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 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;
- Give the players choices, but have them all lead to the same outcome.
...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 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 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.
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.)
If you are looking for railroading meaning getting someone falsely convicted as in a definition of the word railroading as used in American English slang, that trope is at Miscarriage of Justice.
- Princess Tutu's Drosselmeyer directly intervenes in the story at several points in order to try and keep the plot on track, even going so far as to show up directly in person a few times to try and talk characters out of an action that would derail the plot or to try and nudge things in the desired direction. Given Drosselmeyer's lack of charisma, his attempted intervention doesn't always have the desired effect.
- 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.
- Railroading is one of the symptoms of Setsuna Syndrome. Named after Setsuna Meioh, aka Sailor Pluto, Setsuna Syndrome is when a Looper tries to force each and every loop they go through to follow their baseline's events as closely as feasibly as possible, usually in hopes of "stopping" and "fixing" the loops. If every loop were a baseline loop, this wouldn't be much of an issue — however, baseline loops, while the most common type of loops, are not the only type of loop a Looper goes through. There are Alternate Universe loops, For Want of a Nail loops, Crossover loops, etc., where following baseline is literally impossible. If not remedied, Setsuna Syndrome can drive a looper insane, making them more and more desperate to maintain the baseline timeline, thus causing them to take extreme measures — such as Helia blowing up Tecna's subspace pocket. The only way to treat it is to convince the Looper that they don't have the power to stop the Loops so maintaining the baseline timeline is pointless.
- 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.
- Fade: No matter how hard Light and L try, someone will rise up to become Kira, like in the story. While Light succeeds in subverting his fate as canon!Kira, another Kira, arguably worse than what he would've become, takes his place — L, who succumbs to the darkness in his pursuit to stop canon!Kira and his death using his own Death Note. It's implied that there was always meant to be a Kira and that Light and L's efforts were for naught — if it hadn't been one of them, someone else would've gotten the notebook and fallen into temptation instead.
- 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".
- In the first act of Dark City, John Murdoch wakes up in a hotel room with a dead hooker and a bloody knife. The hotel clerk tells him his wallet is at the automat, and when he goes to pick it up he encounters another prostitute. The Strangers had set up that chain of events so Murdoch, imprinted with the memories of a Serial Killer, would meet her and so they could observe whether he would kill if given the memories of a killer. However, since he wasn't imprinted and has amnesia, he leaves to find out who he is, and everything goes Off the Rails.
- In Jumanji, the players are at the mercy of the dice. When Peter tries to cheat by ignoring his roll and moving his token all the way to the end, the game punishes him by gradually turning him into a monkey.
- In the obscure part live action, part Claymation Christian kids film Hoomania, a boy is trapped in a board game after being warned not to go off the path. He goes off the path twice and gets punished brutally both times. The point of this was to teach him an unsubtle lesson about making wise choices. This may have been inspired by The Pilgrim's Progress.
- 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.
- In You Can Be The Stainless Steel Rat, another Choose Your Own Adventure book (of sorts), used quite blatantly, returning you to already read paragraphs, telling you 'No, not this way', returning you with a 'after a few miles, you realize this is the wrong direction', and so on. Near the end you get to explore about half a dozen different paths, and the paragraph where you choose among the five paths tells you to go to paragraph x only when have run all the other paths - and that paragraph tells you a secret that then allows you to go forward in the 'right' direction...
- In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew are warned not to kill the cattle of the Sun (Helios) when they arrive on the island of Thrinacia. They follow this advice at first, but then an unfavorable wind traps them there for a whole month! The crew is slowly starving to death and finally gives in and breaks their promise not to touch the cattle. Of course they are then duly punished even though they basically had no choice.
- Done In-Universe in Bimbos of the Death Sun: Jay Omega, DMing the Celebrity D&D game in place of the murdered Appin Dungannon, puts Dungannon's Barbarian Hero Tratyn Runewind through a Humiliation Conga that ends with his iconic sword shattered and him killed in a disgraceful manner. He did this because he suspected the resident Runewind fanboy of committing the murder; his suspicions are confirmed when the fanboy flips out, delivers his Motive Rant, and then tries to kill Jay in order to "save" Runewind.
- Parodied in Ryan North's To Be or Not To Be: That Is the Adventure. It's obvious that the Lemony Narrator doesn't actually like the original play and thinks his version is superior; attempting to derail his ideas or act out the canonical version of Hamlet leads to increasingly angry tantrums and attempts to retcon away your actions, such as claiming Hamlet was only pretending to be a jerk to Ophelia. Play your cards right though, and you can derail the story in insane ways that he accepts, such as making Hamlet shoot himself out of a cannon or having Ophelia murder everybody.
- Star Trek:
- The series have 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.
- Charmed has an episode where Paige and her beau of the arc are sucked into a book written by two magic students, based on The Maltese Falcon. They have to play along to find the way out. The book itself railroads them occasionally, but Phoebe and Piper do their share as well. At one point Paige is heading for a trap; Piper writes in a piano falling in her path to send her the other way.
- This is of course a common trap many novice GMs 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 subtly 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 PCs.
- 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 irresistible 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 WG7 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.
- NewsieSpud, author of Friendship Is Dragons, compiled some of the best stories shared in the comic's comment section into a series of animated comic strips. Click here for one of the best/worst examples of railroading ever.
- An early edition of White Dwarf magazine carried an article on how GMs 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 work and that sometimes it is 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 World of Darkness had a 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 CthulhuTech 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.
- An actual rule in World Of Synnibarr is that the GM has to show players his campaign notes after every session, and if he didn't railroad them they get bonus EXP. It also has a rule to enforce that; if the GM doesn't follow any and all rules in the book (for example "I don't want to railroad my players because that's BS"), the players can demand a reset of the adventure.
- Many games deliberately use restrictive level design and a lack of player agency in order to reinforce the game's themes of fate, destiny, free will etc. See Video Games and Fate.
- 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 the Real Person Ending, the Narrator does everything he can to force the player to follow his intended story path, including removing the paths to other endings. The game still goes Off the Rails though, because the door to the mind control room is now voice-activated, and Stanley is The Voiceless so he can't open it.
- 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 dungeon item in each temple, you can just leave and complete the Fire Temple and/or Water Temple before completing the Forest Temple, and the Spirit Temple before the Shadow Temple. 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.
- Speaking of Zelda, A Link Between Worlds deliberately goes out of its way to avert this trope. It does this by bucking by-then fifteen year old tradition of "use the dungeon item you received to reach the next dungeon"; instead, nearly all of the major items are available to you at the beginning of the game, sold by the merchant Ravio. You can choose to rent the items for a cheaper price, or buy them and thus ensure they'll be yours forever (which also allows you to upgrade them). While certain dungeons do require specific items (especially among the first three dungeons, which outright tell you what you'll need), the majority of the game's levels can be beaten with any combination of tools. Thus, you're pretty much free to do the dungeons in whatever order you like (the only exception is a certain dungeon which requires an item you can't get until you clear another dungeon).
- Tales of Xillia 2 does this by using Ludger's debt. The debt puts travel restrictions onto the entire party, meaning they are not allowed to travel to a new city, unless a certain amount of the debt has been paid off. And walking to a new city counts under these restrictions, so the player cannot by-pass that.
- 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 Pokémon franchise is often criticized by long-time fans for nosediving into this territory. While the first two generations were also linear, there still existed some choice in traveling and battling some Gyms out of order. Subsequent installments use Event Flags more and more often, with the fifth and sixth generations abusing NPC Roadblocks as liberally as possible, and the seventh having literal roadblocks on every island. That said, those two generations aren't exempt, as the huge list of examples for the franchise on the Broken Bridge and aforementioned NPC Roadblock pages can tell you. For the sake of this page, however...
- Red and Blue gave us the 'HM' mechanic in addition to the usual NPC roadblocks, with this mechanic remaining a part of the series until Sun and Moon twenty years later. Certain obstacles can only be passed or cleared with special moves that work outside of battle. These moves are taught via items known as Hidden Machines, and are obtained through a side errand or event that is conveniently presented around the time you need said item. And even then, you can't use the move outside of battle unless you have the corresponding Gym Badge that allows you to do so. So instead of an NPC blocking you, it's most likely a tree, boulder, body of water. It doesn't matter if you have a hulking dragon with fearsome claws and fire-breathing skills in your pocket. You won't be able to get past that tree without the Cut move. The only reason you can take on a certain cluster of cities midgame in almost any order you want is because they're about two minutes from each other, in a '+' formation.
- Failing the tree/boulder blockade, the game will just toss an obstacle at you that needs a key item, like any usual RPG. Good luck getting past a Snorlax easily without the Flute, which you can only get after clearing a certain tower... which you need the Silph Scope for, to even see the ghosts inside to engage them without running. (A key item that, of course, has its own line of events.) Oh, and don't expect to just take on the Cinnabar Gym the moment you set foot on the island. You need to go fetch the key to the gym from an abandoned building... despite there being trainers inside that can probably just let you in.
- Gold and Silver: While the game has the now post-game region of Kanto be fairly open, allowing you to skip entire routes if you desire, the main region of Johto is fairly linear, also thanks to HMs and key items — and when those two aren't blocking you, you can bet there's a Team Rocket plot happening nearby that you absolutely must stop before you're allowed to move on. (Which gets hilarious when you remember your protagonist is, in fact, a child, who is constantly the one stopping these people.) Almost as if aware of the silliness of a twiggy tree blocking your path, this game introduces an intersection of three conveniently one-tile-wide paths... blocked in the middle with a Pokémon that poses as a tree for the sole purpose of blocking you, forcing you to take a detour around half the country to bypass it.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- The main quest of Fallout 3 has this, more so in its later stages. For example, if you give the correct code to Colonel Autumn after he kidnaps and interrogates you, you are killed on the spot. More notably, at the end of the main quest, you are forced to make a Heroic Sacrifice... which will likely end up being a Stupid Sacrifice, as 4 of 8 available companions should be able to do the job for younote . Fortunately, you can avoid the Heroic Sacrifice part if you have Broken Steel installed but the narrator still criticizes the player for it.
- Fallout: New Vegas downplays this. At the start of the game, taking the road straight north to Vegas will get you ripped apart by either Deathclaws or Cazadors. You're supposed to go south to Primm, then Nipton, then Novac (incidentally following Benny's trail). Around that point, the game opens up and essentially allows you to go anywhere. However, clever (and borderline suicidal) players have found ways to sneak or simply tank their way straight from Goodsprings to Vegas.
- Fallout 4 doesn't let you skip over clues or quests in the first half of the game. Until you arrive at the Institute, the conditions for each quest are directly set up by the completion of the quest before, and a major event that's completely unrelated to the main quest at that point ( the arrival of the Brotherhood of Steel's main force) is blocked off until you've advanced far enough in the plot. Simply going out, looking for and finding your objective is prevented by making the Institute only accessible by teleportation, which you can only accomplish after completing the plotline. After this, you can decide what to do, though the Minutemen are kept essential to ensure that you can always complete the main quest independently even if you antagonize all the other factions.
- For double the pun, progressing along the main story requires you to find and interact with the faction called The Railroad. They are the only ones who can decode a certain chip to find the Institute.
- The game begins with the Vault-Tec repesentative coming to your home to inform you that your family has been pre-selected for Vault 111, and he asks you to fill out the registration paperwork, which takes the form of choosing your stats. You have the option to refuse him, but if you do he just keeps asking and becomes more insistent each time until your spouse forces you to fill out the paperwork/your character sheet.
- Attempted quite poorly in Mega Man X6 with Alia's navigation. It's very clear the game designers meant for you to explore Commander Yammark's stage first, as that is the level where you get the introductory intel about the various nightmare enemies, but nothing stops you from visiting other levels. It's very possible to finish every other level and tackle Yammark's last, and still get the speech from Alia as if you've never faced the nightmare enemies you've probably gunned down by the hundred by now.
- Final Fantasy series examples:
- Though Final Fantasy XIII got quite a large share of flak from players for being 'linear', earlier games were far less kind and subtle in their railroading:
- Walking too far from your assumed path in Final Fantasy II resulted in you fighting enemies about ten times as strong as your current level, with no indication what patch of field grass was suddenly considered a 'new area' where you'd get a Total Party Kill in five seconds.
- Going to the wrong place without the right key item in Final Fantasy III simply kills the party in a cutscene... in two separate points of the game, no less.
- Just to be safe, assume that whenever you obtain a new method of transportation in a Final Fantasy game, you're either going to temporarily lose access to it, or discover a new obstacle it can't overcome, some time later when the developers want you to chase a particular goal without distractions.
- This includes airships in Final Fantasy IV. The airship isn't going to modify 'itself' to enable traveling to the moon faster than today's ships can.
- In perhaps the most obnoxious example, in the ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2, much is made of the following decision: whether Noel should go through with killing Caius or spare his life. The game even provides a button-press option to choose between the two. But this is frustratingly betrayed by the plot in an example of But Thou Must!, because even if you choose to "spare" Caius, he commits suicide anyway and the exact same events unfold.
- Final Fantasy XIV, as an MMORPG, presents a very frustrating double subversion - once you've completed your introductory series of quests, you can access the entire world map, and it is perfectly possible to grind your way up to level 50 without touching any story quests along the way. However, this means you will be prevented from accessing most of the game's dungeons (including endgame content), you won't get a mount, and you won't get your relic items. It's even worse if you decide not to do class progression quests, as these are the only way to gain your class's key abilities and custom gear.
- At the climax of the penultimate chapter of Final Fantasy XV, the party is surrounded by an infinitely respawning horde of monsters, and Noctis's True Companions tell him to go on ahead to the elevator leading to the Crystal Chamber and reach the Crystal. The player can ignore this and continue to fight, but only up to a minute later, when a female electronic voice announces that the hangar in which the players are fighting will be sealed shut. To punctuate this, a timer appears counting down to the door closing, and if Noctis doesn't make it, it's Nonstandard Game Over time.
- Another Century's Episode R takes great pains to recreate the final episode of Macross Frontier — to the point where the mission contains only about two minutes of actual gameplaynote sandwiched in between seven minutes of unskippable cutscenes where the only difference from the Frontier anime is a throwaway shot of some of the other playable characters. This level is so infamous that the phrase "NOT SKIP MOVIE" (which appears during said cutscenes) became a minor meme amongst the Super Robot Wars fandom.
- The Journeyman Project has this right in the beginning of the game. You're supposed to head to your job via transporter and if you so choose, you can decide to skip work and teleport to another location. Going anywhere other than the TSA and you're instantly uncreated due to a paradox created in the timeline. Only by going to the TSA do you find out why the paradox happens in the first place.
- Mass Effect 2 does this on two occasions. The first is right after finishing all four initial Dossier missions, where The Illusive Man orders you to head to Horizon, with no option but to go there. The second occurs after you have a total of eight recruited squad-mates and have completed at least five missions after Horizon. In this case, The Illusive Man orders you to board the Collector Ship. Only after the completion of that mission, do you have the freedom to do missions when you want. In both instances, this is justified as both of those missions are carried out while there is a narrow window of opportunity to strike at the Collectors before they scurry back through their special Omega-4 relay.
- The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC railroads you over to the Broker's ship almost immediately after killing Tela Vasir. The Overlord DLC strands you on a planet till the mission is complete, albeit for a very good reason, while the Arrival DLC has you take Kenson back to her project base immediately after her rescue, to continue the DLC's plot. Again, this is justified as she says that an important task must be done by a certain time.
- The Elder Scrolls, with its open and non-linear nature, generally averts it. However, certain instances do pop up, typically to avoid making the game unwinnable, and these instances have gotten more frequent as the series has gone on. To note:
- Largely averted in Morrowind, since you can kill any NPC in the game, including those integral to the main plot. The downside of this, is that you can render the game Unwinnable by Design. Fortunately, the game gives you a warning when killing an important NPC, allowing you to reload to a point before killing said NPC, and an alternative, but rather obscure, path to still finish the main quest, unless you kill NPCs required for that path, in which case you are forced to reload, should you want to finish the main quest...unless you grind yourself so high that you can complete the main quest through an exploit or sheer naked force. Also, Morrowind allows you to drop and sell items required to finish certain quests. Losing these items like this is another way to render the game unwinnable.
- Played straight in Oblivion. This game introduces the concept of "Essential" NPCs. Characters who are flagged as Essential can't be killed through combat. Whenever you defeat them, they merely fall unconscious and stand up a few seconds later. This is done to protect NPCs integral to the multiple questlines so you won't accidentally kill an NPC you later need in a quest. This does mean that you are forced play the quests exactly as the developers intended. Oblivion also prevents the player from removing and selling important quest-related items from their inventory, as a precaution to losing them and thus rendering the game unwinnable.
- Skyrim does both things Oblivion did before it did and takes its railroading a step further. The Player Character in this game is the Dragonborn, a Physical God and Reality Warper with the potential to become a One-Man Army, capable of easily killing dragons. Yet the characters in the game always treat the Dragonborn as a mere human and there is nothing to make them respect (or even fear) you as the Physical God you are. A specific example is the Forsworn Conspiracy questline in Markarth. After a while, the Dragonborn gets arrested by three corrupt guards. Despite being perfectly able to kill them and the rest of Markarth's army and pressure the Jarl into stopping the corruption, the only way to truly continue this quest is by meekly surrendering to the corrupt guards.
- Telltale Games is sometimes accused of doing this, with some fans saying that despite their games' emphasis on choice, many of the said choices don't impact or change the story in any major way. To name one example from Batman: The Telltale Series, even if players choose to prevent Harvey from getting disfigured, he'll still end up going crazy and become a villain later in the series.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, the player character must follow Duncan's lead and become a Grey Warden at the beginning of the game and embark on a quest to save the land from the Darkspawn. Some of the possible player characters have relatively humble origins and aren't too put out by this. The Human Noble, however, has very good reasons to refuse. While at first he is the second son (or daughter) of a Teyrn (roughly equivalent to a Duke) and well down the line of succession, the betrayal of a vassal and initial battle with the Darkspawn leaves his entire family confirmed or presumed dead and the Teyrnir of Cousland leaderless. Needless to say this changes things greatly as the Human Noble is now the apparent successor of vast lands that will be thrown into a chaotic power vacuum, especially with the King of Ferelden dead as well. The timing could not be worse to join some questing band of do-gooders. But it is impossible to insist that you take on the responsibilities of noble leadership and the Human Noble is forced to instead enlist as one more foot soldier in the nearly defunct Ferelden branch of Grey Wardens. Never mind that your ancient family line will be ended (since Grey Wardens are short-lived and sterile), your ancestral lands are being given to the man who betrayed and murdered your family, and you are the only person with the aristocratic standing to salvage the disaster for the teyrnir. Duncan (and the game's plot) don't care one bit.
- Deconstructing this is the Central Theme of Deltarune. The game goes to great lengths to convince you that you have no agency and none of your choices matter. In the opening, youre given a character creation screen; as soon as you finish making your character, theyre immediately discarded and the game condescendingly says that nobody chooses who they are before making you play as Kris. You are constantly forced down a single path and offers to make a choice are often immediately rescinded, with the game creepily insisting that YOU ACCEPT EVERYTHING THAT WILL HAPPEN FROM NOW ON, even if you clearly dont.
- 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 & 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 Pete (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:
- The entire comic 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:
The Rant: 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.
- In another hilarious example, the party is instead expected to help Gandalf out in his fight against the Balrog and defeat it together, but Gandalf is an insufferable, overpowered GM character that none of the players like, so they have to be railroaded into doing so. Much to the relief of the rest of the crew, Gimli's player points out that their alignments mean they can't risk the opportunity to escape with the ring and promptly ditch Gandalf for "The greater good." The irritated GM then railroads the plot back on track by resurrecting Gandalf with an incredible power boost, to everyone's annoyance.
- Another shining example is the scene where Éowyn asks to join the Fellowship: In the books Aragorn says nonote , but the comic's version says yes. The DM completely ignores what Aragorn's player is actually saying and acts like he's following the scripted scene, which makes Éowyn look schizophrenic since she's responding to things Aragorn never even said. In the end she does get left behind as per the original plot, but only because Aragorn's player got so frustrated at dealing with her that he just rode away from her in mid-conversation.
- The entire comic 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:
- The Order of the Stick:
- Roy categorically declares he's not going where the plot requires he go. It doesn't stick: Stupid Railroad plot. Interestingly enough, in the forums the author published a pretty detailed account of the battle, proving that he actually thought the whole thing through rather than just saying the PCs lost.
- 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 force Elan into 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 Jailbreak'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.
- Loaded Dice lampshades this facet of Steve's plot very early in chapter one.
- D&DS9 features a newbie DM who seems to have it out for Sisko in the backstory roleplay scene.
- 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 stalled and more painful journey along your Fated path, as the universe thwarts any attempts you make to avoid the Railroading. Even if you manage kill a fated unit before they can complete their destiny, the universe will eventually arrange for a superior replacement to complete the prophecy in their place.
- morphE wants to have interactive segments such as Investigation Mode and the second dream sequence, however it is still a web comic which updates 3 times a week and all attempts to add choice, particularly in the dream sequence, are a case of But Thou Must! and will inevitably lead to the correct conclusion for the next update to be in context.
- Away From Reality has Gord completing the Jade Forest questline from World of Warcraft, and Blizzard (represented by an "evil M&M") is trying to guilt trip Gord, only for Gord to snap back that it literally isn't his fault. Blizzard wrote the storyline, and Gord was railroaded into that outcome, the only option he had was quitting WoW and playing a different game.
- Awful Hospital: Happens whenever Ms. Green gets fed up with the voices (that is, the suggestions coming from the comic's readers) and tries to defy their directions.
- Railroading was a common troll complaint against Weaver in Ruby Quest, although really it had more examples of Off the Rails, like saving Stitches and Jay, than straight railroading, and two times he does straight-up ignore player input have good justifications: Ruby killing Stitches was a flashback, and Tom making a Heroic Sacrifice at the end was a fake out- he's saved by Stitches because the players went Off the Rails earlier. He even throws in a Take That! when Ruby and Tom are riding a tram away from the Metal Glen:
Weaver: The tram begins to move, leading out towards the land beyond.It's on an automated track, so it will continue on without Ruby or Tom needing to do anything.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 in-character response is to invoke Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by using the guards' lack of checking Spoony for weapons, as well as his skill in Chemistry, to create a bathtub full of Semtex and blow up the vampire's headquarters and anything in a two-block radius of it. It ends with the GM basically telling Spoony "I think you should leave."
- In another episode, Spoony discusses the concept of railroading as a necessary evil, saying that even if there's an obvious, ham-fisted plot hook at the start of a game, sometimes you have to swallow your pride and take it because otherwise, there won't be a game.
- Happened in a pretty big way during the 2012 D 20 Live campaign. The party is given spiked drinks but Linkara's character is cautious and refuses to drink, so Big Mike (the DM) ends up having him pass out from just the scent. Linkara points out that a drink so strongly spiked that it would make one pass out just from the smell would likely kill the other players who chugged the stuff down.
- 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 the 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.