage Chute.
- The Infinite Loops: Some of the universe can be more forceful when it comes to making Loopers follow their stories, but the Girl Genius Loop takes the absolute cake. When Twilight Sparkle Loops into it, she's incapable of going against the story, no matter how hard she tries. And it makes her very angry indeed. By the time she gets to Sturmhalten, she's had enough. By Mechanicsburg, she's gathered together the rest of her universes' Loopers, and has managed to overpower the Loops temporarily. Then she gets hit by a lightning bolt, and dies before she even knows what happened.
- In The Legend Of Cynder Series, The Chronicler attempts to do this in regards to how Cynder ended up replacing Spyro's intended role in The Legend of Spyro. Despite his numerous attempts to make Cynder complete Spyro's intended roles, he's usually surprised when she flat out refuses to go along with his demands, and his final attempt to rail road things back to canon nearly drives Cynder to suicide.
- In The Cabin in the Woods, Hadley and Sitterson use mind-influencing gases and remote-control doors to separate the five teens or lure them outside as the ritual demands.
- In The Iron Horse, Bauman the land speculator really wants the railroad built over land he owns, which obviously will make him a lot of money. He is prepared to take violent action to make sure this happens, including murdering anyone who finds the pass in the mountains that would allow the railroad to bypass his land.
- In Stranger Than Fiction, Harold, having discovered himself to be a fictional character, tries to stay at home watching TV all day so that the plot cannot progress, only for a bulldozer to knock down the wall of his house. Which is actually a plot point, as it is when they discover the novel is about things happening to him, not what he does.
- In The Truman Show, the show's creators set up a Meet Cute situation to force Truman to marry one woman, even though he actually loved someone else. This trope is integral to the whole movie.
- In The Adjustment Bureau, the eponymous shadowy organization does this for all of humanity, having decided long ago that people cannot be trusted to run their own lives. It's all a subversion in the end, because the goal of the organisation is to pressure people into ultimately rejecting the Rail Roading in the first place so that they will fight for the right and responsibility to run their own lives.
- In Zero Charisma, the protagonist is a DM who is very much prone to this, taking his campaign very seriously and allowing no deviations from it. This gets to the point that he's willing to lie about his own dice rolls to get his way; a practice known as "fudging".
- The Doctor Who Choose Your Own Adventure books. In one of them, about half your "choices" led to paragraphs basically saying "No, that's not the right decision. Go back and pick the other one."
- In the modern ones, they let you stumble around, not really having much effect on anything, while the Doctor saves the day. You can't even die, the plot won't let you!
- The two Animorphs Choose Your Own Adventure books infamously have only one path to get to the happy ending; every single other choice results in instant death.
- In The Hunger Games, the Gamemakers use various traps and events such as fires, force fields, and even necessary supplies as a way to make sure the participants have to meet up and fight because the audience doesn't like long periods of time with no deaths.
- Conversely, they also have events that prevent too much slaughter. For example, in Catching Fire, a pitched battle goes on in the center of the arena between the two factions - so the center spins around, scattering the participants by hurling them into the water in various directions. Both sides regroup and withdraw, keeping the Game going for a while longer.
- In the Lone Wolf gamebooks, the adventures got a lot more linear over time. Compare the pathways through early installments like book three, The Caverns of Kalte or book seven, Castle Death, versus later installments like book seventeen, The Deathlord of Ixia.
Live Action Television
- Star Trek has had numerous episodes (often involving the holodecks) where the characters attempt to escape the plot of the simulation/ shared dream/ Negative Space Wedgie only to be transported away and forced to finish the story.
- Subverted in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Our Man Bashir". Faced with the possibility of being forced to kill either Dax or Kira (because the Holodeck has turned them into characters), Bashir comes up with a third option: side with the game's villain and kill the entire (fictional) population of Earth, but saving the five real people.
- In one episode of The Big Bang Theory Leonard as the DM of a Dungeons & Dragons game planned a Christmas-themed adventure which involved rescuing Santa Claus as a way of forcing the group to celebrate the holidays (which Sheldon generally does not wish to do). Sheldon averts this by appearing to play along, only to abandon Santa to his death at the end.
- This is of course a common trap many novice GM's fall into running their first Table Top RPG. Excited by the (to them) wonderful story they have set up, they can get flustered, irritated and downright stuck when their players either miss what they think are obvious markers on how to proceed next or just plain choose to do something the GM did not account for. While an experienced GM can subtely guide a party back on path, the novice often (and in-game wise illogically) ham-fistedly forces the players back on the "correct" path, either in story or fourth wall yelling/whining at the PC s.
- The gaming blog "The Alexandrian" gives excellent advice for averting railroading in tabletop RPGs, called the three clue rule: "For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues." This is because (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) "the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along."
- The Mekton adventure Operation Rimfire which read more like a script then an adventure. While it featured ten pre-generated player characters, five of them were pretty much useless. To make matters worse, two of the other characters (and one of the useless ones!) were indispensable to the plot, however, if the players didn't choose to play both of those characters, then important developments and revelations would be skipped or confined to NPC-only dialogue (And there is nothing less fun then watching the GM talk to themselves). The story leaves no room for deviation, basically forcing the players to do exactly what the script tells them, otherwise the plot simply will not advance. And finally, the worst straw is the villain's death: no matter what the players do, which pretty much amounts to ten people whaling on him at once with guns, rapiers and laser swords, he lives long enough to deliver his twenty seven line dying speech and then execute his master plan anyway.
- Shadowrun is about playing mercenaries who are little fish in a big mess of secret wars between Megacorps, so naturally their missions are pretty scripted (and it's also perfectly normal for an irresistable force to point a very big gun at them to push them into an adventure). Harlequin then one-ups this by explicitly stating that the Big Good has Plot Armor, just in case the shadowrunners decide that they've had enough of his games and aggravation. Many printed adventures in early editions of the game had sections called "Picking Up The Pieces", which had specific advice to the game master on how to get things back on track when PCs went off the rails. Even more than that, the players are essentially hired for jobs offered by their fixer (contact). While in theory, the fixer should have a number of jobs available to offer to the players, in practice, the fixer usually has one.
- Paranoia is an interesting case, in that the point of the game is usually gleeful chaotic backstabbing, but the setting of an underground complex ruled by an all-powerful computer allows for some pretty iron-clad railroading if the GM so desires it.
- Dungeons & Dragons
- Many adventures in early editions had various levels of this, but the original Dragonlance modules (DL1-DL15) were by far the most blatant example. Most of the time the PCs could only do one thing due to the situation, and several times the Dungeon Master was specifically told by the module to take action to force the PCs along a pre-determined path. There were also dire results for the whole game world if the players did manage to avoid doing exactly what they were supposed to. For instance, there was a specific action in the first module which, if nobody did it, resulted in there never being any priests.
- The notorious WG 7 Castle Greyhawk, a blatant joke module, teaches the DM how to properly lure players to adventure:
Culum’s goal is to get the adventurers to go down into the dungeon. To this end, he’ll continually use phrases like “presumed dead,” and “assume the worst,” in an attempt to get the characters to volunteer to search the dungeon for his dad. If that doesn’t work, Culum pathetically offers them his one battered copper, (actually he has 15 silver stashed in his boot) to look for dad. If the adventurers still won’t go to rescue dear dad then Culum will flat out ask them. Continued refusal means that you have no adventure this evening - close the book, fold up the screen, and stare at your players until they get the hint.
- A number of adventures for the Ravenloft setting start with the Mists of Ravenloft suddenly appearing around a group of PCs and carrying them off to that demiplane without any chance to avoid it. The adventure RQ3 From the Shadows takes the railroading Up to Eleven. The PCs are approached by a man who asks them to find and defeat a Headless Horseman. If they agree, when they confront the Headless Horseman the Mists appear and take them to Ravenloft. If they refuse, the man casts a Vistani curse on them and the next time they're on a road alone the Mists appear and carry them off. Once they're in Ravenloft the DM (Dungeon Master) is ordered to kill each of the PCs, either by having the Headless Horseman cut off their heads or having them be slaughtered by subsequent waves of monsters, including three beholders (!). The DM is told to cheat on die rolls if necessary to kill off the PCs. A short time later the PCs are brought back to life (sort of) by the lich Azalin and are forced to perform missions for him (if they don't they're permanently killed). If they agree to a mission they'll probably end up being all killed again (but not for real). The PCs are very unlikely to gain any Experience Points from performing these missions and can possibly lose tens of thousands of Experience Points while doing so through no fault of their own.
- In Egg of the Phoenix, after the adventure is over, the titan Sylla suggests that the PCs let her take the Egg where neither evil nor mortal forces can find it. It's only a suggestion if the PCs agree, since if they don't, she will take the Egg anyway regardless of the PCs' response...or attacks.
- An early edition of White Dwarf magazine carried an article on how GM's could do this for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in which it advised four steps: (1) Subtlety (2) Emotional Blackmail (3) Bribery with loot, and (4) Just dropping the plot and encounter in at the very next opportunity. It advised that the first three options rarely worked and that sometimes it was best just to skip straight to step four.
- Pathfinder releases Adventure Paths which are six-volume campaigns that carry player characters from first level to roughly 17th before the end, though this varies. Needless to say, even the most open-ended of them can have some heavy-handed railroading in order to ensure the players are along for the ride.
- Marvel Super Heroes supplement Uncanny X-Men boxed set "Adventure Book".
- In chapter 4 "Time Out" the PCs are at a charity basketball game when the supervillain Arcade performs a Knockout Ambush by flooding the gymnasium with Knock Out Gas in order to capture them. The module explicitly states that the PCs have no chance to avoid being rendered unconscious.
- Chapter 5 "Nightmare in New Guinea". The PCs are at an audience with the Mandrill when he decides to capture them. He and his soldiers open fire on them with neurostunner pistols that cause unconsciousness. The game master is specifically told that if the PCs appear to be winning they should add more regular soldiers or even soldiers wearing Powered Armor - whatever is necessary to capture the PCs.
- At the end of chapter 8 "Terror in the Amazon" the building holding the gymnasium from Chapter 4 appears in the sky and begins pumping out the same Knock Out Gas that took out the PCs earlier. Again, the module says that the PCs can't avoid the effect of the gas.
- Any game line with a strong metaplot tends to have a lot of this in published adventures. The Old Worldof Darkness had a particularly despised sequence of adventures revolving around an NPC named Samuel Haight. No matter what the players did, they were never allowed to kill Haight or stop him from achieving his goals, because he was scheduled to turn up in future adventures.
- Published adventures for Cthulhu Tech are infamous for this. In particular, the GM is often specifically instructed to make sure the villains win one way or the other, since having the good guys win would ruin the tone of horror and despair the game strives for. In another example, the adventure says that a particular character must become a Love Interest for a PC.
- There's a magnificent lampshade of this in Portal 2, in the game's intro, when Wheatley gets free of his management rail: "No rail to tell us where to go! This is brilliant. We can go wherever we want! Just hold on, where are we going, seriously. Hang on, let me just get my bearings. Umm, just follow the rail, actually." Many Valve games are designed in a very linear fashion, although the environments are well-designed enough to make it feel cinematic and interesting.
- This is a plot point in the Half-Life series. Gordon Freeman is constantly being railroaded by the G-Man. Episode 1 and part of Episode 2 are notable in that you managed to go Off the Rails (in-universe) courtesy of the Vortigaunts. The game itself still railroads you down linear passages, though. To lampshade this, Half-Life 1, 2, and Episode 2 start with Freeman stepping off of a train.
- The Stanley Parable
- The game deals heavily with this subject, and more generally with player decisions/options in video games.
- The pinnacle comes with the Confusion Ending's Stanley Parable Adventure Line™: a bright yellow line painted on the floor that you literally follow to the plot after you've skipped ahead to the mind-control room one time too many. Of course, it takes you to the mind-control room, and the Narrator huffily has you ignore it from that point on.
- The Confusion Ending even takes it one step further by revealing that the Narrator is being railroaded as well, and he's none too happy about it once he finds out.
- In Banjo-Tooie, it is possible to locate Terry's eggs and learn the "Hatch" move before befriending Terry. If Kazooie tries to hatch an egg first, Terry will prevent this by objecting loudly despite being nowhere in the vicinity.
- A critic at one point complained about this in the Spider-Man 2 video game adaptation, despite the open world, you're often timed whenever a story objective happens, forcing you to head over there.
- In BioShock Infinite you can always explore a little bit, find hidden caches, and even go back to the beginning, until you enter a different universe, but there is a set plot, and the only choices you can make are what upgrades you want to make, which enemy to kill first, and when you want to continue on with the plot. Nothing you do will affect the ending. In fact, the game deliberately invokes railroading with apparently important but really insignificant decisions to explore its theme about the illusion of choice in linear games, and the ending itself drives home the point that none of your choices mattered.
- Played with in Ocarina Of Time. Although the narration railroads you to complete the temples in a certain order, the gameplay itself is a little more open (so long as you grab the special treasure in each temple, you can do the Fire Temple and Water Temple before the Forest Temple and the Spirit Temple before the Shadow Temple, for instance). But first-time players would have no way of knowing this. Also, thanks to a programming quirk the game only checks to see if you've actually beaten the Shadow and Spirit Temple and merely assumes you beat the rest if you did.
- The Halloween Hack: Varik can explore the town of Twoson, but he cannot leave it because there are really tough enemies on the outskirts of town. If he manages to get past these enemies, the exits are blocked off.
- This is a usual criticism of the Grand Theft Auto series. While the series is famous for its open worlds, the missions usually force the player to play them exactly the way the programmer intended, by doing things like making your opponent's car faster than yours no matter its model, making assassination objectives invincible until a forced chase ends or positioning your character in an inconvenient place through a cutscene so you can't have the advantage.
- The entire point of a rail shooter. They're pretty much movies where you do the gunplay.
- Certain amateur-programed, Flash-based games.
- The Pokémon franchise has really started to nosedive into this territory. While the first two games were barely linear at all, and even allowed you to do almost every Gym battle out of order, the subsequent installments have been using Event Flags more and more often, with the fifth and sixth generations just outright abuse NPC Roadblocks as liberally as possible.
- Doom mod Call Of Dooty is a reimagining of the first three levels of the game (so far) in the style of Call of Duty, while taking many potshots at the series and modern military shooter tropes in general. The game also railroads the hell out of the player, starting a "GET BACK TO THE COMBAT ZONE" countdown if they wander off the tracks (which, in the first level, includes moving anywhere in a tiny room other than straight towards the exit!)
- Exaggerated in Takeshi's Challenge. The player is given many, many things to do, but doing anything other than a precise series of purposefully obtuse actions will either kill you right away or render the game Unwinnable.
- Ironically, for a game where you're playing a character fighting for freedom, the Assassin's Creed series got progressively more linear in mission structure as the series went on. In Assassins Creed III assassinating Templars must be done in a specific, story-mandated way rather than killing them however you can. Ubisoft seems to have taken the criticism to heart for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag which is more open.
- Star Trek Online is linear in general but the railroading reaches infamous heights with episode "Romulan Mystery", mission "Divide et Impera". If you take the time to read the text prompts it becomes pretty obvious pretty early that the Romulan weapons research lab is really a medical facility, but the game forces you to keep going and become an Unwitting Pawn enabling the Undine impersonating Admiral Zelle to Kill and Replace the facility's commander. "Divide ut Regnes", a Fan Sequel to the mission, justified it with Mind Control.
- The New Game+ of Batman: Arkham City does this, as you have all of the equipment and upgrades from the main game, meaning you could essentially charge into Hugo Strange's fortress and end everything right then and there. However, attempting to go off the rails will have Batman tell you no.
- Ruby Quest. Poor Weaver gets accued of railroading a lot. Two of the most blantant cases are ruses. The first is when Ruby pushes Stiches off the rail. The second is (this is a big one, you may not want to read it) when Tom remains behind, only for Stiches to save their asses. And of course, Weaver does a huge Take That in the end. Choo Choo
- An odd Fan Fiction example: Pooh's Adventures, a Mega Crossover series that is pretty much any movie with Pooh and his friends pasted into the film. They can't do anything to affect the flow of the film aside from suggesting the obvious, or downright stealing people's lines. One example is in Pooh's Adventures Of The Thief and the Cobbler, in which Mewtwo tells Zig-Zag to watch out for the nails. He still steps on the nails.
- Happens a lot in The Binder of Shame.
- Spoony of The Spoony Experiment relates an example of this from the Vampire: The Requiem LARP group of Phoenix, Arizona. Unusual in that it's instigated by the other players rather than the GM, but the GM goes along with it and kind of implies that it's Spoony's fault for not picking one of the two Clans prominent in the setting. Spoony's response, which really must be heard to be believed (which starts at around the 20-minute mark), ends up with the GM basically telling him "I think you should leave."
- Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed to Do in an RPG 501-1000, 1001-1500:
638. The DM is not impressed by me spoiling his well planned ambush by just casting Glassee on the door.
739. Can't make the blacks ops super easy by sending a couple of strippers to the guardroom first.
840. Even if it would have immediately solved the last six adventures, I won't throw dynamite in every well I come across.
977. Disable plot device is not a real skill.
1060. I will go into the villain's lair and take him out the old fashioned way. Not just wait outside his favorite bar with a rifle.
1071. I will go take out the villain's dungeon the old fashioned way, and not use magic to reroute a river into it instead.
1137. I have to go into the dungeon, not just send in dozens of summoned creatures every morning.
1241. It takes more than one pick pocket roll to totally derail the campaign.
1256. "Ignore the metaplot" is also not an acceptable super power.
1293. I can't avoid plot mandated ambushes no matter how hard I try.
1383. Portable Plothole is not a real magic item.
1404. I will not spoil the adventure's mandatory ambush by using the cheesy tactic of a "scout".
1413. Even if the dungeon has only one exit, can't just starve the villain out.
1432. Using my prior knowledge of the adventure to force the game along while encouraged, is discouraged
1436. In case of premature termination, the dungeon boss has an identical twin brother on standby.
1449. Any plan that would quickly, logically and safely defeat the module early is doomed to failure.
- The party in Statless And Tactless gets literally railroaded into visiting a town by way of an actual railroad.
- The party, chiefly Soo, is surprised that Joe of all people actually dislikes taking games off the rails despite being a massive troll. He insists that he'll never derail the plot but instead takes pleasure from "bursting into the engine compartment and tossing hyper-flammable babies' into the boiler".
- South Park:
- In the episode "Asspen", Stan is railroaded into an 80s-style sports movie plot, complete with contrived exposition.
- Similarly, in "Towelie", the boys have zero interest in playing along with Plucky Kids Save The Day action adventure plot the various protagonists feel they are in; they merely want to play their new video game system. However, they are eventually forced into it when their game system is stolen.
- Also in "Woodland Critter Christmas", Stan refuses to go along with the plot, but the Interactive Narrator (played by Cartman) doesn't stop harassing him until he does.
- Double Subverted when Craig tries to refuse but winds up doing the thing he said he refused to do anyway (either unwittingly or accidentally).
- The Dexter's Laboratory episode "D&DD", a homage to Dungeons & Dragons, has Dexter being removed from his position as GM for this exact reason. When Dee Dee takes his place his company doesn't seem to mind, despite the fact that she railroads the game off genre. This is mainly because Dexter was being a Killer Game Master who was blatantly cheating so his overpowered villain would win (and the players' reactions imply that he does this all the time). Dee Dee, on the other hand, was a much more benevolent GM, resulting in the game becoming a Monty Haul adventure.