A railroad is a puzzle presented as an interactive story. It is not a game.
Understanding how games, stories and puzzles address “the problem” at the heart of their structures tell us, a railroad is a puzzle.
I see a lot of people get confused about what defines a railroad. A linear adventure is not necessarily a railroad. An investigative game that leads to a single villain or group of villains is not necessarily a railroad. These structures can be railroaded and often railroaded adventures are linear but that isn’t their defining feature.
A railroad in tabletop role-playing is when the game master has a pre-determined set of outcomes which the players have little or no agency in affecting. The player attempts to do something that will result in an outcome different than the game master’s planned outcome and the game master negates that choice in some way.
What’s the problem?
One key element of story structure is the problem of the story. At the center of any good story is a problem that the protagonist is trying to address. Everything else in the story is constructed around the problem. The protagonist is the character who manifests the solution to the problem. Antagonists manifest obstacles to the problem or are the problem themselves. Supporting characters offer suggestions and provide assistance to the protagonist in their attempt to overcome the problem. The final act of the story tells us what happens if the protagonist has overcome the obstacle or failed and a tragedy has occurred.
The completed story is an argument for solution to a problem. The storyteller tells the audience about a problem and then provides a solution. Story has traditionally been a tool to teach people how to behave. Examples include: the parables of Jesus, folk tales, and Bhagavad Gita. The storyteller says, “You may face this problem and here is a solution the people of our culture will find acceptable.”
Story = 1 solution with the outcome determined by the story teller
Compare that to the problem solving path in role-playing games.
The game master presents a problem, the players decide what their response to the problem will be, and then the game mechanisms determine the outcome. In a well designed game, more than one solution is possible. A particular player character response may succeed or fail depending on a die roll. The outcome is not predetermined.
The railroad happens the moment the players’ choices would lead to an outcome the game master doesn’t want and the game master’s nullifies the players’ choices in favor of the predetermined outcome.
Role-playing games present a series of problems to players. The players attempt to solve those problems by combining the resources the characters possess, the player’s understanding of the setting, the mechanisms of the game and the players own life experiences and imagination. There is a degree of uncertainty when the players respond to the problems that the game master presents. There are many possible solutions which lead to more than one possible outcome.
Tabletop RPG = More than one possible solution with outcomes determined by the game mechanisms
I called a railroad a puzzle. The puzzle maker present a puzzle solver with a problem.
Assemble the pieces to make a picture. Find the words. Find the hidden object. Fill this grid with numbers from 1 to 9. Connect the dots without lifting the pencil or crossing back over the line.
There is a problem and and there is only one solution. Lateral thinking puzzles may require some knowledge of physics and creative thinking however there is but one solution to the problem.
Puzzle = 1 solution determined by the puzzle maker.
Notice the puzzle and the story have a similar basic structure. There is a problem with a single solution. The “player” in the puzzle and the audience in the story do not create the solution.
Story + Puzzle = Railroad
The game master has presented the players a with a problem. The game master has determined the solution and it is up to the audience/players to discover it. If the players decisions will create an outcome different than the the railroading game master has predetermined then the game master pushes the player characters back onto the train with some narrative device.
The game master is saying, “Sorry, that’s not the solution to the puzzle,” while attempting to give the illusion of choice by hiding it with a narrative device.
Instead of being executed when your characters insulted and attacked the king, you end up in the dungeons. The king’s steward shows up to offer you another chance and you “escape” to go on the adventure the game master wanted you to go on in the first place. You didn’t solve the part of the puzzle where you are supposed to agree to take the adventure.
When you railroad players, you are no longer playing a game. You are running a narrative puzzle but calling it a game.
Maybe your players like that sort of thing but it’s not for me.