I've played in many games that were extremely railroaded. There was basically only one feasible course of action and we, as players, were expected to take that route. (The GM would get very upset if things didn't go "according to plan".) My personal GMing style is much more open-ended; I tend to let the players decide what they want to do in advance of the session and then try to plan something around their own motivations. My games are set up such that there are NPCs out there who are taking their own actions, who have their own motivations, and what the players choose to do with them, or about it, or what have you, is completely up to them. (Of course there are lots of plot "hooks" and in-game motivations for continuing to be involved with the story, but how they stay involved is something I let them dictate.)

My question is this: how do I determine how much railroading is "just right"? To a certain extent you have to be able to plan a session instead of just improvising your way through the whole thing — and that means you have to railroad a little bit. You have to have a game plan for "how things will turn out." But at the same time you want to give the players freedom and really let their characters make meaningful decisions. (And I mean this in a very genuine way; I don't mean just give them the illusion of freedom, but really the power to affect and change the game world and the course of events. Otherwise, if you want to control exactly how everything goes, why don't you just write a novel instead of run a game?)

What are some guidelines for finding the happy medium between playing a 2D side-scrolling video game and just having your players sandboxing? How can you tell if you're straying too far in one direction or the other?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What's the problem with your style? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/5870/… \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 14:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't even call talking about what you want in the game metagaming. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 17:03

10 Answers 10


I prefer the other version of the question. How much plot guidance is too little. Aim for a smidge more guidance than the bare minimum and you'll have a party with plot without risking too much railroading.

As everyone said, how much guidance is something that will vary from group to group. Even within a group it'll vary from session to session.

I like to think of my plots in terms of their momentum. When a plot has enough momentum it'll keep itself going without any guidance on your part. At game start, your plot rock is at the bottom of the hill. You have to roll it to the top. Then let the players figure out which side of the hill to roll it off of. Anyway, how much momentum the plot has is what varies from session to session. It's up to you to figure out if the plot is ready for the players to steer it or not.


The wishy-washy answer is "Exactly as much as it's fun for your group". I've personally run both kinds of extremes, with the same group, having fun in both occasions.

Now that we got that out of the way: I currently prefer to write down the major plot points I want to present, and improvise around them or away from them if the players lead somewhere else. If I planned to have an important in-world event, and the players are stuck or adventuring elsewhere, I might scrap it, or have it happen anyway, depending on how I want the plot to go on.

Let's say, the Bugger horde is coming to C Shore City, and the characters know it. They decide to go seek the fire opal of Knuth deep in the caves of Ritchie instead, for some reason. Well, the C Shore city guard will have to make do with the current load of adventurers minus these five, the city may fall, new plot points might surface. Who knows?


Simple answer would be: Railroading should be dosed depending on the player's taste.

I think you should never try to control in what direction the party is going..but if the players are walking in an area of your world you didn't prepared yet, I suggest being honest with them and say: Okay I didn't planned that, so we'll make the journey important for this game session so I can plan the destination.

Be honest with them if they bring you somewhere you didn't expected.

If you had a story in mind and your player are going in a completely different direction, adjust your story. If it was clear at the beginning of the campaign that you would be making a campaign of vampire hunting and people aren't interested in hunting vampires...then remind them that you all agreed.


No, you don't have to railroad them 'a little bit'. You need players who's characters have ambitions in life (beyond drinking in a tavern...unless they have no money) and the players simply pursue their PC's ambition. When they complete their ambition, they are done. No 'I wanna play forever' - if you want forever, then just railroad it.

If your players just can't make up an ambition for their PC, well then you just cannot play in this way. You can't somehow do it for them as GM - this is where the player contributes to the game and if they can't do this, then they simply aren't capable of contributing in such a way. You can't do it for them then pretend they contributed themselves.

There isn't a happy medium between scripted and non scripted - just an illusion the players might fall under that they aren't following a script when they are.


It is a matter of taste and circumstances of the campaign. It is the same amount of work to create a campaign as a linked series of adventures, as it would to offer complete freedom of choice.

Since the freeform campaign is less commonly known a detailed explanation is needed.

The free form nature of role-playing games are difficult to manage. It is understandable why many choose to run their campaigns as a linear series of adventures. To allow for more freedom you need to get away from the idea that a campaign is a connected series of adventures.

To do this you need to develop a “Bag of Stuff.” The elements inside your “Bag of Stuff” are pulled out and combined during a session to form the adventure the players are experiencing. A campaign cease to be about prepping adventures but rather about managing and expanding what in your “Bag of Stuff”. The referee creativity becomes focused on judging the consequences of the player’s action.

What goes into a “Bag of Stuff? The broad categories are Items, NPCs, and Locales. Items are the physical object found in the setting both mundane and supernatural. NPCs are the characters including generic template that can be customized on the fly with a name and personality (Barkeep, guard, etc).

Locales are descriptions of sites both specific and generic. This part is the most like writing an adventure except the effort should be focused on description not plot. A Palace could be a setting for an audience with the king one session or the scene of a raid on the royal treasury the next. General locales are generally the most flexible. A typical church of the god of honor, a peasant hut, a manorhouse. The more well-read the referee is the more able they will be able to customize the generic elements into the specific items the PCs encounter.

Coupled with this is a “World in Motion”. Making a living breathing setting that exists outside of the player’s actions. To prepare the “World in Motion” for play, the referee draws up a timeline of what going to happen in the setting for the expected length of the campaign. It may be a year, two years, or a decade. This timeline is written has if the characters did not exist. It will guide the referee as to what specific items, NPCs, and Locales need to be added to the “Bag of Stuff”.

The “World in Motion” comes into play through the background color, news, and rumors the referee uses during play. Referee will focus a timeline on events that are of interest to himself and his players.

Managing the campaign is about deciding the consequence of player actions and their effect on future events. The referee will need to be prepared for drastic alterations if circumstances required it. Above all remember that the timeline is a plan not a script. Like a plan of battle it changes once put into action.

Also understand that the initial starting circumstances of the characters will dictate how linear subsequent actions are. A campaign involving the characters as Royal Guards undertaking missions for the king is considerably more linear than when the characters are free-booters roaming the countryside. Both allow players complete freedom of choice but one results in a more linear flow of events than the other. But even with the restricted setup of being Royal Guards that campaign could have considerably variations as the players guide their character through their lives as guardsmen of the king.

The creativity of the referee comes primarily in deciding the consequences of the player’s actions. Not just picking out the likely consequences but the one that are both probable and interesting This is because we are playing a game not writing a alternate history thesis.

Using the “Bag of Stuff” and the “World in Motion” as tools in managing a campaign referees will find that they can allow players to have considerable freedom within the setting and the amount of prep work remains the same as a campaign comprised as a series of linked adventures. If the setting is retained for subsequent campaigns you the prep work becomes considerably reduced as much of the material is recycled into the new campaign’s “Bag of Stuff”.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The OP isn't asking "how"—their non-railroad skills are clearly well-developed. They're asking "how much?" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 18:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ The OP goes into more detail than just "How much" and I am responding by showing that complete character freedom requires the same amount of works as a linked series of adventures. This boils the choice to matter of taste and circumstance. I am editing my answer to be clearer on this point. \$\endgroup\$
    – RS Conley
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 19:18

As many others have said, its largely a matter of taste. I know some players that hate railroading and want a sandbox style of play. Some of them want to go so far as deemphasize the DM's role and the sessions come close to collaborative writing done verbally. But they enjoy them and in a game that is what matters.

Personally, I prefer much more of a story focus with detailed plots, and that becomes much easier to do with some railroading. I'll happily accept a fair bit of railroading if it facilitates the plot.

Of course, the way you handle the railroading can matter almost as much. With a gentle touch of dangling carrots along the path you want them to go and having alternatives turn out unpalatable, the players may not explicitly notice any railroading, especially if you permit the occassionally stop at an unplanned station to explore before herding them up and getting them back on the railroad.

On the other hand, I have seen some GMs flat out state that the characters need to do something specific. This is bad. Very bad. It can sometimes be worth it if, say, the plan is to run a premade module or the character does something that really breaks an elaborate plot the GM has invested a lot in. But it should be an absolute last resort.

As one example, in an elaborate sci-fi game I temporarily had command of a decent chunk of military force and needed to eliminate a specific target that was hiding in a large building complex. The GM had counted on me taking the other characters and clearing it building by building. I said, "Blast it from orbit". After staring at me for a minute she said, "But you can't do that...important stuff is supposed to happen in there." She couldn't come up on the spot with a reason I shouldn't destroy the area from orbit (we came up with some talking about it later) so she just asked me to attack on the ground. This was probably worth it because it preserved very good plots that she had already worked out in some detail. But at that moment it was really frustrating for everyone involved.

Being able to provide a more gentle, in game, reason to assault on the ground would have kept us on track, and still been railroading, but it would have been much more invisible and fun railroading. On the other hand, had she used no railroading at all, she probably would have been reluctant to make those detailed plans to start with and we would have missed out on a good plot.


For me, the proper amount of plot guidance is setting up the world/scenario/missions. From that point forward, it is in the players’ hands.


My preference is not to railroad, but to make the players want to go along with the plan. If they are bailing on major plot points to go raise hell or rake in more gold. Then figure out why they are bailing, are the Quest NPC's not giving enough money, are is the hook not interesting enough for them or are the PC's just plain bored with the plot point.

If your willing to do some behind the scenes work. One of the things I do is a time matrix for major plot points. Something like this

Hooky (well known with bounties in most towns) will kill Lord Mac in 6 days - currently traveling from Lowtown to Hightown

The Kneeknobber orc clan will attack Lowtown in 4 days - currently in route on the Hiborn mtn pass

Acidica the black dragon is getting a tribute from Hightown in 2 days

The PC's can travel and have a chance of stepping on one of those 3 plot hooks.. they may meet Hooky on the road which if the PC's happen to look at the wanted posters may or may not realize who he is. Or they could see the movements of the orcs traveling around.

The point is the world is not a vacuum events will occur with or without the PCs.


How much?

As many other people have noted, it really depends on your group and the game you're playing. Some people enjoy games that are railroaded - they're playing to get a story told to them, and maybe make a few choices in a fight scene. Some people want to be able to do anything that's appropriate within the game genre/setting, and do not want a story dictated to them, at all.

More often than not, wanting different things along these lines, or misunderstanding what you should be doing or getting from a given game, leads to big problems in play.

Being very clear as a group what you're trying to do and how you do it, solves a LOT of issues that people crop up as problems in their gaming.

(side note: yes, you can in fact have great game sessions doing nothing but improvisation with no planning. There's a lot of games well suited to do this: 1001 Nights, Inspectres, Primetime Adventures, Breaking the Ice, Universalis, etc. There's a lot of other games that easily can do that, as well.)

Tools to use


A lot of time gets wasted with players feeling lost about what to do next. When you have a game that has a core mission structure, it becomes a lot easier. Inspectres is about ghost-busting, Mouse Guard is about clear missions given to you by the leaders to carry out. When you have a goal, it becomes a lot easier for players to be proactive and for the GM to know how to feed direction to them.


Flags are clear mechanics for players to tell you what they want the story/conflicts to be about. Burning Wheel uses Beliefs, Primetime Adventures uses Issues. Instead of having to plan what the "problem" is for each scene, you simply look at the general Flag and think of ways to make scenes around it.

"Korsak has 'Loyalty to the King' as an issue. What happens if he finds out the King ordered his brother's execution?"

You simply take a situation, the NPCs you've got, and the player's Flags and build around that. Half the time it's simply NPCs acting and reacting to the PC's actions.

Conflict Generators

Some things simply provide ongoing conflict easily - Dogs in the Vineyard's Towns and Apocalypse World's Fronts both do this. They're situations cause many types of problems, and you don't have to prep each scene or encounter, you just make some notes before play and during play, you can easily improvise problems during play.

"You're on a starship that's falling apart, and there's space monsters. It's not hard to figure every scene is either hazards or monsters or both."

Scene Framing

Scene framing is the trick nearly every game does better with. You know how a movie will cut from the end of one scene, and then the next scene is the character driving up to a new location, with anything from minutes, hours, days, months cut out in between?

Do that. Cut to the part that's interesting. You can do this soft, or hard. Soft scene framing involves asking the player "Where are you going next? What are you generally doing?" and framing on that.

Hard scene framing puts them into the middle of the action, even if it's not when/where they want it to be. You have to have some kind of trust and knowledge as a group to do this - it is a style that doesn't work with players who want their characters to be "safe" all the time, or who have had abusive play situations in the past.

"It's the next day, you're sprawled on the training ground, and your rival Mikka is standing over you, his fist dripping blood, your blood. He's decided to take the sparring a bit too seriously. What do you do?"

It can also be putting people into positive/opportunity situations as well, though:

"You lower yourself into the office through the open window. You hear footsteps and hide yourself behind the filing cabinets quickly before the Don comes in. What surprises you is the voice you hear with him. It's the police chief."


I love free world sand box style gaming and have had the same basic problem. Everyone either dose nothing, going through there day to day with no interruptions and resisting any attempt to push to quest or adventure. Or, worse they treat the sand box setting as grand theft auto. murdering and looting until they are put down buy the authorities or NPC adventures. My solution is to ask players who/what their playing what is the most plausible reason they can think of to work with other players. I come up with a scripted situation they can't avoid. Most players need a reason for adventuring. This first semi scripted situation is essential to giving the team purpose. And it must be a inevitable thing like granny goodness the players wet nurse is dying without this rare plant. Players don't have any choice if she doesn't get the plant she can expect a long agonizing death over the next two months. I think having at least one scripted adventure at the beginning is essential. As the players start the game I draw as much as I can about there back ground to develop quick NPCs the characters empathize with from there past and present. with the help of the players input to some degree. Once they finished there basic quest that gives us something to go on the rest of the game sessions are about the characters choosing there own adventures. The players world quickly begins to look like a tree of scripted adventures. But in actuality is a mixture of players choices and responsibilities to each other and the NPCs they protect, aid and serve. I can toss in classic dungeon crawls, quests, and even campaign ideas from time to time. The players get a chance to choose what it is that inspired them to make there characters and see there hero take form. In my mind the only reason you need to railroad is if the player is in danger of derailing from who they wanted there character to become in the first place. And that all boils down to is getting a scripted quest at the beginning that develops some NPCs that connect that character to the world. Players are no long The Tank or The Rogue. But real people with friends, family, people that look up to them. With out these connections most people either close up or dehumanize the setting there in.

That is my long winded way of saying one scripted adventure. My little brother still has his first character Played the character for 16 years before retiring him. Strangely the character never got wealthy but instead lived out his final his days surrounded by family and friends on a simple farmstead.


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