Railroading is always bad! I read that all the time and in the majority of instances I do agree. If you’re not familiar with the term, very simply railroading is when the players have as much ability to steer the story as an engineer can steer a train. There is an expected destination and a specified route to get there. In an RPG it limits the interactivity of the story and invalidates most of the player’s choices.
Let me offer a situation where it might not be so bad after all. Have you ever taken a rail tour? I have and I did enjoy it but that was because I was expecting the tour to not offer the ability to go and check everything I saw out. I knew that if there was something cool that I saw I had one chance to see it and then it was gone. That didn’t mean that one day I couldn’t come by again (not in a train) and see the things I thought were interesting. There also were stops along the way that I could get out and look around but I did have to get back on the train as scheduled or it would leave me behind.
Lets think about that in terms of an RPG. When would that be fun? I’d venture to say it would be the same times that a train trip is fun, when you want to cover a lot of new territory relatively quickly and with little effort for the riders. So when would that be for an RPG? My thought is when players are starting up a new game or setting.
Let’s consider that for a moment. Players may want to explore a new setting or system slowly and incrementally but I know that in some games that’s meant either never getting to some cool stuff or taking a long time to get there. Taking a long time can be rewarding because when you do get there it’s a big payoff. But what if one of those really cool things is one of the reasons you wanted to play in the first place? Then taking a long time is boring and frustrating.
So if the players are new and if they want to cover a lot of ground quickly, If they want to sit back, relax and let the game flow around them, Railroading a game as a tour can quickly explain how certain challenges are intended in a system to be handled. It can explain a lot of very specific story ideas without the players having to read it all from a game book. With very limited and conscious use, railroading could be useful and beneficial to a player’s enjoyment of the game.
Ideally a “Rail Tour” should be designed by the setting or system’s writers or someone who has become thoroughly familiar with them. It would be a limited use tool that must be used carefully or it can all go wrong. The players need to know the nature of the session before hand to properly enjoy it. It also means a lot of work for the GM. There’s a lot to explain and usually a lot of speaking and acting.
What do you think? Could railroading be used in this way to good effect? If you were a player, would you be comfortable with a one shot tour if it opened up a new world for you? As a GM do you think it would somehow corrupt your normally good habits of allowing players to solve problems as they want?