Many roleplayers frown upon railroading and in the last few years the sandbox setup for adventures and narratives has become something that many game masters strive for. But is railroading always bad? Are plots that are heavily linear worse than plots of sandbox modules?
Last week I ran a game in a high school, as part of a fantasy and science fiction course. During a break in the game, the teacher in the course who partook in the game told me about his favourite roleplaying session. It happened to have been run by a fellow Yawning Portal author, Helgi, and a module he wrote for World of Darkness.
In the module the characters find themselves on an airplane and the game starts in media res, as the plane is going down in the Andes. After the crash the characters are trapped high in the mountains and have no way to get down. They discover that something is hunting them but as they piece together what kind of entity is killing the survivors of the plane crash, they realise that they are helpless and doomed to die.
Helgi once told me that this module is the worst kind of railroading he could possibly think of, where the characters basically have a no way out and their fate is sealed the moment the plane goes down. Still, this teacher told me that this was, as mentioned above, his most memorable roleplay moment and said that playing this module was absolutely awesome.
In recent years so-called sandbox modules and storytelling has gotten a lot of attention and many roleplayers frown heavily upon linear plots. You can see how this has appeared in many of the latest D&D modules, where you often have long chapters with many locations and events or encounters linked with these locations. The characters are supposed to have the freedom to roam freely, explore and discover the setting and narrative on their own accord and decisions.
If you browse through, for an example Tomb of Annihilation and Storm King’s Thunder, you should see how the developers of these modules have used this kind of storytelling in at least a part of their narratives.
Linear storytelling however follows a predetermined plot and is, opposed to non-linear plots, a pretty straight-forward narrative. Linear is as simple as it gets: A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, and so on. The narrative progresses from a clearly defined beginning, builds to a climax with various chapters, and finally ends in a conclusion.
Sandbox modules and storytelling
Contrary to what many people believe, almost all roleplaying narratives are linear. As mentioned above, the plot goes from A to B, B to C and so forth. Very few modules, to my knowledge, use non-linear storytelling. Non-linear is a more abstract method of storytelling. Instead of following the A to B method, non-linear stories are more free of the constraints of time, or so to speak, they can begin where-/whenever and they can end where/when they want. A key element here is time, plots progress in a linear manner within a set timeframe, while non-linear plots are free of this restriction.
However there’s a clear distinction in how the plot is laid out. In sandbox modules the plot is often reactive to the characters’ decisions, while in linear modules the plot is proactive, so to speak. That is, the plot in linear modules is already laid out and fixed, the characters follow the breadcrumbs laid out by the narrative, but in sandbox modules the characters decide what course to take to accomplish their goals and the narrative reacts to their decisions.
Linear and railroading
Unfortunately I often hear roleplayers belittle linear plots and many seem to think that a linear plot is simply synonym with railroading. This is far from being true. Linear storytelling is simply a method to tell stories, as mentioned above, where events progress from A to B, B to C etc. This has nothing to do with railroading, because most, even the most sandboxy of sandbox narratives, use this kind of storytelling, whether the plot is predetermined or determined reflective to the characters’ decisions.
Railroading is when the characters decisions are predetermined, when the characters or players feel coerced or rushed into doing something. Like in Helgi’s module, where the narrative starts as the plane is going down. They can’t do anything about that, the plane will crash in the Andes. Another example of railroading (and a pretty ironic one) is in an old version of Call of Cthulhu’s campaign The Horror on the Orient Express. As the module is near climax the characters find themselves in Constantinople but eager to return to London, to get there as soon as possible. On page 176 in Book IV:
The only certain way to London within 100 hours from a place like this is via Orient Express. Compartments are available. If they find a plane, it crash-lands in Bulgaria, from where perforce they take the Orient Express westward.
This is railroading (ironic, right?) at its worst. Even when the characters come up with better ideas to get results, they are coerced back into the predetermined course laid out by the designers.
Is railroading always bad?
No, it is not. I know this is probably not a popular opinion, but railroading is just another tool you have as a game master. I find that having access to all sorts of tools and tricks helps me further plots and to make sure that all players are enjoying themselves. Railroading is one of these tools and used correctly it can move and progress the narrative.
Because railroading is often simply a matter of presentation. What Helgi felt was as railroady a plot as they get, the high school teacher experienced not only as a great session, but as the best one he has ever taken part in. And he specifically said that he never felt railroaded, despite the fact the characters never stood a chance and many of their decisions were predetermined. Because of how Helgi presented the module, the plot and the choices that the characters were faced with, because of presentation, his players never felt like their were on tracks. And that is the true art of a good storyteller.
If you can identify the places where your plot needs to go on the tracks, it will get easier to mask these in a myriad of illusory choices and create gilded cages (see more on gilded cages here). As long as you make sure that your players are having fun and enjoy every moment of your narrative, they will forgive a moment or two of following the tracks. And you know, sometimes the ride is great!