How do you make it so players don’t feel railroaded?

I phrase it that way because deep down, I’m not sure there’s a difference between these scenarios:

A: The DM creates an adventure with hooks and clues that lead the PCs to adventure locations / events that he has made up ahead of time. (Standard adventure creation method)

B: The DM creates adventure locations / events and adds hooks and clues to the world so the PCs can find them. (Standard sandbox creation method)

There are grades of “DM leading the players by the nose” which we would call “railroading.” I think it has a lot to do with whether players have the choice to do something else besides what the DM wants them to do, and whether they can decide the outcome of those things rather than just doing whatever the DM decides will happen.

I’ve been thinking about typical Sandbox play (that is, the referee creates a setting and interesting things in that setting, and the players roam around doing whatever they want). There is Passive Sandbox and Active Sandbox.

Passive Sandbox is when the referee sets things up and leaves clues and hooks and stuff. The players are the big movers and shakers. They do things to the world, rather than the world doing things to them.

Active Sandbox is when the referee sets up things that seek out the players and engage them. The players sometimes have the choice to skip out on the adventure, but sometimes the adventure carries them along beyond their ability to escape it.

I’ve heard from my players that they enjoyed the times when I’ve run a more Active Sandbox session. I think maybe this has something to do with a planned, controlled experience having some added value, like the difference between a Disney theme park ride and just driving down the road in your car.

There are also the differing types of enjoyment found in a movie and a game. The game can be more enjoyable than the movie because you have input on things, but there’s a good chance it won’t work out as perfectly as the movie would (for example, investigation and time travel games). Simply put, a railroad can be fun if the players never suspect they’re being railroaded. Or, in my recent experience, it’s fun for one adventure but the players want to be free after they finish it.

Maybe that’s the tradeoff between a planned experience and an unplanned one. Planned experiences work out exactly the way the designer intended, the same way for everyone, while unplanned experiences are more engaging for everyone and more surprising for people who know how it goes (the referee and players who have played the adventure before).

There are, after all, people who prefer “adventure path” railroad-style games.

I think it’s possible to have the best of both worlds occasionally, if handled properly, but the amount of planning done will limit player agency by the same amount. The trick is disguising the planning, massaging the play experience, trying to keep the players from feeling railroaded.

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10 Responses to “How do you make it so players don’t feel railroaded?”

  1. Jack Colby Says:

    When you start a campaign there must be some small amount of railroad as you’ve got to prepare something for everyone to do. But as soon as the players are comfortable with the game world and get interested in it the DM just reacts to what the players want to do, and there is no more railroad. I’ve seen it happen in games, it’s just a natural evolution, and doesn’t take long.

  2. Joseppa Says:

    You used the word “sandbox” 7 times in the body of your post, and none of them are correct.

    In answer to your question though, I think Jack Colby nailed it.

  3. Simon Forster Says:

    For my sandbox game I’ve created a bunch of locations, seeded a few hooks, and occasionally give them a quest to follow; where they go and what they do is up to them. Works for me.

  4. richardjohnguy Says:

    You used the word the 23 times, correctly. Well done!

    OK, sorry. I agree that the crucial difference between sandbox and railroad isn’t as easy to delineate in practice as it is in theory (or in -C’s more ranty posts). The players can generally do a million wrong/insane/suicidal things and up to 3 right/constructive/potentially-leading-to-something ones, and they’re dependent on the DM’s clues to tell the difference. So a lot of sandbox DMing is really leading by the hand while studiously not looking at the hand.

    My most successful strategy has generally been to give the players a small realm of their own to manage straight off the bat – like a ship, for instance – which makes them agents in the world, not just supplicants/workers for hire. Then they can learn your world with lower stakes (having a means to escape them) and have something to trade with and some goals right from the start. The polar opposite is a political intrigue setting, where they’re bound to screw up unless they’re passive initially. I’ve never seen one of those work well.

  5. 1d30 Says:

    I think what I was going for was this: to railroad is not always wrong. First, it’s a matter of how much agency you take from the players and how much they notice it. Second, it’s how much your players enjoy an adventure where they have less agency. Like most things, “railroading” isn’t a simple on/off.

    @Joseppa: terminology is difficult when we’re all specialist-hobbyists and we don’t have a comprehensive and universally-regarded technical dictionary. I don’t see a blog link for you where I can read your opinions. Can you explain what you think it means to run a sandbox campaign?

  6. richardjohnguy Says:

    A lot depends on the setup and genre expectations. CoC, which really opened the door to story gaming, has some railroadiness built in: the world is basically OK except for this one thing that’s going wrong – the (evil/villainous) plot. That plot – uncovering it – provides the structure for the game, defines focus and background, and sets victory conditions. And all of that is part of the contract of sitting down to play CoC. So is there a part of this problem that is not to do with setting the expectations/contract between the players and DM?

  7. 1d30 Says:

    True, richardjohnguy. I say up front to my players that I’m not going to tell them what to do or fudge the outcomes. It means I’m always hopping to keep up with them, which is a lot of fun for me. They know if bad stuff happens I’m not going to bring in reinforcements on a fluffy cloud, but if they manage to snag the Treasure of Kings I’m also not going to somehow take it from them.

    And some players really enjoy a planned storyline game. You’re right that it’s important for everyone to know that’s what they’re getting into. Avoids disappointment later.

  8. Brendan Says:

    I think this is somewhat related to the idea of “just in time” setting design. You can seed the world with N hooks that you as a referee prepare for to various degrees. Once they pick a direction, you elaborate more between sessions.

    Also, I don’t think we should ignore the in-between option, which is to completely improvise during a given session, and then do new light prep afterwards reflective of the actual player direction. Sessions that are not too long actually help here, because you know you won’t have to improvise for more than the length of the session.

    If you expect the players to at some point interact with some or all of your hooks (and will take action to make sure they end up dealing with them), then yes I would call that something of a railroad. I don’t consider dropping a hint or incentive to be such referee action though. Incentives do not take away freedom.

  9. 1d30 Says:

    In practice, though, there is little obvious difference between a PC that hears about Quest XYZ and goes to do it, versus one who is told that Quest XYZ is the adventure for that session and goes to do it. The difference is that in the first example, the DM has that quest among a dozen others ready to go. In the second, the DM has nothing else planned and will try to steer the player toward Quest XYZ.

    They sure do seem alike until the player tries to run off the rails. In the first example, the DM says “okay, so you want to go to the haunted woods instead, that’s cool” and he either improvs or checks his sketchy notes on the area. In the second example, nothing happens that isn’t in Quest XYZ because the DM is railroading the player into it. Either the player does that thing or he gets really bored.

    Of course there are shades of grey here too. About in the middle is a DM who prepares a lot of various stuff and who can improv, but who would really prefer if Outcome ABC happened and tries to steer things toward that outcome.

    It seems too simple to even say, but players perceive the rails only when they try to stray from them. Unless the DM is pretty hamfisted and they can tell a railroading session from the start. Similar to this principle is the video game that seems sandboxy until you start noticing the invisible wall barriers and limited dialogue options, the invincible quest NPCs and the two or three effective character types. Or the thrill park ride that seems scary and immersive until you start noticing all the machinery and lighting 😛

  10. D. Says:

    I think that they “shades of grey” enters into the mix in other ways as well. For instance, in my Barrow Downs campaign they have pretty much driven the evil cult from the Caves of Chaos (still haven’t explored most of the caves, but that’s another story).

    Now, the cult in the caves was a low level enclave that was setting up a fifth column. There is more of the cult elsewhere, and the leaders of the cult are almost certainly going to send some assassins or something similar against the party for revenge. Is that part of the sandbox? Or is that railroading?

    I’d argue that the larger principles of the vaunted Gygaxian Naturalism would demand that the larger ecosystem of NPC monsters operate according to similar laws of action-reaction or cause-and-effect as the giant rats and the goblins and the dragons – but my perception is that most OSR folks would view this as metaplotty and railroading.

    I mean, that evil cult is not going away by itself and while the paryy doesn’t have to destroy it they will have to live with the consequences of messing with it in a major way until they prove to be too much trouble to mess with.

    D.

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