What Does Railroading Actually Mean?

Throughout my time as a Game Master I’ve googled, scrolled and scan through many articles, forums and blog posts about any number of things I needed help with. One big topic I would come back to is the subject of railroading. I’ve read about how its bad to do to your players and to avoid it at all costs. I’ve also read how some parties need railroading in order to progress. There have also been posts about Game Masters being scared of their players decisions when they don’t railroad their players.

Here I will try and give you the definitive definition of what railroading is and how to know when to use it.

What the hell is Railroading really?

Railroading in the “bad” sense means taking away agency from your players. Waiting for them to pick the right story hook for “your” story to continue and not the collaborative story of the table. The reason why I say in the “bad” sense is because there is a good way to railroad and here is where I will implement a new term coined by our very own they/them Sean which is “Carpooling”.

Carpooling is the good form of railroading. You, the Game Master, are the driver and all your players are in the same car and are headed to a location you all agreed on. You might deviate from the path because one person might need to use the restroom or want some coffee but ultimately you’re the driver and will get to the destination eventually.

When should I carpool?

Now that we’ve defined what railroading is as well as coin a new term, let’s figure out when to use it!

The short answer is to never ever railroad your players. Don’t ever take agency away from your them. That is not what these games are about.

But when it comes to carpooling I would suggest using this when your players are unsure of where to go. I like remind my parties of what they wanted to accomplish and give them options along the way. If we’re still using the carpool analogy its as if someone wanted coffee but the only shops are 20 minutes away or maybe they forgot they wanted coffee so before we get going you’ll pull into your local coffee shop and then head back on the road!

I hope this clears things up for you and you start using the term carpooling! If you want to listen more in depth stay tuned for our podcast episode on this very subject.

Happy Adventuring!

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