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Railroading 4430
262. I am not allowed to make choo-choo noises when the GM tries to force the plot.

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.)

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.

Schrodinger'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 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 is a Video Game analogue.

Contrast Off the Rails, an attempt by the players to escape a GM's railroading.

Not to be confused with the Rail Enthusiast's favorite hobby.

Examples of Railroading include:


Comic Books

  • 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.

Film

  • 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 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.

Literature

  • 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!
  • 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill is a picture book about a girl who describes why she's not allowed to do them anymore. She's not allowed to use glue because She "had an idea to glue her brother's slippers to the floor. for example.
  • 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.


Role Playing Games

  • 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.


Video Games

  • 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.
  • The Source Engine game The Stanley Parable deals heavily with this subject, and more generally with player decisions/options in video games.
  • 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.

Web Comics

  • Darths and 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.
  • 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 Theoden...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.
      • However there are two instances where this trope is subverted, they kill Gollum before he appears, and they kill Saruman from below his tower.
  • Order of the Stick: Roy categorically declares he's not going where the plot requires he go. It doesn't stick: Stupid Railroad plot.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Web Original

  • 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, ends up with the GM basically telling him "I think you should leave."

Western Animation

  • 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.
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