I’ve been saving this pretty one for a while now, but it needs to be discussed.
What’s railroading? That’s when the GM has clearly planned out what’s going to happen and then pushes the players to follow that plan. Personally, I hate it. It makes me the audience to GMs story. And you know what? That story isn’t really as engaging as the GMs think.
Lets say you have four players and one GM sitting around the table. Now, the GM has a lot of power. He has knowledge in a way the players can’t about what’s going on. At the same time, GMs tend to be insecure. They want to run a good game and they want everything to go right. So, how do they try to achieve this? They plan. They make maps, they script out NPC interactions, they manufacture clues, they make playlists, and so forth.
Now, if you do that work, you want to use it. After all, you don’t want to waste your time that way. If you have cool plans, you want to actually bring them about as well. You are a creative individual and you want to show that to others.
On the other hand, this is just a way to squander another resource. Your players are creative as well and in general five creative people will come up with more than one creative person. This isn’t supposed to be a presentation. Its supposed to be a collaborative art project. You don’t limit the creativity others when doing that.
If you really want to tell a story in a certain way, why don’t you just write it as a short story? Why would you need other people to sit through it with you? I mean they could easily read through your story in minutes that would otherwise take you hours to get through. And you can reach many more people with a story.
Also, if you think your players don’t feel your railroading, you’re very wrong. They will notice you nudging them more or less forcibly into the right direction when you want to diverge. They see you when you punish them for not following your plan. You might not even think much of it, but they’ll notice you forcing them into a certain things. They learn to follow your lead and just sit back and congratulations, you’ve just killed your own game. Sure, they might still come around to play, but you’ll also notice that they aren’t going to be as immersed and they are there for social reasons, not because they love the game.
What should you do instead? My mantra: trust the players. In this case, there’s an addition to this: trust yourself. After all, you are expecting your players to react to what you are doing in real time. Why wouldn’t you be able to do the same with whatever they come up with.
And if you let them, they’ll come up with wonderful stuff. On the other hand, I don’t see there ever being a situation where something truly great will happen by following the script.