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;
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. Tropes Are Tools, 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.
Schrödinger's Gun 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 analogues.
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 direction.
Not to be confused with the Rail Enthusiast's favorite hobby.
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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.
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.
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.
The Doctor WhoChoose Your Own Adventurebooks. 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.
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.
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.
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 their never being any priests.
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.
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 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.
Although you do need to go the Forest Temple before the Water Temple, as the bow you find inside is necessary to complete the Water Temple.
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 firsttwo 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 abusingNPC Roadblocks as liberally as possible.
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 Assassin's 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.
Darths & Droids: After the players' (somewhat off-base) version of Star Wars Episode I is finished, the GM's original plot is shown. So during an Archive Binge, you get to see how the GM accommodated his original plot points after severe derailing by the players. This actually shows that the Darths and Droids game master may not be perfect, but is a really good GM, changing his planned plot around the flow of the game and the choices of his players rather than the other way around. As of Episode III it is becoming increasingly obvious that he is becoming tired of the players taking their own paths, and he vigorously attempts to steer them back onto the rails. When R2's player GMs, however, the railroading stick hits hard.
It is highly possible that the destruction of Naboo is the GM's way of making sure that they don't go off the rails.
DM of the Rings is a screencap comic about characters going through the plot of Lord of the Rings (which doesn't exist in their world, so they don't know it) with a very bad DM who is quite blatantly railroading them, with the players attempting to go Off the Rails as much as they can (including attempting and succeeding at killing Gollum, Gríma and Saruman). The work evokes a common mindset behind railroading:
Players tend to stay on the rails better when you place obvious landmines on either side of the tracks.
In one comic, the group attempts to interrupt Gandalf's conversation with Théoden...only for the DM to start over from the beginning, causing them to compare it to a video game cutscene. In another, they ask why he even bothers running an RPG if he already knows the exact story he wants to tell; his response is, because they chip in for pizza.
Except that made the railroading even worse, because the author started with a predetermined outcome, and had to figure out how the fight would get there, and had to heavily tilt the 'rolls' in favor of the railroading. In a D&D situation where you determine the outcome of every roll, you can make any fight generate any outcome you want.
Much later on, General Tarquin thinks he's the Big Bad and that his son Elan is The Hero. However, Elan makes it clear that he's not, and the Order's end-goal is to stop an Evil Sorcerer from harnessing the power of a god-killing abomination. In order to impress onto Elan what Tarquin thinks is his proper role, the General decides to kill the rest of the Order.
Problem Sleuth: Though readers' suggestions were still used from time to time, much of the latter part the work was based on commands the author decided to use regardless of whether they were suggested. Similarly, Homestuck's plot is already planned out, though reader suggestions still appeared. Finally the suggestion box was shut down, and, apart from giving names to a couple of new characters, remained locked and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
However, Andrew has been known for taking suggestions or rumors from the forums and putting them into the story, meaning the readers don't completely lack influence.
The method of taking suggestions, a forum post, was an Artifact from Jail Break's origin as a forum thread. Homestuck became so popular that every time Andrew reopened the suggestion boxes to get the plot off the rails the forums would crash from the onslaught of attempted suggestions.
In Rusty and Co., Mimic hates an adventure hook but as he leaves, he is literally hooked — onto a landship, which runs on railroad tracks, and belongs to the foe he was being recruited to fight.
Mimic: An' here I thought "on rails" was jus' an expression.
Erfworld is an unusual example, in that instead of a GM it is the universe itself (or more specifically, Fate magic) that is behind the Railroading. The gist of it seems to be that some individuals have no Fate and can do whatever they want, it won't really affect matters. Others have a Fate, and this fate 'will' come to pass no matter what. All attempting to go Off the Rails gets you is a more painful journey along your Fated path, as the universe thwarts any attempts you make to avoid the Railroading.
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.
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".
In the South Park episode Asspen, Stan is railroaded into an 80s-style sports movie plot, complete with contrived exposition.
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.